Today, Mark and Michael are discussing Batgirl 40, originally released March 18th, 2015.
Mark: One of the seminal Batman stories, Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke, was released in March 1988, almost exactly 27 years ago. In that story, Barbara Gordon is shot by the Joker, paralyzing her and confining her to a wheelchair. The controversy spun out from Moore’s decision to use Barbara as a plot device has been defining her, for better and for worse, for almost three decades now.
I have sympathy for comic book writers. It has to be hard to balance respect for canon with the need to constantly create new stories. Too much disregard for history and you’ll alienate your audience, too much reverence and you risk stifling creativity. DC tried pretty valiantly with The New 52 to split the difference between honoring the old and building towards the new, but their solutions were usually messy at best. When it comes to reinventing a well-regarded character, there’s no way to please everyone. But with Batgirl 40, writers Brenden Fletcher and Cameron Stewart come pretty close.
While recently Batgirl‘s villain-of-the-month formula has seemed only loosely serialized, Batgirl 40 reveals all of the events since Fletcher and Stewart took over to be the mechanizations of Barbara’s missing sentient algorithm. This Digital Babs views flesh-and-blood Barbara as an impostor to be destroyed, going so far at one point as to even try and erase Barbara’s brain and rewrite it with the digital version. And why wouldn’t it? The algorithm is programmed to be a perfect digital replica of Barbara Gordon, so naturally it would register flesh-and-blood Barbara as an interloper.
Digital Babs sees herself as the savior of Burnside and plans to systematically eliminate every perceived threat, including Batgirl’s friends, using satellites and targeted drones. If this all feels a little reminiscent of Captain America: The Winter Soldier‘s third act, well, it’s not like that was a wholly original idea to begin with. Plus, I have to believe Fletcher and Stewart are presenting it with tongue firmly planted in cheek, since there’s nothing overwhelmingly menacing about this:
In the end, Batgirl is able to defeat Digital Babs with the help of her friends, and a little bit of ol’ computer defeating logic.
This is an issue all about confronting past versions of ourselves, and it’s all a pretty explicit commentary on the Barbara Gordon that was versus the Barbara Gordon that will be going forward. During her speech to Digital Babs, Barbara lays it all out there: “I know you’re angry. I was, too. But I’ve grown since then. I’ve moved on, made friends and had time to heal. I’m past all the darkness.”
In our discussion of Batgirl 39, Spencer talked about how this is a different Barbara Gordon than we’re used to. For my entire comics reading life, Barbara has been defined by the events of The Killing Joke. If the story is to be believed, supposedly The Killing Joke editor Len Wein, after discussing it with DC Executive Editor Dick Giordano, gave Moore approval for the Joker to shoot Barbara Gordon by telling him, “Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.” And while I’m willing to give Wein the benefit of the doubt, those words come across as incredibly callous and gross. In more recent interviews, Moore has expressed regret over the decision.
In the end, was it a mistake? Maybe she started out as a way to make lemonade out of comic book lemons, but there’s no denying Oracle was a strong, beloved character in her own right. Yet for my money, relaunched Batgirl, like much of The New 52, was a Frankenstein’s Monster of parts that didn’t really fit together. Trying to make the events of The Killing Joke co-exist with DC’s editorial desire to have Barbara Gordon as Batgirl again always felt forced and just a bit off.
Now we’re at another crossroads for Babs, and I’m happy to see that after almost 30 years Barbara Gordon is ready for a new era, one that is no longer defined by Alan Moore’s decision. I feel like Fletcher and Stewart have done a strong job here of honoring Batgirl’s past, but repositioning her for the future. It’s a conscious pivot, and one that probably should have happened back with the launch of The New 52.
On a technical level, the artwork in this issue (as is now standard for the series) is on point. Art goes such a long way in setting the tone for a book, and it’s easy to see how, even with Fletcher and Stewart’s more deft touch, without Babs Tarr’s pencils and Maris Wick’s colors, Batgirl could still be a more brooding affair. On all fronts, this a new era for Batgirl.
