In this issue of “Batgirl,” Barbara loses a fight with a doll, then goes home to get wasted before barging into her therapist’s office in tears. This, ladies and gentlemen, is our hero. Questionable creative choices and lackluster characterization drag this title down, making it difficult to get invested.
Written by Gail Simone
Illustrated by Daniel Sampere and Carlos Rodriguez
There’s no time to catch your breath after last issue’s shocking ending as an emotionally unstable Batgirl must confront one of Batman’s most violent foes: The Ventriloquist!
“Batgirl” #20’s engaging and dynamic cover by Eddie Barrows, Eber Ferreira, and Blond unwittingly gives readers a window into some of the more problematic aspects of the series. Throughout this run, the villains have gotten more page-time and better backstories than the title character. The treatment of the Ventriloquist is an example of this recurring theme. In this issue, we are introduced to Shauna, a moody sociopathic child on the day that she meets Ferdie, the dummy who is the brains of the outfit. Shauna is painted as troubled young woman whose grievances with society only grow as she matures. Simone spends time building Shauna’s motivation, and gives the character a unique voice. Ferdie, the dummy, creates memorable moments and strong dialogue. Both Shauna and Ferdie are fun to read.
Visually the Ventriloquist is striking, and genuinely creepy. Sampere and Rodriquez have illustrated her as an emaciated waif of a woman, who seems both desperate and calculating. Shauna is depicted as thoroughly frightening and enraged at moments, though there is a believable contrast in her calm state, which conveys vulnerability and a madness that is always near the surface. The illustrators have deftly captured a complex character in their work. In fact, the art in this issue is vibrant, and generally appealing throughout. The way in which the city frames Batgirl as she stalks trouble is very strong hero work. The action sequences read easily, and retain a beautifully fluid quality. The character illustration, and the clean, skillful art are the most impressive elements of this book.
The problem here is Barbara. From the first moment she appears in this issue, she is broken. Barbara enters the narrative by bursting through her therapist’s door with smeared mascara and liquor on her breath. Her conduct is not only questionable on a human level, but seems antithetical to the idea that she is a hero. Why this iconic heroine being continually presented as a weak, rash, immature young woman?
For a large part of the run, Barbara has been doubting herself. Initially, she doubted her physical prowess, after regaining use of her legs. Then, she suffers through her encounter with the Joker, continually questioning her ability to control her rage, and feeling intensely vulnerable. Then she faces her brother, James, Jr. Being set against her own family makes her feel conflicted, as she is forced to question her history; this pushes her to extremes. Now, she has blood on her hands, and she can’t stomach the guilt.
When was the last time we were allowed to see an empowered, strong, intelligent Batgirl? It’s been a while now. Her toughness has become secondary to her victimhood. It seems that she has re-cowled herself completely by accident. With all her uncertainty, readers must question why she feels compelled to be Batgirl at all. Aside from the fact that her motivation to become part of the Bat-family is never well realized, and her decision to go back to that role after her injury is never clearly explained; the focus of the action has made the purpose of the figure of Batgirl confusing. It’s difficult to know whether the problems with the character are rooted in editorial interference, or in Simone’s imagining of the heroine. The last few conflicts have set Batgirl up to fail. In the most recent part of the run, she has not been defending Gotham, she has been defending herself. The Joker was after Batgirl, James was after Barbara; she has been embroiled in personal conflicts to a much greater degree than she has been protecting the city. Does Batgirl exist purely to be exploited by bad guys? While Barbara is talking to her therapist, she tells her that she went into a bad part of the city alone at night, asking for trouble. This is part of Batgirl’s job description. Why is so troubling to her now? She seems to be questioning her choice to play the role of Batgirl. This just does not make sense.Continued below
If Batgirl lacks motivation, Barbara lacks characterization. To say it another way, if you don’t want Batgirl to be your hero, you wouldn’t want Barbara to be your friend. Who is this woman? What does she want, or believe? It’s hard to articulate that. She is always in emotional crisis. She has difficulty maintaining relationships, and seems somewhat self-obsessed. For example, when her roommate Alysia tells her that she is trans, Barbara interrupts the conversation to take a phone call. In this issue, Barbara goes to see her therapist without an appointment and demands to be seen, then she leaves just as abruptly. Her behavior is inconsiderate, and makes her seem like a diva. Another WTF moment comes when Barbara suddenly remembers that she has a photographic memory. The irony of forgetting one’s eidetic memory is not meant to be read humorously, which just makes Barbara seem silly.
In addition to the problems with her character, her choices are difficult to understand. She begins this issue by revealing that she has, ‘put herself in exile,‘ which apparently means that she has removed the yellow Bat-insignia from her uniform. Beyond this symbolic gesture, Barbara seems to have a loose definition of the word, ‘exile.‘ Immediately after defacing the Bat-suit, she goes out on patrol. In addition to that, Barbara has a date tomorrow night. This self-prescribed time out seems to have little impact on her behavior. The date that Batgirl mentions is with a criminal Batgirl rescued from a bear trap. That’s right, Barbara’s love interest is a one-legged car thief with a heart-of-gold who wants to be a good guy, honest.
While the writing in this issue is easy to follow and clear, it becomes a bit heavy-handed at times. Big emotional moments are paired with banal, obvious narration; bleeding the feeling out of them. For example, when Batgirl prepares to throw her Batarang at the Ventriloquist, she reminds the audience that the last time she threw it, she killed her brother. Readers are beaten over the head with captions that tell them what to feel and when to feel it, and never trusted to pick up on subtext or subtlety. The emotionally fascist narration oversimplifies the experiences of the character, and creates a dullness that works against all the plotting that has been done to get the character to this point.
While the Ventriloquist is interesting and well-realized in this issue, this title is stifled by an underdeveloped protagonist. Unclear motivation, inconsistent characterization, and a muddled focus prevent “Batgirl” from reaching the level of greatness. As readers, we want to like Barbara, we want to love Batgirl, but the choices in the series thus far make it a difficult feat. Somewhere between the idea and the actualization of this incarnation of Barbara as Batgirl, there is a disconnect. Whether this problem is editorial, or purely creative, Barbara is being buried under a mass of confusion and desperation that limit the range of her character. As the final page of the issue foreshadows a conflict between Batgirl and Commissioner Jim Gordon, it seems inevitable that the personal assault on Barbara continue. Batgirl is becoming a superhero version of a damsel in distress, and it is hard to see her that way.
Final Verdict: 5.5 – This is not the Batgirl that Gotham deserves.