Batgirl's psychotic brother, James Gordon, has been released from prison!
Knowing what kind of twisted manipulation James is capable of, though, Barbara refuses to believe he's truly reformed. Racing to find him before he does something awful, Barbara wastes no time tracing every lead that might lead to her deranged brother. Fueled by rage, this leads her to making some questionable choices...
But as fate would have it, it doesn't take long at all for James to find Barbara.
It doesn't take long for Commissioner Gordon to show up, which is weird in and of itself - a fact Barbara takes sure mental note of. And then her father drops a bombshell...
James has a tracer attached to him that alerts authorities when he strays off a pre-determined path, which just happens to pass by Barbara's office where she's volunteering for a political campaign. Unconvinced of the coincidence and incensed that her father kept James' situation from her, Barbara storms off, but James eventually makes his way to her house for one final chance at reconciliation...
But Batgirl is having none of it.
In the year 2019, what on Earth makes a good Batgirl story? Who is she? What is the core of the character? What are her motivations?
In a nutshell, why should we care at all about a character who, in less enlightened minds, could be uncharitably described as “the girl version of Batman?”
I (think) I have an answer to that, but let me come back around to it in a minute.
I have to admit that for me as a reader growing up in the ’90s, Batgirl is something of a cipher to me. It made perfect sense for her to have been brought into her own as Oracle, and being made into something aspirational for overcoming her perceived limitations. That Barbara Gordon and her motives made a lot more sense to me than “the girl version of Batman -” which, let’s face it, isn’t an entirely unfair observation of pre-Crisis Batgirl. This may or may not speak to the general creative direction at DC at the time, but she never really stepped out of Batman’s (admittedly long) shadow. But once she became Oracle..? It was on. She was a member of the JLA, for god’s sake!
Oracle was cool. Oracle had the Birds of Prey (although they were never called that in comic except that one time as a joke!). Oracle had some sweet sweet Nightwing action going on.
And then they undid it.
With the snap of a Flashpoint, Barbara was suddenly upright, walking, and Batgirl again, thanks to some vaguely-defined comic bookery and the TLC of Gail Simone, the Greatest Barbara Gordon Writer Who Ever Lived. Many fans were outraged, citing the sudden reappearance of her ambulatory mobility as a slap in the face to the real-world disabled who could never hope for such magical MacGuffin treatments. Others were overjoyed. Some just chucked it aside because it was part of the New 52 experiment. But, love it or not, the OG Batgirl was back. But what did that mean in 2011? Setting aside the shock of her just suddenly being able to walk again, how could this regressive take on the character connect with readers?
As it turned out, not very well: New 52 Batgirl didn’t really make much of an impact (other than just, y’know, being there in general) until being revised a second time for the DCYou imprint as an even-younger, impish, selfie-taking Millennial defender of the newly-established Burnside district of Gotham. But when the New 52 imploded and gave way to DC’s Rebirth era, and “classic Babs” was back, DC realized that it still hadn’t answered the question originally asked at the dawn of New 52: just who the heck is this character now, anyway? And I think that failure to answer that question is the crux of why the character just hasn’t gained traction like she could have over the course of the last near-decade.
Clearly there is love for Babs – she has a ravenous, dedicated fan base – but no one had really cracked the code and written a definitive take on the character as Batgirl, either. She was there, a prominent part of the Bat-family, but operating in something of a pro forma manner. Her earliest Rebirth-era adventures were solid enough but failed to achieve any sort of an acclaimed, must-read status. Indeed, when DC trimmed back some of its initial Rebirth offerings from twice-monthly to plain-vanilla monthly, Batgirl lead the pack as an example of a book that was selling well enough to not be cancelled but at the same time couldn’t sustain that coveted twice-monthly status.
(And that’s certainly not a reflection of any creators involved in those books – or any of the other aforementioned ones – but rather an indicator of a) a character being rooted in another era’s zeitgeist and mores and struggling to evolve with the times, and b) the vagaries of today’s comics market in general and prickly readers in particular.)
