Originally Published December 16, 2011
DC Comics recently relaunched their entire series, giving curious but uninitiated nerds a convenient entry point. Fellow blogger Patrick Ehlers and I are two such nerds, and we’ve decided to jump in with a handful of monthly titles. We really wanted to pull out all the nerd stops, so we’re also going to be writing about them here and on Patrick’s Blog (which you should all be reading anyway) every Friday. This week, I’m hosting the discussion of Batgirl, while Patrick is hosting the discussion of Green Lantern.
Drew: Let’s talk about Barbara Gordon. She’s had a rough go of things, but has always made the best of her situation. When the Joker shot her in the spine, paralyzing her from the waist down, she didn’t turn in her vigilante badge (sorry for the oxymoronic analogy); she became Oracle, the all-seeing, all-knowing information central to anyone wearing a cape or cowl in Gotham. The fact that this particular tidbit (or at least the part about the Joker shooting and paralyzing her) has been retained as part of her history in the relaunch made me take for granted that I knew Barbara’s life story, but what do I really know? In the old canon, Barbara was born to Roger and Thelma Gordon (Jim’s brother and sister-in-law), who died when she was thirteen. She was then adopted by Jim and Barbara (whose name is only coincidental as a result of the original Crisis on Infinite Earths retcon that made her not Babs’s biological mother), taking on the role of big sis to her young cousin, James (the Gordons were not creative namers). Jim and Barbara (sr) eventually divorced, with Jim taking custody of Babs, and Barbara leaving Gotham with James.
In this issue, Babs casually lets slip that her mother walked out on “us” when she was twelve, suggesting that at least her timeline, if not her biological parents, is different from the way we know. I’m not pointing this out to be a timeline-nazi, or to flex my DC canon muscle (I wrote the above paragraph with ample help from the DC wiki) — frankly, I wasn’t really familiar enough with canon for me to be upset by any changes — but the nature of Babs’s mother’s absence is going to play a big role going forward. I’m confident much of the backstory will be filled in in the next issue, but right now everything is a clue, from language Babs uses when talking about her mother’s leaving to the way she hesitates before calling James her brother. Maybe these details are only titillating to someone with my specific knowledge (I know enough to know something is up, but not nearly enough to start figuring out what), but it’s just another reason to look forward to the next issue. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Issue 4 begins with perhaps the most striking splash page I’ve seen among the New 52 (if not ever): Batgirl, in full costume, seated in a wheelchair beneath a night sky. That single image sums up much of what Babs is dealing with this issue, and sets the tone perfectly for the ruminative dream sequence that follows. In that dream sequence, Batgirl is confronted by Babs, who chastises her for wanting to walk, and guilts her for having received a miracle while others are left behind. Barbara wakes up from this dream and finds her new roommate has just arrived home from work, The two bond briefly over Christmas memories before Barbara decides she’s shared to much and makes a quick (if clumsy) exit.
While on patrol, Batgirl interrupts a routine mugging (enhanced by the muggers’ use of a smart phone). While thanking her, the would-be victims mention their children, reminding Barbara that Mirror may make routine visits to the cemetery to visit his own daughters. She uses this info to bait Mirror to a house of mirrors, where she manages to use his own memories against him. As she lays the cuffs on him, she repeats that miracles happen to people “whether they deserve them or not,” reminding both Mirror and herself that miracles are granted randomly. Back at home, Babs’s Christmas with her roomie is interrupted by her own past when her estranged mother appears on her doorstep.
I must admit, the first time through this issue, I was a little let down. Barbara’s voice is as strong as ever, but the conclusion of the Mirror storyline felt a little pat. I had a hard time swallowing that someone so driven by their own past could be so distracted by simple images of something they remember so vividly, but that was the exactly the detail that gave Barbara the upper-hand. I think I was never sold on the Mirror character — his obsession with miracles seemed a little too on-the-nose as far as dealing with the “miracle” that allowed Barbara to walk again (about which we also got a few more details on in this issue). I’ve also seen enough climactic fight scenes in halls of mirrors to find the denouement here a little cliche. However, on the second read-through, things really started to click; most notably, the thematic significance of mirrors throughout the first four issues.
Writer Gail Simone and penciller Adrian Syaf have hidden mirror effects on just about every reflective surface they could in this title: from Barbara’s eyes to the mugger’s billy club to the brass knuckles on Mirror’s costume. It’s flashy and has the danger of coming off as gimmicky, but the theme of reflection, of Barbara facing who she is and what she is dealing with, is perhaps the most important idea this title is confronting. It was at the heart of the last issue, in Babs and Dick’s rooftop confrontation, and puts a much finer point on Barbara’s reluctance to talk about her own miracle. I’m also appreciating the hell out of the nerdy touches that Gail Simone is bringing to the writing, from naming the abandoned carnival after legendary Batman penciller Dick Sprang to what may or may not be a shout out to the cosplay nerds over at Gotham Public Works. But of course, the real fun is just getting to spend some time in Barbara’s head, which makes the fight scene with the muggers a particular standout.
