by El Anderson
With issue 34 of Batgirl (and the Future’s End one-shot) writer Gail Simone concluded her work on the series. Simone wrote the character during her time as Oracle, several of her stints on Birds of Prey, and even managed to smooth over her abrupt transition back to prowling the rooftops of Gotham after the New 52 reboot, keeping sales figures high and fans reasonably appeased despite the loss of Oracle as an amazing, singular character, a thousand forced event tie-ins, one failed attempt to fire her by email, and a general corporate outlook that could charitably be described as bullheaded at best and more often moronic. Whether the departure was voluntary or not is up for debate; there is no sign from anyone that the parting was on less-than-voluntary terms, but many have formed their own opinion.
Regardless, with Batgirl 35 an all-new creative team is stepping up, with Cameron Stewart and Brendan Fletcher at the writing helm, and Babs Tarr on art. Why they kept the former numbering rather than take the opportunity to declare this release a new #1, with Teen Titans and Suicide Squad, is a mystery. Virtually every aspect of the book from the art style, color palette, age-appropriateness, tone, and main character’s personality are drastically retooled.
The tragedy of it all is that this new, retooled Batgirl, despite the loss of Gail Simone, would still be a cause for celebration, a sign of improvement and corporate awareness of the changing times in a way no other New 52 title has yet to manage, were it not for their decision to keep the titular character of Batgirl as Barbara Gordon. I want so badly to be able to cheer for this title; everything it does stylistically is exactly what the New 52 avoids like the plague, exactly what it needs. But this is the second time DC attempted murder on Barbara Gordon as a character in recent history; while she survived when the New 52 did away with Oracle, she had an exceptional author with a singular vision in keeping with her prior personality, while now the writer, like the artist, seems to be aiding and abetting in the crime.
Let’s start with THE GOOD; you should be spoiler-safe and fancy-free till we get to THE BAD.
Batgirl 35: THE GOOD
Batgirl 35 is essentially the new DC guinea pig; this book is being treated much like the #1 launches for other recent titles, but unlike those, it is a deviation from the classic ‘New 52’ style of book, and is clearly an attempt to adopt some of the elements that the best-selling Marvel titles are using to slowly take an ever-larger chunk of younger readers and females away from DC titles. (The exception to that trend being the annual 3D cover months, where the speculator market shows up in what force it still commands, and the major Batman books, which would quite possibly still lead sales if all that was in them was a single picture of Bruce Wayne kicking a puppy, printed over and over. I can see the fan acclaim now: ‘innovative storytelling!’ ‘true to character!’ ‘a fresh take on the Dark Knight!’)
For those who don’t pay attention to the minutae of comic book corporate mismanagement, some context: Since 2011, when DC launched a reboot of its ‘entire line’ (except the Green Lanterns, because no one was going to try to untangle that continuity mess, and Batman, unless you count his sidekicks), the company has uniformly required that all titles maintain a gritty, unrelentingly dark tone to its books akin, not co-incidentally, to the Nolan trilogy of Batman films. The number of females DC employed on the creative side plummeted from an embarrassing 12% to an appalling 1% almost immediately, and has roughly stayed at that level since that point. (While Simone is theoretically working on something new with DC, nothing has been announced, so I personally favor calling it at roughly 0.7% now.) Likewise, the reboot eliminated a number of child or teen-friendly titles, or just added excessively adult content, and while characters of both genders were wiped clean out of existence or left in limbo without being mentioned at all in the new universe, most of the lost characters of noteare the females, among them all the Batgirls other than Barbara Gordon, who didn’t exist at all for years, and have subsequently received cameo appearances at best.
The editorial talent at DC Comics is perfectly willing to explain its reasoning; one executive is on record as saying that the company is only concerned with sales to traditional book collectors, which is to say men around 65 or older. While there are a scant few titles aimed at children the company releases, they are aimed at very young children only; when a parent comes into a comic store looking for a current, age-appropriate book with DC superheroes in it for a child between the ages of 8 and 18, it is astonishingly common for employees (myself included), to suggest a Marvel book instead, because such a thing simply doesn’t exist in the DC Universe. (Batman ’66 and Batman ’66 Meets the Green Hornet are exceptions, but they are both fairly new titles, and children rarely get or enjoy the retro-camp tone.) Until the Harley Quinn series began, I said the same for female readers who wanted to check out superheroes; many comic store employees still do.
As a result of that history, the fact that Batgirl 35 is clearly targeted towards (slightly) younger audiences, and the fact that it is drawn in a style associated with the Marvel titles starring strong female characters is incredibly encouraging. DC needs to re-learn that women and youths are both viable audiences for its titles, powerful market forces in their own rights, and selling a book targeted to them is the first step.
