Today, Spencer and Patrick are discussing Batgirl 20, originally released May 15th, 2013.
Spencer: We expect our heroes to be there for us when we need them, but who’s there for our heroes when they need help? Batman turns to Alfred, Superman turns to Lois Lane, and Batgirl turns to…her psychiatrist? While Barbara isn’t the first superhero to see a shrink, it’s rare for one with a secret identity to do so. Babs is putting herself at risk, yet where else can she turn? The failure of Barbara’s support system couldn’t have come at a worse time; not only is she weighed down by guilt, she’s also facing the most frightening new villain to show her face in Gotham in years.
Our issue opens on young Shauna Belzer, a tortured outcast who takes out her frustrations by poisoning her classmates at a birthday party and possibly murdering a clown for his ventriloquist dummy. Nine years later, we find Shauna and her dummy, Ferdie, auditioning for a televised talent show; when she’s rejected, she snaps and kidnaps one of the judges. Meanwhile, Batgirl is still wallowing in guilt over her role in James Jr.’s “death,” declaring herself unworthy of the Bat insignia and purposely looking for trouble. Her path crosses with Shauna’s, but some overenthusiastic rent-a-cops distract Barbara just long enough for Shauna to get away. Feeling even lower, Babs goes to her psychologist, which only proves frustrating since she can’t be completely honest about the incident, although it does trigger a breakthrough in the case. Shauna, meanwhile, has decided if she can’t be famous, she can certainly be infamous, and she’ll start by killing Batgirl!
This is the first installment of a new storyline, and there’s a lot going on—I didn’t even go into the subplots—which on occasion makes the story feel a little cluttered. I have faith in writer Gail Simone to spin a chilling and profound story out of all these potential-filled ideas, but in the meantime, what stood out to me was simply how alone Batgirl seemed this issue.
It’s a depressing thought, since Barbara (as Oracle) used to be the hub of the DC Universe, but she’s actually quite isolated at the moment. Much of her supporting cast is either conspicuously absent this issue or busy with their own problems and goals, leaving Babs to deal with her guilt by herself. Who could she even turn to anyway? She can’t reveal her identity to her father or Alysia, her poor mother is probably even more bogged down in guilt than Barbara is, her relationship with Batman is strained, Nightwing and Black Canary are preoccupied; or are these simply excuses, and Batgirl is actually just isolating herself out of guilt?
So Barbara approaches her psychologist, Dr. Andrea Latemendi, but since she refuses to tell Latemendi her secrets, she isn’t much help. It’s heartbreaking to watch Babs condemn herself even as she refuses help, to watch her feel so guilty that she even worries that her psychologist will hate her.
I was almost screaming at her to reveal her secret identity and get some help already, but that could just open an entirely new can of worms. While psychologists are supposed to keep their patients’ lives secret, they are legally required to inform the authorities if they think a patient is a danger to themselves or others. Latemendi already knows Barbara is purposely getting into fights to punish herself, so it’s not a huge leap to make, especially if you add Batgirl into the equation. Even if she keeps Barbara’s secrets, there are still consequences; Latemendi could quite easily become a target for supervillains, for example. For better or for worse, though, it looks like there’s no going back; Latemendi is too suspicious now to let this rest.
Of course, the true centerpiece of this issue is the new Ventriloquist. First of all, everything you’ve read online is true: Shauna is terrifying.
She’s got a “The Ring” thing going on, and combining that with the always-creepy ventriloquist’s dummy is a horror home run. There’s always been a slight supernatural bent to the Ventriloquist anyway—writers loved to throw in hints that Scarface might be alive even if it wasn’t true—and Shauna’s apparent meta-human ability to control metal/electronics continues this tradition. Her eyes glow when she uses her ability, and Ferdie runs around on his own accord—it’s freaky stuff.
Still, in true Ventriloquist fashion she’s got a lot going on psychologically too. She appears to be suffering from some sort of eating disorder, sociopathy, dissociative identity disorder, and her meta-human ability could even be aggravating things. There’s almost too much going on with her; it’s hard to see how all these disparate conditions relate to each other. Of course, maybe that’s on me; maybe it’s wrong to expect some pat little explanation as to how someone got this unhinged. People’s psyches are usually more complicated than we like to believe. Still, I look forward to diving more into what makes Shauna tick, horrifying as that might be.
