Drew: Gail Simone gets Barbara Gordon. I mean that both in that Simone understands Babs’ motivations and has a clear sense of her voice AND that she understands what makes her an interesting character. Early issues of Batgirl featured a fresh balance of uncertainty both under the cape (pertaining to PTSD and survivor’s guilt) and out of it (pertaining to the more pedestrian trappings of being an unemployed twenty-something looking for an apartment). More recent developments in this title (and Batman) have piled on a few more issues, from questioning the trust of Bruce Wayne to guilt over killing her own brother, which threatened to crowd out those elements I loved so much. Issue 22 finds both Simone and Babs taking a step back, separating the bat from the girl, and refocusing the story on Babs.
The issue picks up with Babs frantically preparing for her date with Ricky she forgot about until he showed up at her door. It’s a rough start for a first date, and things only get rougher when they’re rudely interrupted by some goons hoping to send a message to Ricky’s older brother. Babs and Ricky ably fend their attackers off, then head back to Ricky’s to have a Rockwell-esque dinner with his family. A trip to the dance club and a first kiss later, and you can almost feel the head-rush of a first date.
The next morning, Barbara’s father invites her to the police shooting range. Guns have long been a trigger for her PTSD, to the point that she worries that he might be interrogating her. It turns out, he just wanted to help her protect herself in case that Batgril menace comes around. It seems he has no inkling that she’s Batgirl.
Or does he? In the issue’s epilogue, Jim cold-cocks Batman, for, well, I guess he says it best:
He comes up just shy of saying Barbara’s name — leaving the vague possibility that he might just be lamenting Batman’s decision to take on some rando as his protege — but it sure seems like he knows what’s going on. It’s hard to ignore the way he emphasizes “son” in “It’s not just my SON in this story!” It would be easy to devote the entire write-up to this reveal, but since I’m not entirely sure how that will develop, let’s unpack some of what leads up to it.
That scene starts with Bruce offering his condolences for James Jr, allowing him to speak just vaguely enough about fathers surviving their sons to rip my heart out. We’ve seen plenty of stories detailing Batman’s grief over Damian, but very few have addressed Bruce’s grief. That is, we’ve seen Damian’s death pushing Batman on insane crimefighting benders and crackpot schemes of resurrection, but few have made that grief feel like something a normal person might recognize. Bruce trying to offer comfort Jim while still not being able to be fully honest with him is heartbreaking.
In spite of the strength of that scene, I think my favorite piece about this issue is the way it distances itself from all of the problems that have spilled over from Batman and Batman Incorporated. Those two titles have added so many problems to Barbara’s plate to make it difficult to find the through-line, but Simone does a beautiful job of wiping the slate clean and reexamining each component. The cover features Babs removing the bat symbol from her costume, and while the issue doesn’t feature any such action (and indeed, doesn’t show Babs in costume at all), it’s a beautiful metaphor for the way this issue moves to focus on the girl underneath that insignia.
Indeed, aside from the mugging, the date sequence is supremely relatable. It starts with some great awkwardness as the two put on airs — Ricky originally plans on taking Babs to the opera, and Babs puts the whole date on hold so that she can get ready. My favorite part of the issue has to be the banter between Babs and Alysia as she frantically tries to find something to wear.
It’s not a particularly groundbreaking scene — I’ve probably seen the likes of it hundreds of times — but Simone imbues it with enough detail to make it really sing. The line about her hair is a particular standout — and one that could have only been written by a redhead.
This is Simone’s Barbara at her finest — uncertain and awkward, but also distinctly charming and relatable. Between Death of the Family and guest spots, this feels like the first time in quite a while Simone has had the opportunity to stretch her wings like this. This issue felt like a huge return to form, and I can’t wait to see where Simone takes us next.
Patrick: Part of that “return to form” feeling is just that this issue isn’t grim as all get-out. The last year or so of the series has been tied up in some pretty grisly villains: Joker, James Jr., the Ventriloquist. I think Simone knows that the weight of all that darkness was making it hard to write series that had come so naturally to her before. This is hearsay, but Babs’ smart, funny, self-reflective voice over always felt like it naturally flowed out onto the page, like Simone was channeling Barbara Gordon, instead of writing her. But if Batgirl is always steeling herself against traumas past and presents, there’s just no room for that kind of levity.
That shooting-range sequence at the end of the issue is beautiful, and it states Simone’s intentions to let that darker shit go for a while. Babs might think that her father is playing some kind of twisted game with her, but he’s really just expressing his honest love and concern for his daughter. That’s a clear statement of priorities. In case it’s not clear enough, artist Fernando Pasarin goes one step further, giving Barbara the ability to kill her fears. I can’t help but read Jim’s “There’s nothing wrong with your aim” as a cool assertion that Simone still has what it takes to write this character, and write her well.
It’s all very comforting to feel that this series is back in capable, confident hands, slowing freeing itself from the baggage of other series. I wish I could say the same about the art, but Pasarin draws such strange faces that even Simone’s cutest exchanges look kind of stunted and ugly. And the gripe is so specific as to make me feel silly for registering it, but I do recoil a little at his faces and then actively push past it because the rest of the work is so good. Pasarin has a keen eye for staging and drama — the spread where they turn the tables on the muggers is wonderful — but there’s always a wonky face or two to yank me out of the action. Skulls are too narrow or eyes are too close together or mouths are puffy and weird.
I just wish I could get on board with the art the same way I can with the story. I’m so close to being able to re-invest in Batgirl, lock, stock and barrel, but this last little hurdle is holding me back.
Which is a damn shame – the series is wide open at this point. Is it even possible that Barbara won’t be putting on the costume anymore? It almost seems like we prefer to see her going out on the town in her civilian regalia at this point. But what would that mean for the future of the series? We spent so much time talking about who could be the new Robin, but should we also be starting the search for a new Batgirl? Or how about just a new identity for Barbara? Maybe we’re working towards some kind of able-bodied Oracle? It’s a very liberating set of possibilities, and even if we return to the status quo, and Jim’s force to hunt for his own daughter, the idea that these crazy shifts were on the table is enough to re-energize this character and this series.
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?