The ‘new launch’ comes with an art style which could be described, to put it mildly, as ripping off Jamie McKelvie’s sensibilities with both hands. Batgirl 35 is drawn in an art style similar to that seen in the latest, most innovative Marvel titles, beginning with Jamie McKelvie’s run on Young Avengers, but also present in Avengers AI, Ms. Marvel, riffed upon by Ghost Rider, and similar to that used to great success in Hawkeye. (Some might argue that the style was pioneered by David Aja in Hawkeye itself, but while that book is beautiful beyond words, aspects like breaking the traditional panel format, use of multiple bright colors rather than a single palette, and the darker outlining style seen in the other books were present in McKelvie’s Young Avengers much more so than in Aja’s Hawkeye, which tends towards color-coordinated palettes and an innovative, fascinating art style within panels, or eschewing them entirely).
By adopting this style, DC is pulling from the aesthetic that Marvel fans associate with female characters and teen-friendly themes. The colors are bright, the lines are bold (making it easier for many new readers to follow than uniformly grey/black/dark-blue books like Batman), and the traditional panel style is broken to make for more dynamic storytelling.
The recent Gotham Academy #1 took a similar approach, but kept to the more gothic color-scheme associated with the Batman universe of titles; both of these books, but particularly Batgirl 35, send clear visual signals to readers that here is something different, and something accessible.
The book is appropriate for a younger age-range; personally I would recommend this level of content to ages 15+, though some parents may still balk at the theme of this issue; all indications seem to suggest that it will remain appropriate for that age group. Profanity is absent, the new suit Batgirl makes herself provides full coverage (and miraculously avoids the slut-heels that infect DC heroines like a bad-fashion STD), one character casually references being bi, and the book makes use of social media and technology to a much greater extent than most comic books in general. In that way, it is highly reminiscent of Young Avengers, particularly in the advertisements for the issue, which includes a twitter hashtag and the implication of a selfie, and in the invention of a stand-in social network, paralleling the summary pages of YA, which used a stand-in for twitter and conversations between the characters, complete with hashtags, to catch readers up. Unlike YA, however, the use here it feels a bit forced, as with adults talking about ‘that stuff kids these days like’.
And with that, we come to the spoilers, the rants, and:
Batgirl 35: THE BAD
Barbara Gordon is Dead. Long Live Barbara Gordon
There is literally NO reason I have to dislike this book, because I would consider it ‘a pretty good effort’ at worst if it was about a different Batgirl. From the release of the first images for the issue, and given the lack of a name attached to the Batgirl in question, many people assumed it wasn’t Barbara Gordon. DC, this is one of those times you should have listened.
The personal crisis and need to get away from her former life that Barabara Gordon experienced in issue 34 of Batgirl, and the manufactured conflict that ostensibly severed her ties to the Birds of Prey in its issue 34, would serve just as well to explain Barbara deciding to take some time off and swap in Spoiler, Misfit, or Cassandra Cain, all of whose absence from the New 52 generated fan outrage (and no, wandering through possible future scenarios or other one-offs as cameo appearances does not count), and everything about the Batgirl seen in issue 35 is closer to traits exhibited by those younger, more impetuous women at various points in time than it is to anything done by Barbara Gordon since her earliest days in the suit. Not only that, but a single panel in issue 35, moved back to 34, would have been an excellent teaser and a rational lead-in to such a switch.
Instead, we get Barbara Gordon in name, and name only.
Let’s start with the obvious: the girl looks YOUNG. Even the characters in the book notice it. The Young Avengers were about just that: Young Avengers. Physically, everyone in that book looked comfortably under 21; same with Ms. Marvel, a book about high school students. Leaning so heavily on that art style brought the youth with it. Even a character in the issue pegs her as a high-schooler.
Which raises a question: how old IS Barbara Gordon just now? I’m no pre-New 52 Batgirl expert, but I read all of Simone’s run, and I have been through some of the older Birds of Prey stuff. So, by my math:
In Simone’s run, she has a Master’s in Forensic Psychology. She also went to college at age 15, because she was a young prodigy, but still: 15 + 4 years for the typical college degree would be 19, add 4 years for a Master’s, assuming she took NO time off school when shot by the joker, which happened while she was in Grad school, and she was 23 when she graduated.
At one point, she references being Batgirl for one year before being shot, and the whole conceit of the New 52 means that she can only have started super-heroing 5 years before the start of the New 52 series, so she was in Grad school at least 4 years before Batgirl #1 came out. Assuming that was her first year in Grad school, she graduated the year Batgirl #1 released, and she references spending several months after receiving the neural implants that let her walk again in physical therapy, so I put her at 24 at the absolute youngest when Batgirl #1 starts, in 2011. As 35 begins, in the heady year 2014, she should be 27 to 28.
Now, I’m 27 myself, and I gotta tell you: no one is going to confuse me with a 14 year old. Or with this girl. Or any of her friends.
Setting aside the math, Ms. Gordon appears to have returned to undergrad. They never say so explicitly, but her roommates (who, again, look to be 18-20) call it ‘college’. Maybe its an East Coast thing, but we always called undergrad ‘college’. We didn’t call grad school ‘college’, we called it grad school. Its one of those ‘look how grown up and edumacated we are now’ things. She has an advisor; that is also something I identify with undergrad, and she is now studying Urban Geography.
I have no idea what that is.
Pretty sure it isn’t Forensic Psychology, though.
