“Batgirl” #36 finds the freshly rebooted heroine dueling with a new pair of foes, and struggling to keep her identity a secret, while discovering it for herself. I sat down to talk about all this with Batman scholar, and my favorite person to talk about Batgirl with, Will Brooker in this month’s edition of The Burnside HOOQ-Up.
Will Brooker: My thoughts after finishing the issue were that it was really good, but felt quite ‘complete’ and self-contained. I’m not feeling a huge pull from the underlying story arc. We know someone is hiring people to try to take out Batgirl under her own name, but I can see this too easily becoming a villain-of-the-month scenario, where each issue we have a new, novelty, fascinating enemy with a unique concept, who Babs dispatches by the end of the episode, as we move closer to finding out who the mastermind is.
Unless that mastermind is someone really surprising and significant, I’m not sure I am feeling the hook of the crime plot. I would still find the soap opera/sit-com aspects really engaging. In fact, the whole situation with Jeremy seems to me an explicit homage to Legally Blonde and Emmett Forrest. The guy absolutely looks and acts like him.
The fights, the social interactions, the overall look and design are consistently entertaining, but it doesn’t feel like a compelling story arc in the way that, say, Court of Owls did by the end of issue 2.
Sam LeBas: I think the episodes in her personal life are meant to generate more ongoing interest. I’m not sure that that’s the best formula for a superheroine book.
It seems like her personal story is being interrupted by moments of Batgirl-ing.
WB: I feel she is still perhaps most herself when she’s Batgirl – that this is when she taps into who she is. It’s as Batgirl, for instance, in a combat emergency, that we see her as a child, with her dad, for the first time in this reboot.
Here’s an example. Look at the first time we see Babs on page 1, compared with the images where we see her pulling an amazing one-handed cartwheel later in the episode.
As Babs, in a ‘normal’, social situation, shopping, there’s a sense of her being cramped by the frame – surrounded and hemmed in by the clothes on the racks and by her friends in their outfits. And she is sitting there miserably, physically hunched. I still think there’s a sense in which, like Bruce and Batman, this ‘Babs’ is at least partly hard work for her, a social performance, and as Batgirl she’s liberated and more in touch with who she is.
SL: She doesn’t participate in that shopping trip. She’s noticeably withdrawn. The only time she becomes animated in that scene is when she and Dinah are discussing Batgirl.
WB: I agree. I really like her outfits a lot, but I think we have to assume she has quite an effortless style and isn’t thinking hard about them, unlike someone like Frankie. I don’t think she actually likes shopping and traditionally ‘female’ or ‘feminine’ activities.
She grew up watching anime, with a younger brother and a cop dad.
SL: I think we are meant to understand that Barbara’s idea of herself and the way she presents herself are almost haphazard, just what she has time leftover for after attending to the business of being Batgirl. She puts great care and effort into crafting her uniform, but seems to just throw on whatever as Babs.
WB: I think you’re right about that, but she still looks really good and I think her outfits are incredibly cute, so that’s a happy accident for her.
You’re right that Babs kind of seems to just throw clothes on and they turn out grungily adorable. But she has different nail polish in all her civilian scenes and it matches her outfits. So she took it off and redid it, on three different days or so.
In fact she changes it from a kind of light brown/grey to red in between the college scene and her data recovery party with Frankie. She changes it during the data recovery scene, there’s nail polish sitting on the table.Continued below
Unless I’m missing something, though, we don’t see how she mends the jacket. I was disappointed by that as the comic pays a lot of attention to detail, as we can see from the attention to the nail polish on the table. i don’t think her sword injury is really dealt with fully either – just a band-aid.
SL: I had serious problems with the jacket being mended.
WB: They even make a deal about how she just bought the jacket.
SL: It would be different if they hadn’t called attention to the fact that it was ripped. Still a misstep, but not as glaring.
WB: Also, I know this is just comic books, but that was a sword wound. You would be bleeding heavily, not climbing trees.
I’m saying this because the creators have set up quite an expectation for me in terms of attention to detail – the comic has loads of tiny details we’re encouraged to notice and enjoy.
SL: She would have needed stitches, or some sort of medical attention. A band aid, even a big one, wouldn’t do the trick.
