Rafael Albuquerque’s canceled Batgirl #41 cover that paid homage to 1988’s “The Killing Joke.” (courtesy of DC Entertainment)

 

SEE JUST how much dung the Joker can stir up?

With one “simple” image, one of the greatest villains the comics have ever known has managed even to turn some Batgirl fans against one another.

The Joker, man. He kills us.

Threats of violence? Check. (Against some critics of the Batgirl #41 variant cover revealed last week.)

Sowing a sense of discord among those in authority? Check. (As a Batgirl writer tweets that he would not have approved of that cover.)

The ability to introduce a little Joker Juice of chaos? Check. (As DC’s press release seems to raise another cloud of confusion around the words “threats” and “harassment.”)

All this for a striking, artfully haunting, museum-worthy cover … that clearly should never have hit the door.

Even its artist, the gifted Rafael Albuquerque, now says so. (“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,” he said in a statement published on CBR.)

Even the title’s co-writer, the talented Cameron Stewart, says so:

 

It’s not that the cover isn’t a stunner. It’s that it plainly doesn’t fit DC’s current tone for Batgirl. Here is what Stewart told The Post’s Comic Riffs last fall about this new, bright-as-bubblegum Brooklyn hipster of a Barbara/Batgirl:

“The darkness and the rain and the gritted teeth and the blood — it works for Batman but, we feel, not so much for Batgirl,” Stewart said, nodding to the fact this is not your father’s readership. “Even though she’s a part of the Bat-family and she’s wearing the costume and the cape and the ears, it’s nice to have something that’s not quite so dark that stands as a nice contrast to the Batman character.”

So holy Bill Finger, Batman! Just what happened here? Well, if you’re just catching up, DC has canceled its Batgirl variant cover by Brazil-based artist Albuquerque, who was paying artful homage to Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s “The Killing Joke” comic — a quarter-century visual call-back that re-raises debate over that 1988 book’s Batgirl victimization, violation and inferred sexual violence.

But what really happened here, from an editorial standpoint, is that DC is not only embracing its brighter Batgirl; the entertainment company is also celebrating the 75th anniversary since the late Jerry Robinson looked at a deck of cards and, according to lore, co-created the Clown Prince of Crime. (Side note: Robinson once told me he missed meeting Heath Ledger as the Joker by one day on the English soundstage. Even that seems like some cruel cosmic joke.)

What Albuquerque seemed to be doing with his variant was embracing the Joker’s sordid history, narrative warts and all. But now that Batgirl is as hip as Kevin Keller, and now that DC has fostered a significantly shifting Batgirl readership from her “Killing Joke” days, the publisher seemed to get its creative wires crossed.

For Comic Riffs, there are three particular takeaways here:

1. Even more people now realize what a powerful artist Albuquerque is.

When I spoke with Scott Snyder in 2010 about his artistic collaborator in Albuquerque, the “American Vampire” creator raved. “Rafa” does vividly stylized violence, and you sense the fear in his wide-eyed terrorized victims. And have you gazed at his “Vampire” covers? Blood streaked or dripping across a pale, beautiful face is almost a house specialty with him. The man is King Crimson.

(In requesting that his variant art be canceled, Albuquerque even called it a “creepy cover.”)

2. Let the title’s keepers have a look-see.

Batgirl’s Stewart says he wouldn’t have let the Albuquerque variant into the public square. (Even as he rightly praises Rafa.) Now, just as in a newsroom, a comic publisher’s top editors need to retain final say, of course. But why not let the impassioned writers and artists on a title see the variant art before the covers go out? They might just have some insightful feedback before DC ends up with, say, blood on its Batgirl and egg on its face.

3. Desperately Seeking: One new editor?

After Albuquerque’s requested retraction, DC said in its somewhat muddled statement that “threats of violence and harassment are wrong and have no place in comics,” as well as society. So, does this mean DC’s entire gallery of rogues and bloody scoundrels will never try to intimidate through the threat of bodily harm? Or, if by “comics,” DC meant the comics community, from creators to fans — well, that, of course, is society.

The statement’s quirky wording also led to Albuquerque’s having to clarify that he himself had not been threatened over this:

Which meant Stewart had to help do Mission Clarification, too:

Perhaps the title’s creators can start sneak-peeking those press statements in advance, too.


Rafael Albuquerque does a beautiful bloody mouth for “American Vampire.” (courtesy of DC/Vertigo)