Beyond that, Shauna seems to be completely obsessed with becoming famous.
With the proliferation of reality TV and the ridiculous lengths people will go to be famous these days (hey, who remembers balloon boy?) this certainly rings as a scarily true motivation. Still, it hit me a little odd for Shauna. Why does she want to be famous? After seeing her childhood, I thought she would be out for revenge. Is she simply looking for the love and approval she never got from her peers? I’d feel bad for her if I wasn’t so absolutely horrified.
So, Patrick, what’s your take on the new Ventriloquist? Do you think Batgirl can get the help she needs to pull herself out of this funk? And what about the return of Knightfall, Ricky, and Commissioner Gordon? I’ll be busy sleeping with one eye open while you answer.
Patrick: Maybe this is just because I love revisionism, but I’m all about this new Ventriloquist. There’s nothing wrong with the old character, but a) Gotham’s big enough for two of them (we did see a Venomed-out version of Wesker and Scarface in that abysmal opening run of Batman: The Dark Knight) and b) Scarface is a little too dated to belong in modern Gotham. Your old-school, Jersey-style gangsters may have fit well in the Gotham of the 1980s and 90s (especially in B:TAS), but he’d just a be too anachronistic right now. There is almost a kitchen-sink approach to the kind of crazy Shauna is, but that’s an easier pill to swallow than Scarface’s magical semi-aliveness. Wasn’t Scarface supposed to be carved from a tree in Slaughter Swamp (the apparent source of all magic in Gotham)?
What is exciting about this new villain is the way Batgirl is reflected in her light. Just as Mirror represented her own survivor’s guilt in the first four issues, Shauna represents Babs’ fragile psychological state, as well as her total lack of control. I love the idea that the marionette is being controlled by meta-human means, and it just takes a little extra focus for Shauna to extend that control to other objects, making everyone and everything her inevitable puppet. The connection between the rogues and Batgirl had been a little tenuous of late — not to say that Joker, James Jr. and Firebug are inadequate baddies, just less telling of Babs’ own psychology.
And that psychology has gotten dark. You know it’s bad when Jim Gordon vows to hunt down his own little girl. That last panel is positively chilling, and upset me more than any murderous puppet in the previous 20 pages. Artists Daniel Sampere and Carlos Rodriguez draw a steelier Jim Gordon than we’ve been used to seeing lately – the strong jaw and sensible glasses replacing the weaker design we’ve seen in Batman. Plus, Blond’s colors are incredibly vivid. I’m sure I’ve complimented other panels that light their characters with police lights, but this one is so dynamic and exciting.
Hey, so what’s the deal with Cherry Hill? Babs made a specific point to move into one of the rougher neighborhoods and patrol it, but rather than play fast and loose with “the bad part of town,” Simone has named this particular area. Even when Joker made an appearance, he took Barbara Sr. to the Cherry Hill Skate Rink. In this issue, Shauna commits her crime in Cherry Hill, but then retreats out to the suburbs to consider her next move. The book is very explicit about this – as though the locations matter. Ricky’s also a resident of Cherry Hill and the page and a half or so featuring him are riddled with graffiti, drug deals and amputated limbs. Life in Cherry Hill may not be easy, but you get the sense that it’s important – at least important to the greater Batgirl narrative. Historically, Cherry Hill was a Manhattan neighborhood, plagued by Gangs of New York style crime and violence at the turn of the century. So the name is loaded, and I wonder just how deeply Simone intends on exploring what makes this area worth fighting for, and as a logical extension of that, what it means that Bruce Wayne’s Gotham City revitalization project will be coming through at some point. Plus, it seems like Simone’s got economic disparity on the brain lately, and I still recall seeing a building tagged with “Don’t Gentrify Gotham” in issue 5.
I know Simone’s been back on the title for a little while now, but this feels like the first true return-to-form for the character, the series and the writer. Seeing those old themes of crime and poverty woven into a conflict with a villain that reflects Babs’ own mind is magical, and it feels like coming home again.
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