From Batgirl to Comicgate?:

The Variant Cover Controversy

The Joker would be proud.

On 13 March, DC Comics unveiled a set of variant covers for title due to be published in June. To mark the 75th anniversary of Batman’s archenemy, each of the covers guest stars the Joker. And befitting an attempt to celebrate an eternal trouble-maker, one of the covers caused quite a stir. Painted by Rafael Albuquerque and intended as an homage to The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, the cover in question was scheduled to appear on issue 41 of Batgirl:

It’s certainly a striking image. For my part, I’m reminded of a famous statement made by EC co-publisher William Gaines in 1954. When asked whether the lurid cover to Crime Suspenstories #22 was in good taste, he replied “Yes sir, I do – for the cover of a horror comic.”

To me, Albuquerque’s cover would have been fine on a horror comic. Gail Simone’s run on Batgirl often used horror elements; consider the cover to issue 14, for example:

While this cover is not as confrontational the proposed variant for issue 41, the two images are still broadly similar in spirit. I would imagine that Albuquerque saw himself as working within a precedent set by covers from Gail Simone’s run, such as the one above.

But Gail Simone is not writing Batgirl anymore. Since October, the series has been in the hands of Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr. Their interpretation of the comic (which I shall henceforth refer to under the fan nickname Batgirl of Burnside) is wildly different in tone from Simone’s take, as this panel demonstrates:

Panel from Batgirl #36.

So, whatever its aesthetic merit, Albuquerque’s illustration is simply not an appropriate cover for Batgirl of Burnside.

Some will reply that it is a variant cover, and therefore intended specifically for collectors. At my local comic shop, however, variant editions are stocked in the racks alongside regular editions, and as far as I know this is common practice. A certain percentage of people visiting a comic shop to pick up Batgirl #41, then, would have inevitably been confronted with the variant cover.

Some people will also say that variant covers cannot be expected reflect the contents of the comics themselves. A short while back I knocked together a quick blog post where I looked at a few comparable cover illustrations and concluded that, when there is a major discrepancy in tone between a comic and its variant cover, it is generally done for comedic purposes – a lighthearted, jokey cover on a horror comic, for example. With Batgirl #41, we have the opposite: a horrific cover on a lighthearted, jokey comic. That, I maintain, is a misjudgment.

The comics blogosphere quickly weighed in on the cover. Out of the posts that I read, the most thorough and thoughtful contributions to the discussion are to be found at Women Write About Comics. LB Royal argues that the cover is misogynistic, if unintentionally so; Claire Napier provides a stark symbolic analysis of the illustration; Ardo Omer comments on artistic freedom and the role of the critic; Brenda Noiseux sticks up for Albuquerque and his illustration, while acknowledging that the cover does not fit Batgirl of Burnside; and Laura Harcourt examines both the variant cover and The Killing Joke alongside historical portrayals of sexual violence.

A number of the cover’s detractors poured onto Twitter with a hashtag campaign, #ChangeTheCover. This began on March 13, the same day that the cover was first revealed; the next day, the tone shifted considerably. More and more tweets appeared under the hashtag taking a relatively neutral stance – calling the debate a fuss over nothing, for example, or insinuating that the whole thing was orchestrated by DC as a publicity stunt. After that, the voices that directly opposed #ChangeTheCover made themselves louder…

The tipping point: a row of tweets made under #ChangeTheCover on 14 March (Around midday PCT, if you want to be precise – the hashtag had been in use for under 24 hours.)

From this point on, #ChangeTheCover became dominated by people who wanted the cover to stay. Many of the same people used the counterpoint hashtags #DontChangeTheCover and #SaveTheCover, but these seem awfully redundant: #ChangeTheCover had been drowned out.

I, personally, didn’t feel comfortable with #ChangeTheCover campaign. I agree that the cover was inappropriate, but I am strongly in favour of creative freedom and believe that the final decision regarding the cover should be made by the creators of the comic, rather than a publisher pressured by Twitter activists.

And it just so happens that the decision made by the creators was “drop it.”

On 16 March, DC announced that it would not be publishing the variant cover; this move came at the personal request of illustrator Albuquerque, who had this to say:

“For me, it was just a creepy cover that brought up something from the character¹s 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.”

Albuquerque later elaborated on his views in an interview with the Brazilian website UOL (translated from Portuguese):

“I see many people commenting on freedom of expression and that I gave in to pressure. I have always defended minorities. I think is the right and moral thing to do. I do not think a comic that aims to raise women´s self-esteem should have an image that may suggest otherwise. In another comic, maybe that image made sense. Not for the current Batgirl comic. Freedom of expression also means not saying what you do not want to say, and it was exactly the right that I exercised here.”

Batgirl of Burnside co-writer Cameron Stewart revealed that he and the rest of the creative team had disapproved of the cover in the first place:

As far as I’m concerned, that settles things. Had the creative team stuck by the cover, I would have supported their freedom to do so, despite my own problems with the illustration. But instead, they objected to the cover – and I support their freedom to do that, as well.

My idea of artistic freedom includes the freedom of an author to reject a book cover, and the freedom of an artist to have second thoughts about their own work. This is not censorship.