WB: The comic is very bubblegum and light on one level, but it does invite us to study details, just as Babs does. So, I think the creators may have to decide exactly what they’re doing with the tone, and that injury and jacket rip is a key example.
SL: Tarr reminds us of the injury, by showing Babs’ arm with a band-aid, she is paying attention to detail, but the details need to make sense.
WB: Could be Tarr, could be the writers.
You can’t set up a story about a detective who analyses visual clues everywhere, and then not remain consistent to your own internal logic and visual storytelling.
I think we can agree it’s a small but symptomatic point that breaks us out of the story world and undermines our trust in the storytelling – which is otherwise really strong – a little.
SL: I agree completely, and yes it could be the writers. The book is far from careless, so things like that stand out.
WB: Also, if you look closely you can read the comments about Batgirl on Pictograph on page 1, which again, is the sort of detail that makes you expect some resolution to the whole ripped-jacket issue. Just another example of how usually the comic repays our close examination.
These are technically minor details that again serve as testament to how much the creators invite trust in their story world. We are expecting it all to make sense and be thought out.
I even looked at the office clock and compared it to the time on Nadimah’s watch, to see if they matched.
SL: On page 4, Qadir has on some sort of bracelet in the first panel and then it is gone. This would be hell as an art editor, I have to say.
WB: Well, it’s enjoyable for us as close readers.
I also want to really praise Maris Wicks’ coloring. If you look closely at the first page, it has a texture like watercolor on paper. It is sophisticated but still retains a sense of book illustration.
But I think it’s very important to the storytelling as well as being extremely attractive. Babs’ internal detective work is mostly signified through use of color with the technique I described last time as being reminiscent of video games.
SL: The coloring in the moments where Barbara is piecing things together is fantastic.
WB: And that’s actually vital to the plot, as it was in the piecing-together-the-party scene last issue. And the highlighting of the ladder, and the guy stealing the tablet from the coffee shop.
SL: I think it’s necessary in order for the reader to follow the story. If those scenes were not set apart visually, they could be very confusing.
We need to know that we are entering Barbara’s head, that Jim is not actually in the abandoned warehouse, and so on.
WB: That kind of glowy, TV/video-game light and texture is really effective. It’s almost as if last issue trained us how to read it, and this issue takes it to a more sophisticated level.Continued below
SL: The colorist does really outstanding work throughout, look at the pattern on Nadimah’s jacket on page 3.
WB: I get the sense the team works pretty closely, so I’m sure it’s something of a joint effort.
SL: I’m sure that conceptually, it is, but her execution is pretty impeccable.
WB: True, she goes from that kind of detail to the really effective bubblegum manga colors for the Jawbreaker scenes.The light on their helmets and the glow of the headlamps are great, in an entirely different way.
The visuals are really distinctive. The capture of facial expressions – I like how Babs is often screwing up her mouth, like McKayla Maroney, on page 1, for instance. Tarr isn’t afraid to make her female characters look goofy, exasperated and grumpy, rather than having them classically pretty the whole time. They make funny faces, they’re caught at odd moments.
The characters are sometimes simplified almost to cartoons, like the best work of Phillip Bond and Jamie Hewlett. From the body language in the flirty/comedy scenes, and Batgirl’s agility and wonderful acrobatic skills, there is a lot to enjoy in the visuals.
SL: The way the visual style can leap around and still retain some sort of signature, something consistent, is impressive.
WB: Overall, the look of this book would make it stand out even if it was a crummy story… which of course it isn’t.
In terms of the writing, my sense is that it’s tight, very nicely and neatly structured, but there’s a real sense of it being very crowded. There is so much dialogue in some scenes, and lots of panels on each page. You almost feel like Babs, cramped in between her friends and the clothes in the store. It’s almost overwhelming.
On the other hand, it goes from those very chatty scenes to the almost silent sequences with the bike duel, so the writers can also switch pace effectively.
SL: There might be too many characters for a solo book, but I do find them interesting. In this issue alone we meet three characters who will presumably have recurring roles (Nadimah, Qadir, and Jeremy).
WB: Yes, they are introducing a ‘Batgirl family’, which is maybe too much too soon. But maybe Black Canary was more of a familiar hook for issue 1, and she’s going to leave.
SL: I don’t think she’s going anywhere.
WB: It would make sense if she was a bridge from Gail’s run.
