This post includes and references some graphic imagery from the 1988 comic book The Killing Joke.
On Rafael Albuquerque's variant cover for Batgirl No. 41, Batgirl's eyes are the size of two fishbowls, and there's a tear ready to drip down toward the messy red smile smeared on her cheeks.
The Joker has his arm around her, finger digging into her cheek. In his other hand he holds a shimmering gun with one finger on the trigger. He flashes his sinister pearly whites. Albuquerque has created an image that conjures up the visceral terror of the iconic comic book The Killing Joke.
His cover will never be seen in stores.
On Tuesday, after four days that included complaints, followed by the now seemingly inevitable death threats made against those who complained, DC Comics announced that the variant cover of Batgirl No. 41 had been canceled at Albuquerque's request.
But the ghoulish cover is not the only thing at play here. It's just the latest flare-up to reflect the incongruous, factional nature of the comic book community and the forces that threaten to rip it apart.
Thanks to The Killing Joke, Batgirl is always seen as the Joker's ultimate victim
When asked about his motivation for the cover, Albuquerque said he was directly referencing Alan Moore's seminal 1988 comic The Killing Joke, considered one of the best stories about the Joker ever told.
"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," he said in a statement. "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."
Moore's book is significant to comic book readers for many reasons. For one, it may, depending on how you read it, depict Batman killing Joker. Batman, of course, has made a pledge to not kill anyone, and the comic is wrapped around that ideology. So what would drive him to that point? Moore's book aims to answer that question, and said answer has to do with Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) and the Joker.
In The Killing Joke, Joker captures Barbara, the daughter of police commissioner Jim Gordon, and shoots her, which severs her spine, paralyzing her. After committing that act, the Joker and his goons strip her naked, take pictures of her, and later on, forced her father to look at the photos:
It's gruesome sexual assault. And as critics and Moore himself have said, the move felt vacant and inconsiderate — Barbara Gordon's life-changing ordeal was just a plot device to further Batman's story. What happened to Gordon is part of the "women in refrigerators" trope, when female heroes and love interests are maimed, depowered, or crippled in order to teach men lessons.
Gordon's paralysis was accepted as DC canon, making her ordeal something that couldn't be forgotten. And though writers like Gail Simone have given Batgirl a rich story in which her PTSD is explored, fleshed out, and worked through, many writers and artists (including Albuquerque) continue to define Batgirl as the Joker's victim rather than a hero with nearly 30 years of stories after the incident.
Knowing the context of The Killing Joke and what Gordon went through tints the perception of Albuquerque's cover. It reflects a personal history rife with assault and violation. The Joker isn't just any other villain to Batgirl, and Batgirl isn't just any other victim to the Joker.
Complaints about the cover were met with death threats
From an editorial standpoint, Albuquerque's cover makes little sense. During Simone's tenure and the current run from co-writer and layout artist Cameron Stewart and co-writer Brenden Fletcher, Batgirl has been portrayed as a kick-ass young woman, and the comic book, especially recently, has been brighter and more youthful.
Albuquerque's macabre, sinister cover is incongruent with Gordon's current story. It doesn't match the tone of the book. And it doesn't even match up with DC's wider corporate initiatives to pursue more diverse points of view in its storytelling.
Much like Marvel, DC has been promoting and positioning itself as a more inclusive company. On February 6, the company made a huge splash when it announced 24 new comics that would focus on diversity. In particular, more female writers and artists were added to the company's roster.
The comic book industry, unfortunately, has for far too long been stuck in a holding pattern in which female characters are continually marginalized and overtly sexualized. It is only now slowly finding a way out of that holding pattern. Because DC said the things it said and touted the strides it was making, Albuquerque's cover felt like a step back to readers.
"This is the antithesis of girl power. This is the antithesis of 'superhero fun,'" read a post on the popular feminist comic book site DC Women Kicking Ass. The post continued:
Frankly for me the damage is done. While the foot soldiers and rank and file of DC may talk about girl power and diversity, it is clear that at the top where these things get conceived and approved there is questionable support for and focus on walking the walk and talking the talk. This cover is proof of this.
