Batgirl: Knightfall Descends, is a compelling book. It veers a tad into generic superheroics, but at other times delivers wonderfully shocking horror, and a good deal of heart, that speak well for the title. Batgirl, on occasion, seems to work too hard to remind the reader of the "girl" sharing the title with the "bat," though its hard to argue with the title's right to do so; even so, the second volume of Batgirl is better than the first, and suggests even better things to come.
[Review contains spoilers]
Knightfall Descends includes two main storylines -- Batgirl's battles against the villains Grotesque and Knightfall respectively -- and then two one-issue stories, the Zero Month origin and the "Night of the Owls" crossover tie-in. Purists may have some objection to Simone's new Batgirl origin but I found it passably fine, neither worrisome nor especially moving. Simone has Barbara Gordon stop an inmate rampaging through the Gotham police department with the help of a borrowed Bat-costume, ultimately meeting Batman himself. The story generally negates but does not specifically rule out the "costume party" origin, which is a nice touch; its larger goal seems to be to bring the maddened James Gordon Jr. into Batgirl's origin, which becomes more important as James's role in this title grows.
The "Night of the Owls" chapter is plenty understandable even if you're not reading the crossover itself. Simone uses the immortality of the Owl organization's Talon warriors as an opportunity to get into some fascinating World War II history. Also there's a bit in which the Owls threaten and actually control Commissioner Gordon for a while, which is harrowing (and leads me to wonder if the Joker will be able to do the same in the upcoming "Death of the Family" crossover), even though it seemed Gordon was turned too easily for so seasoned an officer. The Batgirl aspects are fine and artist Ardian Syaf begins to draw a smaller Batgirl that better physically resembles the more familiar Stephanie Brown and Cassandra Cain (see the "Holy cats" splash page, for instance).
My one qualm about the "Night of the Owls" chapter, and this carries through to the rest of the book, is that Batgirl starts to become the distaff Bat-title. Granted, Batgirl has fought the men Mirror, Grotesque, and Harry X, but it's glaring that she's pitted against a female Talon (whereas the male Bat-family fight male Talons). Then, she fights the female Knightfall and her predominantly female henchmen, with backup from Batwoman and the female Detective McKenna. It begins to look like the Batgirl title won't let Batgirl fight men or needs her foes to be predominantly women (a problem Wonder Woman titles sometimes have, too). I don't imagine such a thing would come from Simone, and again if any title had a right to spotlight DC Comics's female characters, it's Batgirl, but the same wasn't a problem, for instance, in Bryan Miller's Batgirl series before this one.
In the "Grotesque" story, Simone continues to examine Barbara's shooting by the Joker. I respect that rather than set aside the shooting, which was bad for comics itself, Simone keeps returning to it and unpacking it, trying to really look at what happened and what it means. Here, Batgirl meets one of the Joker's former henchmen, Danny, now working for Grotesque, who actually called an ambulance for Barbara after the Joker shot her. This brings a hint of grace to the otherwise horrific event, and in its way actually redefines The Killing Joke -- as recently as this book's zero issue, artist Ed Benes redraws that iconic panel of the Joker standing in Barbara's doorway, but now the reader can also see Danny standing behind the Joker and think of mercy, not solely of the horror. When the Danny tells Batgirl that "something went wrong" with the Joker's plan, this could as easily be a commentary on Killing Joke itself.
What I mainly didn't like about the "Knightfall" arc is that Simone creates for Knightfall three henchmen who, at least at the beginning, seem very run-of-the-mill ("strong lady," "flying lady," and "electric guy"), the kind of forgettable villains that never assert themselves and take up space in the annals of DC Comics trivia; that Knightfall herself, Charise Carnes, is introduced very quickly as someone known in Gotham for years, which is hard for the reader to feel since indeed she's really a new character (and her "double C" initials only belabor the point that she's Batgirl's new "Lex Luthor"); and that I was never quite convinced that Carnes earns the name Knightfall, a phrase so tied up in Batman's 1990s Bane encounters -- it would be like calling one of Superboy's minor New 52 enemies "Doomsday."
All of that aside, however, I was quite on board with the "Knightfall" arc by its conclusion. Knightfall emerges as a Bizarro Batgirl -- her father was a criminal businessman, not police commissioner; Carnes, too, experienced a tragedy; whereas Barbara became a crime fighter like her father, Carnes became a diabolical cult leader. That Batgirl will have an archenemy, especially one who seems to have some talent for technology a la Batgirl's former identity Oracle, is a great step for the character, and I look forward to the "rogue war" that Simone teases.
Also, Simone's DC work has gained a great element of horror especially since Secret Six, and such was apparent on her second run on Birds of Prey, too. The "Knightfall" arc presents this horror as well; the gruesomeness is slightly muted by Benes's and Syaf's more cartoony artwork, but it still comes through in Knightfall's origin and in the plight of Ricky, a car thief that Knightfall tortures. When it's just Knightfall's henchmen, Knightfall Descends begins to seem a little silly, but by the time Batgirl and Knightfall throw down at the end, no doubt the book is deadly serious, and it's tough to turn away from it.
It's fun to see Batwoman in these pages, though I wish there had been more direct interaction between Batgirl and Batwoman; Batwoman's real role in the Bat-family remains undefined, and I think her appearance here just around the edges of the story reflects some uncertainty about how the character is meant to be used. Ardian Syaf should be commended for a great J.H. Williams homage in the first pages where Batwoman is introduced, artfully "shattering" the panels and overlaying a bat-shape much like Williams does.
Batgirl: Knightfall Descends, if it has fits and starts, runs headlong into a fantastic conclusion, and that's enough to keep me excited for the next volume. It's certainly a boon to fans that Gail Simone will be remaining on this title -- with all she's set up here, between Knightfall, James Gordon Jr., and the return of the Joker in "Death in the Family," I'm eager to see her have plenty of time to bring these stories to fruition.