Trigger Warning: Some of the images pulled from comic books depict assault and violence towards women.
DC is celebrating the Joker next month with a plethora of variant covers devoted to him. The Joker, who by definition is a deranged, sinister and disturbed individual is shown on most of these covers the way he’s always been: scaring the shit out of somebody. One specifically that sparked a lot of outrage was where the Joker is cozied up to a frightened Batgirl for her cover. After a lot of people voiced their displeasure with the cover AND RECEIVED THREATS OF VIOLENCE FOR IT, the artist Rafael Albuquerque asked DC to pull the cover. Now of course, there’s the backlash to the backlash as many fans and creators are crying foul and constructing this as an evil feminist argument that ruins everything. Sigh.
For some historical context, the Batgirl cover stands out as many have drawn parallels to the famous “Killing Joke” storyline, where the Joker shoots Barbara Gordon and paralyzes her, then strips her down and takes lewd pictures of her to show to her father Jim (there is some debate if the Joker actually sexually assaulted Barbara or not, but even if he didn’t, it doesn’t take away from the established trauma already present from the implicit images). The story itself is disturbing and traumatic, so any call back to it has the potential to be triggering.
Let me say that the Joker is one of my favorite fictional characters. In the right hands, he usually is my favorite. He is manic, brilliant, and terrifying in a way that is unexpected in mainstream comic books. When I saw the cover for Batgirl, nothing problematic sprung to mind for me at the onset. It seemed like a pretty typical cover that featured the Joker. When I saw the feedback and displeasure with the cover, I totally understood the concern. As a big comic book fan, I don’t want to see or support any images of harm or torture that is iconic to Black folks (like hangings), so I can understand why a woman that’s been abused doesn’t want a grinning maniac cozied up with a seemingly helpless woman who was assaulted by that character in the past. Especially on the woman character’s comic book where SHE is supposed to be the hero. People sometimes are so concerned with being right as opposed to getting the situation right. The need to feel as though you’re correct, complicit with being stubborn, shouldn’t lead to a block of your empathy, especially for a situation you may not fully understand.
And yet, while I’m more empathetic to those who thought the cover should be taken down, I don’t necessarily agree that it should have been shelved altogether. But I most strenuously push back against the other side, where people (guys) cry foul and censorship and the fall of the republic because DC pulled the cover. Your entertainment doesn’t trump someone’s trauma, especially when we’re talking about the variant and not the official cover anyway. It’s a straw man argument for meninist to party like its 1999. I think the solution would have been for them to keep the cover and put soft restrictions in place if you sold the book (like your local supermarket does with Cosmopolitan magazine with a visual barrier in front of the stack or have it behind the counter made request only). For digital sales, there should have been a trigger warning for the content of the cover. Doesn’t sound terribly difficult, but that’s not really the important issue here.
When we talk about diversity in comic books (and we talk about it ALL THE TIME), what we are basically saying is that the gatekeepers for mainstream comics have traditionally been cis hetero white men. Over the 70+ years of comic book history, those are just facts. What is happening now is that the difference between the demographic of people that make comics (or make decisions about those making comics) and the consumer are still pretty wide apart. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve seen a movie or video game or whatever come out and my first thought is, “It’s obvious they didn’t have any Black people in the room when they made this decision.” I don’t know who pulled the trigger on the Joker/Batgirl cover (pun not intended), but I doubt it was a person that understood domestic abuse, or assault or trauma and then said, “Yep, lets ship it.”
To the artist’s credit, he was very empathetic of the concerns and understood them well enough that he requested his cover be pulled. As I’ve admitted before, I wouldn’t have caught that at first either. But I also am aware that I have no idea of what it feels like to be a woman who’s been assaulted or forced to cozy up to their assailant. I know the decision makers at DC (or any other property) aren’t perfect, but they have to either get more people in the room that understand the customer base they actually serve in the now or they have to upgrade their empathy to be able to see these pitfalls ahead of time. Both of those would be nice.