Pandering to the Mob: So About the BATGIRL Cover Controversy…

Batgirl #41 cover (2015)

DC Comics announced they won’t be publishing the controversial variant cover for Batgirl #41.

Artist Rafael Albuquerque requested the divisive cover be vetoed, this being at least partly in response to social-media ‘outrage’ over the image.

The image in question was part of a series of Joker-themed variant covers planned for this June’s DC output, this being to commemorate 75 years of The Joker.

The cover in question provoked disapproval from many fans (and let’s be honest, probably many non-fans who simply got involved when they saw something was trending) due to what is perceived as a sexual undertone to the Joker’s apparent treatment of Batgirl.

Criticism of the cover also accused the artist of being out of keeping with Batgirl’s more recent characterisation and lighthearted story direction under its current creative team. Albuquerque’s cover was an unabashed homage to Alan Moore’s legendary Killing Joke graphic novel in which the Joker humiliates and (depending on interpretation) sexually abuses Barbara Gordon.

The artist Albuquerque issued a statement about the cover being pulled, saying ‘My Batgirl variant cover artwork was designed to pay homage to a comic that I really admire, and I know is a favorite of many readers. ‘The Killing Joke’ is part of Batgirl’s canon and artistically, I couldn’t avoid portraying the traumatic relationship between Barbara Gordon and the Joker. For me, it was just a creepy cover that brought up something from the character’s past that I was able to interpret artistically. But it has become clear, that for others, it touched a very important nerve. I respect these opinions and, despite whether the discussion is right or wrong, no opinion should be discredited. My intention was never to hurt or upset anyone through my art.’

DC also issued a statement on the matter, saying; “Threats of violence and harassment are wrong and have no place in comics or society.”

I’m not sure DC’s statement holds water.

‘Threats of violence and harassment are wrong’ isn’t the part I quibble with of course, but rather the idea that they ‘have no place in comics or society’.

Violence, even harassment, obviously do have a place in art, in film, in literature and in comics. They are an aspect, albeit a darker aspect, of the human condition and cannot simply be whitewashed from reality. Besides this, comics – including DC Comics – has a long history of depicting violence, villainy and ‘heroes’ being maltreated by the Bad Guys; it is simply part of the culture, part of the medium.

Another key point to bear in mind here, which too many people appear to have overlooked, is that this cover was a VARIANT cover: as in one of many versions and not the ‘main’ cover for the issue. The point of variant cover art is differing interpretations and artistic visions. Some fans complain that the Albuquerque art doesn’t match the tone or style of the current Batgirl series: but it doesn’t have to – it’s a variant cover.

The point should also be made that the cover in question is just as much about depicting The Joker’s dark villainy as it is about any possible undermining of Batgirl’s image.

More importantly, *is* the cover either offensive or inappropriate?

Well, that depends on whether comic books and comic-book artists should be free to express themselves creatively or whether they should be hampered by political correctness. While I sympathise with those who’ve taken offense at the cover and I can see where they’re coming from, there’s no end of comic books and comic-book covers that have featured violent or sexual imagery; some comics in fact thrive on that kind of imagery for their covers.

 Batgirl Endgame #1 cover 

Further to this, love it or hate it, there is a longstanding tendency to heavily sexualise female comic-book characters in the way they’re portrayed (visually, if nothing else), which you could argue is just as ‘offensive’ or even more ‘disrespectful’ than what something like this Batgirl #41 variant cover depicts.

On the other hand, I can more sympathise with the area of objection that focuses on the actual character’s dignity and perceives her dignity as having been damaged by the cover.

Aside from Barbara Gordon, this also has some echo for me in the ill-treatment of Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel back in that infamous Avengers #200 ‘Rape of Ms Marvel’ business from the eighties. The Carol Danvers character took a very long time to recover from that controversy and arguably the character didn’t regain any kind of stature in comics for two decades after that; current Captain Marvel fans would doubtless be non-plussed by any reference back to those highly contentious days and perhaps Batgirl fans feel the same way.

And of course one could pay homage to The Killing Joke without having to be seen to compromise a character’s perceived dignity; an example being the same artist’s cover for Batgirl: Endgame #1 (pictured above), which features the same blood/smile motif reference to the Alan Moore novel but doesn’t quite portray the hero as the victim in that way the Batgirl #41 variant is perceived to.

Personally, I’m not overly concerned with it either way.

However, there’s a serious question here of whether artistic integrity is compromised by pandering to the mob. Surely social-media reaction shouldn’t dictate artistic choices?

S. Awan

Independent journalist. Pariah. Believer in human rights, human dignity and liberty. Musician. Substandard Jedi. All-round failure. And future ghost.

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