Review: Batgirl: The Lesson trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, February 06, 2012

I've chastised DC Comics before their release of copious tie-in series to each and every event they publish, a kind of maniacal "throw it at the wall and see what sticks" mentality. Every once in a while, however, this practice proves valid for DC. While neither Gotham City Sirens, Streets of Gotham, nor Azrael ever made headlines as "Batman Reborn" spin-offs, on the other hand you have Bryan Q. Miller's Batgirl. If ever a DC series warranted the title of "instant classic," Batgirl is it; more's the shame that Miller doesn't have a series in DC's New 52, because after Batgirl I'd read Miller writing the DC phonebook.

Miller's final collection, Batgirl: The Lesson, reflects a little bit of the rush to wrap things up before the DC relaunch, but nonetheless Miller completes the book in quite satisfactory fashion. If we accept that there was a general ennui in the DC Universe that necessitated the relaunch, here we can say the opposite: Batgirl went out while the series still shined, a specific book to be proud of in the waning days of the old DCU.

[Contains spoilers]

If Batgirl Rising was the story of former Spoiler accepting the mantle of Batgirl and Batgirl: The Flood was the story of those around her accepting Stephanie in the role, Lesson is where Stephanie's story comes full circle -- the apprentice, if you will, becomes the master. Almost every story in the book is a team-up, notably with Stephanie's innocuous stalker, the Grey Ghost.

Most striking, to be sure, is toward the end of the book, when Batgirl warns of Grey Ghost from crime-fighting lest he hurt himself, and even threatens him to make her point. Miller doesn't dive into this directly, but it's clear how far Stephanie has come as Batgirl when she's discouraging untrained heroes just the same as Robin did to her when she was Spoiler. The Gray Ghost follows an equally Spoiler-y path and tries to infiltrate the villainous Reaper gang, meeting his death; I'd like to think Batgirl pursues the Reapers so stringently in the end in part because she recognizes that there by other circumstances she might have gone herself.

Another study in contrasts is that even as this book is filled with team-ups, it's actually a story about Batgirl growing increasingly alone and learning to rely on herself. With her mentor Oracle declaring herself dead, "Team Batgirl" becomes Stephanie and the computer-whiz Proxy only briefly before Proxy departs on a spiritual journey. Batgirl has plenty of company in the final pages, from the British Squire to Detective Gage to a bevy of her fellow young superheroines -- but it is Batgirl alone who ultimately faces down her father, the Cluemaster, and breaks the hold of the illusion-inducing Black Mercy plant (something, Miller is no doubt aware, gave even Superman pause).

Miller closes out Batgirl just right with seven splash page sequences, ostensibly Batgirl's Black Mercy illusions but perhaps, one hopes, maybe glimpses of the future. Each is more fun than the last, making the reader all the more reluctant that the series is at an end -- a "regular" adventure with Oracle, Batgirl, Proxy, and Robin Damian Wayne; the young heroines in storybook garb versus the Queen of Fables; Oracle, Batgirl, and Robin as multi-colored Lanterns fighting Black Lantern Zombies; a time-traveling team-up with the Blackhawks courtesy of Booster Gold, with Batgirls Barbata Gordon and Cassandra Cain (and is that Damian?); and Stephanie's college graduation, rife with an attack by the Royal Flush Gang.

The final two images are a married Stephanie putting her son to bed, the Bat-signal beckoning (let's hope the dark-haired child is Red Robin Tim Drake's, and we don't have an Anakin/Padme situation with Damian here); and that same Stephanie flying through the air as the new Nightwing, with the young girl Nell who's appeared throughout the series as her protege Batgirl.

Miller and artists Pere Perez and Dustin Nguyen know all the notes to hit (see Klarion the Witch Boy sitting "Batgirl style" on her car on the final cover, and the lurkng vampires). I also appreciated that Miller reveals Batgirl's identity to her mother at the end of the book (shame, again, we won't get to see that play out). Miller even breaks the rules and has Batgirl reveal Oracle's identity to Detective Gage in the end -- and why not? What's the end of the universe if you can't crack a couple eggs?