Enter writer Mairghread Scott, then who took Batgirl‘s reins last fall with issue twenty-five, and has taken the character in an informed, solid direction. Her Batgirl is no-nonsense, kicks ass, yet operates with a bigger heart than her male counterpart. She also sets herself apart from the rest of the Bat-family by having an obvious and easily-exploited weakness: the implant that allows her to walk again. Scott took that weakness and ran with it in the first story of her run, “The Art of the Crime,” in which the implant was damaged and caused her to not only begin to fail physically, but also mentally – at which point her fear that her faculties might ultimately fail her generated a relatable fear that no other Bat-character can match. Right then and there, Scott brought Barbara down to an identifiable level for readers, something that no one in the Bat-family except for Tim Drake can boast.
After an adventure with a paid assassin named Cormorant (full disclosure: I had to look up what the hell a cormorant is) and some political intrigue, Scott’s ongoing story gets interrupted this issue by some Batman Who Laughs-related fun and games that, despite being a nominal tie-in issue to that miniseries, manages to stick to the heart of who Barbara is as a character. For readers not in the know, because this issue does come kinda out of nowhere with very little explanation: Barbara’s brother James Gordon is completely insane, though more of a simmering low-grade crazy than an OTT Joker-esque crazy. This take on James was originally introduced in Scott Snyder, Jock, and Francisco Francavilla’s masterful “The Black Mirror” storyline which ran from Detective Comics #871-881 (and incidentally gets my vote for best Batman story of this decade), and has popped up a few other times since then to menace the unsuspecting – though generally members of the Gordon family. That makes his being free, then, personal for Barbara – especially after she finds out her father knew about James’ release and didn’t tell her. Betrayal most foul!
The issue’s stakes increase as Barbara’s anger and frustration incrementally rise throughout her desperate search for James, and she begins acting in less-than-heroic manners. This falls outside the stereotypical range of expected behavior from tried-and-true superheroes (especially in the archetypal DC mold), but is an utterly human response that readers can instantly identify with. Her mistrust of James, and anger toward her father, and even more anger toward the system that let him go free without having sufficiently paid for his crimes – these are all completely sympathetic responses to the situation.
Which brings me back to my original question: just who is Batgirl in 2019? The character has gone through so many changes in the a last 10-15 years alone that there’s no real easy answer to that question. But Mairghread Scott seems to be on the right track on how to rectify that situation: Barbara has gone from being a cipher to a character we can all root for because of her humanity. She does good not because her parents were killed in front of her or because she has the proportionate speed, strength, and raging guilt complex of other heroes – she does good because she is an inherently good person who just wants to make the world a better place one person at a time. It’s ridiculously simplistic, but that’s the point: she’s not a character who should be overthought, but that doesn’t mean she’s vacuous, either. She’s inherently likable in a way that immediately draws readers into her orbit, not unlike the X-Men’s Kitty Pryde. (You might even say that her everywoman relateability marks the character’s Marvel-ization… shhh, don’t tell DC!)
Now, don’t get me wrong: this issue isn’t without its flaws. Like I said, it’s an editorially-mandated fill-in issue that ties into Batman Who Laughs, which causes a bump in the road in the overall story Scott is telling. All of her other subplots get chucked to the side to accommodate the new reality of James being released from jail, which is unfortunate because they’ve all been interesting to say the least. The presence of Batman Eternal alum Jason Bard has been a wonderfully thorny complication in Babs’ life, as has her involvement as a volunteer in a local political campaign. And the art, while decent enough, is a far cry stylistically from usual series artist Paul Pelletier (one of modern comics’ all-time great utility players).
But ultimately, that doesn’t matter. This is a solid comic, and a solid installment in a run that, while not necessarily a Unified Theory on Batgirl yet, is off to a great start. It’s very straightforward superheroics, which may not be for everybody. But then again, not everything has to reinvent the wheel – sometimes it’s nice to have a comic that transcends being merely good, but doesn’t feel like it needs to shoot for the stars either. And in Mairghread Scott’s hands, Babs is off to a heartfelt start, and maybe instead of overthinking it, that can be enough.
Batgirl #33 is a solid read that brings us a down-to-earth superhero tale that showcases its lead running hot under the collar - and rarely more human.
Batgril #33: Family Matters
- Writing - 8/108/10
- Storyline - 7/107/10
- Art - 7.5/107.5/10
- Color - 7/107/10
- Cover Art - 7/107/10