Drew: Referring to the setting of a story as a character has always irked me. Never mind that it’s a total cliche, but it’s almost invariably applied as a shorthand for a sense of place we all recognize that the story relies on as a crutch. In that way, I suppose settings are used as characters, but they’re stock characters, no more remarkable than, say, “high school jock” or “loose cannon cop.” The genericness of locations-as-characters only becomes more exaggerated in the fictional cities of comics, which have seen just as many interpretations over the years as the heroes that occupy them. When Gotham has been interpreted as everything from gothic to neo-gothic to art deco to just straight-up modern, and from post-apocalyptic to post-corruption, it’s impossible to generate any sense of setting without elaborating on this particular interpretation of the city. Fortunately, Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher do just that as they take the helm of Batgirl, lending specificity to their Gotham by, of all things, co-opting the stock character of Brooklyn.
Babs is moving to the “hip” part of Gotham to be closer to her studies. The change ends up being a bit more than she bargained for, as a fire at Black Canary’s safehouse robs Babs of all of her crime-fighting equipment. I’ll stop right here to highlight what a clever move this is on Stewart and Fletcher’s part. Taking a series in a new direction can always be a little awkward, especially when taking over for as big of a name as Gail Simone. This issue manages a clean break without disregarding Simone’s work (incineration of everything notwithstanding), setting up a run that is unburdened by, but still respectful, of the past.
The fire is doubly clever for the way it de-powers Babs. Conversations about over-powered superheroes tend to focus on heavy-hitters like Superman or The Flash, but I actually think it makes sense to knock the bat family down a few pegs. Batgirl, at least in the New 52, has never been as tech-dependent as some of her counterparts, but taking her back to zero establishes her as a decidedly street-level hero, which obviously starts with her brand-new, cobbled-together-from-some-vintage-shops-and-yellow-fabric-paint costume.
She’s also fighting decidedly more street-level baddies. While the issue’s antagonist ends up being a supervillain of sorts, he pops up on her radar for the decidedly earth-bound offenses of stealing electronics and leaking private information. His computer-augmented brain is actually a pretty clever match for Batgirl’s greatest asset: her photographic memory. It’s easy for that particular skill to be overlooked in favor of more dynamic action, but artist Babs Tarr (based on breakdowns by Stewart) is able to bring it to vivd life in some Sherlock-inspired sequences.
Of course, for all of that highlighting of her skill-set, this is a decidedly unfamiliar Barbara Gordon. Acts like drinking too much at a party and making out with a random guy feel decidedly unlike previous button-down interpretations of the character. That sounds like a condemnation, but I actually like it quite a bit — it makes Babs feel a bit more relatable and allows her to better fit with her setting.
As I suggested in the introduction, I think Stewart and Fletcher’s decision to set this series in Burnside — Gotham’s obvious Brooklyn analogue — is brilliant. I have no particular fondness for stories set in Brooklyn (seriously, don’t get me started on Girls), but I think the specificity does this issue a great deal of good. Having a better sense of setting gives us a feel for what this party is like (as if all of the haircuts and tattoos couldn’t have told us), or even the feel of the coffeeshop Babs visits at the start of the issue. The Brooklyn-like setting also makes this series’ debt to Hawkeye a little more explicit — it’s a street-level approach to a character newly focused on her community that just happens to be set across the river from the super-powered action of that universe’s major metropolis. Again, I’m not complaining — I love Hawkeye, and think DC would do well to replicate the tone in more titles.
The other key element of this issue, perhaps also cribbed from Hawkeye, is it’s self-contained story. This issue is downright full of event, throwing Babs several small conflicts before she finally gathers enough info to face off against the big bad. In spite of all of the plotting, there’s actually several moments of emotional honesty, both between Babs and Dinah and Babs and her new roommate, Frankie. Part of how this issue pulls it off is a remarkably high panel count — seriously, there’s not a splash page in the whole issue — but I think a bigger part is how much time it spends with Babs out-of-costume. Having her work the case in her civvies gives her a chance to bounce off her supporting cast in a way that doesn’t make as much sense if she was Batgirled-out, giving the issue more opportunity for actual character moments. This obviously works best when she has a personal investment in the case, but Stewart and Fletcher have already teased a similarly Babs-focused case for next month, so I’m not worried.
Spencer, I was looking forward to this issue, but I didn’t expect to enjoy it quite this much. Are you happy with the new setting? The more street-level action? The emphasis on Barbara Gordon over Batgirl? All of this works for me like gangbusters. You’re a Hawkeye fan, too, so I’m curious if you found this right up your alley, or if you maybe saw it as a little derivative.
