Today, Ryan M. and Spencer are discussing Batgirl 44, originally released September 23rd, 2015.
Ryan: When we’re children, it is clear to whom we owe obedience. We must do what our parents, teachers, coaches, pastors tell us. Part of growing up is learning to choose who deserves that kind of subservience. Certainly, in adult relationships a certain amount of respect is shown by listening and acting in accordance with someone else’s wants. But what about those in our adult lives who request blind and total acquiescence? Should we bend to their whims and deny our own? Also, what kind of person would expect us to? The Velvet Tiger and Batgirl don’t have much in common, but they both have an expectation of obedience. They are each in a leadership position and expect their employees to curb their own ambitions and curtail their own desires. The Velvet Tiger is looking for fealty and unwavering loyalty, while Batgirl’s exerts her authority in a paternalistic effort of protection.
In order to punish former employees who left to further their careers, The Velvet Tiger had them torn apart by tigers. As her former boyfriend put it, “she’d fly into a rage if she thought someone wasn’t obeying her to the letter.” An antagonist can be used to reflect a darker version of our hero. In this case, Babs chooses to keep Frankie out of the limelight despite Frankie’s desire to go into the field. She expects Frankie to obey her commands and to follow orders. The Velvet Tiger’s rage may foreshadow the anger that Barbara will have to work through once she knows what we do: that Frankie is already operating outside Batgirl’s purview and has established tech to get herself on the street even if she is left behind.
Barbara’s flashbacks are lit like a memory playing across a computer screen. Artist Bengal and colorist Serge Lapointe make this explicit when Babs looks up information on on the owner of the mysterious company that employed the victims in the past. The glow of the monitor and the color palette of the screen matches the subsequent panel, a memory of a hallway conversation with clues as to Lani’s University connection. The brightness of the screen creates a halo effect and a haziness surrounds the image of Lani Gilbert aka The Velvet Tiger. The same blue tiny and halo effect follows into the next panel. Using specific markers to denote a change in time helps with understanding, and this choice works on an additional level. It sets up Bab’s mind as its own kind of supercomputer. She recalls video files like the results of an internal search engine.
The least cartoon-ish aspect of the issue is the tigers. Rather than the wide-eyed, exaggerated figures and outsized expression of the other living things in the world, the tiger is a realistic rendering of the dangerous and deadly animal. When one of the tigers licks his lips while staring at a dangling Jo, it is legitimately scary. It can be easy to forget that Batgirl is a human girl, but when faced with a tiger, her skinny body and lack of superpowers become concerning. That said, Babs disposes of both tigers with a grace that travels through an entire page. When Barbara fights the tiger, it is very smooth. The weight of the tiger and his movements are tracked from one panel to another. There is a longer shot of the tiger that tracks its somersault into his co-tiger, interspersed with close up images showing us Barbara loading and shooting the dart gun. The final panel of the tigers shows them sleeping on the ground.
In addition to facing down a pair of tigers, Babs also gets bolder in her flirtation with Luke. She is flirty — hip cocked, head tilted to the side, practically begging him to kiss her. Then he does. Until the coffee date, Babs spends the issue in serious Batgirl mode. She is focused on finding her missing friend and stopping the threat of murderous tigers as well as dealing with insubordinate tech support. She is finally able to relax a bit and the art reflects this looser version of Barbara Gordon. She peeks coquettishly from beneath her hair and once-squared hips and shoulders slide around, making her seem to be posing in each successive panel. The side eyes that Luke and Babs give each other are adorable and so playful compared to their no-nonsense attitudes while investigating.
Frankie’s demonstration in the final page of the issue sets up what could be a more complex confrontation than the one in the center of the issue. Babs refuses to allow Frankie to participate in the crime-fighting in an active way. She explains to Luke that it is about trust, but the truth is no one would be a vigilante if they waited for permission. It’s not safe for any human to put on a cape and fight crazed criminals. Luke gets this but Babs wants to believe that she can stop Frankie before she gets hurt. We know that it is too late, but it will be interesting to see how Babs handles it. Hopefully, she is a bit kinder to those who disobey than The Velvet Tiger.
Spencer, did I read too much into the parallels between The Velvet Tiger and Batgirl? Did you find the tigers as scary as I did? Also, what about Babs’ flip attitude in regards to her bike talking to her? Is this the kind of thing you take for granted in Gotham?
Spencer: While, yes, that’s just the kind of thing you come to take for granted in Gotham, I’m also attributing much of Barbara’s bike-related oversights to the aftereffects of the tranquilizers. I’d like to think that someone as smart as Barbara could figure out why her bike is suddenly talking to her if she wasn’t half-drugged.
