Today, Drew and (special guest writer) Hesper Juhnke are discussing Batgirl 0, originally released September 12, 2012. Batgirl 0 is part of the line-wide Zero Month.
Drew: Batgirl is pretty unique among the New 52. Where most titles opted to return to an earlier time the the characters’ history or just plow ahead like the reboot never happened, Batgirl 1 found Babs in a very different position than when we last saw her, throwing a big question mark over her past in the DCnU. It quickly became clear that at least some of what we know is true, but writer Gail Simone cleverly left just enough out to make her past a tantalizing mystery she could tease out as the series progressed. The thought of a zero issue was bittersweet, then, as my desire to know more about Barbara’s past came into direct conflict with my desire to see these answers slowly revealed in the series proper. Simone cleverly side-steps this issue by avoiding those question marks altogether, effectively broadening the mystery by introducing new unknowns.
The issue begins four years ago where Babs has strong-armed her dad into giving her and James Jr. a tour of GCPD, ostensibly for her Intro to Criminology course. What she’s really after is information about the mysterious Batman. The police have handily made a mock-up of his suit to demonstrate that he’s not super-human, he just has a lot of neat gadgets. Just then, a group of cultists blasts into the police department to free their leader/human trafficker/disgusting name for a porn star Harry X. Babs and James are separated from the rest of the cops, and Harry comes after them in hopes of gathering hostages. A cop comes to their rescue, but Harry proceeds to beat him within an inch of his life. Babs dons the Batsuit mock-up, and stops Harry, garnering approval from Batman, who conveniently showed up in time to do absolutely nothing. Babs spins that approval into a year of sidekicking with Batman and Robin before calling it quits to lead a normal life. She sheds her cape, becoming an all-around normal student until she gets that fateful knock on her door.
The story is relatively straightforward, but Simone brilliantly weaves a ton of fascinating details into the proceedings. Harry X refers to James Jr. as an abomination, implying that his sociopathy was clear even then. To be fair, James acts like a little creeper the whole issue, and it’s pretty clear that he shot Harry in cold blood while nobody was looking, so it may be everybody else’s fault for not seeing it. Babs does acknowledge that he’s drawn to darkness, but equates it with that of her and her father’s, calling them all “twisted moths” that “can’t stay away from the darkness.” That line is repeated later in the issue, this time referring to Batman and Robin — her surrogate family.
Simone doesn’t overemphasize that point, letting that simple repetition do most of the heavy lifting. There’s also a parallel between her initial hero worship of her father and the awe she feels when she sees Batman, but again, it’s remarkably understated. That subtlety leaves Barbara’s eventual decision to hang up the cape a wonderful ambiguity — could she feel guilty for abandoning her family for the thrills offered by being Batgirl? Simone offers that Babs was done with darkness — even if it wasn’t done with her — but there are clearly other factors at play, including an unnamed mistake that Babs tells us is a “story for another time.”
This kind of coyness demonstrates Simone’s command of the narrative details here. The issue starts out feeling like standard prequel faire, foreshadowing events we already know will transpire in a black hole of dramatic irony. Simone expertly sets up our expectations, only to surprise us with details of Barbara’s life we didn’t know about. After zigging away from what we know, Simone zags back right at the end to show us how dramatic irony is done.
We all know what’s behind that door, but what happens between then and now is still a mystery. Artist Ed Benes deserves a lot of credit for communicating this last bit of ironic suspense so cleanly. In a few wordless panels, Benes is able to orient us in time. Yellow shirt, cup of coffee, knock at the door. We know what these things mean, giving Barbara’s glance a knowing quality. Simone mitigates the inherent voyeurism here by putting us in Barbara’s head for so much of the issue, making the events feel more like her memories. In this way, that stare becomes an emphasis she herself puts on these events, fateful moments that define who she is.
I also loved Barbara’s costume in this issue — not so much because of the costume itself, but because of why she would change it. The fact that she exchanged her mask and kevlar get-up for something with a little more armor speaks to her insecurity, or at least her acknowledgement that her own life is fragile. That change in attitude emphasizes the riskiness of her actions in this book, reminding us of her immature sense of immortality. When combined with the concepts of family versus surrogate family, this establishes Babs as a young woman still finding her path. In addition to making her more relatable to someone approximately her age (or anyone who has ever been her age), it’s a strong choice for her character, so praise once again belongs to Simone’s mastery of Barbara’s voice.
