I considered not talking about this, but since it ties into the idea of changing audiences that I touched on the other day, it’s worth mentioning. On Friday, DC released images of some of its Joker variant covers. The Batgirl one stood out almost immediately. I’m not going to post the cover here, instead I want you to go and google ‘Batgirl Joker cover’. You’ll see why straight away.
The short version of the controversy is quite straightforward. Some people objected to the cover and said so online; the writer of Batgirl objected; the cover artist , Rafael Albuqurque, asked DC to withdraw it after seeing said objections; and DC duly did so. The controversy now is about whether or not DC should have pulled the cover, with some people going so far as to call it censorship. As with all arguments on the internet, it’s quite a polarised argument. There have apparently been the sadly all-too-common threats made towards those who objected to the cover as well.
To understand it best, you need to know the context of the cover. The cover is a direct reference to The Killing Joke, which changed Batgirl’s status quo. In the story, Batgirl is shot and crippled, which became a lasting change for the character. Barbara Gordon was left wheelchair-bound and took the identity of Oracle, something that lasted until the New 52 relaunch. It’s also heavily implied that the Joker may have raped Batgirl, although that is never explicitly stated or shown. I certainly read it that way when I first read it, but it is something that is open to interpretation.
Since the Barbara Gordon was reinstated as Batgirl, her being disabled prior to that series has been referenced, keeping The Killing Joke in continuity. As such, it wouldn’t seem too inappropriate to reference the event. The problem is one of context again. Had this cover appeared on an issue of the comic that was dealing directly with the issues from The Killing Joke, it might not have been so controversial. Unfortunately that’s not the case.
Batgirl was recently, very successfully, relaunched again. It’s been widely praised as being female-friendly with a lighter tone, one that’s accessible to a wider audience. Add to that the fact that this is a variant cover with no direct relation to the contents of the issue it was planned to appear on and it becomes problematic. It’s not a wild leap to say that the cover is inappropriate, or at least ill-considered for this particular book and its audience.
That’s the key issue, for me at least. As I’ve said, I can see comics where this cover may have been appropriate. It’s a very powerful, very well executed piece of art, and could be used to great effect as the cover of a comic that deals with issues of violence towards women. Having it randomly attached to a comic that has no connection to the events it’s depicting, as part of a celebration of the the Joker of all things, was always going to cause problems.
It’s not censorship to listen to your audience and decide that it might be better to not release something as planned – just look at the Transformers ‘Spastic’ episode – and it’s not censorship to say that you find something inappropriate. There’s nothing to stop DC using the cover for a more appropriate project in future. Even if they don’t, the cover is freely available online. It simply won’t be available as a limited run variant.
We’re going to see more controversies like this as the industry adapts to a changing audience. It’ll get called appeasement and censorship. It’s not. It’s listening to the audience and creating an industry where everyone can have something that they enjoy, which is surely an idea that everyone can get behind.