Michael, how do you feel about this new era for Barbara Gordon? What about Frankie being set up as the new Oracle? And will you be following Black Canary into her new series?
Michael: I’ve mentioned this in past write-ups, but Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher’s Batgirl is unquestionably a story about putting the dark past to rest and embracing the bright future. All due respect to Gail Simone, but for my money, Batgirl’s New 52 adventures could have begun with Batgirl 35. The conversation about The Killing Joke and its relationship to Barbara Gordon in particular is one that has been going on for the past 27 years. Due to the recent Batgirl 41 variant cover controversy, that conversation has been once again reignited. There are a lot of complicated feelings when it comes to The Killing Joke. It’s one of the greatest Batman stories ever told and arguably the greatest Joker story ever told. It also unintentionally paved the way for Barbara Gordon to become the Oracle we all knew and loved. BUT it is also hands-down a shameful example of “Women in Refrigerators Syndrome,” so, if nothing else, it’s a learning tool for comics fans and creators. And Batgirl 40 is proof that Fletcher and Stewart have indeed learned from their predecessors’ mistakes.
As Mark mentioned, upon first glance it seemed that all of Barbara’s Burnside adventures were “one and done” types of capers. One thing they all had in common however was the theme of identity; many times juxtaposed against the backdrop of social media. Batgirl 40 takes that theme to the next level with Barbara almost very literally fighting herself/her past. Not only is the past (Digital Babs) coming back to haunt her, it is trying to outright take over her life. Given the fact that Digital Babs can so effortlessly stand in for Oracle/pre-New 52 Babs, I think that it is very easy to feel sympathy for the malevolent algorithm; at least for me anyways. I mean, clearly she is an evil computer that is hell-bent on destroying Burnside, but from her perspective her life is being taken over as well. I thought that it was a very nice touch by Babs Tarr that we got to go “inside the mind” of Digital Babs, seeing events as she perceived them in her human form.
Unfortunately, this storytelling technique (and much of the Digital Babs plot) originated in Secret Origins 10 — essentially a “missing chapter” of this story. And though it is ultimately Frankie who disarms the satellites, I’d like to believe that the “human” part of Digital Babs is truly at a loss for what to do when real Babs poses the conundrum “The only way to save Gotham is to destroy yourself.” For the most part this algorithm is Barbara Gordon, so I have faith that she was really feeling those conflicting emotions. (Or 1’s and 0’s; whatever the case may be.)
Another thing that Mark pointed out was how Digital Babs’ plan was very similar to films like Captain America: The Winter Soldier etc. Another strange cliché I noticed in the climax of Batgirl 40 was how Digital Babs came on the jumbo-tron at the concert and devolved into a grotesque monster version of herself. I know that this kind of transformation reveal has happened a lot in pop culture — I wanna say The Little Mermaid? Anyways, I found this to be weird to have this sudden transformation for Digital Babs, mostly because the effect is entirely on the reader; the audience at the concert has absolutely no idea what in the hell is going on.
I have been quite pleased with Fletcher and Stewart’s Batgirl inclusion of Black Canary. Seeing her rock out onstage and use her canary cry to take out those hooq drones was a delight. I think that I read the first issue of Birds of Prey when The New 52 started, but clearly wasn’t very impressed. That being said, I will be interested to see what Fletcher has in store for Dinah Lance in her new Black Canary ongoing. On the flip side, I wasn’t a big fan of how Batgirl 40 ended with a “Follow Dinah to Black Canary 1!” I honestly thought that there was a page missing; what kind of ending is that?? Here I was waiting for someone — ANYONE to say the word “Oracle”, and then the issue just ends. While that was kind of a letdown, Batgirl 40 was an overall success. I loved Babs Tarr’s dynamic sequence of Batgirl’s takedown of Riot Black; she was blowing off some serious steam there. I’m pleased with the positive, upward motion that Batgirl is taking, and am curious what Fletcher and Stewart have planned post-Convergence for Barbara Gordon.
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