Today, Mark and Drew are discussing Batgirl 5, originally released November 23rd, 2016. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Mark: The human face communicates so much information that can’t be conveyed as effectively with words. We’re trained from an early age to pay attention in a conversation to not just what’s being said, but also to the subtle clues the face of our conversation partner provides. The same is true in art. When working on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, one of the challenges for the artists of the Walt Disney Studios was learning to convey realistic emotions in their heroine’s face, since they couldn’t rely on the cartoony stretch and squish they were used to. Nowadays, when striving to create photorealistic humans for movies and video games, artists struggle with the Uncanny Valley — so well trained are we at studying our fellow humans’ faces that we become uneasy when something is just a tiny bit off.
I imagine drawing faces must be one of the most challenging aspects of a comic book artist’s job. Even artists with a more cartoony style rely on the faces of their characters to sell the emotion of a moment. I’ve spilled more words than I care to admit on this site critiquing the faces drawn by comic book artists, but it’s the one aspect of a character’s presentation that I have a hard time looking past when done poorly.
Rafael Albuquerque’s run on Batgirl ends with Batgirl 5, and his work in the issue is a great example of wrangling the complexity of facial expressions.
Much of the dialogue in Hope Larson’s script for Batgirl 5 takes place in the head of Barbara Gordon and a good portion of the “action” is Babs’ thought processes. This leads to many panels whose primary occupants are Babs’ head and a speech bubble. The heavy lifting on selling the drama, then, falls on Albuquerque’s renderings of Babs’ face and emotions. It’s a challenge he meets head-on, selling moments completely with as little as a single eye on Batgirl’s face.
Larson’s narrative, however, left me with too many questions to be a truly satisfying conclusion to this first arc. Faced with the drug-induced superhuman abilities of Teacher, Batgirl has to track her down and take her out…and that’s pretty much it. It’s not so much that there’s anything particularly wrong with how the issue plays out — Batgirl ends up turning off her photographic memory to channel the brainpower it requires into taking Teacher out — it’s more that Larson leaves a lot of potentially interesting ideas on the table unexplored.
For my money, the lack of Fruit Bat in the issue is the most disappointing omission as this arc comes to a close. Chiyo Yamashiro is 104 years old, still in peak fighting condition, but she sits this one out? What’s Fruit Bat’s deal? She shows up at the end of the issue to become The Student’s new mentor, yes, but it’s thin gruel for a character whose potential has gone largely unexploited and who is unlikely to follow Babs back to Burnside.
(And I don’t count Fruit Bat or Kai’s contributions in Batgirl’s “dream,” since they’re just manifestations of Batgirl’s consciousness in those moments.)
In the end, what I do think Bab’s trip to Asia shows is how Batgirl can easily exist outside of the world of Burnside. To that end, it’s almost disappointing for Batgirl to be making her return to familiar stomping grounds come next issue. There’s a compelling reason for, say, Batman to confine his movements to Gotham, but Batgirl being based in Burnside feels as arbitrary as Nightwing sticking to Blüdhaven.
What’d you think, Drew? Did you find this a satisfying conclusion to Batgirl‘s first arc? And do you believe Larson has continuing plans for Fruit Bat in the future?
Drew: You know, I was a bit disappointed in this issue, too, though it was because of the nature of Batgirl’s victory. I’m all for characters developing a new strategy to face an otherwise-unbeatable foe, but since the strategy here is entirely internal (and not dramatized like other internal conflicts in the issue), it left me cold. I’m a fan of using Batgirl’s eidetic memory as a superpower, as Larson has used throughout her run, and I enjoyed the exploration of that power as Babs recalled events she didn’t consciously remember back in issue 3, but the effects of “turning off” her eidetic memory aren’t illustrated nearly as effectively. Indeed, the only hint of what this experience is like for Babs is limited to one panel:
Which is a shame, because I have no idea what this actually means for Babs’ experience. When she “remembers to remember,” memories come flooding back — memories from her entire Asian trip, suggesting that turning off her eidetic memory actually equated to some kind of amnesia. At the same time, she seems to remember enough to know that she needs to defeat the Teacher. So what exactly is happening to her?
Let me be clear: because I can appreciate Babs’ eidetic memory as a superpower, I’m not necessarily looking for some pseudo-scientific explanation of how turning it off “works” — if you tell me Superman reserving his heat vision for long enough allows him to punch harder or whatever, I’ll accept that — but for a better understanding of what it means to Babs. Is she simply experiencing the world like you or I would, or is this more like amnesia? Was there an immediate cost to losing her eidetic memory (which had previously proven to be quite useful in a fight)?
Without more specifics, I’m left mostly with the subtext, where “turning off” a part of Babs’ brain makes for a more effective fight sequence — akin to so many defenses of mindless action movies. At least, that’s the subtext that leapt out at me first. I think there may also be a lesson about continuity in that Babs is most effective when allowed to “forget” certain elements of her past. It’s not clear to me whether The Killing Joke (or whatever events from it seemed to be canon in the New 52) is canon in Rebirth, but Larson may be suggesting that it’s better left forgotten, either way.
Or maybe this was just about giving Babs a hulk-mode, where she turns off some of her brains to become a much more formidable fighter. If Larson returns to this idea, I hope she finds a way to illustrate the costs, or even what Babs risks if she fails to “remember to remember.” As it is, turning off her eidetic memory feels about as arbitrary a solution as stocking up heat vision — it might work as a way to goose another power, but it’s not a particularly emotionally satisfying solution.
Focusing on that one detail makes it sound like I hated the issue, but I’m mostly just hoping we get to explore it with the same nuance Larson and Albuquerque have handled the rest of the run. As for this issue, I’m impressed at just how much storytelling is crammed into these pages. The issue largely takes place between the beginning and end of Batgirl’s fight with the Teacher, but includes tons of exposition on the Teacher’s origins, some illustration of how Batgirl’s analytical mind is slowing her down, and that killer dream sequence, all of which feels naturally paced.
Mark, I’m with you in not feeling completely satisfied with the epilogue with Fruit Bat, but I was much happier with Babs’ goodbye to Kai.
There were real emotional repercussions to his actions in this arc — I doubt we’ll see him again soon — but there’s enough regret on that page to suggest that their story might not be over. Here again, Albuquerque’s skill with facial expressions shines, giving each beat of that scene real emotional weight. I was similarly thrilled by the ending, which calls Babs back to Burnside for some new adventure. Perhaps framing my critique as being unsatisfied wasn’t quite right — in another way, it really just left me wanting more.
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