Okay, so she got de-aged and de-educated, or else she fell in the fountain of youth and went back to undergrad for a more useful degree (we’ve all been there, girl). She’s still the same person, though, right?
Friend and Advisor
Barbara is now living in Burnside (possibly a Gotham suburb? I’m not up on my Bat-geography), that closely (and clearly intentionally) resembles some of the hip areas of New York. She lives in a dorm-style apartment with other girls her age, most of whom she seems to have just met.
Alysia, the transgender friend she was so close with an issue ago, is now texting her from another area. A ‘moving out’ cameo and a concerned text aren’t much to go on, but given how quickly DC rushed to assure fans that the character would remain an important part of the book, they better do better than this. Because confining her to an occasional off-screen mention, which seems to be what they are setting up by splitting the roommates up like this, is an insult to that promise. Alysia also seems to be turning from an eco-radicalist into the world-wise friend, cautious about the dangers of the ‘hip’ neighborhood, pursuing her goals while Babs and the new roommates get drunk, and worrying that she is overdoing the drinking.
Now, pre-52 Barbara was an advisor and trusted friend of the new Batgirls, the Robins of all ages, Batman on his less jerky days, the Birds of Prey, and occasionally other heroes. In the New 52 she has one of the best relationships with Batman of his extended family, at least at first, is still close to the others while maintaining her own life and independent identity. She is powerfully aware of who she is, and she always comes back to that when things get dark.
She rescues the Talon Strix from a messed up life with the Court of Owls, forming a trusting relationship with both her and Catwoman in the process. She is mistrustful of Poison Ivy, but still tries to do right by her and steer her in the right direction. She is a bit in love with Dick Grayson still (and vice versa), and she is incredibly close to Dinah, the Black Canary, even thought they argue a bit now and then.
Wait, what was that last part?
Now, the two have a ‘falling out’ of the sort that tends to make the Avengers punch each other for a few issues before they talk it out and are BFFs again in the final issue of Birds of Prey, but, seriously. There are dozens of panels I could have pulled from throughout Batgirl to use instead of that one. Most of them involve Dinah being the one she can always turn to, always trust, always love.
Apparently, the fountain of youth gives you amnesia too.
Babs isn’t just jerky towards Dinah, either. She gets blackout wasted at a party, was going to sleep with a random guy until her new roommate intervened (…and took him for herself…this is as Undergrad as it gets). She lets her equipment get stolen, snaps at her roommates and orders them around, and lets people order her around.
Genius and Hacker…hey, what are these ‘internets’ everyone is talking about?
Barbara literally got her start in the comic universe as a person who is good with computers. The origins of Batgirl have her thinking technology is the future and struggling to get a job with her computing degree (is that another trip to school we can add to the age counter?).
After she is shot, she is Oracle, running tech for Batman and looking after the city that way. In the Batman: No Man’s Land series, she calls herself ‘a high-tech girl in a low-tech world’ about 10,000 times. In the New 52, she does more hacking into things and detective work to figure out who criminals are behind their masks than happens in every other bat-book together.
New Barbara needs someone to explain what a social network is. Also about the new villain running a blackmail site by hacking into tech and stealing photos.
Also, roomie? can you help me make a dating site profile? I’m, like, super bad at this stuff.
Though, in her defense, she may just be bad at letting herself get dressed like a hooker and describing herself like a piece of meat.
Oh, DC. Did you have to make the new, pseudo-young idol for teen girls debase herself to catch the perp in the first issue? You couldn’t, I don’t know, wait for a month?
The Long View
Now, Barbara uses cleverness and programming skills to catch the perp. She is undeterred by losing her school-work, and is trying to maintain friendly relations with people…sort of. The overall message is girl-power, unless you look too close. There are multiple ethnicities present all over the place, which is something Marvel still struggles to get a grip on and the book is still LGBTQA-friendly, thank god. I can’t tell if the villain of the week is a ultra-urban vanilla-ice wannabe or some non-white ethnicity, but I’m fine with not being able to tell, it is when they are obvious about non-white urban-stereotype villains that it is a problem; the vilification of rap/hip-hop culture seems like it is balanced out by the type of party the girls throw and likely will continue to be by the book’s setting in general.
Babs isn’t, apparently, uptight about the ‘casual hookup’ lifestyle, and neither am I, though again it is a deviation from character (and what happened to Ricky? Did I overlook that somewhere in speed-reading the other issues?). Same with the partying; the problem isn’t the lifestyle or the choice of Batgirl, its who Batgirl is. On a fundamental level, this does not feel like Barbara Gordon.
My hope, because I SO badly want to like this book, and because it represents SUCH a step forward for DC to even try the idea out, is that the AMAZING twist in the last panel is where they are going, and this will soon be an out-of-character footnote in Barbara’s life, while we read about a new, too-long forgotten young lady just waiting to be brought back into the spotlight. If you do that, DC, all will be (almost) forgiven.
The Final Verdict
Batgirl 35 is intriguing. Flawed from top to bottom by character choice, promising in all other respects, the first step DC has made towards recognizing me and mine as viable consumers in nearly 5 years.
It should have been a #1.
And it should have been Stephanie Brown.