SL: She has to stick around to give Barbara someone to talk to about being Batgirl with.
WB: That’s true, though I don’t think it happened much in this issue. A couple of panels?
SL: Just the first page, almost like a ‘previously on Batgirl’ opener.
WB: Black Canary strikes me as a slightly mean older sister in this issue.
SL: Yes, she is made to seem like she considers herself to be above it all, like she thinks that she knows better and perceives the other characters as childish.
WB: Maybe she is older.
I don’t know what Dinah is really supposed to be doing at this point in her life. Like, is she really going to a bar on her own, rather than out ‘on patrol’? Is she a superheroine or not?
SL: She lost all her gear.
WB: Yeah, but so did Babs. You have to imagine that if someone is ‘in the life’, they have some kind of need and drive to fight crime, or at least patrol.
I mean if you’re a dancer or a skater, or a diver, a week without your activity would drive you crazy. Maybe that’s what is happening to her
SL: They let Dinah be pretty terrible. She’s pouting.
WB: It would be great to have a Black Canary book with the same art team that shows us how she’s off doing superhero and crime-solving stuff while Babs thinks she’s at a bar. Although, that wouldn’t make a ton of sense with them being like sisters, and close partners.
SL: Babs is trying to fix all that’s gone wrong since the fire and losing her data. Dinah is sleeping on a friend’s couch, going out to bars.Continued below
WB: Can Dinah really not get any more ‘gear’ from anywhere else? She knows Batman.
SL: It’s a really harsh comment on her, isn’t it? Makes her seem … Spoiled? Lazy? Is she just there to make Babs look better?
WB: I would love to know what Black Canary fans think of this. If that was Barbara, in a Black Canary comic, I would not be happy with the portrayal.
I think she was originally there to give us a clear link to Gail’s run, as Canary featured heavily in the last story arc, and Alysia left on page 1 of the reboot.
SL: I agree, and I really would like to know what the opinion is.
WB: There is a surprising lack of any connection with the rest of the superhero community here. If it wasn’t for Gordon in flashback, this could almost be about some new character.
SL: That still doesn’t explain while Dinah is hanging around with resting bitch face and actively trying to make Barbara feel bad.
WB: No, it would be great to find out that there was some other intrigue going on. Like maybe Dinah has ordered the hits on Batgirl.
SL: I think that’s a really interesting idea.
WB: The JLA are currently taking out Batman in ‘Endgame’ by Snyder and Capullo so yeah, maybe Canary could be trying to take down Batgirl.
SL: Do you think that makes any sense at all for her character though?
WB: I don’t think it makes sense in terms of Gail’s run, but you could probably come up with a rationale for why Canary would do that to Batgirl if you were starting afresh.
I am not serious, but she is one of the few mystery ‘villains’ who would actually be interesting. If it was Joker or Riddler, ho-hum.
SL: I don’t think we will see any of those villains in Burnside. Until it’s time for a big crossover, at least.
WB: This also makes me think about how it’s going to be jarring when Batgirl appears in a crossover again.
It worked OK with Death of the Family and Night of the Owls, but that felt like a more generic Batgirl somehow. Gail didn’t get so much space to make Batgirl her own character, as Babs had to keep cropping up in larger, Batman stories. This has a far more distinctive tone and it’s going to be weird seeing ‘this’ Babs in another title, written and drawn by other people.
SL: I cannot imagine how she will fit in in Gotham now.
They’ve given her her own world.
WB: I can imagine her with Grayson, if they were written in a similar way. I can imagine Dick in the house she shares with Frankie, coming out in his underwear.
SL: Possibly, she’s really isolated. Not even her hack for the criminal database is working.
WB: Oh, I just thought what would actually be cool, and plausible. Probably too cool to actually happen.
SL: That’s often the case.
WB: The forthcoming Convergence DCU crossover is meant to re-introduce characters from pre-52.
Who else could the other Batgirl be… but Oracle? Who else would have the capacity and also the motive?
It’s all about hacks and electronic systems, but it’s also all about using other, physically active, people as agents. What if an Oracle from another universe was really bitter and pissed that this Batgirl got miraculously ‘healed’?
So, they now have to do something more mind-blowingly perfect than that.
SL: I like the idea, and it makes sense in the context of the larger picture at DC.