Anyway Ryan, I absolutely do not think you’re reading too much into the parallels between Velvet Tiger and Batgirl. Casting the villains as dark reflections of Barbara has been Batgirl‘s M.O. since the very first issue, where Gail Simone used Mirror to explore her survivor’s guilt, and it’s a tradition Brenden Fletcher and Cameron Stewart have kept alive and well since taking over the title, devoting their first storyline to establishing enemies who turned Batgirl’s reputation and “supercomputer brain” against her. Velvet Tiger representing Barbara’s control issues is a strong reading, but the similarity between these two characters that I appreciate the most is their hypocrisy.
Velvet Tiger expects her friends and employees to be loyal to her, yet outside of fear, gives them no reason to be, and shows no loyalty to them in return. Babs, meanwhile, really has no room to tell anyone they can’t be a superhero; she’s practically the poster child for “defying authority by becoming a vigilante.” Her whole origin is wrapped up in becoming, and persevering as, Batgirl despite pushback from her father, Batman and Robin, and almost everyone else who crossed her path; I don’t think there’s a single person in Gotham who hasn’t told Barbara she shouldn’t be Batgirl at one point or another. Moreover, this week’s We Are Robin finds Barbara encouraging the vigilante career of a girl even younger and less experienced than Frankie, and even here in Batgirl 44, Barbara gives into Alysia’s attempts to help with only the slightest of protests, and eventually even gives her her approval.
So what makes Frankie different? Ryan was right when she identified Barbara’s attempts to control Frankie as “paternalistic” — the way she tries to protect Frankie reminds me of many famous overprotective fathers, from Noah Bennett on Heroes to Joe West on The Flash to even Barbara’s own father, James Gordon (yes, she’s becoming her father — it’s a nightmare!). It may not comfort Frankie, but Babs’ objections are based in love and genuine concern. Babs and Frankie were in rehab together — she saw Frankie at her lowest, and has had similar experiences, so Barbara knows the risks Frankie would face as a superhero with a disability. On some subconscious level, Barbara’s campaign to keep Frankie out of the game may even be an attempt to protect herself from the Joker’s attack. I think she sees herself in Frankie, and therefore lets her protective instincts overwhelm her.
Of course, throwing around words like “overprotective” and “hypocrisy” makes it sound like Frankie is completely in the right here, and I don’t think that’s true. Just look at that final page reveal of Frankie’s new gear — it feels more sinister than hopeful.
Bengal imbues Frankie’s expression in that final panel with some legitimate mischievousness, and that’s only the start. The device on her neck reminds me of Doctor Octopus’ gear (never a good sign), and drones are this decade’s go-to symbolism for “morally gray ideology.” This whole page just gives me a bad feeling; with that in mind, I have to wonder what other differences there are between Frankie and some of the other vigilantes Barbara supports, and the only one I can really pin down is “motives.” Riko has a genuine desire to help others, and in this case, Alysia just wants to protect her fiancee, but Frankie’s motives don’t seem so clear. If she’s just into this for fun or the thrill of being a superhero, I can see why Barbara may be leery — that rarely ends well.
Anyway, to answer your final question, Ryan, I don’t really find the tigers “scary,” but I do appreciate the variety they add to this issue’s action. Taking on the tigers while also avoiding Velvet Tiger’s anti-technology traps requires a very offbeat, low-tech, primal style of fighting, and Batgirl tossing tigers around with a staff and shooting darts at them with a blow-gun is unlike anything Fletcher, Stewart, and Bengal have shown us before — it feels like the first true opportunity they’ve had to build Barbara up as a physical threat, and man do they succeed. That said, it also reinforces Barbara’s cerebral prowess. She had to prepare for a battle like this — she had to concoct a new strategy, obtain some new gear, perhaps even brush up on some new skills — and you can see in her eyes how ready she is to take on those tigers when the time comes.
There’s not an ounce of fear in her.
If there’s one aspect of this issue that rings a bit false to me, though, it’s Velvet Tiger herself. Don’t get me wrong; on a thematic level she’s an excellent foil for Batgirl, but conceptually she’s kind of a mess. For starters, I’m not sure I understand her motives — is there any reasoning behind her actions besides selfishness and “insanity?” I do love the idea of a CEO who pushes around her employees to fulfill her own whims, and I love the idea of a tiger-obsessed wildwoman, but those two archetypes are very much at odds with each other, and I don’t feel like Fletcher and Stewart ever successfully integrate them the way they’d like. Maybe it’s just the way Tiger dabbles both in high-tech computer sabotage and collecting tigers; there’s a dichotomy to her that could be fascinating, but the execution leaves Velvet Tiger feeling more like an idea that never really comes together.
Still, that’s only a minor complaint. As a whole, this issue is a lot of fun — Fletcher and Stewart’s lively characters, Bengal’s charming designs and smart, concise storytelling, and LaPointe’s cotton-candy colors keep the title feeling upbeat and charming even as it tackles physically and emotionally perilous situations. I hope the creative team can keep that tone going, because depending on how things progress with Frankie, they may soon need that upbeat sense of fun more than ever before.
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