Review: Batgirl: The Greatest Stories Ever Told trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, October 08, 2012

[Guest reviewer Zach King blogs about movies as The Cinema King]

After looking at some of the heavy-hitters of the DC Universe, we return to my comics hometown of Gotham City, the place where I feel most comfortable, the place where I was "born" into comics at age 3. This time, though, we're looking at a different member of the Bat-family -- Batgirl: The Greatest Stories Ever Told.

As with the Green Lantern trade, though, the title is something of a misnomer; what this volume really collects are the "greatest" Barbara Gordon Batgirl stories. A "best of" Batgirl trade ought to acknowledge that Babs isn't the only woman to don the cowl, so the omission of Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown is a glaring one.

What's more, the volume is slim -- only seven complete stories and 160 pages -- noticeably so in hand and on the shelf next to the other "Greatest Stories" trades. I'll kibitz more about what's not in the trade at the end of this review, but as for what we do have? It's actually a very good profile of Babs's stint as Batgirl.

The sum of the parts being more than the whole in this series, let's take a look at what's inside this volume.

"The Million Dollar Debut of Batgirl" (Detective Comics #359, January 1967): While we all know that this story was a backdoor opportunity for the campy 60s TV show to introduce Batgirl, Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino turn in a story that still works, especially the bit about Babs as an accidental hero in what is essentially a Halloween costume (a detail nearly every other version of the character has used). Killer Moth is admittedly an odd choice for a first foe, but his pushover status lets Batgirl shine while allowing Batman and; Robin to step aside bemusedly and let her take center stage. An unsurprising inclusion, "Million Dollar Debut" still works.

"The Orchid-Crusher" / "The Hollow Man" (Detective Comics #396-397, February-March 1970): This is the only story that really falls flat in this collection. There's nothing truly "great" about this, although its uncomplicated plot allows us to see Batgirl in action without the Damoclean Sword of Continuity hanging over her every decision. What doesn't work, however, is the thinness of the procedural plot, in which Batgirl joins a dating service to track down a serial killer with a proclivity for redheads. Under Frank Robbins's script, Babs is surprisingly condescending, and the clues/red herrings are so flimsy that I had to read the story twice to figure out how the story's conclusion fit with what I'd just read.

"The Unmasking of Batgirl" / "Candidate for Danger" / "Batgirl's Last Case" (Detective Comics #422-424, April-June 1972): At first, there's nothing remarkable about this story, until Babs decides she's going to run for Congress -- and then we, the readers, realize she's going to win. Robbins begins to redeem himself here; while the story isn't particularly well-written (much of the politicking here is cliched and one-dimensional), it's much better than the previous entry, and you get the sense that this story matters. More importantly, the story gives a good sense of who Babs is, since she spends a lot of time out of costume; it might be no surprise that this storyline was published almost immediately after the O'Neill/Adams Green Lantern/Green Arrow realism road trip. And it's a mercy when Jim Gordon admits he knew his daughter's identity all along, although "Kick off, baby!" is a little too hip for my Commish.

"The Invader from Hell" (Batman Family #1, September/October 1975): Elliot S! Maggin and Mike Grell introduce the Batgirl/Robin team with an off-the-wall adventure in which Batgirl and Robin fight the revivified Benedict Arnold and his accomplice, Satan (who, Chris Sims has noted, looks suspiciously like Stan Lee). While the premise is wonky and the conclusion jingoistic at best, there's a real sense of chemistry created between the two youngsters, and the moment when they kiss is explosive. This kiss, and the story overall, really works thanks to some inventive work by Grell, who plays with panel structure and sequencing to create a dynamic reading experience. The action may be bizarre, but the longevity of the Dick/Babs relationship speaks to the emotional backbone of the story.

"Startling Secret of the Devilish Daughters" (Batman Family #9, January/February 1977): Here we're introduced to Duela Dent, and for that alone this is a significant entry in DC continuity. It's not, however, a Barbara Gordon story, although she does team up with Dick Grayson to take down Duela. The true star here is Robin, who deduces Duela's true identity with such aplomb that even the narrator can't explain it (honestly, this is more of a storytelling cheat than it sounds). Babs tangles with Duela and gets honored for her work as a Congresswoman, although her devotion to the job has already been established within this anthology, making this tale somewhat superfluous. That said, it's a fun and compelling read, even if the "startling secret" is a bit easy to predict.

"Photo Finish" (Batman Chronicles #9, Summer 1997): With "Photo Finish" we jump to a post-Crisis world for a different look at the debut of the Batgirl and Robin team. Written by Devin Grayson (surprisingly and/or disappointingly, the only woman contributing to this trade), we find Batgirl and Robin taking down museum robbers in what quickly starts to feel like a "first date." Again, the chemistry between the two is palpable, and it's not difficult at all to fall in love with either one of these crimefighters. Duncan Fegredo's art is solid here, too; while he's best known for his work on Hellboy, Fegredo does great work with facial expressions, giving vivid emotion and character to our protagonists.

"Folie a Deux" (Legends of the DC Universe #10-11, November-December 1998): We close with this Kelley Puckett and Terry Dodson story that is full of surprises. Not in the story it's telling, but in the manner in which it's told: after a long and silent opening scene, we find out how the parallel narratives are connected in a shocking visceral moment, and the story is populated with many moments of elegant emotional simplicity that hit the reader in a place they didn't know they could be touched. Indeed, "touching" is a word I'd use to describe the whole story; the difficulty Jim and Babs have in communicating with each other is telegraphed loud-and-clear to us, allowing Dodson to speak volumes for them with an arched eyebrow or a sideways smirk. "Folie a Deux" is an unqualified success, easily the "greatest" collected here.

All told, I'm of two minds on this trade. On the one hand, calling the book Batgirl: The Greatest Stories Ever Told leads me to expect some treatment of the character's legacy, which could have easily been accomplished, for example, by including the No Man's Land chapter where Helena Bertinelli passes the torch to Cassandra Cain, or by including any of the Stephanie Brown appearances (she'd been Batgirl for more than a year before this trade was published). Heck, even Misfit wouldn't have been out of place in this trade.

On the other hand, if this is a strictly Barbara Gordon book, there's a gaping hole-in-things with nary a mention of her tenure as Oracle; of course, The Killing Joke wouldn't fit in here for a number of reasons, but there are so many ways to work in her decades-long run as the DCU's resident computer genius -- her identity confession to her father in Gail Simone's Birds of Prey or anything from Scott Snyder's Batman run (which, admittedly, would have been too late for inclusion).

Either way, Batgirl: The Greatest Stories Ever Told is brief enough to accommodate at least three more stories, and with so much good material out there (especially the issue of Batman Adventures where Babs attends a costume party but ends up debuting as Batgirl to fight Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn) the treatment here is almost criminal. As I said in my introduction, what we have here is very good, but this is a collection that begs for expansion and republication.

Next time, we return and begin again with a second journey to Metropolis for Superman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Volume 2. See you then!

More Greatest Stories reviews: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Justice League, and Shazam.
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1 comment:

  1. Some of the content of these "Greatest Stories Ever Told" is disputable, of course. B

    ut my favorite part of these are the stunning Alex Ross-painted covers!
    They'd make outstanding posters/art pieces on the wall!

    ReplyDelete