Batgirl 5

Originally Published January 13, 2012

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: DC loves to populate their version of the United States with invented cities.  Superman hails from Smallville and stomps around Metropolis.  The Flash protects Central City and it’s sister city Keystone.  Green Lantern calls Coast City home and has been personally responsible for both destroying it and rebuilding it (maybe a couple times by now).  Most of these cities act as generic New Yorks that can be scattered all over the country, and are generally unremarkable urban backdrops for our heroes’ great adventures.  But then there’s the wholly unique case of Gotham City.

Gotham City is one of the great inventions of DC Comics.  It has history, it has culture, it has problems that have nothing to do with its exploding super hero and super villain populations.  Crime – normal, street level, violent crime – is a problem in Gotham City.  Economically, Gotham’s a mess – and this is something I’ve always been happy attributing to the extensive web of organized crime and corruption that governs the city.  But a scene toward the end of Batgirl #5 got me thinking about the totally mundane economic factors that are making it hard for the every-man of Gotham to make ends meet: there’s a Occupy Gotham protest at the proposed site of Bruce Wayne’s new skyscraper.  Bruce believes that the new skyscraper can act as beacon of economic recovery for the city and we’ve seen this ambition expressed across the line books that take place in Gotham.

I think now is the perfect time for Gotham city to resonate with readers – we’re deep into a recession that has now managed to drastically effect even the luckiest people I know and the distance between Gotham’s Haves and Gotham’s Have-Nots is starting to look more and more realistic.  What makes the whole issue really dynamic is that Bruce Wayne, the hero so integral to Gotham’s drama that Batman’s shadow is cast over every book that takes place in the city, is insanely wealthy.  He is philanthropic, certainly, but his new skyscraper is being protested because he wants to tear down historic buildings to make room for it.  And he’s been donating his family’s money for decades, but it never seems to get any better.

Sorry, some of the themes in the background of this issue really spoke to me and got me thinking about the nature of Gotham City.  Batgirl #5 achieves an awful lot in one issue: 1.) a new villain, Gretel, is introduced; 2.) Babs’ personal life is further explored; 3.) Batgirl is dragged in to the kerfuffle around Bruce’s Gotham-revitalization project; and 4.) McKenna, the detective who lost her partner in issue #1, is put on Batgirl-duty.

The villain is sort of a strange one – more akin to the Spinebender the shapeshifter from Babs’ cameo in Nightwing #4 than The Mirror from first arc of this series.  That is to say, there appears to be something supernatural about her.  Gretel has the ability to control people (possibly just men), is armed with sword and gun (which Barb notices is… different somehow), changes her hair from green to pink between encounters, and feels neither pain nor emotions.  Oh and she’s got an obsession with the number 338, making the men she controls equally obsessed with it.  This last bit is put to creepy effect when she makes a car hijacker demand $3.38 from his victims.  What does it mean?  Maybe it’s the address of one of the buildings Wayne wants to demolish?  Maybe that’s a coincidence – or maybe that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  I’m not totally sure how I feel about this character yet.  I see potential for her inability to feel to relate back to Babs’ paralysis, so that’s neat.  It’s just hard to get a bead on what motivates a character that feels no emotions.  Once we get that nailed down, I look forward to some mind-controlling menace from Gretel.  Also, if she is only able to control men, it puts Babs in a unique position to stop her.

I was hoping for some more exploration of Barbara Gordon Sr. in this issue.  I could be wrong, but I think we got the teasing of a mystery about Babs’ mother’s absence.  She very specifically says “I can’t tell you why I had to go” which sounds an awful lot like something a character says when they’re hiding something AWESOME.  And now she’s back in town as the Bats and the Owls are dueling it out for the fate of Gotham City.  I’m jumping to conclusions here, but that brisk conversation between Batgirl and her mother sent up some red flags for me – expect to see more of her in the future.

