Review: Batgirl: Batgirl Rising trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

I had just read Caleb's review of Batgirl #14 before I started Batgirl Rising, so I went in with some trepidation about story and art. Put simply, by the time I finished, Bryan Q. Miller's Batgirl might very well be one of my new favorite series. It's so good.

I'm a Spoiler Stephanie Brown fan. I do also like former Batgirl Cassandra Cain. Roundabouts Batman: No Man's Land to Batman: Fugitive, when Cassandra was Batgirl and Spoiler dated Robin as a member of his supporting cast, it seemed the pieces fit pretty well. Moving forward to nowadays, though, with Batman "dead" and a general trend toward consolidating characters across the DC Universe (fewer Atoms and Green Arrows, not to mention fewer ancillary Batman supporting cast members like Orpheus and Onyx) the roles played by Spoiler and Batgirl seem rather redundant; it rather seems time for one true iconic Batgirl to join the Bat-family, and I think that Batgirl is Stephanie Brown.

(I realize I'm breaking the hearts of a good number of Cassandra Cain fans, of whom I count myself in that number. Just go with me on this for a bit.)

The first best part of Miller's new series is how familiar it feels, if you like that sort of thing. Stephanie Brown is a hopeful college freshman, as the first Batgirl Barbara Gordon was. She is, Miller includes with a wink and a nod, a part-time library clerk, echoing one of Barbara's first jobs. She has a love-hate relationship with Robin Damien Wayne (though more of the sibling-type than Barbara and former Robin Dick Grayson, given that Damien's only ten-years-old). And, whether you like the utility garter or not, there's something about Stephanie's brighter (albeit purple-hued) costume that just shouts "Batgirl." Cassandra was a darker, angsty Batgirl for a darker time, but it's not that darker time any more.

And Miller's take on Batgirl is not just lovingly familiar, it's also faithful. In a fit of inspiration, Miller echoes the "candle scene" where the Dick Grayson once swore an oath to Batman on becoming Robin, but here Barbara, now Oracle, swears her own oath to help Stephanie as Batgirl. Barbara similarly supported Cassandra, but there's an "official-ness" to echoing the oath, letting alone that the new Oracle/Batgirl relationship speaks a bit more to the historic Batgirl personality -- funny, zany, a little looser than Batman. Like Mark Waid on Flash or Marv Wolfman introducing Tim Drake as Robin, Miller hits the right notes of new and old that make Stephanie easy to accept as Batgirl in a way that feels almost inevitable.

Did I say funny? What surprised and impressed me most about Batgirl Rising is just how funny it is. It's not just the one-liners, though Miller has those down pat ("I'm almost fifty percent sure nothing could go wrong," and then Barbara teasing Stephanie about her banter and Stephanie doing the same to Damien); it's also situational, as when Stephanie's defeat of a fire-based villain accidentally freezes Damien in a block of ice. And not only did I think artists Lee Garbett and Trevor Scott achieve just the right mix of cartoony and serious, they're funny, too -- see the scene of Damien as the odd kid on the college campus, managing to stand under the only tree with no leaves and two ravens. Great stuff.

Obviously having Bruce Wayne really dead is an unworkable situation, but Batgirl Rising goes a long way toward answering why the "world without Bruce" story is worth telling. Batgirl aside, Barbara and Dick take an almost parental role in this story, trying to fight crime and keep their respective sidekicks safe. They have an argument toward the end of the book that's not about the actual conflict but rather a reflection of how much they both miss Bruce; their resolve at the end to pick up and continue Bruce's mission is inspirational in its heroism.

I'm not thrilled that Tim Drake is this amorphous Red Robin, but otherwise through Batgirl Rising I get it -- I see how Dick as Batman and Damien as Robin and Stephanie as Batgirl with Oracle on the side could be a viable status quo for the Bat-verse, and I'm sorry for only a moment that we know, as the characters don't, that Bruce is on his way back not too long from now.

Miller gives the reader a lot to look forward to for next time. Aside from Oracle and Batgirl's burgeoning partnership, there's Oracle's mentoring of the paralyzed former Teen Titan Wendy Harris; here again, Miller creates something new while echoing in Oracle and Wendy the relationship between Batman and angry Robin Jason Todd, or even in Alfred's caring for the traumatized Bruce Wayne. There's also a romantic triangle that's nicely unique, in that Commissioner Gordon is trying to set up his daughter with Detective Nick Gage, who Batgirl herself has her eye on. It's not the same old thing, and it's clear Miller's given the characters' interrelation some thought; it shows through in reading this book.

