Phillip Morgan ‘18 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
With the New 52 officially behind us, it’s time to turn our attention to the first of DC’s newest line of titles to appear on the shelves, Batgirl. With co-writers Brenden Fletcher and Cameron Stewart and artist Babs Tarr taking over the creative reigns, Barbara’s moving across the river to Burnside (basically Gotham’s Cambridge or Allston) in search of a change of pace along with distance from her father and the rest of the Bat Family, but she gets a bit more than she bargained for when her estranged friend Dinah Drake AKA Black Canary shows up at her doorstep. Instead of apologizing for the unmitigated trainwreck that was the New 52’s Birds of Prey, Dinah regretfully informs her that her dojo burned down and she has nowhere else to go… oh and all of Babs’ Batgirl gear perished in the fire too. If that weren’t troubling enough, Barbara discovers her laptop’s hard drive is missing, which includes critical parts of her college thesis. (Did we mention she’s insanely hungover during all of this?) Deducing someone probably stole it at the party the previous evening, Babs takes this as an opportunity to reinvent Batgirl and makes an awesome (and practical) new costume to fight crime as the new protector of Burnside.
The introduction of the Burnside neighborhood alone is an intriguing and welcome addition to the Gotham City layout. Aside from the downtown area and the crime-ridden lower class hellhole known as “The Narrows,” Bat-titles tend to present Gotham as a singular, foreboding entity. Here, we’re given a whole new side of Gotham City, one that actually makes a decent case for why anyone would willingly live there. It seems part of the reason Barbara chose to move to Burnside is that its distinction as an artsy college kid neighborhood separates it from the darkness plaguing the rest of Gotham, which is why the laptop thief she confronts on her first night in the new Batgirl suit is so shocked. (“I thought all the freaks stayed on the other side of the river?!”)
But no matter how neat Burnside looks on the surface, it’s still a part of Gotham, and on this side of the river crime opts for digital exploitation over costumed lunatics, anime-obsessed motorcycle twins notwithstanding. Between cyborg DJ Riot Black blackmailing people with stolen information and pop artist Dagger Type using social media to capitalize on Batgirl’s fame, the criminal element of Burnside has clearly learned that it’s easier to hide behind a computer screen than beneath a mask. While other members of the Bat Family might feel out of their element in this environment, Barbara’s extensive computer skills makes her a natural fit to combat this contemporary breed of criminal. Plus fans of her pre-New 52 tenure as Oracle might find a little surprise waiting for them towards the end of the story, as her time in the wheelchair comes back to haunt her in more ways than one.
As co-writers, Stewart and Fletcher have Barbara Gordon down to a science, picking up right where Gail Simone left off while still gracefully blazing their own trail. Don’t worry, readers just now joining Babs’ exploits as Batgirl will not get sucked into any Continuity Black Hole, as Fletcher and Stewart know exactly what you need to know before diving into Babs’ story (which really isn’t that much anyway). Theirs is a troubled Batgirl, no doubt. She may be an expert stealth crimefighter with a photographic memory, but she’s still human, and the writers expose her flaws like few others have dared to before. She’s seen what wallowing in the darkness of Gotham’s crime has done to both Batman and her father’s lives, and between that and her traumatic experience with the Joker she’s hell bent on turning her life in a positive direction. Unfortunately this manifests in stepping out of the shadows and attempting to win public trust through her Pixtagraph and other hilariously obvious spoonerisms of our culture’s social media machine.
Her supporting cast is, sadly, a mixed bag. Their portrayals of new roommate/hacker buddy Frankie Charles and Dinah Drake are spot-on, especially when trading witty banter with Babs, even if Frankie’s social awkwardness sometimes approaches mainstream sitcom-level cheesiness (“Is this the hot professor you were telling me about?”). Dinah especially helps Barbara heal through sheer force of obstinance, rejecting the notion that Batgirl becoming a social media celebrity will bring Batgirl happiness as well as calling Barbara out on her growing dependence on technology, highlighted most of all by a scene where a tearful Batgirl nearly―*gasps*―deletes Dinah from her contact list.
Unfortunately, where this book falters is the rest of the cast, who run the gambit from “untapped potential” to “criminally stereotypical.” Qadir, her somewhat reluctant tech developer and gadget outfitter, doesn’t get much development beyond “builds stuff for Batgirl,” and his sister Nadimah doesn’t contribute much either beyond serving as a springboard for Babs’ to vent about her life problems to. They’re not necessarily poorly written, just underused given the significance they’re purported to have in Barbara’s life. The same cannot be said about Jeremy DeGroot and Liam Powell. Jeremy, an adjunct professor at Burnside College, makes Babs’ school life uncomfortable as her slightly older male crush that she tacitly turns down because he’s a professor and… that’s it. Nadimah at least has her own affairs we don’t know about yet, but Jeremy keeps showing up at Barbara’s desk for more sad attempts at flirting, which seems like a pretty superficial and unnecessary point of tension when you consider that Barbara is teetering on the edge of losing her graduate position due to her missing thesis.
Liam, on the other hand, is just a nuisance. As a young GCPD officer, it makes sense that he would have some reservations about the Bat Family’s activities, but Liam’s belligerent disapproval of Batgirl is a tad ridiculous and seems only present for the joke of “LOL, he’s ranting about the girl he’s dating and doesn’t realize it,” that definitely hasn’t been done 26,302 times before. In a city where cops have a colorful history of corruption and are habitually helpless against the likes of Joker, Riddler, Two-Face, and The Court of the Owls, he still maintains that Batgirl does more harm in the long run. Worse still, not once does he denounce the methods of Batman, Nightwing, Red Robin, or even Robin (you know, the twelve year-old trained by freaking assassins), as if he deems Batgirl somehow less legitimate than them and therefore more worthy of critique. He opposes Batgirl at the expense of all reason, and while it may be Fletcher and Stewart commenting on how women are more susceptible to blame for negative encounters (known legally as “The Bitches Be Crazy Defense”), it’s not written with any nuance or depth that gives Liam’s ranting any poignance.
Liam might’ve knocked Volume 1’s final score down a few more points were it not for Babs Tarr’s phenomenal art. Aside from the slick new designs for Batgirl and her latest enemies, Tarr crafts some of the most vivid facial expressions in all of contemporary comics, and her depiction of Burnside and its residents is near perfect. Complete with tattooed/pierced indie kids, mustache-sporting hipsters, and the constant stream of local shops and wall graffiti in the background, Tarr gives Gotham’s Arts District the authenticity its needs to hold its own against the likes of Snyder and Capullo’s Gotham Geography, staying true to the nature of Gotham City while leaving her own mark as well.
Ultimately, volume one of Batgirl delivers the goods and then some. Despite characterization issues, the new team knows how to play up the strengths of both Barbara and Batgirl and craft a story tailor-made for the character. It seems that Batgirl has officially claimed Burnside as her turf, and so long as the supporting cast improves, we’re planning to stick around for the long haul. But whether you find humor and daily drama in a Bat Family title blasphemy or are totally in love with Batgirl’s new direction, the message from Fletcher, Stewart, and Tarr is clear: get onboard or get out of the way.
Final Score: 8/10