Spencer: Actually, Drew, I didn’t even notice the similarities to Hawkeye until you pointed them out. Of course, now I can’t unsee them, but no, I don’t find Batgirl derivative; it doesn’t copy the plot or characters of Hawkeye, only some of the storytelling techniques, and I’m never going to complain about excellent storytelling.
One of the best storytelling tools in Stewart and Tarr’s arsenal — as you touched upon, Drew — is the amount of panels they can fit onto a page. I hate to keep bringing up Hawkeye, but Stewart and Tarr are on par with the fabulous David Aja in not only panel-count, but in how much detail they can fit into each panel without it feeling cluttered. It’s not only gorgeous, but also informative, as the detail helps to flesh out Burnside and the rest of Barbara’s new stomping grounds.
Anyway, there’s absolutely no way I can deny that this is an excellent issue — and the more I read it, the more I like it — but at the same time, I still had a few minor problems with it. Drew, you mentioned that this was a clean break from Simone’s run, and in some ways this is true (and I agree with you that destroying Babs’ van is an incredibly clever way to bring her down to true street-level), but I actually wish it had been a bit more of a clean break, because Stewart and Fletcher reference elements of her run just often enough to remind me of how they don’t match up.
For example, Simone’s run ended with Babs and Alysia essentially deciding to cut their losses, move away, and start over together, while issue 35 begins with Babs moving out and leaving Alysia behind and Alysia being bummed about it; I’m glad Alysia is still in the cast, but the jarring transition from Babs and her starting over together to Alysia being left behind makes the first few pages of this issue come across as a little cruel. Actually, Barbara’s interactions with Dinah are also kinda cruel, albeit in an unintentional way:
Admittedly this is only a first issue and just her introduction to the cast, but so far Black Canary feels misused. Potentially I love the idea of Dinah being a part of Batgirl’s supporting cast — especially with no title to call her own at the moment — but so far she’s just been grumpy, put-upon, and sidelined, a far cry from the competent, take-charge woman we all know her as. I hope she gets more to do in the future.
There’s one last element of the issue I want to address, and that’s its use of modern technology, especially apps. In many ways I think it’s one of the issue’s greatest successes. The characters in Batgirl use technology the same way most of us use it (especially us younger people): casually, yet almost constantly. The majority of Babs’ detective-work is done via social networking, representing some of their many upsides, but Riot Black also represents their many dangers; he’s clearly the kind of vile internet douchebag we all rally against (he even sends Alysia a dick-pic when she attacks his organization), but his shtick is all based around the very real, very scary threat of our online privacy being violated. From Target losing credit card numbers to hackers releasing private photos of Jennifer Lawrence and other celebrities, issues of privacy are all over the news, and it makes Riot Black quite a timely villain.
That said, I also think all this focus on technology could end up working against Batgirl as well. Babs taking down Black with Snapchat and a QR code strikes me as cute and clever, but its just a hair’s breadth from being silly; meanwhile, Black Book’s persona is absolutely ridiculous.
How do you talk in hashtags anyway? Black personifies all the worst parts of internet culture — later on this same page he even calls Batgirl “bae” — and while I suppose his over-the-top nature could be the whole point of his character (he does seem to represent society’s fears about the internet, after all), it’s still a little rough to get through.
To be honest, I’m just worried about how this is all going to age. Obviously the internet isn’t going away anytime soon and neither are people’s fears about privacy, but Instagram and Tinder and Snapchat and all the other specific apps referenced in this issue could become outdated tomorrow. Are we going to look back at this issue in ten years and groan at the references? Are we going to look back on that QR code the way we look back on Superman’s mullet today? I guess the question we have to ask is if it’s better for a story to be timely or timeless; the creative team has obviously chosen the former and so far it’s working for Batgirl. I guess only time will tell if it’s the right choice.
Despite all my criticism, I did generally like this issue, and I think Barbara’s new direction has a lot of potential, especially once Stewart and Fletcher have time to do more with Dinah and other under-explored aspects. This isn’t exactly the Barbara Gordon I’m used to, but between their references to Barbara’s past (such as her photographic memory and Babs having met Frankie in physio) and the admittance that some of her actions are a little out-of-character, I have faith that Stewart, Fletcher and Tarr respect who Babs is and have put a lot of thought into mapping out her future, and I’m interested in seeing where they take her next.
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