On Tuesday, DC Entertainment announced that it would be pulling a variant cover for this June’s Batgirl #41. The cover—which features a terrorized Batgirl in the Joker’s clutches, in an homage to the popular graphic novel The Killing Joke—is one of several commissioned by the publisher, for a month full of alternate covers featuring the Joker.
In a statement released to Comic Book Resources, DC made it clear that the cover was being recalled at the artist’s request after a significant number of fans spoke out against it.
Good for DC. Case closed. Right? After all, a big comic book company is listening to its fans!
Well, no—turns out some people are not happy about this at all. A group of very vocal fans are upset about DC’s decision—mostly because the publisher is listening to fans who aren’t them. Just look at the description for this petition to get the canceled cover back on shelves:
“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. It’s about not allowing art to be made into something evil.”
There’s a lot to unpack there.
For decades, comics publishers have been printing their comics with alternate covers, ostensibly to drive sales in a “collect them all” sort of way. (Entertainment Weekly, as you may have noticed with our recent Game of Thrones double issue, does the same thing.) As of late, publishers have been pegging some of these variant covers to a monthly theme, including concepts (like “Selfies”) or a particular artist (like the great Phil Noto). However, it’s important to understand—as Comics Alliance editor Janelle Asselin says in this great post about the controversy—that the team actually creating any given comic is usually far removed from decisions involving variant covers. This means that it’s very easy to end up with a cover that’s extremely different from what the creators are trying to accomplish with the book.
Now, about the Batgirl #41 variant cover itself.
Created by Rafael Albuquerque (who co-writes and illustrates the fun new creator-owned comic Ei8ht over at Dark Horse), the variant cover art is intended as an homage to Moore and Bolland’s The Killing Joke—a book that’s frequently cited as a seminal Batman story and a definitive one for The Joker in particular. In it, the villain wants to prove that “one bad day” is all that separates good people from the likes of him. To that end, he goes about trying to drive Commissioner Gordon mad—with a plan that involves shooting Barbara Gordon/Batgirl and taking suggestive pictures of her bleeding on the floor.
In the decades since The Killing Joke was released, it’s earned a revered status. Which is strange, because it’s a troubling work that probably wouldn’t get the same sort of critical acclaim today. It was exciting at the time because it went there, and was full of iconic, career-defining work for Brian Bolland (not to mention a notoriously ambiguous ending).
It’s also a big deal because Alan Moore wrote it—although the writer has gone out of his way to distance himself from The Killing Joke. “It’s not a very good book,” the writer said in a 2000 interview. “It’s not saying anything very interesting.”
As one can see, popular opinion has grown to disagree with Moore. But it’s important to know his objections in order to understand the subtext of Albuquerque’s cover—which shows a female hero terrorized by the villain who crippled and sexually assaulted her. This stands in stark contrast to the hard work the current creative team of Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher, and Babs Tarr has put into revamping Batgirl’s character, offering a fresh take on mainstream female superheroes.
That isn’t meant to discount the fantastic work that creators like Gail Simone and Chuck Dixon have put in over the last 20 years, turning Barbara Gordon into a fan favorite via her new role as Oracle—which moved Barbara past her crippling encounter with the Joker to become an integral part of the Bat Family. Thanks to their work, when people praise The Killing Joke, it’s easy to include “It gave us Oracle!” among the book’s merits.
Except that’s not really true. There weren’t any plans whatsoever for Barbara following The Killing Joke. If she’d been left alone, Barbara Gordon would have just been another Woman in a Refrigerator, the latest in a long list of female characters killed, crippled, or imperiled solely to help develop a male character. It was the careful, dedicated work of creators like Kim Yale and John Ostrander who, upset with DC’s contentment with letting Barbara fade away, took the opportunity to reinvent Barbara as Oracle in the pages of Suicide Squad.
Over the years, other creators like Barbara Kesel and Chuck Dixon carried the torch lit by Yale (who passed away in 1997) and Ostrander, working tenaciously to make the first Batgirl a vital part of the Batman universe in series like Birds of Prey. It’s a testament to their work that the decision to have her recover (and subsequently wipe away the history of popular heirs to the Batgirl cowl) in 2011’s New 52 was controversial.
When you consider the history of Barbara Gordon in conjunction with the character’s current direction, it becomes pretty easy to see why this cover would be contentious. The Killing Joke might be a great Joker story, but it’s also one of the worst Batgirl stories.
The current Batgirl run is led by a team of creators determined to make a comic celebrating young women, for young women. It’s meant to be inclusive and fun, a superhero comic for people who may not normally be into superhero comics (and a great read for those who are). Like a lot of good creative teams, they listen to their fans, and respond quickly and sensitively when they make mistakes.
Although variant covers are meant to be a departure from the norm, it’s not hard to see that the Albuquerque cover stands in stark opposition to everything the team is trying to do. They’ve said as much on social media. The artist, upon hearing the concerns of fans and the team, asked the publisher to withdraw the cover. DC complied.
There are those that aren’t pleased with this decision, who think we’re seeing art being censored because it’s offensive. The claim of “censorship,” however, is objectively false. The art was never suppressed. You can look at it all you want—in this article, even! The fact that the creators themselves were involved in the cover’s cancellation is further proof that this is a move for artistic integrity—the people making the book have a vision for it, and the cover did not match that vision.
This is simply what happens when a work attracts a wide and diverse readership—”listening to the fans” sometimes means other fans won’t be listened to. Naturally, as comics become more welcoming and books are made for audiences other than stereotypical male hardcore comics fans, sometimes those new voices will take precedence. And you know what? That’s okay.