Review: Batgirl Vol. 3: Death of the Family hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, November 04, 2013

There's a lot going on in Batgirl Vol. 3: Death of the Family. It's a thick hardcover, collecting seven issues, an annual, and a short story. It has three writers. It includes a sizable component of the latest Batman crossover and the tertiary "Requiem" event. And it collects the issues during the span of which writer Gail Simone was fired from, and then rehired to, the Batgirl series.

And despite a number of factors that would derail any other book, it's pretty darn near perfect.

Simone's Batgirl is a series that started strong and has just grown stronger, and Death of the Family is the strongest chapter yet. There is blood and danger and horror on every page of this book; as riveting as Scott Snyder's main Death of the Family book was, Simone's "tie in" rivals it page for page.

[Review contains spoilers]

As controversial as returning Barbara Gordon to the Batgirl cowl in the New 52 was, it has afforded Gail Simone the opportunity to introduce to modernity the character we didn't realize we were missing all along -- to write Batgirl Barbara Gordon as if she'd never disappeared, as if The Killing Joke were just a storyline for the character to surmount. Simone's Death of the Family serves as something as a sequel to Killing Joke, the confrontation between the Joker and a newly-recovered Batgirl that we probably should have seen twenty years ago (though it was worth the wait). There's plenty to enjoy in Batgirl matching wits with the Joker, but the initial scene where an unarmed Barbara thrashes three invaders in her home, turning Killing Joke on its head, is undoubtedly cathartic for both the character and the readers.

Simone plays the story with equal parts horror and intentional camp; the Joker's harebrained scheme to marry Batgirl might be something out of the wacky Silver Age, if not for the Joker slicing off Barbara's mother's finger and offering it up, wedding band and all. The result is a sickly feeling in the audience's stomach the whole time; if there are moments we might laugh, we get the sense they're only fleeting. Though not gratuitous, this is a significantly violent book, underscoring the seriousness of the threats Batgirl faces here; Death of the Family is no light read.

Cleverly, Simone gives "Death of the Family" a double meaning; the book starts off as a fight between Batgirl and the Joker, but ends with Barbara squaring off against her own psychotic brother, the Black Mirror's James Gordon Jr. In the gripping ending, I really did think Barbara was going to kill James, and though she does not (or did she?), Batgirl is still branded a murderer, hunted by her own father. I will be curious to see how Barbara maintains her relationship with Commissioner Gordon while he's her enemy in the nighttime, and how Barbara's mother, who knows her secret identity, will play into the mix.

Simone writes issues #14-16 in the collection, and then Ray Fawkes takes over for issues #17-18 before Simone returns with #19 (the aforementioned "firing" period). Were it not for the hubbub, reading the issues might almost seem like business as usual. Whereas Simone usually has Barbara narrate the issues, Fawkes narrates from James Jr.'s point of view, so there's no sense that the narration voice is "wrong," just different. Fawkes picks up on a moment between Batgirl and her informant Ricky that lead from both Simone's Batgirl Annual #1 and also in Fawkes's Young Romance story (collected here), such that the plot developments feel very natural. The villain Firebug that Fawkes introduces is goofy, but it's the kind of misstep that's forgivable for what turns out to be just a fill-in writer.

Where Death of the Family handles the "Death" crossover exceptionally well (unlike "Night of the Owls," if you didn't know better you'd think "Death" was solely a Batgirl event), "Requiem" gets short shrift. While this is also forgivable, given how much else is going on in this book, Batgirl's reaction to the death of Robin Damian Wayne is limited to a page plus a panel (and an affecting cover by Justice League Dark's Mikel Janin). The "Requiem" issue is Fawkes's #18, and Damien isn't mentioned again through Simone's #19. This is surprising given such a momentous event, but then again maybe not so surprising given again what one imagines to be the hubbub behind the scenes.

Inasmuch as the "Night of the Owls" crossover seemed incidental to the Bat-titles it tied in to (especially given how much more meaningful "Death" turned out to be), it's a pleasant surprise to see "Batgirl's Talon" Mary show up in the Batgirl Annual that starts off the book. Though Mary, as I understand it, moves on to Birds of Prey, the Batgirl "Night of the Owls" issue seems less incongruous now that Mary is part of Batgirl's rogues' gallery/ally set. Simone also offers insight into the continuing Court of the Owls organization, something we haven't found over in the Batman book.

I also like that Simone is able to write the "official" first meeting between Batgirl and Catwoman. One benefit to the New 52 is that Batgirl and Catwoman's "old" first meeting is likely lost to the ages or has been told and retold a number of times, but here now we can point to it and say, yes, they met in the Batgirl Annual #1. Simone writes an appropriately morally-conflicted Catwoman; why DC Comics hasn't given Gail Simone a shot at writing Catwoman yet, I don't know.

At 224 pages, Batgirl Vol. 3: Death of the Family is a weighty book, and it deserves to be. Batgirl battles her way through two of the Bat-family's deadliest villains, and the blood spattered page to page does justice to what Batgirl encounters here. Each volume of Gail Simone's Batgirl gets better and better; I'll be eager to see how Simone tops this one.

[Includes original covers, sketches of Firebug by Daniel Sampere]

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  1. Yeah, I thought this was a far more successful Joker story (and overall story) than Snyder's Death Of The Family. You are absolutely right in that it could have completely stood alone, and just been about Joker terrorizing Batgirl.

    It was fascinating to see the issues where Simone was briefly fired. Thankfully Fawkes keeps the story going strong, and I think it was incredibly clever of him to not intrude on Gail's inner monologue for Barbara, but switch over to James Jr's brain. Perfect way to honor what Gail did but still do it in your own way. Thankfully Simone comes back, because without Barbara's inner voice it just doesn't quite feel as special.

    I've really been enjoying her Batgirl series, it has some of the best fight scenes in comics. I tend to kind of skim over fight stuff, but the way Simone does it, I find myself actually worried about the outcomes and fascinated by how Barbara is going to get out of it!

  2. When was it ever said that she was fired beyond gossip blogs? Didn't DC explain that Simone was extremely late on her scripts, so they brought in Fawkes to do a few fill-ins?

    And if Simone was indeed fired and rehired, then how come no one complains that Fawkes lost his job because the internet complained?

    1. Gail announced her firing on social media, and that her new editor sent the news via email.

      Fawkes doesn't get any tears since he is DC's go-to writer when they want to quickly swap out a creative team after soliciting and Jeff Lemier isn't available (see Constantine)

    2. Re: Simone's firing, ditto what the first reply said. Simone said she was fired, a variety of comics new sources reported that she was fired, and only after she was reinstated did a DC rep give an interview saying that Fawkes was only writing fill-ins, not taking over the series. Comes down to what source you trust, I guess.

      As for Ray Fawkes, surely it's unfair if he was hired, lead to believe he was the ongoing writer for a series, and then fired himself after two issues. However, given fan-favorite writer Simone who was unceremoniously fired from a book that she was killing it on, versus Fawkes who had no prior relationship with the book and only came on for two issues, my take on it is the right thing happened for Simone to be restored. Yes, that stinks for Fawkes, but writership of a book is a zero-sum game, and ultimately I think the better outcome was achieved.

      Neither do I discount any of this because the change from Fawkes back to Simone happened due to public outcry. There could have been no outcry and readers could have instead voted with their wallets, and then a creative change would have happened anyway (I think it's unlikely DC would cancel this book outright); either way, the result would have been similar. The audience is not always right, but in this case (and based on the material within this book), I think they were.