Shane: When you’re working with some of fiction’s most iconic characters, there’s a lot of baggage to handle. Even DC’s New 52 initiative, designed to jettison most of that excess material, is several years old at this point: there’s history, and relationships, and these characters have already gone through a number of personal journeys. Continuity can be messy, so a fresh start can be appealing, but how does one attempt that without alienating the previous audience? And even if you manage to successfully jumpstart an ailing franchise with new energy, launching a first issue that exceeds expectations and captures interest, is it always so simple to maintain that momentum?
We may be only on the second issue of Brenden Fletcher, Cameron Stewart and Babs Tarr’s Batgirl (pseudo) relaunch, but it appears that for this creative team, their approach continues full speed ahead. With what can be generously called an “unusual” approach for DC comics, the creative team has departed from the typical doom-and-gloom of the Bat-franchise and injected a healthy dose of fun into the book, helping to capture headlines and an all new set of eyes. However, Batgirl was one of the most talked-about books of the New 52, launching with incredible numbers and keeping readership focus, both with well-crafted stories and, admittedly, a healthy dose of controversy. A new approach can be a great thing, but there can also be the worry that a total break into new territory might alienate the previous audience: and with estimated sales placing the book comfortably in DC’s midlist, those are readers they’d still want to keep. Fletcher and Stewart combat that concern by bringing Birds of Prey mainstay Black Canary into the book’s supporting cast, with a story hook that serves as a believable impetus for many of the changes the title has undergone.
With Dinah Lance still crashing on her couch after the fire, Barbara Gordon reintegrates herself into college life, with a radical thesis proposal involving social mapping that has suggestive implications for the title’s future. This helps to bring in several new members to Barbara’s supporting cast, including a hunky professor and a research assistant, Nadimah, who offers a solution to one of the issue’s major problems: after the events of last issue, Barbara’s laptop has been wiped clean — and with it, all of her schoolwork, including the algorithm essential to her thesis.
That last panel in particular is indicative of just how much effort the creative team is making to inject a level of realism to this title: I could so easily see my younger sister, who is Barbara’s age, bursting out into that level of exaggerated affection towards a complete stranger. I’ve probably done it myself, on occasion, and I’m not much older. It’s an example of how people really talk to each other, as opposed to typical comics dialogue that may flow great on the page, but often wouldn’t translate to real life.
The issue isn’t all college work and new friendships, of course: we’re in a superhero comic, and superhero action we shall get! The campus is terrorized by anime-inspired assassins on motorbikes, and during the course of Batgirl’s investigations, we’re treated to a couple of amazing battle scenes:
When was the last time you saw a battle sequence in comics this energetic? The layouts may be Stewart’s, but the linework is Tarr’s, and both contribute to just how lively the pages feel. And the colors! They’re all over the place: FAR from the usual dooms-and-glooms of the Bat-books, including previous issues of Batgirl. We’re in a new age, everyone. And it’s not just the art: it looks as if Fletcher and Stewart are leaning in to the recently repopularized model of “done in one” stories that build to a greater whole, instead of decompressed six issue story arcs. These motorbike assassins may be the threat of the day, but by taking them down, Barbara faces a stunning realization: these assassins were hired to kill Batgirl…by somebody claiming to be Batgirl! With this surprise joining the text message from last issue, the mystery of this second Batgirl appears to be one of the ongoing threads that binds these one-off adventures together.
It’s a fascinating plotline, but I’m maybe even more amused by another building subplot: the developing fame of Batgirl in Burnside. One of last issue’s antagonists remarked how unlikely it was for these costumed-types to cross the river, and now, we’re seeing all sorts of characters — including some of Barbara’s friends — fawn over Batgirl. There’s even a Facebook page. I’m really curious: has a character’s popularity over social media, the same way, say, Alex From Target recently became inexplicably popular, ever really been explored in comics? I can’t think of anything like that, especially not in the Bat-books: Drew, can you? Where do you think that’ll take us?
Drew: You know, I hadn’t really considered that the fans Stewart and Fletcher make a point of placing in the background throughout this issue might elevate Babs to some kind of internet stardom — I mean, what 20-something in this day and age doesn’t have a Facebook profile? — but I think you might be on to something. Ultimately, I’m on board for wherever Stewart takes this series next, and I have total faith that he’d handle it with the same grace we’ve already seen on this series.
Shane, you touch on a lot of what makes this series unique amongst DC’s output, and while I’m a big fan of the lighter tone and self-contained stories, I think my favorite thing about this series is just how dense each issue is. The typical DC comic averages about four to five panels per page, but this issue averages over nine panels per page, with eight and thirteen panels tying for most common panel count. That may seem like a trivial number, but the most recent issue of Batman didn’t have a single page with nine panels, or even eight panels. Indeed, while the feature of that Batman issue enjoys two more pages of space, it clocks in with 40% fewer panels than Batgirl 36. It’s no wonder this series is able to sew up stories in single issues while the rest of DC is mired in two- to twelve-issue arcs.
But again, those are just numbers. What counts is how Stewart and Tarr use those panels. Beyond simply cramming two pages worth of panels onto one page, the density lends the issue a formal structure which is actually surprisingly rare. With the exception of two sequences, every single page break coincides with a scene change. Or, put another way, aside from two sequences, every scene is exactly one page in length. Those exceptions? The issue’s two action sequences.
It’s tough to give a sample of the rhythm Stewart and Fletcher establish prior to these sequences — it’s effectively the result of reading several one-page scenes before they open things up for these fights — so instead, I’ll focus on the subtler page punctuations they accomplish within those fights.
The above example illustrates this a few times over. The previous page finds Babs flashing back to a cartoon she used to watch, looking for inspiration to stop these cartoon-themed baddies (shades of Batman: The Animated Series‘ “Beware the Grey Ghost”). The opening panel of this page puts that solution in her grasp, and the rest of the page finds her putting the plan in action, as well as the immediate fallout of Babs getting one of the bikes. The next page focuses on this new, “even” fight, ending with Babs ably braining the villains. The next page finds the baddies tied up, and is straight interrogation. That last one would probably qualify as a different scene, but even within the fight sequence, Stewart and Fletcher build the larger sequence out of smaller phrases.
Not to be outdone, colorist Maris Wicks and letterer Jared K Fletcher get in on the action, carefully deploying Babs’ chosen accent color of yellow to further break up the action. It really pops against the cool blues and purples of the warehouse setting, but it also works to tie everything back to Babs. The use of yellow-orange in that bottom right panel, for example, emphasizes Batgirl’s role in the action, even if she isn’t present in the shot.
But, for all of the form this issue has to dissect, the most charming part is definitely its sense of humor. Very few series from DC would end with the hero suffering embarrassment upon embarrassment in a kind of escalating farce (though, let’s be honest, few series from DC could fit a whole scene on one page, anyway), but it feels totally at home here. Honestly, I don’t know if I’m more interested in the adventures of Batgirl or Barbara Gordon, but at this point, I don’t think it matters — this series is clearly going to offer a satisfying dose of each every issue.
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?