WB: If it isn’t that, then I do think another Batgirl from another parallel earth would make a lot of sense. There could easily be a parallel world where the Oracle equivalent is in a wheelchair, but still calls herself Batgirl, and is really bitter and angry. There was an equivalent scene where Batgirl met Oracle in Zero Hour, years ago.
SL: I think that makes perfect sense, also she is using personal information from Babs’ past (like referencing the anime show) that no one else would really have access to.Continued below
WB: It’s an awesome idea, and if they’re doing that, all power to them.
*Since this discussion went to press, DC has announced the return of Oracle as part of its Convergence event.
I also want to side note as I was just scrolling through, the bike scenes are really very Akira — really manga in their depiction of speed and movement, even their panel shapes. Also, I like seeing Babs on a bike as she had a motorbike in the third series of the 1960s TV Batman, so it feels right.
The way she takes down the Jawbreakers is also very video game. ‘Watch for a pattern in their movement.’ She’s a gamer girl.
SL: In that same sequence we get the flashback with Jim, I think the relationship between the two of them seems authentic. I like the way it is depicted and how it reads, but what is the significance of him being there? It’s like a go get’em, tiger pep-talk.
WB: I like it because I don’t remember seeing any scenes previously where Jim actually encouraged Babs. I seem to recall he’s mostly tried to dissuade her.
The idea of a dad teaching an 8-year-old to ‘observe and analyze, like I taught you’ is pretty empowering.
SL: That’s true, so maybe things were marginally more pleasant for this Barbara growing up. She has time to watch cartoons, and her dad is actually home from work to comfort her when she is upset.
WB: I do wonder what they’re working from in terms of James Jr. He really messes up the Gordon family dynamic for me, and makes it incredibly melodramatic and implausible.
SL: I liked him in his initial appearance in “Detective Comics” but the character has since gone of the rails.
WB: I liked him in Year One when he fell off a bridge as a baby. Snyder did some good stuff with him in Black Mirror but I think it became hopelessly messy and over the top after that.
WB: I believe on the first page of the flashback we see a portrait on the wall of Jim with a pregnant Barbara. So, maybe he isn’t born yet.
Seriously, if you are going to make any changes in continuity, dump James Gordon, Jr.
What kind of cop family gives birth to and brings up both a superheroine in the Bat team and a psychotic serial killer? Jim is meant to be a pretty stable, down to earth guy.
SL: Jim sees Batman & Co as necessary for the greater good. It’s plausible for him to have instilled that in Barbara, maybe not even consciously. He has an enormous amount of conviction, but maybe just a little too much sanity to go vigilante himself.
WB: He does now, but this flashback is long before Batman. We must assume that when Babs was eight years old, Batman was not yet around.
I like that he is giving Babs this talk about analyzing, and I also like the way that in the flashback, she’s looking over and looking after – and learning from! – her younger self. It’s an interesting sequence in terms of this book’s engagement with female readers and female role models.
SL: What did you think about the academic setting?
WB: I personally think that is pretty unbelievable in terms of her having an office and research assistant.
SL: It’s a pretty big office, too, with a window.
WB: It must be a prestigious college with a lot of money, like MIT, but I don’t think PhD students get anything like that level of resources.
A research assistant! She would be the research assistant. It’s Burnside College, so that’s like a college in the equivalent of a NYC borough?
SL: Yes. I would think so.
It is far-fetched. Also, I don’t think she is dressed appropriately for that setting, is that on purpose, you think?
WB: She’s coming in for a tutorial with her supervisor, so you might think that was a bit casual. But it’s summer, by the look of it. The weather is warm, everyone on campus is similarly casual.Continued below
Has she met her supervisor before?
SL: I don’t think she has, no.
WB: I think the first time you were meeting your supervisor, you might dress more formally, but we also know that Babs doesn’t have a lot of social skills, and also it’s apparently a computer science department. Though her research also seems to involve sociology…
She’s doing something on social mapping that draws on brain scans and it’s Erickson’s Model (of social development) applied to Burnside. Right now I feel the creators do not clearly have a sense of how this whole academic thing is working.
Also, the algorithm and her research must play a bigger role in the overarching plot, or I’ll be disappointed.
She was developing the algorithm a few years ago before she was ‘injured’ – shot by Joker! How is it not going to be massively out of date now? You develop a social media tool, 3 years ago, and it’s still radical now?