The art in this series remains strong, though I miss all the reflective bits that were littered across the first 4 issues.  Andrian Syaf’s action sequences are very clear and I appreciate that every panel in a battle sequence does a good job of making clear what just happened and what is about to happen.  It makes for very fluid fights that actually read as fun as an action sequence in a movie.  I might be imagining this, but it also seems to me like a lot of importance is placed on the characters’ hair is this issue.  Batgirl makes a point to mention Gretel’s change in hair color, and Gretel refers to Batgirl as “Red.”  This is reflected in the art by making this feature prominent on basically all the female characters.  I may well be imagining this and it’s just a case of lady-comic-characters-are-always-drawn-that-way, but check out the scene between the Gordons; their red locks fill every frame – including one that doesn’t show their faces at all.

Gail Simone got a few more chuckles out of me this week from Babs’ asides, but I’m really getting a kick out of how she’s writing the roommate.  We’ve praised Barbara’s voice and the relationship with her roommate in the past, but I’m starting to get the sense that Alysia is a well-developed character that I’d love to spend more time with.

As usual, I’m loving Batgirl.  I think there’s a good chance we’ll be seeing more cross-over-ish action between members of the Bat-family, but as we frequently discuss, there is a lot to love about most of the Bat-titles.  Drew, I’m seeing Batman as the center of the universe, but maybe that’s because I don’t read Detective Comics and stopped reading Batman and Robin.  What I’m saying is that anyone enjoying this book should probably pick up Batman as well.  While so many cross-over events set their stakes at “fate of the universe,” I am finding “the fate of Gotham” much more compelling.

One thing I didn’t get to, so I’ll start you off talking about it – what do you make of Commissioner Gordon setting McKenna on the trail of his own daughter?

Drew: This reboot is a weird thing, canonically.  Some characters (like Barry Allen) are having all but the most basic aspects of their histories erased or revised.  Others (like Hal Jordan) have more or less maintained their histories in their entirety.  Many characters (like Barbara Gordon) have kept parts of their histories while losing or changing others.  This week, Babs interacts with Bruce Wayne and his largely intact history, which begs the question: what happens to the relationships between characters when their histories are being handled differently?

The reason I bring this up is because, up until this point, I had been assuming that much of what was “canon” in Batman’s history hadn’t changed.  I based this assumption on the presence of Dick, Jason, Tim and Damian in the New 52 Universe, as well as the fact that Batman Inc. is still a thing. At the very least, this ties Bruce to the last ten  years or so of continuity, and big bits and pieces of the previous sixty years.  I’m by no means a continuity nazi — I’m not even sure I could pass muster on a simple continuity quiz — but one of the things I had assumed were part of the history was the Cataclysm and No Man’s Land.  I suppose the fact that there are numerous buildings in Gotham dating back decades (and in some cases, centuries), should have tipped me off, but the graffiti you point out makes it perfectly clear that Gotham has not been rebuilt in recent history.

I suppose it makes sense that this would be out, since other Batgirls played a pretty big role in NML and that we’re apparently operating in a world that has been without Batgirl between Babs’ injury and her recovery, but I was surprised to find this particular sentiment in Gotham.  Again, it makes sense — how could crime really exist in a city if Batman built it? — I just didn’t realize that Gotham’s own history was shifting in the reboot (and it may not be — I honestly am no continuity expert).  This makes for an interesting real world parallel, and brings the Court of Owl’s own protests regarding Bruce’s redevelopment plan down to a more relatable level.

I suppose one of the reasons I’m so interested in Babs’ new continuity is understanding how it ties in with the history of her parents.  Batman: Year One, long held as the origin story in modern Batman continuity, details the Gordons’ marital struggles in their first year in Gotham.  It’s also one of the first comics I ever read, and one I know perhaps better than any other.  Babs isn’t present in that story (which coincides with the birth of her younger brother) because in that continuity, she hasn’t yet been adopted by Jim and Barbara.  We talked last month about how that bit of Babs’ history has been changed, which means that B:YO also has to be tweaked a bit.  I understand that it not being canon doesn’t impact it one bit (they’re all imaginary, to paraphrase Alan Moore), but it does make me feel a bit unmoored in Batman history.  (Interestingly, B:YO also holds Batman’s history as Batman to be much longer than five years, unless that shot of James Gordon Jr. from Batman #1 is from the future.)  Ahh! I keep using our Batgirl write-ups as my space to pontificate on new continuity, which is a disservice to that title, anyone reading these write-ups, and myself (I really don’t care about canon this much, honest).  Back to issue #5.

