Today, Michael and Drew are discussing Batgirl 49, originally released March 2nd, 2016.
Michael: DC Comics has (sort of) clarified what its upcoming “Rebirth” is, and it has been changing my reading of every comic I’ve read from them in the meantime. It’s still anyone’s guess as to what kinds of changes “Rebirth” brings to the DC line, but we are definitely at the climax/resolution threshold of each title’s story. Case in point: the semi-continuity-resolving, Inception-ish issue that is Batgirl 49.
Barbara’s mind has been hacked and it’s up to Dinah and (mostly) Frankie to help free Batgirl’s mind from the clutches of her new foe The Fugue. Utilizing her neural implant, Frankie is able to dive into Babs’ mind — with the help of the evil A.I. Barbara — and weed out The Fugue and the memories that he’s tampered with. We discover that The Fugue is a bank robber that Batgirl put away years ago who has decided to take his revenge by attacking her photographic memory and selling her secrets to her enemies. Babs is only “woken up” after Frankie fuses real Babs with the evil A.I. Babs.
The notion of A.I. Babs and her resentment for “being forgotten/left behind” is one of my favorite concepts of Brenden Fletcher and Cameron Stewart’s Batgirl — so I was happy to see her return here. Barbara originally created A.I. Babs as a backup drive for her own mind, so it’s perfectly fitting that the series brings her back when Barbara herself is mentally compromised. I liked how Frankie utilized A.I. Babs as a lie detector test for Fugue’s memory-tampering B.S.; even though Frankie can’t trust her, she’s still the best shot she’s got at saving her friend. I’ve always thought of A.I. Babs as a stand-in for the retconned Oracle Barbara Gordon. So it makes perfect sense that Stewart and Fletcher try to reconcile the two Barbara’s by combining them into one Batgirl as they do here. You just know that A.I. Babs is going to betray Frankie but you can’t blame her for it when she actually does — at least I can’t.
There are a handful of artists working on Batgirl 49, but one visual in particular really struck me — one from regular series artist Babs Tarr herself. In an attempt to control Barbara/drive out Frankie and A.I. Babs (?), The Fugue is distorting Barbara’s memories. He creates false memories of Barbara being berated by Batman and accidentally killing her father Commissioner Gordon — all of which physically cause Barbara pain in the real world.
What struck me about this moment is that it seems to be a visual allusion to the moments following Barbara getting shot in The Killing Joke.
As great of a story The Killing Joke is, I’m not necessarily a fan of forever tying Barbara Gordon to that terrible moment of trauma in her life. Many Batgirl/Oracle writers have mined The Killing Joke the same way that Jason Todd writers have with A Death in the Family — though I’d argue that both Barbara and The Killing Joke are far more interesting and deserve their own histories. Nevertheless, Tarr conjures up a powerful image as we see Barbara lying motionless on her back, tears cascading down her cheeks. With all of the artists working on Batgirl 49, I have to believe that Babs Tarr wanted to do justice to that painful moment herself. Just like Joker’s attack in The Killing Joke, The Fugue’s assault on Barbara’s memories is a violation. Barbara’s greatest gift/weapon is her incomparable photographic memory; so to have that messed with in any way is such a wound for her.
I found Batgirl 49 to be a very impressive issue conceptually, as we got to glimpse inside the subconscious of Barbara Gordon and experience her worst fears and recurring thoughts. I was equally impressed with the amount of groundwork that Stewart and Fletcher laid out to get us here: A.I. Babs, Frankie’s neural implants, Babs’ sudden new old friend Greg etc. I was a little disheartened by the M.O. of our villain The Fugue, however. After being imprisoned by Batgirl for 3+ years, The Fugue had been planning to get his revenge on her by taking advantage of her near-perfect photographic memory. While I raise an eyebrow at that alone, I suppose that you wouldn’t soon forget who was responsible for your incarceration. What I couldn’t forgive and found to be completely egregious however was The Fugue’s absurd villain monologue. He blathers on about the difficulty of creating such a complicated mind mechanism whilst in prison. A perfectly engaging story had to pause to give us the “villain justification monologue.” Sigh, oh well.
Drew! How did you enjoy Batgirl 49? Were you disappointed by The Fugue’s backstory like I was? Any particular thoughts on the inception of Barbara Gordon? Do you think we’ll be seeing a slightly different Barbara now that she’s merged with A.I. Babs?