Still, it's clear the Batgirl title could have used another issue or two (or maybe that's just my wishful thinking). That Detective Gage was a member of the Reaper cult and that they killed his fiance seems too convenient and less dramatic than I expected -- I wondered if Miller simply went for the easiest tie with time running out. Proxy bows out suddenly and without much resolution; I also imagine that readers of just Batgirl will be confused by the "death of Oracle" references, which are not well explained here if one's not also reading Birds of Prey.

Also, as with the recent Chase trade, my copy of The Lesson's cover started curling the minute I brought it home from the store, and that got worse as I was reading it. You've got to love a ten-issue trade (and indeed, The Lesson offers a nice, lengthy read), but there's a lot of issues crammed in here on thin paper, and I wonder if the physical quality of this book is slightly less than others to put so much content in an affordable trade.

None of that, however, should keep any reader from running out and buying for themselves and any comics-interested friends copies of all three Batgirl volumes. This is fun comics, fun comics with a teenage star (when many often read like poor soap operas), and fun comics that's also a brilliant study in how every character is redeemable -- Bryan Q. Miller put a comic starring Stephanie Brown -- the erstwhile Spoiler, who became nearly unreadable during Batman: War Games -- on the New York Times bestseller list.

In its heyday, Batgirl was undoubtedly one of the best books DC Comics was publishing. At the end of Batgirl: The Lesson, Stephanie says with a wink that "it's only the end if you want it to be." I don't think we have quite the control that Miller would have us believe in this moment -- but it's certainly nice to wish so.

[Contains full cover. Printed on glossy (if thin) paper]

What Bryan Miller did for Batgirl, Sterling Gates did for Supergirl, no less of an uphill battle. We'll look at the final Supergirl trade coming up next, plus guest-reviewer Doug Glassman on the Marvel Handbook.
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13 comments:

  1. The DC line so far has been that Barbara Gordon is "our" Batgirl. But as much as I love Gail Simone, her current Batgirl stuff is just not hitting it; Steph is "my" Batgirl. Especially after her appearance in Leviathan Strikes, I miss her more each time someone reminds me she's not in the New 52. I usually don't complain about creative decisions (especially since I was so wrong about "Batman doesn't need a son!"), but this was one critical misstep.

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  2. Stephanie Brown was Batgirl. Hands down. For whatever reason DC wanted to walk back to a past that I am not reading now. I really agree with your comment of it being a bad thing that Bryan Miller is not writing in the New 52. I had a thought reading Birds of Prey #5 that he would be doing a better job on that title if it was given to him. I miss his sense of style. He had a way to give us humor and action. That is what is missing in the New 52, books that a re a joy to read.

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  3. Other than the upcoming Smallville: Season Eleven novel, I don't know what Miller is up to these days, but reading these tremendously entertaining issues he wrote toward the end of his run on Batgirl, it's hard to understand why DC's editors would rather give writing assignments to Eric Wallace, J.T. Krul, Tony Daniel, Howard Mackie, Scott McDaniel and Rob freaking Liefeld than him.

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  4. I miss both Stephanie Brown and Cassandra Cain as Batgirls. To be honest, I think Barbara Gordon probably needed the revamp the New 52 gave her, because in the Old DCU I found her getting less and less relevant or interesting to read (admittedly I hadn't read a lot of her, but my point is I didn't feel the need). The DCNU at least pushes DC to do things with the character. But Barbara as Batgirl? Did people really want that? Stephanie Brown and Cassandra Cain are famous for being some of the best female characters in DC comics, and Steph was doing absolutely fine as Batgirl. More than fine.

    I understand DC won't keep her away forever (vague references to Steph and Cass being currently out of the game suggest there are plans to re-establish them somehow), but they better not keep her away long. They'll lose fans.

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  5. Wow, your review is absolutely spot on. The Stephanie Brown Batgirl series was one of my personal favorites to read and was a real gem in the old DCU lineup. Reading your review made me a little bit sad to see Stephanie Brown go (if the comments above are any indication, many other people feel the same way). I regard this title; along with R.E.B.E.L.S, Doom Patrol, Shadowpact, and Checkmate (minus the last six issues by Bruce Jones) as series that were quite memorable, despite their short lifespan. The funny part is, I would have never given any of these series a second look without reading your positive opinions about them on Collected Editions.

