Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Batgirl #1 - A Review

When I first saw the list of DCnU titles coming out this week, I knew which one would have to be the first I’d review; Batgirl #1. I wanted to review it for my love of the character and the author Gail Simone. But I knew I also had to review it so I could address the many controversies surrounding the title.

For those of you coming in late to the game, let me sum up.

"The Batgirls" by The Black Cat of the web comic "Batman And Sons"

Since the 1950s, several young women have gone by the heroic moniker of Batgirl. The most famous of these women is Barbara Gordon – librarian by day, vigilante by night and daughter of Gotham City Police Commissioner James Gordon. While Barbara wasn’t the first Batgirl, she is the most widely recognized by the public at large thanks to her appearances in the 1960s Batman TV series, the Filmmation Batman cartoons and nearly every Batman cartoon since, including Batman: The Animated Series and The Batman.

For over twenty years, ever since the story Batman: The Killing Joke, Barbara Gordon has been paralyzed from the waist-down following an attack by The Joker. It was John Ostrander who gave Barbara a new lease on life in the pages of Suicide Squad, where it was revealed that Barbara had decided to use her computer skills and photographic memory to fight crime in ways she’d never dreamed of as Batgirl. She adopted the codename Oracle and quickly became a power to be reckoned with as part of the Bat Family, a member of the Justice League and the brains behind the various incarnations of The Birds of Prey.

When it was announced that Barbara would be returning to action as Batgirl, the fan reaction was heavily divided. While most fans met the news with enthusiasm (if the advance pre-orders for the book are any sign) fans of the more recent Batgirls – Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown – worried that their favorite heroines would be erased from the new DC Universe altogether. And a large number of Oracle fans – among them Newsarama columnist Jill “The Nerdy Bird” Pantozzi and actress Teal Sherer – expressed their concerns that Barbara’s legacy as Oracle and her position as an inspiration to handicapped women who read comics were being marginalized.

To her credit, Gail Simone did try to address these concerns in an interview with Pantozzi. In it, Simone – who has done more than anyone to promote Barbara Gordon as an A-List heroine in the last decade – stated that she understood the reactions of fans like Pantozzi and reaffirmed her own love for Oracle as a concept. However, Simone did repeat the sentiment expressed by many in recent years - why is it that virtually every single hero with a grievous injury, or even a death, gets to come back whole, except Barbara Gordon?”

It’s a fair question. Why, in a world with alien technology that can regrow whole bodies, magical Amazon technology that can heal any wound and people with miraculous healing-touch powers (the means used to heal Batman’s severed spine after his first encounter with Bane) must Barbara Gordon be the eternal handicapped heroine?

I heard someone liken this conflict to the Buffalo Springfield song For What It’s Worth and the lyric “Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.” I think the truth lies closer to a scene from Fiddler on the Roof.

There's a funny scene where two men are arguing about something before a group and after listening to the first man our hero Tevye says, "You are right." Then the second person gives his argument and Tevye proclaims, "You are right.” One of the men in the crowd protests, "Tevye, you said he is right. Then you said he is right. They can not both be right.”

Tevye’s response? "You also are right!"

In any event, there are no easy answers and there is nothing left but to look at this comic and see how it reads. Am I right?

Thankfully, Simone not only meets the high expectations set before her – she exceeds them!

To get my one complaint with the book out of the way early and address the big question on everyone’s mind, we get precious little explanation for how Barbara is back on her feet. In fact, we know nothing about Barbara’s background save that she is still Jim Gordon’s daughter and that it has been three years since she walked, following an attack by The Joker that synchs up with The Killing Joke Nothing is said about how she spent those three years, so there is little to alleviate the worries of Oracle fans... save that Barbara is as strong-willed a heroine as ever.

Thankfully, this book makes it clear from the start that while Barbara may never have been Oracle (as far as we know), she is far from a shrinking violet and much more than “Batman with Boobs”. We are presented with image after image of a competent, confident young woman who knows her business and her business is kicking ass and taking names. All of these images are ably illustrated by Ardian Syaf and Vicente Cifuentes, who prove to be every bit Simone’s equal in the creation department.

The story itself is the perfect mix of drama, action and comedy that we’ve come to expect from Gail Simone. We are treated to Barbara’s first night back in the costume as we learn something of her methods and her adjusting to things which have changed. Some changes are for the better, such as her increased upper-body strength. And those who fear that technical skills may have disappeared in the Revamp, worry not – Babs proves as tech-savvy as ever in how she has found a way to keep informed of major crimes in Gotham.

We also get to see Barbara as she moves out, meets her new roommate and has a faithful encounter with a new villain called Mirror, who seems to have it out for those who somehow cheated death… including a criminal Barbara helped bring to justice and Barbara herself. And worry not - there's plenty of the trademark wacky Gail Simone humor as Batgirl rides her motorcycle through a hospital.

It’s easy to see Simone writing a little of herself into Barbara throughout the book. Of course all writers do this but Simone has set up an interesting parallel between Barbara moving on with her life after having regained the use of her legs and Simone writing this book. Simone has been quite vocal about how Batgirl was her “gateway” character into comics and how she always identified with Batgirl as another strong-willed red-head. You can see this in the scene where Barbara has breakfast with her father and discusses her decision to move out, contemplating that it would be so easy for her to stay someplace she feels safe but considering that she has to move on and face new challenges.

That is the Barbara Gordon we all know and love - the woman who will not let anything get in her way. No man, no monster… not even the loss of control of her own body will stop her from doing whatever it takes to succeed.

That is the core of the character, regardless of whether she is hacking a drug lords’ bank accounts or high-kicking a hustler. She will fight them on the rooftops and from her desktop. She will fight them in the cityscapes and in cyberspace. Whatever her name and whatever the mask, she is Barbara Gordon and she is glorious!

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