REVIEW: Batgirl #1

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.

2 thoughts on “REVIEW: Batgirl #1

  1. I’m kind of curious as to why Batwoman would somehow make Batgirl redundant. Is it because they’re both female characters in the Bat Family? They’re both distinct characters with their own personalities, motivations and stories.

    While it’s true Gail Simone is the writer for this comic, being a female writing a story about a female protagonist isn’t new territory for her or DC. Simone also wrote Wonder Woman, Birds of Prey and Rose and Thorn for DC, among others. Rose and Thorn also holds the distinction of not only being written by a woman, but penciled by one, as well. While it was a limited series and may be difficult to find now, I highly recommend seeking it out and giving it a look. Furthermore, considering her run on Birds of Prey, which featured Barbara Gordon prominently, it seems only natural that Simone would take the helm of Batgirl. While Simone is an outstanding writer (arguably my favorite at DC. Her work on Deadpool and Agent X while she was employed by Marvel, too, is also something you should really seek out if you’re a fan of her writing), it seems that she is the ‘token female’ that DC can point to when they’re called on not having many women contributors; that was one of the points the woman at ComiCon dressed as Batgirl was trying to make.

    I don’t really consider having Simone write Batgirl as DC trying to make anything right or change anything about what their content is and where it comes from; this is not the eye of any storm. Really, Simone’s position as writer of this comic is just more of what they’ve done in the past. Does this mean the comic is not worth picking up? Good heavens, no. Simone is an incredible story teller, and I’ll readily lay cash down to read anything she’s penned. But I don’t think that this is anything revolutionary for DC when it comes to having more women on their staff contributing to their comics.

    1. Thanks for the insightful reply, Ampersand.

      You’re right, Batgirl and Batwoman are totally different characters. But given that both are Gotham-based heroines who fight crime with a bat motif, I wasn’t sure if the book would cover too much similar ground. I’ve written about this in the past, and I believe the Comic-Con Batgirl touched on it too. I’m uncertain as to if the pros balance out the cons in terms of Batwoman benefitting from the instant marketability of the Bat logo, but by its very nature being rendered derivative of Batman and having her identity blurred with Batgirl rather than being her own distinct character – given how her personality, her backstory and her supporting cast are all pretty much seperate from the larger Bat mythos as it stands.

      As for the rest of your comment, I think you misunderstand the point I was making. I’m not trying to suggest that Gail Simone on Batgirl was somehow a response to Comic-Con Batgirl, or that Gail Simone on a comic like this is anything new, or that this book was intended to be a lightning rod for a feminist movement in comics. The point I was attempting to make was that this was originally just another comic, but in the aftermath of the Comic-Con debates, it suddenly found itself as a centre of attention, thrust into much greater prominence in the context of that argument, and gaining a much higher profile than it might not have been originally designed to withstand.

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