The now cancelled cover to Batgirl #41 by Rafael Albuquerque has caused a great deal of controversy (as Russ Burlingame already covered here). The cover is based upon one of the most successful and divisive works in DC Comics’ history: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland It specifically relates to the scene in which The Joker shoots Barbara Gordon, better known as Batgirl, in the spine, and then sexually assaults herstripping and photographing her, order to attack her father. Whether or not The Joker actually rapes Barbara does not remove the sexual nature of the assault. It is already a difficult sequence to read and discuss, and Albuquerque’s piece plays upon this history. The cover evokes fear and anger, playing upon the powerful position of Barbara’s attacker and her sense of helplessness as he binds her once again. Albuquerque’s cover to Batgirl #41 is disturbing and upsetting on multiple levels.
It is also a stunning piece of art. Albuquerque is a masterful comics artists, receiving much deserved praise for series like American Vampire and Ei8ht. His style reflects a dark mirror of reality adding a twisted surrealism to the recognizable. That style is absolutely present in this cover, along with Albuquerque’s excellent sense of form and composition. The result is an evocative piece of art. Given both the quality of Albuquerque’s work and the themes and tone present, it’s no surprise that it received so much attention, much of it negative.
That doesn’t make this bad art though. Art with a capitol A ought to be challenging. Great works of art can be upsetting and disturbing; they can anger or sadden their audience. Looking at Albuquerque’s piece, I am struck by a profound sadness. It affects me on multiple levels: as a commentary on the minimal role women still serve in the superhero genre, a reminder of the demeaning treatment of women in fiction, and an embodiment of the terror and pain visited upon so many victims of sexual assault every day. It is a piece of art that I find to be powerful, one that I would call good, but not one that I would hang in my living room.
My brief interpretation here is far from absolute though. Many have read the piece as being offensive, or of reinforcing themes of depowering women and defining them through acts of sexual violence. Albuquerque’s art merits a robust discussion. Whether it is a poignant and saddening reminder or a shocking affront, it is a powerful, well-crafted piece of art deserving of a nuanced discussion.
This is where I think the controversy over this cover becomes confused. While I am certainly willing to defend the merits of Albuquerque’s piece and what it says about him, the quality of the art in question is not the only pertinent aspect to this debacle. Many commenters both in the comics industry and among readers have been angered by this decision. It has been derided as censorship and those offended have been shouted down as SJW’s (“social justice warriors”, a deeply disturbing insult that reflects more about the attitudes of those who use it than anyone else).
For one, it is not censorship. It is an understandable decision made by a publicly traded company based on the response of their readership. Furthermore, Albuquerque personally requested that DC Comics not use the variant cover and the creative team of Batgirl did not approve the cover. DC Comics has made no efforts to stop websites from distributing the image. More importantly, the conversation surrounding this cover is not purely about art. It is about commerce, intent, and, most importantly, context.
This piece of art, like all art, does not exist in a vacuum. Albuquerque drew it in reference to a story that is almost thirty years old to be published as part of a story being published today. The most recent incarnation of Batgirl written by Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher and drawn by Babs Tarr has become a symbol of the growing audience of women in superhero comics alongside characters like Ms. Marvel and Spider-Gwen. Her attitude, lifestyle, and costume have connected with young readers and women in an incredibly compelling way. Even as someone who has criticized elements of the series, I have found it to be an important and increasingly enjoyable comic.
Albuquerque’s cover does not reflect anything significant to Batgirl #41. It is not related to the tone of the story, the audience reading the comic, or the powerful symbol that Batgirl has become. Even someone like myself who appreciates Albuquerque’s work here finds that it runs contrary to everything with which it is being associated.
Batgirl is beloved because she is smart, resourceful, fun, animated, courageous, humorous, and so much more. She is a character that can stand alongside and up to an icon like Batman, even when she is only in high school. In the 48 years since her creation, she has become an inspiration to readers of superhero comics, and that power has only been clarified in the current Batgirl series. This cover does not contain any of those concepts or ideas. It fails to present the well-formed, beloved character of Batgirl contained within the pages of this comic, and presents a terrified, powerless victim instead.
That context is integral to the choice to eliminate this cover. Applying this piece of art as the face of Batgirl in comics stores is a regressive action. Not only does it undermine the stories that are having such a profound effect on many comics fans, but it has the potential to ruin their relationship with DC Comics and Batgirl. The nurturing, empowering elements of the art inside created by Stewart, Tarr, Fletcher, and others is demeaned by the portrayal of sexual violence and removal of agency projected to the audience.
Furthermore, the sexual violence implicit within the cover serves as a potentially triggering and upsetting event. In a different context this impact might be more understandable, but when set in front of a power fantasy meant for women and young people, it is simply disturbing. Using this cover not only risks financial loss from a leaving audience, but a genuine detriment to the art behind the cover as well as its intended audience.
Looking at what I have said, that this cover is an excellent piece of art and that it should not have been published, it seems on the surface like I am contradicting myself. That is what happens when arguments surrounding art are summarized into short snippets or single-faceted issues. Art is complex and so are the ways in which it affects us. Albuquerque’s cover to Batgirl #41 is not the only thing meriting a complex discussion. The power of Batgirl as a symbol and the genuine responses of fans to this cover are every bit as significant.
As comics readers we are exposed to incredible art on a regular basis, able to read pages upon pages of modern and classic greats for only a few dollars. This access can sometimes cause us to forget the power of art and its ability to affect people in such different ways. That is why it is so important when confronting a truly challenging piece, like this one, to not forget about what art allows us to do. Art encourages us to interact with others. It provides an experience that is deepened through the understanding of alternative experiences and interpretations. It is a doorway that allows us to increase our understanding of others and deepen our own empathy. That can only come through conversation though.
The most significant thing about Albuquerque’s art is not whether it is good or bad, or whether it is published. It is how we view it, and how that shared experience can help us to better understand and appreciate one another. This cover, published or unpublished, is an opportunity for an incredible conversation. We just need to start having it.