However, many of those who defended the cover have developed their own narrative, one in which “feminazis” and “social justice warriors” emerged as the villains. This point of view dismisses Stewart’s concerns as irrelevant (after all, why should a mere writer have a say in how his book is promoted?) and holds that Albuquerque retracted his illustration only after being bullied by “SJWs”.

Of course, only Albuquerque can say for sure exactly what thought processes led to his decision. But I have to ask – if he was bullied into submission, where did the bullying take place? Certainly not in the #ChangeTheCover hashtag; as I say, this did not last long before being hijacked. It trundled on for just under a day – with many of the contributors simply posting “#ChangeTheCover”, without further elaboration – and was then swamped by people replying with “Don’t #ChangeTheCover”.

I looked at Albuquerque’s Twitter mentions from the period of the controversy, and saw that the posts were overwhelmingly supportive of the cover; alongside these were a modest smattering of tweets voicing polite disapproval of his illustration. I could find only three people showing harsh opposition: “It’s disgusting and you should be ashamed”; “Y’all are seriously trolling women fans”; and “What the hell was Albuquerque thinking?”

But to put things in context, this constitutes a tiny fraction of the criticism that a well-known comic artist such as, say, Rob Liefeld must receive on a regular basis. I find it hard to believe that a professional illustrator would buckle to such a small-scale protest – unless he felt that the protestors had a point. That is what makes me believe that Albuquerque was being sincere when he said that he had second thoughts about the cover.

In short, I conclude that – despite what the #SaveTheCover brigade may expect us to believe – the “SJW bullying” simply never occurred.

Returning to DC’s response, there is one point that I would like to bring up. The company’s statement makes a passing comment denouncing “threats of violence and harassment”, and Cameron Stewart later clarified over Twitter that these threats were directed at people who opposed the cover. However, I have been unable to find any solid evidence of which individuals this harassment was aimed at, what form it took, or who was responsible. This leaves a significant gap in the story.

That said, while ploughing through the hundreds of tweets under #ChangeTheCover, I noticed some seriously unpleasant behaviour coming from some of the campaign’s opponents. Various people posted pornographic fanart, including images of female characters being raped, to demonstrate their anti-censorship stance. After the cover was pulled, one individual posted a photograph of a horribly disfigured corpse (a real one, as far as I could tell, rather than a film prop) with a caption that mocked trigger warnings.

Trolls will be trolls, many will say, but such behavior demonstrates how low some of the cover’s defenders could sink. I find it hard to see the #ChangeTheCover campaign as the aggressor here, despite my personal disagreement with its aim.

For me, reading the various opinion pieces in support of the cover was a slightly depressing experience. Although I can get behind the general anti-censorship sentiments, all of the articles I looked at had managed to miss a key part of the picture.

On her blog Feels and Reals, “Liz” mounted a defence of the cover art which is, at the end of the day, a defence of the comic that inspired the cover, The Killing Joke; it has nothing to say about the cover’s appropriateness for Batgirl of Burnside. Sharon Rose of Pop Culture Uncovered wrote a generally well-argued article in support of the cover, but it is similarly marred by a lack of familiarity with Batgirl of Burnside – Rose’s comparison point is Gail Simone’s very different take on Batgirl.

Over at Reaxxion, Sam Roberts minced no words in dismissing the #ChangeTheCover protestors as “puritans” and “Neo-Victorian scolds” who are ushering in a new era of Werthamite censorship – even though #ChangeTheCover had already gone off the rails days before the article was posted.

Most articles defending the cover depicted Albuquerque as a hapless victim of PC bullying, but Breitbart contributor Allum Bokhari instead made a snide jab at the illustrator’s integrity: “It’s a shame that an artist could be so easily cowed by a little bit of moral panic, but I suppose not everyone can be a Moore or a Tarantino.” The reference to Alan Moore is ironic, given the Northampton scribe’s disavowal of The Killing Joke – a book which Bokhari cites as a celebration of free expression.

As far as I’m concerned, the demands to reinstate the variant cover lost any validity when Stewart and Albuquerque stated their views. But yet, at the time of writing, #SaveTheCover, #DontChangeTheCover and the commandeered #ChangeTheCover are still active discussions on Twitter.

And alongside them is another hashtag…

One thing that I haven’t mentioned here is that a lot of the people making accusations of “feminazi censorship” are supporters of Gamergate, the controversial video game campaign. To its supporters, Gamergate is a righteous force for ethics in gaming journalism; to many others, it is a hate-driven anti-feminist movement.

Perhaps inevitably, a number of people involved in the Batgirl discussion have tagged their posts with #Comicgate.

So, Gamergate has reached the comicsphere.

How does the Batgirl #41 debate fit into the wider “Comicgate” movement? In the follow-up to this article I will take a closer look at the off-and-on Comicgate campaign, which seeks to save sequential art from censorship and bowdlerization at the hands of “feminazis” and “social justice warriors”, and see whether or not any of its claims stack up…

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N. Emmett is the founder of the horror website Shadowgum and is a regular contributor to Girls Like Comics.

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  1. Very interesting, thanks.

    Does anyone know if Albuquerque ever read Batgirl of Burnside? It seems quite possible that he was hired to do the Joker in a Batgirl variant, was not familiar with what’s currently going on (even if he tried to check it, maybe it’s not being published in Brazil), naturally thought on The Killing Joke and made a mistake.

    I also wonder how many of those that entered the discussion read the title.

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