Stewart, one of the writers of the Batgirl comic, voiced his displeasure with the variant art. Variant covers are a strange beast — they're essentially an alternative, rarer cover, and executive decisions, like which artist is commissioned or even overall approval of the cover, aren't something writers of a series control.
"The cover was not seen or approved by anyone on Team Batgirl and was completely at odds with what we are doing with the comic," Stewart wrote on Twitter.
Albuquerque himself acknowledged the questions about the cover were fair. In his statement, he also explains that he told DC to pull the cover:
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.
Albuquerque's decision was a bit different from that of artist Milo Manara last summer. Marvel commissioned Manara, whose specialty is erotic comics, to do a variant cover for its Spider-Woman solo series, and Manara created a cover that featured the character in a hypersexualized pose. Unlike Albuquerque, Manara stood by his art, but Marvel apologized for the decision.
Here's where the ugly part begins.
Even though both the cover artist and a co-writer of the comic support pulling the image, a sect of comic book readers see DC's cancellation of the cover as an affront to their sensibilities and evidence that a feminist cabal is taking over the comics industry.
There's an online petition to save the cover. Though it has a paltry 92 signatures (at the time this piece was written), the author's description of events resonates with common arguments made by those who believe comics are being taken over by political activists:
Due to a small majority of easily offended people who have taken the role of a collective Watchdog group, DC have agreed to pull a Batgirl Joker Variant cover at the artist request … This is not about the cover but about the importance of not allowing a minority to control the choices of the majority. It's about irrational censorship
On the forums of Comic Book Resources, a popular comics site, there's a 54-page thread with 797 posts discussing DC's decision to pull the cover. As with any internet forum thread, some posts are more polite and coherent than others, but those angry the cover was pulled explained in more detail why they were upset.
"I'd love to see how calm and collected all of the anti-cover crusaders would be in the same situation," one commenter wrote, adding: "How many of you would stand there stone faced, fighting back at anything an aggressor even moves in your general direction to do while holding you at gunpoint?"
Another wrote: "Plus, the Joker has threatened various other female characters with no controversy. I'm not sure that I get what the fuss is about. I know that it's creepy and dark, but we've seen far more gory Joker moments than this with no controversy."
What both posts seem to miss is that Batgirl's story no longer needs to be defined by The Killing Joke. It's moved well beyond that, and continually pulling the character back to her weakest moment strikes many as disingenuous at best and exploitative at worst.
But things got much uglier than online petitions and forum arguments. Eventually, people complaining about the cover received death threats, Stewart stated on Twitter. In its statement, DC Comics mentioned that threats of violence were made:
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.
This conversation is not going away
Let's be clear about one thing: despite naysayers who believe companies like DC and Marvel shouldn't bend to the will of a "minority," there's a howling desire for diverse comics. In October, Marvel announced that Ms. Marvel No. 1, whose hero is a teenage Pakistani Muslim girl, was going into its seventh reprinting (something virtually unheard of in comic books). And Marvel's comic featuring female Thor, despite calls for a boycott, sold 150,000 copies in its debut, bettering titles like Batman and Amazing Spider-Man.
As Marvel's editor-in-chief Axel Alonso pointed out during New York City Comic-Con last year, the Ms. Marvel sales are not all from "16-year-old Pakistani Muslim girls buying the book." Those sales are happening because "everyone is buying that book."
Perhaps the clearest lesson for companies like DC and Marvel — which had its own brush with a tasteless variant cover in August — is to be more aware of the product they sell, and to be sure it matches the image they want to portray.
That will require becoming more involved in the variant cover process (and maybe revamping it altogether), but also making sure there are people making decisions behind the scenes who are women, who are nonwhite, who are LGBT — people who live the stories the companies want to tell.