Rafael Albuquerque’s variant cover for Batgirl #41 has sparked quite a bit of debate and we here at AiPT! wanted to chime in with our varied thoughts on the subject.
John: When I first saw the variant cover for Batgirl #41, I was definitely moved and disturbed. The Joker is in a supreme position of power over Batgirl with his arm dangling around her shoulder as he places his lipstick on her face. She is terrified and for good reason—The Joker is a crazy, sadistic whackjob and who knows what he has done or is planning to do to her, but the imagination can run wild. For me, the art depicts what can happen and does happen. Just catch the latest episode of Criminal Minds or watch ISIS execution videos to see what kind of crazy motherfuckers are out there.
I did do a little bit of digging and found the Batgirl: Endgame #1 cover also by Rafael Albuquerque that in my mind is a continuation of the Batgirl #41 variant cover despite the Endgame cover being available today and Batgirl #41 doesn’t come out until June. In this image Batgirl has a determined look on her face as she wipes off the Joker’s lipstick and prepares to deliver a right jab. She has overcome her vulnerability and is ready to kick ass.
Much of the discussion is also centered on people’s interpretation of the artwork. That is what is so great about the genre we love, people are able to interpret it as they see fit. However, we should not try and shout down or attack people who have different interpretations. Instead we should take a step back and listen to their viewpoint. This is not to say their interpretation is right or wrong, but we should tolerate their opinion no matter how offensive we think it is as long as they are not advocating for explicit violence against someone or some group of individuals.
Switching gears a little bit I want to focus on why DC decided to not publish. I do not read Batgirl and have not been following the new arc and vision from their creative team, but from what I have gathered via Twitter the creative team had not even seen this cover until the solicitation. They stated publicly it does not fit with their vision of the book they are writing and not with their targeted/core audience of readers. As creators they voiced their opinions and reached out to Rafael to have the cover not be published. Rafael then contacted DC to have the cover not be published. DC then decided to not publish the cover. This incident shows a lack of communication between DC and their creators and maybe something they will have to address going forward. They should be looping in their creative teams when it comes to covers and variant covers or at least have better communication between their marketing and editorial departments.
Dog: We should also note that this is (or was) one of 25 Joker variant covers that DC will be offering in June, to commemorate the character’s 75th anniversary. The issues with special Joker covers obviously include Batman-focused books, but also Aquaman, Action Comics and even Teen Titans. Batgirl wasn’t being singled out.
With that in mind, it seems pretty clear to me that Albuquerque was simply paying homage to a classic story featuring the Joker, one that showed the character at his worst. He is a villain, after all. The gravity of his heinous actions is palpable when looking at Barbara’s terrified expression, a tone that’s consistent with that of The Killing Joke.
Of course that tone stands in opposition to what’s present in the currently published Batgirl comic, so you can understand the cognitive dissonance there. After so much progress has been made to toughen the image of this character—and the impression of female characters in general—it’s jarring to see that trend reversed, if the proper context isn’t provided.
But company-wide variants like this rarely line up with the book’s current content. Over in Marvel, Skottie Young’s baby variants graced grim books like Uncanny Avengers in 2012, and the previous year’s Venom variants even ended up on X-Men titles.
The greater issue here, to me, is the desire of some modern comic readers to push out any inkling of negative emotion. Yes, Batgirl’s current powerful direction is valuable, enjoyable and should be lauded; that doesn’t mean she (like any other character) can’t be scared shitless from time to time. Drama ceases to be dramatic without major adversity.
Further consider the quote from Albuquerque himself, when asking for the cover to be pulled. “My intention was never to hurt or upset anyone through my art.” As far as I’m concerned, hurting and upsetting people is one of the main functions of art. All human emotions should be stimulated, and the highs never feel as good without the tragic lows.
Alyssa: I wasn’t familiar with the original cover this piece was homaging and without that knowledge, it was definitely disturbing. It personally made me incredibly uncomfortable to look at and it’s definitely not something I would ever buy. But I could appreciate it as a beautiful piece of art, and it’s provocative in a way that comics do best. However, I completely agree that it does not fit with the tone of the current Batgirl, especially with the younger readers this book appeals to.
I would be interested to know what the editorial process is in these situations. Did Albuquerque explain what he was going to do? Because in the end, he isn’t at fault – he made a creative decision and it’s up to the DC editorial to manage those choices. Somewhere along the line communication broke down and it seems like this entire thing could have been avoided with a thoughtful conversation.
