Originally Published November 11, 2011
DC Comics recently relaunched their entire series, giving curious but uninitiated nerds a convenient entry point. Fellow blogger Drew Baumgartner 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 Drew’s blog (which you should all be reading anyway) every Friday. This week, I’m hosting the discussion of Batgirl, while Drew is hosting the discussion of Green Lantern.
Patrick: Like any young man that went through puberty in the 90s, my introduction to the DC universe was the Batman animated series. I saw it before I saw the Tim Burton flicks, I saw it before I even had a concept of who Superman or the Flash or Green Lantern were. I was following the pair of spiritual successors to Tiny Toon Adventures. The creative team for Tiny Toons split up after the show’s conclusion and created two discrete shows: one borrowing the fun, educational, goofy fun of Tiny Toons (Animaniacs) and the other borrowing the penchant for emotional stories anchored by rich characters. This was Batman, The Animated Series. Much has been made about the importance of that series, both for TV animation in general and for comic fans. So I won’t belabor the issue. I liked Batman a lot, and there is a soft spot in my heart for all of the characters the show introduced to me.
Batgirl is traditionally Barbara Gordon, daughter of Batman’s best ally on the GCPD, Commissioner Jim Gordon. In typical DC fashion, there have been other people to don the lady cowell – occasionally, Batgirl is a Robin-like figure for Bat Woman, sometimes she’s a protoge of Batman, and sometimes she is autonomous. The modern Barbara Gordon was half-protoge, half-on-her-own super hero until DC took one of their trademark “big gambles” and crippled the character. The Joker, trying to prove that he could drive Commissioner Gordon crazy by giving him the worst night of his life, shot Barb in the spine. With a gun. Joker’s a pretty strong force of change in Batman’s world – he’s killed a Robin and handicapped a Batgirl. But while it took a super-natural spin in the Lazarus pit to get Jason Todd back in a superhero team, Babs made the best of her condition and took on the role of the chief information broker in the DC Universe and founding member of Gotham’s own Birds of Prey. She operated under the handle Oracle, and while she couldn’t walk anymore, she was still bad ass. Smart, funny, prepared – the new Barb Gordon forged an incredible path in the DC Universe, one that did well by both women and handicapped people alike.
One of the big shake-ups in the DC relaunch in September was giving Barbara her legs back. It would have been easy for the DC wizards to wave their magic wands (elm, 8 inches, Gorilla Grodd hair core) and retcon the fuck out of her disability, but they went a much more interesting route. As of the 3rd issue of the New 52, we still don’t know what got her out of the chair. She’s spoken abstractly about the “miracle” that got her on her feet again, but if there’s something more specific to this story, we haven’t seen it yet. Naturally, I’m getting ahead of myself, but Barb’s psychology as it relates to her new-found ability to walk has been a highlight for this series, and one of the most compelling new components of the New 52.
The first issue kicks off with Batgirl back in the air and fighting crime again. She is shakey and unsure of herself, but it doesn’t stop her from foiling a home invasion. She succeeds, but not without an incredibly close call that almost causes her to plummet to her death. The cause of that close call? One of the home invaders points a gun at her and visions of the Joker in a hilarious Hawaiian shirt come flooding back to her. Fear is a powerful motivator for a lot of superheroes, but by my reckoning never so explicitly as in the case of the current Batgirl. It causes her to make mistakes and doubt her ability to be a hero. She’s not the only one who doubts this ability. Her father kind of quietly voices his concern for her well-being without expressly yelling “I KNOW YOU’RE BEING BATGIRL AGAIN BUT I DON’T THINK YOU’RE READY!”
Successes aside, Batgirl did just barely get through that home-invasion scenario with her life intact. ENTER: The Mirror. The Mirror (not to be confused with Flash Rogue, Mirror Master) is a survivor of a gruesome car accident that took the lives of his wife and daughter. He feels guilty for surviving via what he perceived to be a miracle, so he’s righting this karmic wrong by attempting to murder everyone that cheated death. Barb was already on the list from the whole Killing Joke situation, and now Batgirl’s on that list too. Mirror’s a Saw-esque motherfucker and puts Batgirl in no-win situations while he plays out his little murder plans. She keeps getting herself out of trouble, but so far, Barb’s not been great at thwarting Mirror’s plans.
She’s also not great at taking him in a one-on-one fight. He sorta beats the shit out of her – fracturing her ribs and laying her up for a few days in her new apartment. The new apartment! Readers are treated to a nice look into Bab’s personal life as she gets an apartment with a bohemian artist in the shitty part of town. The roommate is a fun personality to be paired up with a recovering superhero – a dark, sarcastic anarchist. I’m on board. It’s actually neat to see a more modern personality archetype in comics. I’ve read a lot about The New 52′s mistreatment of the powerful DC women, but it looks to me like Batgirl has a solid pair of strong, dynamic female characters. There’s also some nice business with her dad – all of the scenes are touching, but there’s one in particular where Barb imagines all the honest, terrified things she wants to say to him, but ultimately pulls it all back and just says she missed him. Oh and she’s also dating her physical therapist. He’s thinking about breaking it off though, cause… you know…
The superhero drama and the domestic drama find a neat melding point when Nightwing shows up. Nightwing here represents the entirety of the the Bat Family and the greater DC superhero community. He’s concerned (and he says Batman is too, though we don’t have direct evidence of this) that Barb is too quick to take this Mirror jerk on her own. Barb and Dick (Nightwing) run and jump and flip around the city, flirting in a distinctly superhero way – a way that makes her recall the playful relationship she had with Dick back when he was Robin and they both worked for directly for Batman. But this family symbolism gets a little too literal for Barb and she lashes out at her family, laying Nightwing on his ass before ignoring his pleas and pursuing Mirror on her own.
