Today, Mark and Drew are discussing Batgirl 52, originally released May 25th, 2016.
Mark: What is the best way to portray a female superhero?
The first sizzle reel revealed for CBS’s (now CW’s) Supergirl television series was met with a healthy dose of skepticism and derision since it included a number of moments where Kara is shown doing stereotypical “girlie” things and its The Devil Wears Prada-esque setting. Some compared it to SNL’s satirical trailer for a Marvel Black Widow movie that aired just a little bit before the Supergirl first look was released. The fact that Kara worried about boys at all or worked at a fashion magazine meant that she wasn’t a strong female character. I haven’t watched Supergirl at all outside of the pilot, but the general consensus of her portrayal now that the first season has concluded seems to be overall positive.
Likewise, Brenden Fletcher and Cameron Stewart’s Batgirl of Burnside, making Barbara Gordon more pop and significantly less intense than the Gail Simone run that preceded it, has been met with similar criticism. I’m not a woman, but I am gay and it is through that lens that I approach the desire for people like me to be represented in media by strong characters. In that way, I can understand the eye-rolling at a social media obsessed Batgirl just like I sometimes get annoyed at what I perceive as grossly flamboyant gay characters in movies and TV shows.
But I have to check my annoyance. As much as I want to see gay characters that break out of what I consider to be a stereotype, the truth is that there are many gay people who are like that, happily, and who shouldn’t be shamed for who they are. They aught to be represented in media in a positive light, just like everyone else. What we should be striving for, is an opportunity in comics for everyone to see themselves represented in a positive way. Like traveling towards infinity, we’ll never get there. But every step in that direction is a worthwhile one.
So what is the best way to portray a female superhero? The truth is that there isn’t a “best” — there isn’t a single version of any character that will appeal to every taste. There is no “best” Batgirl, only the one that appeals to us most. And what appeals to me might be different from what appeals to you. But I think we want to foster the idea that creators should be free to tell the stories they want to tell, and recognize that as consumers, we aren’t entitled to anything. Not every version of every character has to be for everyone.
All that to bring us to Batgirl 52, the closing chapter of Burnside Batgirl, and it’s a microcosm of the things that made Fletcher and Stewart’s take on Babs both fresh and also frequently irritating. As such, I’m not sure what’s left to say about this issue that hasn’t already been said. Throughout their tenure (though Fletcher is sole writer on this one, as he was last month), Batgirl has only nominally been the star of her own series, and that trend continues here. Batgirl 52 is stuffed to the gills with characters from other books and the now usual team-ups.
The issue opens at Gotham Academy, where Babs, accompanied by a a cadre of superheroes previewing the upcoming Birds of Prey book, work with Maps and Olive to take down the Gladius Commander — who turns out to be a decoy. Turns out the real Commander is on her way to the still-doesn’t-make-any-sense Gordon Clean Energy Facilities to acquire the Negahedron. And even if it’s incredibly goofy, at last Batgirl is finally allowed the dignity of taking down a villain by herself.
The best moment in the issue is one of the final spreads, following Babs through the going away party her Burnside friends throw for her. It’s a nice way to give emotional conclusion to a number of characters who have helped Babs along the way, without having to spend a ton of time doing so.
For my money, everything Fletcher and Stewart had to say about Barbara Gordon culminated with issue #40, and they retread similar ground over the concluding 12 issues with diminishing returns. But ultimately, I think it was a success and a positive tweaking on the character’s trajectory.
What’d you think, Drew?
Drew: You know, I’ve only been a casual reader of the series over the past year or so, so I may not have the perspective to comment on the pace and trajectory of Batgirl of Burnside generally, but I can’t say that I found the retreads of this issue to be inappropriate. As a farewell issue, some reflection is warranted, and I actually found myself impressed at just how much there was to reflect upon. That party scene truly is remarkable, so I’m just going to include the whole thing:
Don’t worry about the reading order — these vignettes can be taken in any order, really. This is a beautiful way for Fletcher to reflect on the work he, Stewart, and artist Babs Tarr (and others) have done on this series, but what stood out to me was the moment they didn’t write. Namely: Alysia’s coming out to Babs. It’s a key moment in the New 52 Batgirl series, but one that came under Gail Simone’s tenure. Alysia’s one of few elements Fletcher and Stewart carried over from Simone’s run, but including that callback here changes this from a farewell to Fletcher to a farewell to Babs’ entire New 52 interpretation.
Lest that sound a little self-indulgent, relatively little of this issue is actually about saying goodbye. This spread and the page that follows it tug at the heartstrings, for sure, but the rest of this issue is focused on some good old-fashioned superhero action. Indeed, Barbara’s whole team pulls together so effectively here, it gooses the sadness of the goodbye: nobody wants to see a well-oiled machine fall apart. If the Gladius action feels a bit perfunctory, its in service of making the team work together so well.
And boy, do they work well together. As a celebration of this run of Batgirl, this issue is much more about strengths than it is about weakness, and one of those key strengths is teamwork. Everyone gets a moment to shine, and there’s none of the bickering that is typically used to add drama to team dynamics: these are just a group of friends working together to avert disaster.
But, of course, in emphasizing how well the team works together, disaster never really feels like a reality. Even when Gladius has the drop on Batgirl et al, she’s never more than one step ahead. In the final showdown, Gladius isn’t even able to land a blow before she’s unceremoniously dispatched.
Babs just saved Gotham and “a good chunk of the Northeast” from being blown to smithereens, but that fight has all of the ceremony of stopping a purse-snatcher. There are a few lines here and there mentioning the stakes, but nothing in the storytelling ever really makes that danger a reality.
That would be a bigger gripe for an ongoing series, but I’m willing to accept the truncated action here in favor of making room for that party scene. As I mentioned earlier, teamwork has been such a huge part of this series, it wouldn’t be right to say goodbye without giving each of these characters their due — especially the non-costumed ones. Fletcher leaves open the possibility of Alysia, Qadir, Frankie, and Nadimah returning, but there’s no guarantee that we’ll ever see them again. Focusing on their goodbyes is the right choice — one I’m happy to sacrifice a little superheroing to see.
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?