Do we think Gretel doesn’t feel pain, or that she doesn’t mind it?  The cover calls her sadistic, but I’m getting huge wafts of masochism from her dialogue.  Then again, that beat where Gretel looks “like a heroin addict or something,” comes immediately after bashing Babs’ face, so maybe there’s some sadism mixed in there.  The point I’m driving at here is that I’m not sure there is anything supernatural about her — 338 may simply be a well-placed trigger word (like Zur En Arrh), for some almost plausible hypnotism.  Or it could be microwaves a la those hallucinations in Nightwing #3.  I suppose if our sci-fi is getting that outlandish, though, it may as well be magic.  At any rate, her motivations aren’t clear, and your suggestion that she may only be able to control men is intriguing.

I too, was hoping for more between Babs and her mom.  Plot-wise, this scene does very little other than tease what will clearly be a bigger story moving forward, but character-wise, it’s full of keenly observed moments that further humanize Babs.  Her sometimes thought, sometimes spoken catty remarks will be familiar to anyone who’s ever spent time with someone they really despise.  It’s a fun scene (as fun as a confrontation between an absent mother and an abandoned child can be), but it’s over far too soon.

I was initially distracted by the art in that scene.  The angles Adrian Syaf uses throughout are clearly protracted to obscure either Babs or her mother’s face, reminding me of a trick I used to use in art class to keep from having to draw too many details.  It’s distracting, but then I realized: it’s supposed to be.  These characters feel isolated from each other, and placing them alone in frame makes that isolation literal.  It’s a nice touch that’s carried over into the scene between Jim Gordon and Detective McKenna, which works there to establish McKenna’s secret obsession with Batgirl, whom she kind of blames for her some of Mirror’s crimes (which may or may not include the murder of her partner).

Getting to your question: it seems to be protocol in police fiction to put the partners of murdered cops on cases related to the deaths of their partners, if not on that case directly.  They seem to always acknowledge that this represents a conflict of interest, but it never seems to stop anybody.  I like that a kind of classic cop story can be nestled into the Batgirl plot, but I’m a little disappointed in Jim as a detective (or as a boss) for not noticing something’s up.  He even suggests that McKenna may not be objective, given her history with Batgirl, but he gives her the case anyway.  Maybe he’s got something up his sleeve here, or maybe I’m just so used to Sinestro that I expect everyone to be manipulating everyone.  Do we think Jim suspects it’s Babs behind the mask?  If he’s having a problem with Batgirl, couldn’t he consider taking it up with Batman?  I don’t really know — we’ll have to hash this out a bit in the comments.

The showdown with Bruce next month promises to be epic.  Gail Simone has kept Babs pretty honest about her abilities in hand-to-hand combat against big, well-trained dudes, and Bruce is kind of the biggest, most well-trained dude around.  Moreover, he’s a dude Babs doesn’t want to do any lasting damage to.  Last month, I made some predictions about what I did and didn’t want out of Bruce’s cameo here.  Leave it to Simone to totally blind-side me with a situation I couldn’t have anticipated.

This definitely feels more like a “putting the pieces in place” issue than any of the previous four, but I won’t really hold that against it; this was the opening of the second act, tasked with introducing a new villain along with developing the threads carried over from the first.  It was a big task, and all things considered, one it handled fairly well.  It’s a solidly made issue with two fun (and clearly drawn, as you pointed out) action scenes built around an emotional centerpiece.  I suppose it’s a testament to how much I’ve liked the previous four issues that I was less impressed with an issue that holds together as well as this one does.

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:

Animal Man, Batgirl, Batman, Batwoman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Justice League, Nightwing, Swamp Thing, Wonder Woman, Batman and Robin

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