My only grievance then, is a very slight one: while I’m generally very fond of Ulises Arreola’s colors (I honestly find his sense of texture to be impeccable), he occasionally draws Babs with a tan that is completely unbecoming of a redhead. Like I said, it’s kind of a petty complaint, and only comes up when Barbara’s out of costume, but it makes for some occasionally awkward and distracting art. That is to say, I’ve seen real redheads with that kind of tan, but it’s unsettling in real life, too.
Patrick: The image of Batgirl in the wheel chair is an absolute show-stopper – never mind that it occurs on page one. The dream sequence that follows pumps out a bunch of other really arresting images, but it’s use of imaginary setting is really really spectacular. Some panels make it look as though they’re outside under a luminous full moon, others place them squarely inside a cozy apartment. But then one panel gives the game away: the room has no ceiling, and the worlds that Barbara inhabits exist together simultaneously. It’s a nice way to hammer home the thematic material of Barb essentially having a fight with herself as Batgirl.
I love the way this issue is able to tell four quick stories (Bab’s dream, bonding with the roommate, muggers using iPhones, defeating the Mirror) that all tie together logically and thematically and still never feels rushed. You’re right that the Mirror fight wasn’t quite as grandiose or as satisfying as it could have been, but I think we do well to remember that he’s a first-time villain. Remember, the New 52 are about re-introducing us to these heroes, so the heavy hitting villains will have to wait and be given their due attention once we have a firm grasp on this version of Barb. Look at the other Bat-Family titles we’re reading: Saiko, Mirror and Talon – all sorta cool, but mostly they serve as formidable antagonists for our new-old friends.
And I don’t think this has to be the last we see of Mirror. I guess I sorta ignored this angle previously, but Babs points out that he is forcing his beliefs on those he murders – trying to get back at a god that is mocking him. A religious zealot who thinks he needs to fix God’s arbitrary mistakes could make for some more compelling psychology. Plus, I like that costume. And he fights with guns. Plus, Batgirl describes him as “a pro wrestler who’s also a ninja” – that’s a hard thing not to like.
It’s also a hard turn-of-phrase not to like. Gail Simone continues to nail a fun, confident voice for Barbara that frequently makes me laugh out loud. I liked the budding relationship between Barb and her roommate and I look forward to whatever we’re about to see from the former Mrs. Gordon. It is refreshing to see this many female characters in a comic book, and it’s extra-refreshing to see them behave as human beings. There’s a long list of ways comic book writers (even the greats **especially the greats coughcoughfrankmillercoughcough**) mistreat their female characters and the whole of the Batgirl series avoids that list entirely. Barb is strong, she doesn’t rely on her sexuality, she’s smart, she’s not defined by men (and that’s saying something when you consider the male company she keeps). It seems weird to be celebrating a story for not being sexually retarded in 2011, but, given the medium, I remain impressed.
I didn’t know that bit about Barbara being adopted. That was the history that survived Superboy Prime’s RetCon Punch? Man, comics are fucking weird. If we’re all about streamlining character histories and making them more accessible for modern audiences, it makes sense to me that “adoption” goes away and “divorced parents” sticks around. We see at the end of this issue that Mother Gordon has the same red hair that her daughter sports – I think it’s safe to say that we’re dealing with a real mother-daughter relationship.
So I don’t know the whole story behind James Gordon Jr., but I do know that he became a villain at some point. Or something. He winds up in Arkham, if I’m not mistaken. In fact, here’s a picture of him from the opening sequence of Batman #1:
Bab’s hesitance to mention him as part of her family could be traced back to that. Oh, that might be spoilery to the end of the most recent detective comics run (pre-reboot). I’ll stop talking about it, but only because I don’t really know anything. And, I don’t want to ruin any future fun of yours. Trying to ruin less fun these days.
I was surprised how quickly I snapped right back into the Batgirl universe. Most of the books we’re reading require me to read an issue or two to refind my bearings, but this one is so enthralling and compelling that I don’t really need to force the mindset. I really like this book and I can’t wait to see where Simone is going to take this character.
Here’s a list of what we’re reading. The list is Batman heavy, and we’re not going to write about everything. That being said, feedback and suggestions on what to read and discuss are welcome. Overlapping books in bold:
Action Comics, Aquaman, Animal Man, Batgirl, Batman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Justice League, Nightwing, Wonder Woman, Batman and Robin, Swamp Thing