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A comic book cover, something that only the most ardent comic geeks fuss about, is normally not considered front page news. Last week, however, a limited edition version of an upcoming "Batgirl" issue ignited a fierce debate across social and traditional media.
Comic book giant DC Comics decided to publish an edgy alternative cover for its "Batgirl" series that recalled one of the series' more popular narratives.
The artwork in question depicted the menacing villain Joker smearing his trademark grin—and with gun in hand—across the face of a terrified and weeping Batgirl. The cover was one of 25 variants DC Comics planned to release in June to celebrate the Joker's 75th anniversary. But the publisher announced last week it was pulling this particular variant of Batgirl no. 41 at the request of Rafael Albuquerque, the artist at the center of the brouhaha.
The art immediately touched off a fierce debate about free speech and sexism. A loud but vocal minority of fans and editorialists objected to the image of a strong female heroine as helpless, or worse, a potential sexual assault victim.
Using Twitter and Tumblr to amplify their battle cry, they urged publisher DC Comics to "#changethecover." Another group of readers and supporters of the cover pushed back, decrying the chilling effect on free speech.
Variant covers are not new to the industry, but they have proliferated in recent years as publishers have gotten smarter about creating demand for them, said Jonathan Jackson Miller, an author and industry expert who analyzes comic book sales on his website, the ComicChron.
For example, publishers now make one or more variants per issue, which are sold exclusively for sale at large comic book shops and mail order services. The art on variant covers does not necessarily reflect the story told in the issue. They are printed in limited runs and typically appeal to completists and speculators.
By fronting the same content with different covers, publishers can often multiply sales of a single issue in one fell swoop.
"By doing it this way, you have a retailer that's behind that particular variant, pushing it and controlling supply," he explained.
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In a statement to CNBC, a DC spokesperson said that variant covers are created within the editorial group at the company. The creative teams that produce the series on an ongoing basis are not involved in developing variants.
Amid the controversy, comic publishers in general are looking to boost sagging sales and generate interest with a provocative story and art. In some cases, that has made them a target for offended readers on social networks, and socially-aware blogs such as io9 and The Mary Sue.
It also underscores how comic story lines are creating warring factions among comic book bedfellows. In December, DC's creative team issued an apology after fans complained about a story featuring a cross-dressing villain that some said made trangendered citizens look mentally unstable and deceitful.
Supporters of the "Batgirl" cover point out it is based on one of DC's most iconic story lines—which never stirred up much of a fight when it was first published nearly three decades ago.
Albuquerque said in a statement his cover was an homage to Alan Moore's classic 1988 Batman tale, "The Killing Joke," in which the Joker shoots and paralyzes Barbara Gordon, aka the original Batgirl.
The Killing Joke is widely considered to be among the best Batman stories ever told and won an Eisner Award—the Oscar of comics—for best graphic novel in 1989. It also redefined Barbara Gordon's role in the DC universe: Her character became a paraplegic, but she made herself indispensable to heroes by becoming an elite computer hacker codenamed Oracle. That story held up until 2011, when DC made the controversial decision to restore her ability to walk.
DC stopped short of an issuing an apology for the "Batgirl" variant, but was forced to acknowledge the imagery at the heart of the controversy.
"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," DC said.
Meanwhile, DC is far from the only publisher to have a variant cover elicit outrage. Last fall, fans assailed Marvel Comics after it released a variant cover for Spider-Woman #1 that showed the heroine in a contorted, sexualized pose that drew attention to her posterior.
In an interview with trade website Comic Book Resources, Marvel Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso apologized for the incident, saying: "We are aware of the growing sensitivity to covers like this, and we will be extra-vigilant in policing their content and how we use them in our marketing."
He noted that Marvel knew the cover would not appeal to everyone, and would not have used it for the standard edition in wide circulation.
Nearly every title in the top 100 every year has at least one variant cover because publishers know a small minority of their readership will scoop them up, ComicChron's Miller said. With so many variants hitting the shelves, it seems unlikely Albuqurque's Batgirl cover will be the last to stir the pot.
In fact, collectors stand to strike a profit by buying the controversy.
Chicago-based comic book store G-Mart was asking $200 for a copy of the controversial Spider-Woman variant, and a seller on EBay was asking for $175 as of late last week.
Assuming the seller bought the issue at the original cover price of $3.99, that's a roughly 4,300 percent return on investment.