If you haven’t thought about the comic book character Batgirl since the va-va-voom actress Yvonne Craig sported a skintight, glittering bodysuit and kicked ass in a mask, cape, and high heels on the old Batman TV show from the 1960s, it’s time to listen up.
Batgirl is at the white-hot center of a heated controversy that recalls #Gamergate, last year’s pitched battle over sexism, journalistic ethics, political correctness, and online activism in the massively popular and increasingly influential world of videogames. Most importantly, the Batgirl controversy raises a host of questions of how art, commerce, and corporate relations function in what is surely the age of the radically empowered audience. Never before have consumers, fans, and activists been able to speak up as quickly and loudly as they can now.
Our story thus far: DC Comics is celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Joker by commissioning special “variant” covers for various of its books that feature the psychotic super villain doing what he does best: menacing the heroes of the DC fictional universe. A variant cover doesn’t appear on every issue but is prized as a collector’s item and as an interesting statement by the artist creating it. The variant cover for the current Batgirl series was slated to appear in June and was drawn by Rafael Albuquerque. It referenced a classic 1988 comic by Alan Moore called “The Killing Joke.” In that dark tale, the Joker assault and cripples Batgirl (relax, over time and various reboots, she recovers). In Albuquerque’s cover, the Joker is holding a terrified Batgirl captive.
When the cover image made it to the Internet, the batshit hit the fan. A hashtag campaign called #changethecover hit Twitter, with early entries accusing the cover of sexism and celebrating violence against women. As important, readers of the current Batgirl series (as well as the series’ current creative team) complained that the cover was totally at odds with the tone and sentiment of the title today. If most of the early entrants called for spiking the variant, later entries in the hashtag thread tended to be critical of what was assumed to be a jihad by thin-skinned “social justice warriors.” To wit, a sneering later tweet in the thread reads, “Instead of making Batgirl cry, why can't the Joker do something to make feminists happy? Because nothing does.”
Albuquerque himself quickly apologized for the cover and asked for it to be pulled, and DC Comics announced it was yanking the offending image. “My Batgirl variant cover artwork was designed to pay homage to a comic that I really admire, and I know is a favorite of many readers. ‘The Killing Joke’ is part of Batgirl’s canon and artistically, I couldn't avoid portraying the traumatic relationship between Barbara Gordon and the Joker,” wrote Albuquerque. “For me, it was just a creepy cover that brought up something from the character’s past that I was able to interpret artistically. But it has become clear, that for others, it touched a very important nerve. I respect these opinions and, despite whether the discussion is right or wrong, no opinion should be discredited.”
It’s easy—and totally legitimate, I think--to read Albuquerque’s barely coherent sentiments as capitulation to an online mob demanding that art be made subservient to ideological concerns about sexism and related issues. After all, what can it possibly mean to declare that “no opinion should be discredited”? If that’s true, shouldn’t Albuquerque’s original intent in creating the cover count for something?
I’ve been reading comics for a long time, well before they started to get critical legitimacy in the 1980s, and it’s nothing less than amazing that they are capable of stirring up so much passion and discussion. They do so because like all vibrant art forms, they allow us express and debate aspects of what it means to be human. But I’m also a critic of the idea that creative expression need be a vehicle for moral uplift. Indeed I find it appalling when art or literature or a video game or whatever is assailed for not properly encoding the “correct” thinking of the moment, especially when it comes to depictions of sexuality or violence. Art is, among other things, a space for both dark and light fantasies, and the notion that certain scenarios cannot be countenanced should be deeply unsettling to all of us who believe in free expression. That’s not to say, as Albuquerque suggests, that all opinions need to be accepted uncritically or that they can’t be shown to be in error.
From this point of view, the Batgirl controversy bothers me because it proceeds from the same assumptions as attacks on comics in the 1950s, when the left-wing psychiatrist Fredric Wertham assailed the medium for supposedly turning boys into homosexuals and sexual deviants and girls into lesbians and nymphomaniacs (that Wertham routinely lied in making his supposedly scientific case against comics only drives home for me the stupidity of demanding that art be morally instructive).
Both Wertham and people pushing to exclude certain themes and topics fundamentally misunderstand one of the core functions of art, which is to create a space where we can explore some of our worst impulses and ideas. Those following in Wertham’s footsteps further seem to worry that the audience for popular culture is especially subject to being influenced if not literally programmed to act and think in socially suspect ways. “We”—the putatively dumb, unthinking audience—must be protected from the wrong ideas because we’re so goddamn likely to mistake fantasy or art for reality. Or we are too delicate to countenance uncomfortable art.
So there’s all that going on in the Batgirl controversy, which seems to be on one level a case of politically correct overreaction to a disturbing image. But there’s another, even stronger dynamic at play here too. Regardless of the specific issues at work in this case, the flattened relationships between creator, audience, and even corporate parent ultimately are what matter most.
Comics have risen from being considered a non-serious, juvenile form in large part because of the willingness of creators and fans to engage one another in often raucous and rancorous debate. Long shunted aside by more “legitimate” art forms, the comics subculture is a model of participatory culture in which clear demarcations between producer and consumer have been blurred and at times obliterated altogether (virtually all of the major comics writers and artists grew up as total fans of the form, something that was not true decades ago). In the creation of nearly equal standing between comics readers and comics creators, the field anticipated the broader dynamic that exists in all sorts of cultural, political, and economic transactions.
Across virtually every area of human interaction, traditional hierarchies have been flattened. The lowliest person with a Twitter account can very publicly critique the mightiest politician or performer. Professors are now publicly rated by their students. Services such as Thumbtack.com and Angie’s List and Yelp! and Cars.com have fundamentally altered the relationship between sellers and buyers. Ride-sharing apps allow drivers and passengers to pass judgement on one another. Critics can no longer singlehandedly make or break a new play, movie, or novel—we crowd-source information for all this.
As Glenn Greenwald has noted, “the petulant entitlement syndrome of journalists” is in its final era, as once-insulated writers must now contend with comments sections and public traffic reports that show bluntly what the audience thinks of their work. “Social media,” writes Greenwald, “has greatly exacerbated this syndrome. Twitter by its nature is a confrontational medium. Its design ensures that anyone can force anyone else—no matter how prominent or established—to hear unrestrained criticisms about them from those with no established platform.”
There has been, in short, a great leveling across virtually all aspects of contemporary society. This is without exception liberating and freeing, a net increase in giving voice to the voiceless and some small amount of power to the powerless. In the cultural arena, it means that once-mighty authors and creators must now engage in conversation with their audience, a humbling reversal in status and attitude. Artists must now effectively collaborate with their audiences—not slavishly giving them what they want, but seriously respecting their wishes and desires.
Ultimately, that’s what the controversy over the Batgirl cover illuminates, and whether you think the critics are right in this particular case is totally besides the point. It’s a new world out there, and the smartest providers—of art and food and services and you name it—will explain themselves more fully to increasingly demanding customers.