At first, I wasn’t even going to pick up Batgirl #1. Barbara Gordon is a character I enjoy well enough when she’s a supporting character in someone else’s comic, but I’ve never quite cared enough about her to seek out any title where she is in a starring role. Furthermore, with Batwoman quickly securing a definite place on my buy list, I couldn’t help but feel that getting Batgirl too would be a bit redundant. However, the presence of the always dependable Gail Simone as writer of the series, coupled with the aching void in my soul that came with the demise of Secret Six, pushed me to add Batgirl to my list of books I’d be getting come September. Besides, I was curious to see how DC was going to handle the prickly issue of taking Barbara out of her wheelchair-bound role as Oracle and rehabilitating her in her more iconic costumed guise.
However, after deciding to buy Batgirl, almost as an afterthought, something strange began to happen. It started with a brave woman dressed as Batgirl at San Diego Comic Con, who stood up at panel after panel and challenged DC on their lack of female creators, female heroes, and stories that would appeal to female readers. It seemed to capture the imagination of comic fans across the internet and blogosphere, emerging as a hot topic of debate and discussion. The movement this woman jumpstarted had such an impact that DC issued a formal response on their website, pledging to have more female-driven content in future. And all of a sudden, Batgirl – a comic with a female hero, written by a female creator – was at the centre of the storm, all eyes on it.
Fastforward to September, and Batgirl #1 was one of the first of the New 52 to sell out at a distributor level, and judging by various local retailer reports, it is the comic that’s selling out from shops the fastest too. Batgirl has found itself as one of the most important, most talked about, and most anticipated of all the 52 #1s DC are releasing this month. It’s a degree of pressure and scrutiny that the comic was perhaps not originally expected to withstand. But does it live up to it all those expectations?
I’m pleased to report that Batgirl #1 doesn’t just meet expectations. It surpasses them.
I’ll get the bad news out of the way first. No, you don’t find out how Barbara Gordon got out of the wheelchair. We get references to a miraculous recovery, but there’s no explanation given beyond that. I have to start by saying this, because although the overwhelming majority of the response to this comic has been massively positive, I’ve seen a small minority of readers call the comic a disappointment, stating they only bought it to get an in-depth exploration of the reworkings of DC continuity, and were gutted to instead get a story that looks forward rather than back. But fear not, skeptics: this is not, as one person I talked to worried it would be (preventing them from buying the comic), a “regression”, putting Barbara back to the role of carefree kid and retconning the classic story The Killing Joke (where The Joker shot Barbara through the spine, crippling her in the first place) out of continuity. Everything that happened, happened. But the focus of this comic is how we move forward from there.
Much has been said about how DC is using this relaunch as an attempt to reach new fans, make these characters accessible. If that is the case, then Batgirl #1 is a textbook example of how to do that right. As I mentioned before, I’m not a big Barbara Gordon fan. But Gail Simone clearly is. And I could pick this comic up, and within the space of a single issue feel that I GET Barbara. I now know her, understand her, and like her. I don’t feel like the events of The Killing Joke or Barbara’s experience as Oracle have been cheapened, but rather have been used to enrichen Batgirl, and give her resumed status as a costumed hero added gravitas.
Barbara Gordon is a trauma survivor. She may describe her recovery as a “miracle”, but it is implied that she went through a painful rehabilitation to be able to walk again. After stopping the bad guys and saving the day, she can’t get the shakes out of her legs, and she can’t bring herself to remove the wheelchair ramp from the back of her van. Every time she is tackled over a ledge, or has a gun pointed at her, we remember the grievous injury she has sustained in the past, adding a sense of risk to fights we might otherwise take for granted. Her past ordeal still haunts her, but it didn’t stop her. And Gail Simone gives us a sense that this is who Barbara is, at her core: she’s a fighter, who will always find a way to stand back up and keep on going.
If Secret Six taught us anything, it’s that Gail Simone has a real talent for creating truly vile, loathsome villains. That trend once more comes into effect with Batgirl #1. The Brisby Killers could easily have just been generic masked thugs Batgirl gets to beat up in her first appearance. But instead, Mrs. Simone gives these minor antagonists some additional panel-time to show real nastiness and malevolance, made all the more tangible and horrific by how casual and human they seem in their behaviour, even at their most despicable.
But the Brisby Killers are small potatoes: the real threat to watch out for is The Mirror. A chilling figure with the cruel M.O. of hunting down the miraculous survivors of terrible events that should have killed them and murdering them in a way that reflects the death they escaped, The Mirror also seems to have an intense dislike for secretaries. Let’s take a moment to bow our heads in silence for poor Heidi, just doing her job when a masked maniac takes the trouble to reach across her desk and punch her in the face. The Mirror feels like a very suitable first nemesis for the rejuvenated Batgirl, and of course the character already seems to be on an impending collision course with Barbara Gordon.
I’ve spent the bulk of this review praising the writing of Gail Simone, but artist Ardian Syaf also does some noteworthy work. While a lot of artists need full page spreads or 2-3 panel pages to impress, Syaf mostly has 6-panel pages to work with, but even with comparitively small images, nothing feels crammed, and each image is stylishly rendered. The visuals are further aided by the vibrant colors of Vlises Arreola, while the bold inks of Vicente Cifuentes that really make Syaf’s pencils pop from the page.
In a week crammed with big releases, Batgirl #1 was one of my least anticipated comics of the week. But by the time I’d read all my purchases, this ended up being one of the best. When I first heard of this new Batgirl series, I thought it would be a lesser cousin to Batwoman, but now I’m in a position where I don’t know how Batwoman #1 is going to top this. I’d call DC’s relaunch a huge success thus far, and if Batgirl emerges as one of its hottest titles that success would be well deserved. I, for one, have been recommended it to new and lapsed readers, female and male alike.