Review by C.J. Bunce
Put aside the hurricane that was 2012’s New 52 reboot from DC Comics, and one year ago if someone would have said that Barbara Gordon would have her own solo title again as Batgirl, and a successful title at that, most DC fans would have had doubts. Then with the announcement that Gail Simone was giving Barbara the use of her legs again, add controversy to those doubts. Batgirl had an uphill climb, but with the changes DC had previewed before the launch, it also became the title causing the most curiosity for readers. How would they give her back the use of her legs? Where would she fit into the new DC universe?
If you haven’t read Batgirl, the first six issues of the groundbreaking DC series will be reprinted in a hardcover edition this July, titled Batgirl Vol. 1: The Darkest Reflection. With 52 graphic novels coming out over the next few months, most readers will be selective about which to seek out. Batgirl is one of the keepers.
Where Batgirl really soared in this story arc begins with the cover work by Adam Hughes. One of the artists whose superheroine work is in a small league of the very best, his style conjures up a 1940s aesthetic, and his colors scream retro. His Batgirl may very well be the best ever rendered, including when compared to the stunning Alex Ross revamped version that Hughes seems to work from. If only he had the schedule to draw the entire book! That said, Indonesian artist Ardian Syaf has developed his own style with Batgirl’s ongoing story as the interior artist on the series. Syaf’s style is expressive and his action sequences are fluid and powerful. If Hughes makes Batgirl look both innocent and beautiful, Syaf rounds out her character by showing her as feisty and wily.
From the beginning, writer Gail Simone proved she knew her character. The new Barbara was funny and endearing from the first page. She shares her inner voice with us to contrast with her Batgirl-costumed exterior. We didn’t know what will come of it, but she found an inquisitive roommate and a place she could afford to rent. Her inner voice always determined, she forced herself to be confident, even though we sensed a lot of doubt in her about her abilities. She’s young, but not too young. She is a straight arrow, not gritty and also thankfully not vapid. She is successful, but she’s nervous.
Chapter 1 of the story arc begins with Barbara already away from her wheelchair and already crime fighting. Is it too soon? She questions herself, and she indeed makes her first mistakes. And she never forgets the crime by the Joker that left her in the chair in the first place. Barbara’s foe in the first round is a baddie who is called the Mirror, a grim reaper type who carries a list of the soon-to-be-dead around as a checklist. She gets knocked down. She gets right back up. She makes mistakes. She tries to recover from her mistakes—both the long-term lesson learning variety and the instant kind–a bad kick or punch here or there. With a quick-moving story line her decisions are split-second choices. She has no choice, she must be focused. Having the use of her legs return only in the past several months, all indications are that this heroine is engaging in the secret crime fighting gig too soon. This is the theme of her character’s growth.
Chapter 2 of Batgirl helps readers understand Batgirl’s Gotham City. We see real-life reflected here, or at least the over-development, economic strife and questionable priorities that make Gotham the worst of what is real in any society. We also see a microcosm of the individual, living the single life, trying to get through the mundane tasks of daily life. Barbara Gordon is a poster girl for the individual in the big world. Like all of us, she is forging ahead. Writer Gail Simone continued in this chapter to deliver the satisfying and snappy, Buffy-esque dialogue, that reminds us we’re talking about Batgirl here. What stayed strong throughout the entire arc is the first person narrative, in the same style as Batman from Jeph Loeb in Batman: Hush. She smartly comes off as the almost-Batman. Batgirl’s positive outlook is counter-balanced with a well-constructed bad guy.
A weaker part of the story arc is Chapter 3, which had a lot to live up to considering the work on Issues #1 and #2. For the first section, Barbara Gordon became a bit of Sandra Bullock in Speed, in a psycho-orchestrated opportunity to save a train from a bomb. For the second, she had some awkward catching up to do with dad, Commissioner Gordon. For section three, she goes to pick up her Batcycle, which had been impounded in Chapter 1. There she runs into Dick Grayson-formerly-known-as-Robin-who-then-became-Nightwing-then-Batman-and-now-he’s-Nightwing-again. And an old, teen romance is rekindled, veiled as an effort by the Bat-team to get Barbara to dial back on the dangerous derring-do. Barbara gives in a bit, but ultimately recoils into that comic book cliché of the superhero—“I just want to be alone.” It’s not a bad follow-up to Issues #1 and 2, but the obligatory romance issue just seemed a bit too soon for the series. Unfaltering is the visuals–Batgirl is both agile and tough balanced with naiveté and some real street smarts, and we know this from how she is drawn on every panel by artist Syaf.
Chapter 4 finds Barbara continuing to have nightmares that she reads as survivor’s guilt. She has a heart to heart conversation with her roommate finally, but Barbara remains at a distance. Her escape is to continue the pursuit of the Mirror. In that, she uses her confusion and anger to take on a stronger opponent. But she also uses the events of the day to develop her own strategy. This allows her to try again with her roommate. In the end she is visited by a ghost from her distant past.
We meet a new villain in Chapter 5, Gretel, who is able to make others act as she wishes through hypnotic suggestion. This leaves her victims and the tools of her actions mumbling the number 338. As Barbara attempts to sleuth out what 338 means, she must also deal with the return of her mother, who walked out on her, her little brother, and her father, Commissioner Gordon, when she was young. As she ponders what is behind Gretel, she believes Bruce Wayne may be the next target of this new villain. As she tries to save him, it appears Bruce has also fallen for Gretel’s hypnosis.
The final chapter ties up all the loose ends. Gretel is not a one-note villain, but instead a mirror of sorts of Barbara. Batgirl must capture Gretel, but she learns from her past, and instead of going after her alone, she smartly shares her information with Bruce. In a partnership with Batman, we even get to see Barbara as the main partner of the ad hoc duo in the scheme to take down Gretel. Was Bruce really under Gretel’s spell? The payoff for Batgirl fans is great. For readers of the collected edition, the entire six chapter story also works as a complete piece, not simply the typical assemblage of six sequential comic books.
DC’s female superhero characters continue to flourish 9 months after the big launch. Batgirl’s story bridges a lot of territory–she is a superhero with a rich past in the DCU: as daughter to Batman’s main partner in fighting crime, Commissioner Gordon, as the former crime fighter in a wheelchair called Oracle and member of the Birds of Prey, she carved out a niche for herself as the younger side of hero work and the trials of being at the beginning of a heroine’s career. There is a reason we have a Batwoman and a Batgirl. Gail Simone made sure Batgirl gets the respect she deserves but does not forget that she is and should be all about being a girl, and being a girl–as opposed to being a woman or a man or a boy–creates its own advantages for both the character and for storytelling.
Batgirl Vol. 1: The Darkest Reflection is available July 17 at comic book stores and discounted pre-order now online.