Review: Batgirl Vol. 1: The Darkest Reflection hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Perhaps the most controversial single aspect of the DC Comics New 52 relaunch was Barbara Gordon's return to the mantle of Batgirl, mitigated only by the fact that Gail Simone, the long-time writer of Barbara's "old" DC Universe alter-ego Oracle in Birds of Prey, would be heading the series. Simone's first outing on the title has now arrived in the form of 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]

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10 comments:

  1. Great review, as always! I agree with you that Simone's writing is what "sells" this title, despite its controversial nature. I really appreciated the slow-burn approach to healing from trauma and the post-Nolan realism with which Barbara regains her identity as Batgirl. I am, however, very curious what the "identity" of this title will be once Barbara heals more fully; I can't imagine the story clinging to Killing Joke for much longer, although with Joker's imminent return I'm sure we haven't seen the last of the shot heard 'round the world.

    The #0 issue was supposed to resolve the issue of her recovery, but since the method was revealed in an earlier issue (albeit in a "This happened, move on" kind of story beat) I'm not sure where that leaves #0 - hopefully going from Killing Joke through her time as Oracle (Oracle, nicknamed O, in a #0 issue seems too perfect to resist). Maybe we'll even get a one-panel cameo from Steph? (Nah, although I wouldn't put it past Simone to sneak a waffle or two in there.)

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  2. Agreed that narratively, Barbara's caution and inexperience can't remain at the forefront of the title forever (that trauma might stay ever-present in the real world, but in fiction it can't continue to be rehashed). At the same time Miller's Batgirl made Stephanie's learning curve a central theme of the title for going on twenty-five issues, so maybe Simone has more angles for it.

    When you talk about Barbara's recovery being revealed in a story beat, is that in Darkest Reflection or later? There was something about a trip to South Africa, I recall, and then something about robotics, maybe? Of course the cause has to be revealed sometime, and I wouldn't even mind if it was "evil supervillain restored her legs to secretly infiltrate the Bat-family" kind of thing -- I'm satisfied that when it was done, it was as sudden and Barbara was as surprised about it as the reader, and so the other chips can fall where they may.

    I was surprised there was no mention of Oracle in Darkest Reflection -- I'm not sure at this point that Barbara actually *was* Oracle in the New 52. Are they handling that in Birds of Prey?

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  3. Sounds decent enough.
    Though one can wonder why the need to even change back to Babs when her new books so similar to Steph's in term of character.
    Also I have some problem recognizing her as Barbara.. I mean she might look like a redhair she sounds more like Tim's version of Robin or Steph's Batgirl to me... But that might be a personal taste~

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  4. Reading Darkest Reflection and seeing the similarities between Barbara and Stephanie, my theory was that it's not that Simone's new Barbara is more like Stephanie, but rather that Stephanie was a good reflection of the "iconic" state of Batgirl, which we now see in actuality with Barbara restored. Kind of a chicken and egg thing.

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  5. That's interesting, since I'm a relatively new reader and I can't remember a time when Batgirl was Barbara in my mind. Barbara's always been Oracle for me, and Batgirl was Cass, then Steph. I can't deny I like Barbara better as Batgirl here than she was as Oracle in recent years, but I still question why she gets to return to her "iconic" identity and personality while it seems unthinkable to, say, return Dick Grayson to Robin status and erase Jason Todd, Tim Drake and Damian Wayne from continuity entirely. I know the Robins have bigger fanbases, but the Steph fanbase sure isn't happy either -- did nobody actually pay to see Steph as Batgirl until it was too late, or what?

    Well, moot point now. I do hope they haven't erased Oracle from continuity entirely, though.

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  6. Yeah, they wouldn't ever pull off something similar with Robin :/

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  7. I really wanted to like this book - tried it twice just to give it a second chance - but it really missed the boat for me. I don't care at all for the insecure, less capable take on Batgirl. To me it utterly defeats the concept, and was one of the major factors that led to Batgirl being sidelined in the 80s.

    Babs as Batgirl needs to be plucky, devil-may-care, much like she was in Batgirl: Year One. Gail's script almost felt like it was apologizing for Babs being out of the chair.

    I'd love a well-done Babs as Batgirl book. But IMO this wasn't it.

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  8. My experience with Barbara as Batgirl was pretty much limited to non-comics media (the old 60's show, and the more recent cartoons), so I can't really comment about her representation here versus her previous one. I'm not a huge fan of reading about big-time-doubting heroes (I keep thinking that James Robinson's recent Justice League run had a lot of that, particularly with Donna Troy?), but I didn't feel it was too heavy here. Babs had some doubts, and made some mistakes, but it was tempered against her remaining motivated and determined. I am okay with it being part of her character during the early part of her series, as she deals with the "survivor's guilt" of regaining the use of her legs, but I would hope that it's something that they gradually move away from and she becomes more confident and "devil-may-care" (as matches said). Kind of reminds me of Wally West's Flash series, which started with him in Barry Allen's shadow, and touched on things like him subconsciously not running as fast because he didn't want to be "better" than Barry, to eventually resolving those issues and coming into his own. So, yeah, I'm okay with it as a way to have the character grow, provided it's part of the character's arc and not as permanent part of their personality.

    I liked the Mirror villain and hope that he's able to return in the future, although I was kind of let down by the whole "showing his victims their reflections" thing; why would they all scream when he revealed his mirror cloak if they're just seeing themselves? But I was able to let that part of it go.

    Gretel was a bit less interesting, and they never did a good job of explaining her mind control powers. There was one character in particular (you know who I mean) which was "controlled" but was "mostly faking it", but without much explanation of to what extent. Did he "feel" the mind control suggestion and allowed himself to go along with it (while still ultimately in control of his actions), or did he behave as he thought he should if he was actually being controlled? Unfortunately all we got was Batgirl's guesses as to what was going on.

    But overall, I liked the book, and will stick with it at least through one more "volume" (I buy individual digital issues, but generally read them together according to how they're collected).

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  9. matches wrote, "Gail's script almost felt like it was apologizing for Babs being out of the chair."

    I'd think the first issues of Batgirl would almost have to, wouldn't they? I think, again, that reversing Barbara's paralysis was probably the single most controversial part of the DC New 52, aside from maybe renumbering Action and Detective (and those, we know, will still get their #1,000 due). If DC had just done away with Barbara ever being paralyzed altogether, I imagine the outcry would have been even greater; Simone's script needed to return Barbara to the Batgirl persona gingerly, just like Bryan Q. Miller needed to have Stephanie deal with the doubters in-story, else I think the audience would never take to Barbara-as-Batgirl again.

    What do you think? Better or worse if the Joker shooting Barbara had been retconned entirely?

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  10. I think Simone handled this exactly right. She made it believable what kind of impact the shooting would have on a person. Can't wait how things will turn out when she faces the Joker again.

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