Another month, another feminist comic controversy
. (To familiarize yourself with at least the most recent previous sexist snafus perpetrated by leaders in the comic book publishing world, I recommend starting with the article linked here
and the tag collection here
This month brought us the social-media firestorm surrounding this Rafael Albuquerque Batgirl
variant cover (#changethecover
) . . . ending in the cover being pulled from publication (supposedly, at Albuquerque’s own suggestion). But why so much fuss over a cover illustration (and a variant at that — which is sold in limited runs exclusively through mail order subscription services and/or large comic shops, and marketed to serious collectors?)
A bit of contextual backstory before we begin.
The Killing Joke
, a 1988 one-shot graphic novel written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Brian Bolland, depicts (amongst other, more central themes) the Joker’s assault of Barbara Gordon (aka, ‘Batgirl’) and the subsequent paralysis that would transform ‘Batgirl’ into the techno-hero ‘Oracle.’
Barbara’s assault scene below, which included both the ‘this is definitely a sexual violation’ moment where Joker takes nude photographs of Batgirl while she lays injured and powerless on the floor (from a gunshot wound inflicted by said supervillain himself), as well as the undertone of suggestion that Joker also physically rapes Barbara.
Killing Joke not only won the Eisner Award for Best Graphic Novel when it was released, but also remains, almost three decades later, an extremely popular story . . . and one whose reverberations are still being felt (despite the numerous changes and reboots) in the DC comic universe today. The progressive darkening of tone in Batgirl (as well as in most other DC and Marvel titles) however, is arguably Killing Joke‘s strongest legacy.
Prepare yourself: it’s not all beach blanket bingos any longer.
In the years since Killing Joke‘s publication, readers have seen any number of ‘mature’ moments. One of the hallmarks of Batgirl‘s ‘soft’ reboot (under the direction of a new creative team) in October 2014 was a purposeful and marked change of tone — lighter and more accessible to young-adult readers.
It’s not that there hasn’t always been a substantial subculture of the excessively graphic in the world of graphic novels (if you really want to never sleep again, pick up a copy of Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-Creator Joe Shuster
). Sexism is nothing
new to this world (or any other — fictional or non). It is not that our sanitized, politically-correct sensibilities are shocked by art such as Albuquerque’s cover, but rather that our world-wearied selves are disappointed in its stale predictability.
Shouldn’t we have grown and changed as artists? In the spirit of that growth, we offer five tips for male artists (comic-book or otherwise) below.
Think this . . .
. . . versus this
1) Don’t do a sexual assault storyline. Don’t hint at it, don’t express it with an extended metaphor or ‘subtle’ symbolism . . . just don’t.
Maybe, one day (God willing), women will be living in a world devoid of the constant threat of sexualized and gender-based violence. Male artists, on that glorious future day, you can maybe (just maybe, but probably still not) incorporate this theme into your work.
If, however, a female artist wants to examine the threat of sexual assault in depth (or express her thoughts on the subject in an interpretive dance, or even craft a humorous take on the subject — like Wanda Skyes brilliant “detachable pussy” bit below) she is fully free to do so.
An FYI to men who complain that this is a double standard: it is.
If you’d like to trade in your privilege in order to publicly perform your undoubtedly-hilarious rape material, I’m sure you can find a woman more than willing to do a Freaky Friday swap with you in exchange for one night where she doesn’t have to walk to her car, keys splayed out in her fist.
2) Do your research
‘But, Ann,’ you say, ‘I have a really brilliant rape/abortion/menstruation/misc. women-only problem storyline in the works! Do I have to scrap it just because I’m a man?’
Okay, I’m willing to give you a chance here . . . with one caveat. Do. Your. Research.
I’m not a die-hard ‘write what you know’ enthusiast, but if I was creating a fictional narrative surrounding the trials and tribulations of a young black man in urban San Francisco, I wouldn’t just ‘wing it.’ I would take my white, Midwestern, female self to Google and start learning.
3) Don’t be this guy:
If, when you look at your finished sketch, the first thing you think to yourself is something along the lines of, ‘wow, she’s hot,’ burn that sketch and start from scratch.
Bottom line: if your character has any depth whatsoever, this shouldn’t be your first reaction upon seeing them.
Which is not to say that your character can’t be drawn with conventionally-attractive features. Rather, what we’re saying here is that these features shouldn’t comprise the principal definition of your character.
4) Do the sniff test
The comic universe equivalent of smelling the crotch of your jeans to determine if they can stand another night out is asking yourself this one simple question: would I ever do this if portraying a male superhero?
Spoiler alert: if you have to ask, the answer is no. Back to the drawing board!
Milo Manara’s cover for Sep. 2014’s Spider-Woman #1.
The Oatmeal’s re-imagining of a similarly-sexualized SpiderMAN.
5) You’re not being censored: take off the tin-foil hat.
“Somewhere along the line, we started misinterpreting the First Amendment and this idea of the freedom of speech the amendment grants us. We are free to speak as we choose without fear of prosecution or persecution, but we are not free to speak as we choose without consequence.” ~ Bad Feminist
Just as you have the right to like (and verbally state your like for) the cover, others have the right to find it to be a distasteful misstep.
More importantly, you don’t have a right to see your preferred media in mass publication. The laws of the free market dictate policy here. The DC publishing honchos have every right to remove a cover from publication — especially if they think not doing so will alienate a majority of their customers and lose them money. It’s important to remember that DC (and other publishing houses) are businesses and comport themselves as such. They don’t ‘censor’ a cover because they got slapped on the wrist by the PC Police . . . they do so as the result of practical, economic considerations.
You can shout and complain about it on your blog, on reddit subthreads, or on your local street corners — all of this is First Amendment protected speech. If you convince a substantial majority of the legitimacy of your opinions, the market may take notice.
If it doesn’t, though, that’s not censorship. If you still have a problem seeing the difference, educate yourself.
What about you, “Half-Way” readers? What’s your advice for male artists? Comment below!