    All I can say is “Thank You CE!”, for taking the time to writing these reviews and giving us your perspective on comics. Your opinions are always insightful and well-written. You’ve certainly shown that there is a much deeper level to comics, if you look hard enough. We’ll see if the new DCU can keep up the same quality (I have to admit my own mixed feelings about Barabra Gordan being Batgirl again… *shrugs*).

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  6. What a testament to the power of a writer. When DC announced Stephanie Brown as Batgirl, I remember the vitriol hurled at them -- not from you all, but vitriol. And now, look how complementary we are of Stephanie as Batgirl. It took Bryan Miller maybe half a trade to completely turn the tide; that kind of thing is absolutely astounding.

    @Anon, Thanks for the compliment. One thing I've found working on the DC TPB Timeline is that there's rarely an entire era of DC Comics that doesn't have some gems. Checkmate during Countdown to Final Crisis is one of those, and also Batgirl.

    @shagmu, Have you seen mention of Miller's Smallville novel anywhere but rumor sites? I'd definitely get it (silly as it sounds, though I also bought a Lois and Clark novel back in the day, too!), but I don't see it on Amazon or anything.

    @BDS, Once upon a time Gail Simone definitely saved Birds of Prey when it looked like no one else could write it as well as it had been written before, but of late Barbara Gordon's depiction in Birds of Prey has been flat and depressing (see my review of Birds of Prey: End Run), vs. Miller's Barbara in Batgirl. I do hope we see some improvement in the new Batgirl series.

    Don't miss this "director's cut" of the last issue of Batgirl courtesy DC Women Kicking Ass; I found this after I finished my review, and apparently I got some of the splash page scenes right and some wrong (but good for me for trying!).

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  7. This was one of the best series I have ever read. Period. You hear the word fun to describe a comic every now and then, but this perfectly described Batgirl. Funny, witty, it's what comics haven't really been in ages. Personally I never thought I would read a Batgirl comic, but it was such a fantastic read, it made me a fan of Stephanie Brown.

    Not sure if you read this before, but the link below is an exit interview that Brian Q. Miller did.

    http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=33797

    He had longer term plans for sure. Hearing what he had planned made the ending that much more bittersweet. What could have been....

    Why DC didn't just let him do the 2nd last arc how he wanted, and then done a separate miniseries to close it out a few months later ala Batman Inc just blows my mind.

    I talked to Dan Didio very briefly during last years Fan Expo. I asked why Brain Q. Miller wasn't in the New 52 lineup. Said he was working on something with a similar tine to Batgirl. If that's true is a whole other story, but it would be great. But that begs the question: what the hell is taking so long to get it out the door?

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  8. **tone, not tine

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  9. You're right, CE, there has yet to be an official announcement on the Smallville: Season Eleven novel. But in the CBR interview Magmadragon linked to, Miller said he was working on "something that is not a part of the new 52 with DC", and the novel would fit the profile, I guess.

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  10. Speak of the devil...

    http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=36879

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  11. Yeah, happy about that one (announcement this morning that Bryan Miller will write a Smallville Season 11 comic with Pere Perez art).

    I was a Smallville TV show fan, but didn't think much of the tie-in comics. They couldn't really tell stories because they couldn't change anything; but here I expect Miller ought get free reign. A new Smallville comic wouldn't have been my first choice, but it's Smallville plus Miller -- sounds like some good escapist fun to me. I'm in.

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  12. Hi CE,

    One word for the Batgirl series - Awesome!

    On another note you mentioned, the pages on my copy of the Lesson also started to curl within days of buying it. I wish DC could either offer a Hardback version or improve their material y'know?

    As always CE, spot on review!

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  13. Interested to hear that your copy of Batgirl curled also. My hope is that this is a function of DC suddenly cramming more pages into the final trades before the DC relaunch and therefore having to use lower-quality paper, and that we won't see the same once the New 52 books come out -- hoping, at least.

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