SL: And no one has access to it, even though other people have obviously reviewed it? She presumably submitted the algorithm to the department in order to be part of whatever she is doing in this issue.
Wouldn’t it exist somewhere?
Also, she was applying to a graduate program at 18?
WB: She is very smart. Well, it’s a more interesting and accurate picture of academic research than we see in most superhero comics, but that isn’t saying much, and it’s still kind of hokey.
To be fair, if I was going to write a story set in the comic book industry, it would probably be very vague and inaccurate.
I do also feel that the last page leaves us with a social, sit-com moment as the cliff-hanger for next issue, which… is risky.
It’s very Betty and Veronica. It’s not really a Batgirl type hook, it’s more a Scooby-Doo everyone laughing moment.
SL: Like I said, I don’t know if the personal side of her story will be quite the hook that they think it is.
WB: They should have the jazz sting from Friends or Seinfeld in there. Her life is in danger and we’re left with a moment of social embarrassment.
SL: You’re exactly right, some of her civilian scenes play with a laugh track, don’t they?
It lowers the stakes quite a bit.
WB: I like it but I think those scenes should be within the framework of the Batgirl crime plot. Right now, the Batgirl scenes occur within the framework of the sitcom romance plot.
SL: Absolutely, the lead is sort of buried.
WB: I think the scene where she changes contrasts well with the scene of Babs changing into Batgirl in her first appearance.
SL: I thought it was pretty tasteful.
WB: Yes, I think it is well done and in keeping with superhero conventions of the quick montage.
SL: Her boots wouldn’t have fit in that bag, but other than that, well done. Although, where does she go to change, because my best guess right now is a hallway?
WB: Yeah, firstly her stuff wouldn’t fit in that bag. I think she’s just in a nearby hall, maybe a fire route.
So, she zips her jacket up over the tank top she is wearing, which is an interesting idea, and practical.
I like the way it’s the opposite of the usual ‘pull open civilian clothes to reveal superhero suit’.
SL: The jacket is not practical as protective gear, but it is an easy thing to throw on.
WB: The jacket is really just her branding.
It does mean she has a lot of layers on and is sweating into her civilian outfit. Also, if she’s wearing those purple leggings over her black shorts, that’s also pretty heavy.
I am not yet convinced that the cape does her any good. She even grabs one of the Jawbreakers’ capes later on, so I’m not sure that it’s practical.
SL: Those boots are not well suited to climbing trees and tumbling either.
WB: They are good for kicking, but no, probably not for acrobatics. Although I spoke to two female fans of both comics and DM boots recently, and they assured me they could run and fight in those things.Continued below
SL: The cape is a flourish, which is interesting because Barbara doesn’t often accessorize.
WB: That’s true. Her Batgirl outfit is actually a lot more thought-out.
SL: She cares more about how Batgirl looks than how Barbara looks. She spends money on the materials for her uniform, but won’t try on new clothes for herself.
WB: She is a lot better at designing a cool superhero costume.
So, here we have someone who essentially designed and made one of the most iconic outfits in comics this year, and she just wears college t-shirts and plaid shirts.
I think that does fit with the theory that she feels she is Batgirl more than Babs.
SL: I think that is something that the team is exploring in an interesting way.
WB: I think when she addresses herself in Issue 1, she calls herself Gordon, so it would be interesting to see if she calls herself Babs at any point.
Also on the following page, Jeremy defines her in terms of the commissioner.
SL: We get the kind of meta question at the end of page 1, ‘who do you think she is’? Like Barbara is almost wondering the same thing.
WB: Yes, I think ‘who do you think she is’ might be a thematically important frame. The phone is almost like a hand mirror Barbara is looking into, a ‘who am I’ moment.
SL: Theres a similar moment in the first issue. When she tells Dinah, ‘Someone knows who I am’, it’s almost like she might not.
WB: Well, she is being threatened by someone called Batgirl, too. She’s flashing back to her childhood.
On one level this is all about identity, and it would be great to see that pushed further, especially if there was an alternate-universe Batgirl in play.
Here’s what we get out of it: who is Barbara Gordon?
WHO IS BARBARA GORDON?
SL: Until we find out, you’re still my favorite person to talk about Batgirl with.