I’m loving this series so far. Gail Simone has found a great voice for Batgirl that is fun without every becoming silly. But the impressive centerpiece of this series has got to be the unique headspace that Barb occupies. Oh sure, pride is a common thing in superheroes, but her combination of fear and survivor’s guilt is really compelling. Also, obviously Mirror has these same qualities and REFLECTS Batgirl’s own psychological issues. Too on the nose? I don’t care – I like it.
Drew, you having as much fun with this one as I am?
Drew: First things first: Yes, I am having as much fun with this one as you are. Batgirl has very quickly become the title I’m most looking forward to each month. Barbara’s voice is very strong throughout, and Simone has zeroed in on a number of details that make Batgirl unique and interesting among the bat family. Barbara is struggling with her limitations, and is frustrated at being defined by the men in her life. Unfortunately, the easiest way to illustrate this is to compare her to one of the most important men in her life, a figure so imposing that his presence is felt even though he has yet to make an appearance: Batman.
Batman has resources upon resources; vehicles, high-tech forensic tools, a secret base of operations. Barbara has to make up for her lack of these with her wits, but the most interesting difference here is that she has no batcave. I’ve never seen a superhero shacking up with someone who doesn’t know their secret, and trying to keep her alter-ego secret has already led to some interesting interactions with her roommate. Batman also has access to crime scenes (as well as the general cooperation of the Gotham PD). Barbara’s detective work relies more on research and her skills as a forensic psychologist than access to physical evidence, which makes a lot of sense for someone who has spent the last three years fighting crime via proxy. The most obvious difference, though, is that Batman is a big strong dude. I’d be surprised if Batgirl tipped the scales at 150 lbs. This means she can’t hope to win in straight hand-to-hand combat with an ex-marine, as she tries in issue #2, and it also means she doesn’t intimidate criminals in the same way Batman can. It’s a great punchline throughout the first issue that nobody is excited to see Batgirl, and criminals only seem concerned because it might mean Batman is close behind.
The fact that she is so easily defined by the men in her life leads her to take some pretty drastic moves in issue #3, where she becomes violently territorial. I wasn’t sold on this development at first, since the message “I need to do this on my own” only makes sense for Barbara as the person who needs to regain her footing, but not for Batgirl as the pragmatic crimefighter who needs to bring a homicidal maniac down before he kills again. Simone brilliantly ties this back to Barbara’s history with Dick (giggles), which explains why she might act irrationally childish, and saves what had the danger of becoming an “I have to do this alone to prove that I can do it alone” explanation.
I think the thing I’m most excited about, though, is that Barbara’s confidence in her abilities really is pretty unstable. All of the other titles we’re reading are following heroes that are more or less comfortable in their roles, but Batgirl is a little rusty, which makes for some genuinely exciting moments. She still feels at home swinging across rooftops, but she starts to question herself in front of criminals, especially if they’ve got a gun pointed at her. That type of fear is pretty unique in the bat family (and superhero comics in general), and forces Barbara to ask herself some tough questions even after the panic has passed. She has to prove to herself that she can do this alone, which I suppose is as tired a trope as any, but it’s working for me here.
While I’m gushing, I’d also like to mention that I’m Loving (with a capital L) the covers Adam Hughes has been providing. They’re gorgeous. Save the second issue of Green Lantern Corps, none of the title’s we’re reading are featuring these kind of lush, stylized, painted covers.
I do have my quibbles, though, specifically with this Mirror character. I get that he’s crazy, but I expect my gimmick villains to at least have a consistent internal logic. Being the sole survivor of a fatal car crash or nautical disaster could appropriately be labeled “miracles,” but I’m not sure surviving a non-mortal gunshot wound to the spine really counts as one. Is his issue just that Barbara’s walking when she shouldn’t be? Is his goal to kill her, or just put her back in that wheelchair? I suppose having a villain around with the express purpose of re-crippling Barbara is kind of neat, but I’m not really sure what he’s considering an unacceptable miracle. Hell, the “miracle” that kept Batgirl alive (as she is on the list quite separately from Barbara) was her catching herself from falling. If preventing yourself from dying is considered a miracle in Mirror’s eyes, his list should be a hell of a lot longer (also, why doesn’t he just kill himself? He’s presumably on his list).
I also got a kick out of seeing Barbara and Dick together. Their flirting-with-baggage chemistry was fun to read. It would be a heck of a lot sweeter, though, if Dick hadn’t just bedded a different redhead from his past in the most recent issue of Nightwing. He ends up coming off kind of skeezy, though I suppose I should save elaborating on that for our Nightwing write-up.
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:
Justice League of America, Batman, Batman & Robin, Nightwing, Batgirl, Aquaman, Green Lantern, Green Lantern Corps, Wonder Woman, Action Comics