Review: Batgirl Vol. 3: Mindfields trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, May 01, 2017

Batgirl Vol. 3: Mindfields marks a long good-bye for the "Batgirl of Burnside" title. The book collects seven issues and a special, and in some respects ends twice; there's a five-part story that essentially brings the title to its most proper and loftiest conclusion (with art for the book's last time by Babs Tarr), and then a two-part story that breaks things down to an extent as a lead-in to the Rebirth series. Whereas titles like Batman and Flash offered no overt connection between the end of the New 52 series and the beginning of Rebirth, writers Cameron Stewart and Brendan Fletcher do a surprising amount of heavy lifting here to position this title for Hope Larson's upcoming run.

Mindfields improves on the previous volume, a positive trend especially since this is the end. In the main story, the basic facts of who the villain is and what's happening to Batgirl Barbara Gordon are apparent from the start, allowing for more emphasis on the characters themselves and their interactions, as befits the Batgirl title. There's a good amount of psychological horror at play that's surprisingly effective, like a Twilight Zone episode, and then that's balanced in the end by Batgirl's campy villains and quip-laden superheroics. Mindfields held my attention and I'm curious to see what Larson does with the book's new status quo going forward.

[Review contains spoilers]

Again, the audience clearly understands from the outset that something's wrong with Barbara's mind and that her friend Greg that suddenly shows up must be the culprit. This would bother me if it wasn't clear that Stewart and Fletcher were doing so with intention (as opposed to clumsy villain "mysteries" in both the Rebirth Batman and Flash). Instead there's a wonderful creepiness to Greg sneaking around in Barbara's apartment and her defending his doing so, and also Barbara's increasing horror at the slow unraveling of her mind. The latter is particularly effective when the writers don't simply have other characters correct Barbara's forgetfulness, as when she inadvertently snubs Bluebird Harper Row.

Mindfields reaches its spookiest when Batgirl and Black Canary venture under the dusty Burnside Hall of Records and confront Fugue, nee Greg (who looks, unfortunately and confusingly, almost exactly like Batman: Superheavy's Bloom). As an example of Batgirl's tonal range, then things get downright trippy when Batgirl's partner Frankie journeys through Barbara's mind, the kind of "dreamscape" story I don't usually have much patience for except that we get pop deco art from We Are Robin and Doom Patrol's James Harvey. And the final face-off between Team Batgirl and Fugue's "Batgirl Revenge Squad" returns, appropriately, to the book's campy roots, with video-game inspired "versus" pages.

In the course of Mindfields's first five issues, Stewart and Fletcher have Barbara Gordon build a giant clean energy engine, start her own company, and apparently become fairly wealthy, events that the story rather hops, skips, and jumps through by virtue of Barbara's spotty memory. That's a sizable sea change for Batgirl, and despite that Larson's upcoming story will take Barbara temporarily out of Gotham, at some point she'll have to return and Larson will have to deal with Barbara as CEO (of a company housed, don't think I didn't notice, in the Ghostbusters fire house).

I'll reserve judgment, but there's elements in Stewart and Fletcher's finale of Barbara feeling "so overwhelmed" running the company and being Batgirl, something that I think is a bad look for superheroes (especially often female superheroes). It's a sticky situation, frankly, because neither Barbara keeping her company nor handing it off are good options; it's hard to imagine the endearing elements of Barbara foiling a robbery while waiting in line for coffee half-hungover coinciding with being a wealthy CEO, not to mention that it necessarily ages the character. I'd as soon have seen Stewart and Fletcher have Barbara finish her doctorate, her abandoning of which strikes me as a bigger deal than the writers make it out to be. All of that falls now to Larson to resolve.

Continuity's a wild and wooly thing, and it gives us ironies like Barbara mentoring and being rather friendly with Spoiler Stephanie Brown, whom in past continuities actually became Batgirl with Barbara's eventual grudging tutelage. Spoiler, as written by Stewart and Fletcher, came off inept (a portrayal that's stung the character in previous continuities) in Batgirl Vol. 2: Family Business's annual, so it's good to see her written more capably here, and the writers even devote three pages to Spoiler holding her own against masked assailants. There's an interesting moment late in the book when Barbara calls Spoiler and Bluebird "kids"; age difference between the characters doesn't always translate in Tarr's (albeit attractive) art, so it's notable to mark here in dialogue a specific gradation between Spoiler, Bluebird, and, say, Red Robin versus Batgirl and Dick Grayson.

It is good that Babs Tarr gets to finish with the climax of the first story and Batgirl's fiftieth issue; this book's identity and appeal has much to do with Tarr and it wouldn't feel complete if she'd exited midway through a storyline. That others draw the final two issues equally marks the transition out of the Stewart/Fletcher/Tarr era and into the next, even despite that Tarr doesn't draw the final retrospective crowd scene (reminiscent of Batgirl #35's first "mind palace" sequence). Though the Batgirl: Endgame special is wildly out of place at the end of this book instead of at the end of Batgirl Vol. 1: Batgirl of Burnside or at the start of the second volume, there's also symmetry in the artist of the first Rebirth arc, Rafael Albuquerque, finishing out this volume.

In Batgirl Vol. 3: Mindfields, I did also get my wish of seeing Babs Tarr draw Luke Fox in his Batwing armor, so there's not much left to regret here. Some circles see DC Comics's Rebirth as a repudiation of the DC You era and, by implication, what Cameron Stewart, Brendan Fletcher, and Babs Tarr did with Batgirl. However I'd point to the Rebirth Green Arrow, for one, if not also the new Batgirl title itself, as evidence that if the "Batgirl influences" of the DC You are muted in Rebirth, they're hardly gone entirely (nor am I sure one can seriously embrace married father Superman while at the same time rejecting hipster Batgirl). I wouldn't be surprised if a Batgirl of Burnside Omnibus doesn't show itself sooner or later; this book surely deserves one just the same as Grayson does.

[Includes original covers, variant covers, pinups, and character studies and sketches]
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2 comments:

  1. I'll agree that I enjoyed the superheroics of this set of issues, but was frustrated by the fluctuating status quo of Barbara's civilian life. She started out this run as grad student in computer science (I think?), which disappointingly little was done with, and then somehow ended up in the clean energy industry running a start-up? Those things don't even go together! And having read the first six issues of Larson's run, it looks like she's being jerked around again. It'd be nice for her life to settle down in a more plausible fashion.

    That's a bunch of grousing, though-- on the whole I found the Burnside run to be very solid, good fun, wholly of itself superhero comics. There's little else quite like it, which is how I like my superhero comics to be. It's one of only two series I buy in single issues, and I'm glad I do!

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    1. I'll be curious to see how Larson handles the CEO issue. Among other things, I think it ages the character, as I mentioned; when you consider Burnside started with the roommate/house party/coffee line sequence, being a CEO is pretty far from that, and puts Barbara in the board rooms with Bruce Wayne instead of the coffeehouse. I don't think that's right for the character and I don't imagine it'll stick, so then the question is how they artfully write it out without, say, Barbara running her company into the ground.

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