Batgirl: The Darkest Reflection, and it is a rousing success.
Simone embraces all the controversy that surrounds taking Barbara out of her wheelchair and undoing her paralysis, distilling it into a mystery that examines issues of right and wrong and fair and unfair, survivor's guilt, and the existence of miracles. Amidst a background of creepy horror, Simone also reintroduces a Barbara Gordon who's surprisingly bright and chipper, at once both the iconic original Batgirl and also reminiscent of the Batgirls who once followed her.
[Review contains spoilers]
Gail Simone's wisest move in Batgirl: The Darkest Reflection is to not have Barbara Gordon have exercised her way out of the Joker's gunshot that shattered her spine, nor to have had Dr. Fate magically realign her nerves. Rather, the cause of Barbara's recovery remains a mystery for now -- essentially, it "just happened." With this, Simone avoids belittling the real-life seriousness of spinal injuries, and neither at the same time makes Barbara's recovery trite. Rather Barbara Gordon was Batgirl, was shot by the Joker, fully believed she'd never walk again nor swing from the rooftops, and now she's just as surprised as the reader -- and also she's more than a little scared -- to have her old life back.
This takes some onus off the Barbara Gordon character to be responsible for or "worthy" of her recovery. Geoff Johns tried to do the same thing, with less success, when he brought Barry Allen back from the dead around Flash: Rebirth -- Barry neither caused his own resurrection nor did he feel worthy of the legend that had built up about him in his absence. Barbara emerges once again as Batgirl more than a little unsure of herself and whether she deserves her recovery -- what misgivings the reader has about the loss of Barbara as Oracle and as a symbol of a disabled, therefore, are encompassed in Barbara herself.
It is a theme evident on every page of Darkest Reflection -- Batgirl is not a series, by miles, that intends to take Barbara out of her wheelchair and simply forget about those days. Her foe Mirror, in the first four chapters of the book, targets those he believes have been unfairly granted miracles, including Barbara, because Mirror himself was unable to prevent his family's tragic death. In the second story, Batgirl faces Gretel, a woman with mind-control powers traumatized after a brutal attack. In both stories, Barbara is implicated, whether made to second-guess her own good fortune or faced with the different paths her life could have taken.
As well, Barbara is far from "healed" in this story. Her inaction during a flashback to the Joker's attack literally costs a man his life, and there's numerous times in the book that Barbara is beaten or injured due to her inexperience and time away from crimefighting. In fact, it's near startling how difficult the adventures turn out to be for Barbara, and the number of innocents that she fails to save over the course of the book. Simone's choice here adds realism to the story -- Barbara doesn't easily fight a man twice her size, but rather must struggle to do so -- and works to continually remind the reader that even though Barbara can walk again, her past injuries still affect her present.
Simone's Oracle, in Birds of Prey: The Death of Oracle and elsewhere, had been dour of late, super-serious and often self-depricating, far cry from the more personable Oracle who mentored Stephanie Brown in Bryan Miller's Batgirl series. Simone's new Barbara Gordon, however, is not only considerably younger than Oracle, but she quips while beating the bag guys and cracks wise out on a date. In many ways the new Barbara is more similar to Batgirl Stephanie Brown than she is to Oracle, which itself suggests how Stephanie evoked the iconic Barbara Gordon in the first place. To read Darkest Reflection is to suspect Stephanie's instant popularity as Batgirl may have been actually tapping a latent wish for the return of Barbara (Miller's considerable work notwithstanding).
It's late in the book, however, that certain tics, apparent also in Simone's Birds of Prey and Secret Six work, creep in to Batgirl. Both the appearances of Batman and Nightwing are well-handled, but Barbara's narrative begins to dwell on whether the Bat-family loves her and how they show their affection for one another, something that worked in Secret Six's multi-character drama but that becomes repetitive and sappy here. When Bruce Wayne hugs Batgirl, just past a mind control-induced fight, and tells her "You were always meant to be Batgirl, Barbara," the moment comes about so unceremoniously as to feel forced.
Simone's Barbara also dallies over emotionally embracing or rejecting her well-meaning friends. This is something Oracle struggled with as well, which connects the two characters nicely, but it was a conflict seen once too many times with Oracle and thus feels tired when Barbara considers the same.
Barbara, significant as a member of the core Bat-family in that she's both female and wasn't raised by Bruce Wayne, will necessarily have a different perspective on the group than Nightwing or Red Robin. It is not as though Nightwing or Red Robin never wondered about Bruce's paternal affections, however; but in Batgirl and oftentimes in Simone's Birds of Prey, this seems Barbara Gordon's primary concern and not one secondary or tangential from her current conflict. This may not be a bad thing -- perhaps it helps to define Simone's work -- but it has the effect of slowing the action in some parts here.
In all, however, Batgirl: The Darkest Reflection is rousing in its own right, and maybe even a worthy trade-off for the losses of both Oracle and Stephanie Brown in the DC New 52. Not everyone will be convinced, but especially given how dark the "old" DC Universe's Birds of Prey title had become of late, the new Batgirl is fresh and adventurous, and that can't be a bad direction for DC Comics to go.
[Includes original covers, sketchbook and design page by Jim Lee]
Next week, the New 52 debut of Wildstorm's Grifter, and more!