Our hyperconnected world means that this blew up in a way this situation never would have 20 years ago. It also means that controversies like this get revealed to people who don’t have all the info of the context of the situation. It’s disgusting how quickly death threats start getting thrown around and it’s crazy how difficult it is to have a calm and nuanced discussion around these situations.
Because this is going to happen again. More artists and writers are going to make controversial choices that offend people. We’re human and humans get angry and get combative. Let’s hope that in the future we handle these situations more rationally.
Tyler: Well when I first saw the cover my immediate reaction was, “Wow, that looks terribly frightening. I WANT IT.” Dispute the symbol of the image all you want, but I think everyone can agree that Albuquerque did a great job of illustrating this image, aesthetically speaking. This is in no way insinuating Rafael DIDN’T do a good job when it came to conceptualizing this cover either. Did he sit down at his desk and say, “You know what? Let’s start a controversy.” No. He set out to paint an homage to one of the most popular DC novels of all time and that’s exactly what he did. Kudos to Rafael. My main concern is the public reaction.
When I heard the news they were taking it down I was disappointed at first. That was really cool art, I’d wanted a copy of that. But when I heard the reasoning behind it I could completely understand why. Given that this character has been paralyzed with the joint implication of being sexually assaulted by the Joker, I think it might be a little much to portray him in a more dominant position subjecting Batgirl to the hand gun, lipstick and obvious mental breakdown. The shadowing and positioning of the characters screams kidnap/rape at gunpoint, but that’s as far as I want to go with the analysis of the picture.
I attend Sonoma State which is a hotbed for preaching diversity and equality. So my view may be biased, possibly even a little sensitive to matters like this, but it doesn’t take a viewing of Vagina Monologues to concede the removal of this cover. It’s just a little human decency. This cover is an obvious trigger for some people. It makes them feel uncomfortable and it brings up some dark topics that others may be able to relate to and if it is deemed disturbing for a number of people, who are we to say it’s alright? It’s doing more harm than good.
Is anyone going to look back and think “Remember that Joker variant of Batgirl? I always look to that image when I’m going through a rough time and it always gets me through the day.” I doubt it. The more common reaction is mine, it’s dark and scary and cool. Is it worth weakening the image of someone’s favorite character over having a cool looking comic book cover hidden away in your comic book box? In this case I just don’t feel the pros outweigh the cons.
Dog: Is bringing up dark, relatable topics a bad thing? Do we truly have the right to NOT be offended? Surely every image makes someone uncomfortable. If we eliminate everything that could be found unnerving, we’re left with no art at all.
John: I want to echo Dog’s questions, and also point out a person’s reaction to art is their own personal reaction. Though we may have similar reactions, each one of us has unique individual reactions. At what point do we begin to internally reflect to see why we are reacting a certain way and find steps to overcome, let go, or move forward without hate or the call to ban something? Should our reaction attempt to limit the exposure of art? Let’s have healthy discussion and debate.
Greg: There was a good article written about this incident on ComicsAlliance. Basically, the author, Janelle Asselin, states that it’s not Albuquerque’s fault for delivering the kind of product he was commissioned for. Instead, we can blame the publisher for being so tone deaf and not initially considering the wishes of the book’s creative team. For the most part, I agree.
This isn’t about censorship, contrary to what many voices in the comics community would have you believe.. No government institution came in to intervene, and DC itself did not decide to pull the variant. The artist requested that his own work not be commercially released (though it still is easily viewable online), a request that was echoed by the book’s main creative team. DC simply honored that request. That’s not censorship. Nobody’s saying that you can’t look at the image; you just can’t purchase it as official Batgirl merchandise.
As someone who has actually read every issue of the current Batgirl run, I agree with those saying that the variant is completely atonal to what Babs’ current adventures look like. It’s a colorful, energetic series featuring a refreshingly well-adjusted (all things considered) heroine. I guess it’s kind of like having a “Deathstroke” cover where he’s laughing and playing with puppies and butterflies.
Or is it? I’m glad that Dog brought up the point that “company-wide variants like this rarely line up with the book’s current content.” Indeed, it’s weird to see Venom on the cover of a comic that he will never actually show up in. And as much as I love Skottie Young’s “baby” variants, the truth is that none of the actual comics behind the covers are ever nearly so adorable.
