A Batman image offended China. Its removal has angered fans worldwide

A reference to Hong Kong’s protests? Depends on the viewer.
A reference to Hong Kong’s protests? Depends on the viewer.
Image: Rafael Grampa/DC Comics
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DC Comics needs a superhero to save it from itself. The pop-culture giant is in political hot water over a drawing that’s been linked in mainland China to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests and is now at the center of a global debate about state censorship and corporate complicity in chilling free speech.

The image in question, which DC removed from various social media accounts it runs, is undeniably compelling. Created by artist Rafael Grampá for writer Frank Miller’s graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns: The Golden Child, to be released on Dec. 11, the drawing shows a youthful superhero holding a Molotov cocktail. In the background are the words: “The future is young.”

The work, according to its creator, is about new heroes, most notably the Golden Child, Johnathan Kent, who is the “secret weapon” that will save Gotham from the latest threat. In a September press release touting the upcoming publication, Miller explained, “The Dark Knight Returns story began with its heroes getting older. Now we’re seeing the next generation of heroes in action…heroes that are vigorous, untested and loaded with promise.”

However, Chinese social media users took offense at what they said was a clear reference to pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong. This perceived support for the youth-led movement that has rocked the Chinese territory for the past six months sparked a backlash against DC that the company tried to quell by taking down the image without any explanation. DC didn’t provide an apology, although some Chinese users demanded one.

But the controversy was just getting started. The self-censorship only angered fans around the world, who questioned DC bowing to pressure and urged it to go in the opposite direction.

The disputed image’s removal inspired people to circulate it widely, and to chide the decision.

The artist, Grampá, called the controversy surrounding his work “surreal” on Twitter.

But his image struck a very real chord with people around the world, many of whom saw local political struggles reflected in it.

Quartz contacted DC Comics for comment on the brouhaha and will update the story if the company responds.