Drew: I suspect we might, but Stewart and Fletcher have destabilized Babs enough over the past few issues to make those changes feel more like a return to normal. Like you, Michael, I was impressed with the amount of groundwork necessary to make this issue possible, but I think the more impressive piece is how natural that all felt. In a world where comics are constantly revisiting their heroes’ pasts, it’s not unusual to introduce a long-lost friend that’s never been mentioned before (Lana Lang, for example, was first introduced in 1950). Indeed, it’s common enough that we might not suspect foul play back when Babs first mentions Greg a few issues back. I say “might” because it was definitely a little suspicious — we never see Babs reconnect with Greg or make plans for his visit, and Fletcher and Stewart made a point of telling us that Jim Gordon doesn’t remember this guy at all. It seems the creative team wanted us to suspect something was afoot, even if we couldn’t have come up with quite the convoluted plat the Fugue ends up enacting.
Which I suppose brings me to that monologue. I can certainly understand your frustrations Michael — much of this issue is much more subtle in its exposition — but I can’t say it really bothers me. For one, I accept that villain monologues are part and parcel of the genre. Heck, The Killing Joke offers a MUCH more egregious example of this, with the Joker going on for page after page about the reasoning behind his plan. But, perhaps more importantly, the monologue is totally necessary to our understanding of the Fugue’s plan. Or, at least most of it is necessary. I think you’re right to grumble about the specifics of how the Fugue built his technology — it’s neither important nor all that interesting — but I think it is important that we learn the broad strokes of why he did it, and what he plans on doing next. Inception (a great point of comparison) has the benefit of deploying that kind of exposition over the course of the entire film, but we aren’t privy to the Fugue’s plan until the very end. An exposition dump is far from the most elegant solution, but the conventions of a monologuing villain seem preferable to giving up page space elsewhere in the issue. Because holy cow: how about the rest of the issue?
I’ll echo your praise of Tarr’s work here, Michael, but I’m also enamored with how the artists are deployed throughout. Tarr’s work is reserved for the “real world,” where Dinah and Frankie fret over Barbara’s unconscious body, and where Babs remembers the Fugue’s monologue. The other artists are reserved for specific scenes within Barbara’s mind-scape. It’s a straightforward enough idea, maybe so much so to come off as gimmicky, but it’s deployed consistently enough to be quite useful in orienting us in the story. Typically, this kind of artist-switching is reserved for page breaks, but here, Tarr always draws the “real world” scenes, even if that means just one panel on a given page.
Ming Doyle is selling the holy living shit out of the horror in that scene, but I don’t think any one artist could make the jump from panels three to four there not jarring — Frankie appears in both, and while the unconscious Babs and presence of Dinah tells us that the fourth panel is in the “real world,” we might have to pause to understand that. Fortunately, we don’t have “any one artist,” but two, and the stylistic differences — already associated with the layers of reality by this point in the issue — cue us in immediately to what’s going on here. It makes the page much more legible, and subtly reinforces the otherworldly nature of the battle Frankie is fighting.
That’s the first example of artists sharing a page in the issue, but we get a similar effect a little later, this time between Tarr and James Harvey.
Harvey’s style is even more distinct from Tarr’s than Doyle’s was, launching us almost violently into “reality” halfway through the page. By this point in the issue, Tarr has already established those white motion lines over open eyes as the indicator that someone has “woken up,” having used the effect twice for Frankie earlier in the issue. She doubles down on it here, using it in consecutive panels, giving a kind of fast zoom-out. It’s a great moment, driven not only by these artists’ skills, but by the clever deployment of who draws what.
Normally, I might try to draw the discussion to some kind of conclusion, but I think there’s an interesting tension remaining. Michael, your introduction suggests that this issue is “semi-continuity-resolving,” but I think the hanging question of Barbara’s identity in the wake of this issue challenges that assertion a bit. We’ve both brought up Inception, a film where the goals are ultimately reached out-of-frame (be they Robert’s decision to dissolve his father’s company, or Dom’s reunion with his kids, or the nagging question of whether he even returned to reality), but I think another key point of comparison is Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, which also leaves its characters in a decidedly altered, but totally unresolved state. Obviously, an ongoing comic series is a world apart from a self-contained film, but I’d like to hear some reader thoughts on the tension surrounding Barbara’s identity at the end of the issue, and whether or not you think it’s important that the be resolved.
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