I can go on a much longer rant about that last paragraph alone, but here’s the main thing to keep in mind: to the best of my knowledge, no creators ever requested that those covers be pulled.
Offensive or not, there is a clash of styles when variant covers are oblivious (sometimes willingly) to the content of the comic itself. But the Batgirl cover in question IS offensive, because regardless of intent, something is offensive if it has offended people.
I think it’s a shame that the current run of Batgirl has had so much controversy surrounding it in such a short time, between this and the transphobia incident a few months back. Even though Albuquerque successfully had the cover removed, and the creative team apologized to their LGBTQ fans in an open letter that was a rare example of a genuine, earnest public apology, I’m afraid this book’s legacy has been tarnished.
I highly recommend it, though, despite that problematic #37. It’s fun, funny, and unapologetically feminine. As a straight white man, I actually like the fact that I’m not the target audience. I even got my 14 year old cousin to read it as the first comic she ever followed. I give her all my issues.
Oh, and I should note that I actually like Rafael Albuquerque’s work. He has a strong eye for horror. That’s why whatever suits at DC that make these decisions hired him. You can’t blame him for doing the work he was given.
Nick: So my initial reaction to this was a gigantic eye roll (stay with me–I come around eventually).
Female comic characters being portrayed in a demeaning/misogynistic manner is a very real problem, but this seemed to me more like people searching for a reason to be outraged.
Tossing aside the fact that the cover is a clear homage to The Killing Joke (and that the Joker is a psychotic super villain) many of the arguments I saw in favor of removing it were severely fragmented.
People actually tried to claim that DC covers/comics never depicted male superheroes:
With a loss of agency….
…or being severely brutalized while in a helpless state…
And yes, people were saying this…and yes, you’ll just have to take my word for it. Why? Because I’d prefer not to link/shine a spotlight on the accounts of people many of whom began receiving death/rape threats simply for having a strong opinion.
Yes, that’s right ladies and gentlemen. Bust out the Axe Body Spray and pop your collar, because the MRA’s (or laughably self-titled ‘meninists’) swooped in to remind us all that there’s still a lot of work to do when it comes to gender equality…or just basic human decency in general.
As I watched things unfold, I considered asserting my opinion, but hesitated. For starters, I’m a straight white dude. No, that does not make me evil or the root of all society’s problems. But it does blind me quite a bit to issues that I don’t have to consider or deal with on a daily basis.
For example: I have had my butt grabbed by a stranger in public six times. I later discovered that four of those times were by David Brooke before I knew him. So two times, really.
Ask any woman…ANY WOMAN…how many times they’ve experienced overt sexual harassment like that and you are virtually guaranteed to get an exponentially higher number. (For reference, here’s a video of female Fox News hosts claiming street harassment isn’t that bad while admitting that it happens to them all the time).
But even taking this into account, I still didn’t really see a problem with Albuquerque’s cover. Not only did it look cool, but the Joker tends to have the effect he seemed to be producing on Barbara on the entire Bat Family.
I wanted to wade in and ask the masses for some clarification, but did not for fear of instantly being shouted down as sexist for not immediately siding with the folks who were angry.
Sometimes I think it’s better just to keep my mouth shut in general.
Then something dawned on me. I had something in common with many of the people shouting on both sides of the issue: We don’t even read the damn book.
So I began looking at what people who DID read Batgirl thought…and in general, they weren’t happy about the cover. The creative team behind the book wasn’t happy, either. Not only did they dislike the cover, but they weren’t even consulted about it. In fact, NO ONE ON THE BATMAN EDITORIAL TEAM WAS CONSULTED ABOUT IT! How the heck does that even happen?!
Then I began actually looking into the title itself a bit. There’s obviously no way I could take it all in through online reviews and synopses, but even those made it clear that the tone of Batgirl was completely at odds with the Albuquerque cover, even as a variant. (Also, it sounds like a pretty good book I should start picking up).
Is sexism in the comic industry (both in the real world and in character portrayals) a major issue? Absolutely.
Was Albuquerque’s Batgirl cover something symptomatic of that? I don’t think so, but I’m also willing to admit that there are aspects about it that my cis/straight/white self may be completely unaware of.
But for right now, I’m leaning towards this being an incredibly stupid and tone deaf decision by DC’s marketing department, instead.