DC Comics has announced that it will not be printing a controversial variant cover to Batgirl #41, at the request, and with the support, of the artist who created it and the creative team behind the issue.
Criticism of the cover began shortly after it was revealed on March 13, as one of a series of Joker-themed variant covers that will span all of DC's June titles in honor of the character's 75th anniversary. In comics, variant covers adorn the outside of issues for a variety of reasons. Extra print runs of a comic issue usually come with variant cover art, and because they can become collectors items, some issues with variant art are awarded to retailers after a certain number of books purchased as an incentive, so that those retailers can then mark those rare issues up for sale. Some are a reward to readers for pre-ordering the comic instead of picking it up on its day of release, and some are simply printed for fun and to let readers pick and choose.
Barbara Gordon, the first character to go by the name Batgirl in comics, has a seemingly indelible history with the Joker. Alan Moore's The Killing Joke is still held up as a pivotal moment in the transition of American superhero comics to a medium recognized by the mainstream. In it, the Joker shoots Barbara Gordon, severing her spine and paralyzing her, and then undresses her in order to take photographs that he hopes will drive her father insane. The Killing Joke has spawned loads of critique, even from Moore himself, about how the story creates huge personal trauma for a female character only to use is as a plot device to further the character arcs of its three central men. The work of many artists and writers since, primarily through the long-running comics series Birds of Prey, kept Barbara from disappearing from the DC universe almost entirely by reforging the now-paraplegic character into a hacker/information broker who even the Justice League relied upon. Barbara's growth into Oracle has been hailed by critics, disabled and otherwise, as a excellent example of disabled representation DC's setting.
And yet, when it came time to decide what elements of that setting would be kept and lost for DC's biggest continuity shakeup since 1986, the New 52, the decision was made to regress a lot of that character development. Paradoxically, Barbara was no longer using a wheelchair and was Batgirl, but she had still been paralyzed and sexually assaulted by the Joker. Again, writers and artists like Gail Simone, Adrian Syaf, Brendan Fletcher, Cameron Stewart and Babs Tarr, worked hard to make up the loss. Simone's 34-issue run dug deep into the ideas of trauma recovery and survivor's guilt, but with a constant theme of hope and hard-won, step-by-step triumphs. Given the opportunity to pen a story in which Barbara and the Joker confronted each other (see a few panels from it at the top of this article), Simone's writing was brutally clear: The only emotion Barbara reserved for the man was a pure hatred, nearly strong enough for her to break the Bat-family's cardinal rule against killing. The still-relatively-new creative team of Fletcher, Stewart and Tarr did have Batgirl defeat a purveyor of revenge porn in her first adventure under their pens, but they have also imbued their issues with a cast of characters and new supervillains that give the series as a whole a brighter, younger feel. The success of their new tone — intended for a younger, more female audience than DC's usual demographic — not to mention the serious social media buzz it generated, may very well have been one of the inspirations for DC's new direction.
This is all to establish that an image pairing Barbara Gordon and the Joker created today cannot be help but allude in some way to the baggage that exists between the characters, both on the page and off. Artist Rafael Abuquerque's Joker variant for Batgirl, clearly evoking The Killing Joke as the canonical root of that baggage, came as a shock to many who'd been following the character's evolution.
The cover art quickly raised objections from folks who felt it was not in keeping with the current state of Batgirl as a character and that it was inappropriately or even insultingly evocative of sexual assault — particularly for the demographic that the comic reaches. There are other Joker variant covers in which the Joker has the upper hand, but none of them in which a hero is wide- and wet-eyed with terror, paralyzed (if you'll excuse the expression) with fear as they are touched intimately by a character who tore their life, identity and body autonomy apart. Barbara's not the only member of the Bat-family to have had a historical character moment at the violent hands of the Joker. But despite the fact that a resurrected Jason Todd, who was beaten and murdered by the Joker, is one of the New 52's four living Robins, it seems very unlikely that we'll see a variant cover where the Joker makes him cry.
The Daily Dot and The Beat both have good articles at the moment that collect some of the talk about the cover. In a genre as boldly and historically escapist as superhero comics, folks seemed to be asking, why are we depicting Barbara Gordon in a single, 30-year-old instance of victimhood and reduction-to-plot-device rather than in her three-decade history as a fierce survivor of that trauma? And must Barbara Gordon always be defined by a few moments in The Killing Joke, when she has also spent decades as one of the DC universe's best known heroines?
Rafael Abuquerque listened to the weekend's criticism, and in the evening of March 16, the Monday after the Friday reveal, DC Comics announced that they would be pulling the cover at the request of Abuquerque and the Batgirl creative team. In that announcement, Abuquerque made it clear that he instigated the move:
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.
In its own part of the statement, DC characterized the cancellation as standing by their creative talent, adding that "threats of violence and harassment are wrong and have no place in comics or society." Albuquerque and series writer Cameron Stewart were quick to clarify:
Ill talk more about it tomorrow but I was never threatened. just to make it clear.— Rafael Abuquerque (@rafaalbuquerque) March 17, 2015
Something to clarify, because DCs statement was a little unclear. @rafaalbuquerque did not get threats. People OBJECTING to the cover did.— Cameron Stewart (@cameronMstewart) March 17, 2015
Their comments indicate that DC's statement was in support of anyone who'd publicly expressed concerns about the cover, only to be met with threatening online resistance. Many characterized objections to the cover as calls for "censorship" or artistic expression. (You can read some of that interaction on The Daily Dot.) Stewart further explained, through Twitter, that anyone accusing the creative team on Batgirl of bowing to criticism has their timeline wrong. It is not unusual for variant covers to be arranged by editorial in collaboration with an artist who does not otherwise work on the book, and Team Batgirl felt it was against the tone of their Batgirl immediately.
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.— Cameron Stewart (@cameronMstewart) March 17, 2015
So, we have the creators of the book and the artist himself all agreeing that the cover was inappropriate. There’s no "censorship" here.— Cameron Stewart (@cameronMstewart) March 17, 2015
If you’re concerned about artistic integrity and creative vision - that’s what we’re doing. Keeping the integrity of our book intact.— Cameron Stewart (@cameronMstewart) March 17, 2015
DC Comics has not at this time released the regular cover of Batgirl #41 or replacement art for its Joker variant cover. Abuquerque could very well get a chance to provide a different artistic idea to grace the issue. As Stewart's Twitter indicates, he is not out of a job. We've reached out to DC Comics to find out.