From the first page, as Stephanie is about to stop a deadly teen drag race, Miller's book feels like nothing so much as Chuck Dixon's original Robin series -- this isn't a Batman book with another character in the lead, but rather a story of a specific hero trying to stop crimes specific to her own skill set, as Dixon did with Tim Drake. I've mentioned before that as I've watched the Teen Titans title go through a rough patch, I've at times wondered if the era of the teen superhero isn't over -- if it's all smarmy jokes and bickering, what's the point? Instead, Miller offers a new take on Batgirl that, with no disrespect to what came before, feels like a Batgirl title. I liked this one, and I'm looking forward to the next.

[Contains full covers (by Phil Noto, no less) and variant covers. Printed on glossy paper.]

Next time, we follow Batgirl and the rest of the Bat-family to Metropolis for Sterling Gates's World's Finest. Don't miss it!
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7 comments:

  1. Great review, as usual. I picked up Batgirl Rising yesterday mainly because I knew you'd be reviewing it this week, and boy am I glad I did. If it weren't for the matter of cost, I'd be adding this title to my pull list - especially now that Dustin Nguyen is taking over art duties. But I'm willing to tradewait for this one because it's also a fantastic example of storytelling; I read the whole thing in one sitting, which I almost NEVER do with trades longer than four issues (we get seven here - an added plus!).

    I'll be honest, I was reticent about this title. Writers kind of ran out of ideas with Cassandra (One Year Later, anyone?), and Stephanie's been mishandled more often than not. Fortunately, Miller knocked it out of the park; he really gets the character, and he's the first writer I've seen who didn't make "Batman Reborn" feel like a layover point between status quos. (Hopefully, with Bruce globetrotting in "Batman, Inc.," we'll still get the Dick Grayson status quo in place. Never thought I'd be cheering against Bruce's return, but at the rate Morrison's titles are being delayed, Bruce probably won't return until 2011 as it is.)

    Batgirl Rising was funny - I laughed out loud in a lot of places (but I should have expected that, since Batgirl #14 opens with Supergirl making a "That's what she said" joke) - but it was sincere, as well. I think Miller's got a winner here. If Cassandra ever comes back, I hope it's not at the expense of Stephanie losing the cowl. I'm DYING to see how Miller handles Bruce's almost certain indignation upon his return, but it's not like Stephanie would care.

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  2. great review. I also picked this one up. Its a great book with beautiful art and wonderful characterization.

    PS: thank you for mentioning the paper quality of the book.

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  3. Miller's Stephanie Brown is kind of like Geoff Johns's Booster Gold or Beau Smith/Dave Gibbons/Peter Tomasi's Guy Gardner, in that Miller seems to get this editorially-flawed character despite the flaws, runs with it, and makes the character all the better for those flaws. And indeed, this was one of the first I felt "Batman Reborn" could really work; in the scene where Robin and Batgirl stand in front of the towering Batman, it's been a while since we've seen a Bat-family that looks like a Bat-family.

    My hope is that when Bruce returns -- rejuvenated, I imagine, and with a new perspective on things having been dead/time-lost, that he has absolutely no misgivings about Stephanie as Batgirl. That he takes one look, says "You've been doing the job and Oracle approves," and that's it. This "you're not qualified" silliness, still repeated in the final issues of Robin, seems like so much misogyny, and it's time I hope that the Bat-characters move past it.

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  4. I agree. I think Bruce should embrace the new batgirl as a member of the bat family. He should say something along the lines of:
    Oracle approves of you, thats good enough for me. By the way good job on the scarecrow case.

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  5. Come to think of it, Tim Drake got a major boost on his way to being Robin by saving Bruce in a Scarecrow case, too.

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  6. Yeah,that happened in a trade called ROBIN: A HERO REBORN....it's the lead story titled IDENTITY CRISIS...the trade also collected the original ROBIN mini by CHUCK DIXON & TOM LYLE....what's stranger,there was another trade called TRAGEDY & TRIUMPH...that collected a story BEFORE IDENTITY CRISIS, called RITE OF PASSAGE where Tim's mother gets killed by the Obeah Man & a story after ROBIN called THE JOKER'S WILD (ROBIN II).....or the story can be seen in a 3 parter from BATMAN 455-457,one of the umpteen titles IDENTITY CRISIS....well,there's a mini series, there was a SUPERMAN 4 parter in 1996 by MARK WAID & TOM PEYER, a one shot by PETER MILLIGAN & TOM MANDRAKE on which the episode of BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES was based from DETECTIVE COMICS 633.....makes you wonder how much some editors can love a particular title or maybe it's like PROMETHEA...the "idea" travels from mind to mind through the ages......OK I'll stop now...

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  7. CE, Caleb is pretty much your opposite in terms of the percentage of current DC output he enjoys, so I'm surprised you took his bad review as any kind of warning for yourself. The strange thing is, I probably agree (with regret) with him more often than I do with you, yet I find what you have to say more interesting. Go figure!

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