With that in mind, I’d like to introduce guest writer Hesper Juhnke, who also happens to be a twenty-something female. Hesper, did the themes surrogate families and fatalism speak to you? Do you find Babs as relatable as I always seem to?
Hesper: My journey with the comic book world essentially began with the New 52. As a marketing tool, starting from “the beginning” is a great place to, well, begin. From the start, Batgirl was one of my favorite characters and I jumped at the opportunity to write about her #0 Issue. She was tough, she had attitude, but she was also humble enough to be good at what she does. Like Batman, she was strong in her convictions, but had a dark past that still made her question her strength and search for her courage instead of expect it. I like humility in a hero, almost as much as I like really gnarly bad guys. So I was shocked to see the over-confident Babs in her days pre-wheelchair. Like Drew mentioned, this is Babs is living with her “immature sense of immortality.” Sure, I get it, she’s still youthful, but as a fellow college-aged female 20 something I feel like it was drawn on a little thick. Artist Ed Benes made a pretty clear choice to introduce her as the innocent young girl, complete with a teddy bear, heart studded belly shirt, and full on daddy-is-my-hero complex.
The constant references to her being so “weird,” yet her all-too-present sex appeal and short skirt sometimes made me feel like I was seeing a clip from “She’s All That”: brainy, not-so-secretly-sexy geek turned cool once she found where she truly belonged. Maybe it’s the feminist in me grumbling, but I always felt that the slightly shy, modestly dressed (as much as you can be in a comic book) Babs that I met in later issues was a really appealing character.
That being said, I quickly shed my grumbling once the action began. As soon as she started to interact with Harry X, I got too excited about the plot to really worry about anything else. This is often my problem: I enjoy the stories so much that it is difficult for me to be analytical. And if the story’s no good, I have no patience for it at all. Finally, Babs was in a situation out of her control and she had to channel her inner strength to fight back. Drew, I liked what you said about her costume changes and references to real vs. surrogate families. I do think she makes some pretty clear changes in this issue, changes back to the Babs I know and like. She sheds her sexy school girl skirt for sensible jeans, and finds the self-control to work with Batman.
There were a few things in this issue that confused me that I wanted to mention. As a fairly recent newcomer to the comic book world I am always playing the game of what-am I-supposed-to-know vs. what-is-supposed-to-leave-us-wondering. I’m finding that I usually assume the latter, which sometimes gets me frustrated as a reader. I started with the New 52, which I was told was the chance for new people to get involved, yet I never felt quite at home. While there are some supposedly consistent histories, there are also many parallel story lines that happened/maybe happened/could have happened. This concept was really hard for me to swallow when I first began, realizing that what I read was not always necessarily a truth in the comic book world, and could be refuted in another, parallel story.
That came up in this issue several times, adding to my confusion and ultimately taking away some enjoyment from the plot. For example, no, I did not realize James becomes a sociopath, so his creeper actions were just confusing. I also did not realize that he shot Harry X, and was a little confused by the reference. I recognized that we were supposed to know who shot him, but my ignorance left me puzzled. While I began reading Batgirl when the New 52 came out, I have fallen behind and wasn’t sure how much is revealed later. It is always good to hear people talk about the past histories, so now that you filled me in on James’ sordid future I am a little more willing to take it in stride. I recognize that these intertwining stories and vague references are part of what makes an interesting, compelling story for consistent readers. Still, I think it’s interesting to note that things like this leave a newcomer feeling a little uneasy.
Overall, I really enjoyed this issue. Babs’ fascination with Batman and subsequent discovery of the bat-potential in herself was exciting, and I always like to see her fight hulking bad guys. It was exciting to feel her awe when the real Batman turned up, apparently her first time laying eyes on him. It lays nice groundwork for her difficult family issues, and parallel father figures. Mostly, it makes me want to begin reading Batgirl again. And that is point, right?
Hesper Juhnke is a masters student at Lesley University studying Expressive Arts Therapy. She lives in Boston, enjoys long walks on the beach and reading the occasional comic book.
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