DC Comics pulls controversial Batgirl cover at request of illustrator

BatgirlDC Comics has cancelled a variant cover for Batgirl issue 41, scheduled for publication in June, at the request of the illustrator following an online backlash.

For the uninitiated, variant covers are given to a selection of comic issues published per month to attract collectors, and often have little bearing on the actual contents of the comic beyond depicting the central character. In this case, the cover was intended to be part of a series of variants showing various DC characters going up against the Joker – even when the Joker is not present in the issue.

Here is the proposed variant cover illustration to Batgirl 41:

btgirljunevariant

The illustration is an homage to the 1988 Alan Moore story The Killing Joke, in which Barbara “Batgirl” Gordon is paralysed and stripped naked by the Joker. With its obviously horrific tone, this cover may have fit the version of Batgirl written by previous scribe Gail Simone, whose interpretation of the series was often quite grim. Take the cover of issue 14, for example:

simonejoker

However, the June variant is wildly out of sync with the direction of the series (now nicknamed Batgirl of Burnside by fans) under its current creative team of Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr. By way of comparison, this is what a typical Batgirl of Burnside issue looks like:

burnside

So, a horror comic this ain’t.

Of course, variant covers often clash with the tone of the comic. It is common enough for straight-faced titles to be given jokey variants, such as this cartoonish cover for Genevieve Valentine’s hardboiled take on Catwoman:

catwomanvariant

But this kind of self-ribbing is very different to grafting horror imagery onto a bright-and-bubbly comic, of course. This is not the first time that Batgirl of Burnside has been given a horror-themed variant cover; the very first issue, published in October, had a variant cover depicting Batgirl as a vampire:

batgirlvampire

Here, however, the horror imagery (the fantasy horror of vampires, it should be added, rather than the more credible horror evoked by in the June variant) is dealt with in a far more lighthearted manner. Also relevant are the February variant cover for Batgirl, which is another Killing Joke homage…

batgirljoke

…And the cover of the upcoming Batgirl: Endgame special, which uses similar bloody-grin imagery to the June variant:

batgirlendgame

Crucially, however, these covers are much closer to the spirit of Batgirl of Burnside. They depict Batgirl as a heroine coming out on top, not as a helpless victim.

The Batgirl variant was widely criticised across the net: Jude Terror of The Outhouse reported on the matter with the headline “DC Celebrates Success of Batgirl of Burnside with Creepy Variant Cover Glorifying Sexual Victimization”. Over at Women Write About Comics, Ardo Omer took the opportunity to comment on the lingering influence of The Killing Joke on the character of Batgirl. Claire Napier, writing for the same website, analysed the symbolism of sexual violence to be found on the cover.

Each of these commentators bring their own voice to the discussion, but the central complaint is the same. Batgirl of Burnside is a significant title for DC due to a number of reasons:  it has a female protagonist who avoids the pitfalls faced by many comic heroines; its light and colourful tone breathes new life into a franchise long preoccupied with the grim and brooding; and it is a comic with appeal to a young female demographic, at time when the American comic industry relies heavily on a fanbase of nostalgic middle-aged men. And yet, the publisher saw fit to give it a cover based around the still-controversial Killing Joke – a story in which the sexualised assault suffered by Batgirl is reduced to a mere plot device in a conflict between male leads.

Following the backlash, Rafael Albuquerque – who created the illustration in question – recommended that DC pull the cover. He also issued the following statement:

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.

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.

My intention was never to hurt or upset anyone through my art. For that reason, I have recommended to DC that the variant cover be pulled. I’m incredibly pleased that DC Comics is listening to my concerns and will not be publishing the cover art in June as previously announced.

With all due respect,

Rafa

DC Comics also issued an official statement of its own:

We publish comic books about the greatest heroes in the world, and the most evil villains imaginable. The Joker variant covers for June are in recognition of the 75th anniversary of the Joker.

Regardless if fans like Rafael Albuquerque’s homage to Alan Moore’s THE KILLING JOKE graphic novel from 25 years ago, or find it inconsistent with the current tonality of the Batgirl books – threats of violence and harassment are wrong and have no place in comics or society.

We stand by our creative talent, and per Rafael’s request, DC Comics will not publish the Batgirl variant.

The comic’s co-writer Cameron Stewart later clarified that the “threats of violence and harassment” mentioned by DC were directed at critics of the cover, not at anyone involved with its publication:

cameronstew

The incident prompted a Twitter campaign, #savethecover, initiated by people who felt that Albuquerque’s decision about his illustration constitutes a form of censorship. Amongst those to chip in are webcomic artist Kukuruyo and actor Adam Baldwin:

savethecover

Artistic freedom is the name of the game – but not, apparently, the freedom of an artist to have second thoughts about his work.