Today, Patrick and Shelby are discussing Batgirl 17, originally released February 13th, 2013.
Patrick: Like 20 minutes into the movie Fight Club, Ed Norton’s character meets Brad Pitt’s character for the first time. [I’m about to spoil Fight Club – heads up.] Prior to this point, there’s almost non-stop voice over from Norton’s character, prattling on about life, work, commercialism, phonies, etc. But the second Pitt’s Tyler Durden is introduced, the voice over goes away and the two men have a conversation — the irony, of course, being that they’re the same person, so he’s kinda still talking to himself. But the effect of losing that trusty, comfortable narration is jarring, setting up this scene as a Scene That Matters. Batgirl 17 robs us of a similar comfort as it delves deeper into the broken Gordon family.
Both Barbara and Jim Gordon have been receiving mysterious emails tipping them off as to the identities of Joker’s henchmen. It’s unclear what, exactly, Barbara was going to do with that information, other than monitor the police scanner and pay a little extra attention while they clean up the mess. Gordon, on the other hand, goes in to full-on bad-ass mode and mobilizes the department to take down every single one of these guys, partially because his son, James Jr., is on that list. James has been messing with the rest of the family too: stopping by to tease his mother about her missing finger and using that same missing finger to place an ambiguously threatening phone call to his sister. A little shaken, but still okay, Batgirl goes out to help the cops apprehend some of the Joker riff-raff. The paddywagon (it doesn’t count as racist if I’m named “Patrick,” and I am) is blown up by a rocket-launcher-toting baddie calling himself Firebug, and Batgirl engages him in fisticuffs! Creepily, James, Jr. seems to have been watching — and narrating — the whole time.
Elephant in the room: Gail Simone didn’t write this issue. All us Retcon Punchers cried foul a few months ago when she was taken off writing Batgirl. I know Simone has a large following, and has been credited with amazing runs on Secret Six and Birds of Prey (among others), but I’ve only ever known her as The Writer Who Could Channel Barbara Gordon. The voice is so clean and smart and funny and strong, how could anyone else hope to do it justice? Ray Fawkes knows that those are impossible shoes to fill, so he’s changed the DNA of the series for his two-issue stint. We no longer get running commentary from Babs in the form of her voice-over boxes, now the commentary comes from her psychotic brother. The change in writer literally brings about a change in the perspective, both in within the narrative and from the outside.
Fawkes hedges his bets against detractors by delving back into the family’s — and by extension, the series’ — history. There are a lot of little moving pieces in this issue, including a masks-off meeting between Babs and Ricky (the kind of meet-up he was asking for in the Valentine’s Day Special… but not quite ending the way he wanted it to). But all of the lose threads all come from the spool that Gail Simone started spinning over a year ago. Fawkes may have staked out his own style in James Jr.’s verbose, eloquent narration, but he’s holding on true to the world of Batgirl.
That means he’s got a lot of good Batman-style stuff and a lot of good Gordon-family stuff. Like James using his mother’s finger to dial the phone. That is fucked up, but it’s menacing and consistent with everything I fear about that character. I also love this drawing of James sitting on the edge of the bed, dialing the phone in the dark – it draws clear parallels to the iconic image of his father sitting on the edge of the bed in Batman: Year One. I don’t know what it means, other than to remind us that they are, in some ways, similar creatures.
My favorite sequence in the issue through, is straight-up Batman-y. Babs swoops in to take out the Joker henchmen that are mere seconds away from killing some cops. But instead of staging the beat-em-up action as a coreographed action sequence, the violence all happens on the other side of a closed door. The reader sits outside with the cops with nothing but the sound effects — and our imagination — to tell us what actually happened in there.
If the issue suffers from anything — other than inevitable comparisons to Simone’s series — it’s that there’s too much stuff going on here and it’s not clear how it all connects. Even though I like all the creepy little James, Jr. moments, I’m not sure how he fits in with the Joker henchmen. Further, what’s up with Firebug? Does James have anything to do with him or is he just another costumed weirdo in Gotham? And either way, why’s he blowing stuff up? Is he targeting the police? The Joker dudes? It’s a dark issue with more than its fair share of questions, with none of Barbara’s wit to lighten the mood.
Shelby, how’s this series read to you without the strong female voice? Do you think that’s intentional? We saw Fawkes write Batgirl VO just last week, so we know he can do it. The unsettling effect of supplanting her narration with her brother’s is striking – but does it make you want to read more?
Shelby: It does make me want to read more, if for no other reason than to see where Fawkes is going with this. I think the change of tone was a smart move on Fawkes’ part; I’m also glad this is only going to be a two-issue run, because I don’t think I’d want to read much more from the POV of James Gordon, Jr. The James-as-narrator reveal is actually pretty unsettling. It’s obvious from the start that Babs is not narrating the issue; I wrote it off as “omniscient, absent third-party” and thought nothing more of it. But to then find out that not only is James directing the story I’m reading, all the scenes we see of Babs at work are through his eyes, I instantly felt uncomfortably like a voyeur, on top of the realization I was following along through the eyes of a psychopath.
I will definitely agree with you that there is too much going on in this issue, to the point that I actually interpreted parts of the story very differently. I thought it was Babs who figured out the Joker henchmen stuff, and sent it to Jim so he could do something about it. You know, since she’s got the magic memory that can see through clown paint and all that. I also did not realize James was using his mother’s severed finger to place a phone call.
I think I was distracted by how weirdly sweaty he is, which begs the question: how did he get his mother’s finger? I assumed it was reattached, and the last interaction we saw between James and his mother was him looming menacingly over her bed. Did he cut off her finger again? Was it really strenuous, is that why he’s so sweaty? Does he have to be so happy about it?
Daniel Sampere is on pencils duty this issue, and he does a more than fine job. He’s got a gritty, noir sort of feel to his work, which is well suited to the darkness of this particular story. Sampere has a way with faces and eyes especially; his closeups are so expressive.
That’s a beautiful image that conveys through Babs’ eyes only the shock and confusion she’s feeling. More importantly, though, it’s panels like these that really highlight the fact that we never see James’ eyes. There’s always a glare, a reflection, something bouncing off the lenses of his glasses that keeps us from really seeing him. As a long-time glasses wearer, I can personally attest that, while there is often a glare or something on my glasses, never are my eyes completely obscured one hundred percent of the time. His mask is more efficient than Barbara’s when it comes to hiding his identity. Honestly, that might be ok; I think there’s a pretty good chance I don’t want to actually see what’s in James Gordon, Jr’s eyes.
Batgirl’s involvement in Death of the Family has been great fun, no doubt, but I’m looking forward to letting her just be herself for a while. I want to see her get back on her feet and fight her own fights, not have to deal with whatever MASSIVE CRISIS Batman is currently facing. Having James as her primary big-bad means that I get to continue with my upsetting, unsettling stories while getting Babs back to her old self at the same time. I’m very excited to see how this arc will go; the James story has been cooking on the back burner for quite some time, and I’ve got a sneaking suspicion things are starting to boil over.For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?