Review: Batgirl Vol. 1: Batgirl of Burnside hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

June 25, 2015

Batgirl Vol 1: Batgirl of Burnside is most assuredly the Batgirl we needed. Whereas I can't fault Gail Simone for writing Batgirl stories that were gripping and therefore happened to tend toward the dark, if there was some lack of joy in the DC Comics New 52 universe then probably the Batgirl title was a straightforward place to bring it back. Certainly Babs Tarr draws a comic that looks like nothing else coming out of DC Comics, and that diversity of vision helps buoy the rest of the line along with it.

That said, while Burnside is a visual feast and I'll keep on with it because I'm interested in and want to support what Tarr and writers Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher are doing, in all this makes me nostalgic for Bryan Q. Miller's Stephanie Brown Batgirl series. Stewart and Fletcher tell a fine story, but it is purposefully more sitcom-ish and less specifically superheroic than the average superhero title, at least almost until the end. Not that there's anything wrong with that if that's your thing, but I'd prefer the scales tipped a bit more the other way -- a comic that's funny, basically light, but with more outright supervillains and vigilante-patrolling-of-the-streets, a la Miller's Batgirl, than Burnside necessarily offers.

[Review contains spoilers]

Batgirl of Burnside turned around for me in the last couple chapters as it becomes wonderfully paranoid, with the suggestion that Batgirl Barbara Gordon might have gone crazy or is unknowingly sabotaging her own life. Add to that some cover imagery that sets in tandem the Batgirls of the present and previous runs, and I did begin to believe it was a reasonably possibility that we had a Green Arrow: Quiver-type situation here, in which "our" Barbara Gordon was perhaps just "a" Barbara Gordon and not necessarily "the" Barbara Gordon.

This sequence -- Batgirl #39, the Secret Origins #10 story, and then Batgirl #40 -- involved Batgirl up against a real threat, which was an improvement for me over the previous issues. It also served to reveal the evil scheme and overarching logic behind the earlier, sillier villains, which redeemed for me -- inasmuch as redemption was necessary -- those initial chapters. I don't think the creative team is building Batgirl much of a rogues gallery and the initial threats -- Riot Black, the Jawbreakers, and Dagger Type -- came off more as parodies to me than villains, but I appreciated in the end how each one relates to a certain aspect of Barbara's psyche.

I did think it was interesting how, now thirty-plus issues into Batgirl, Stewart and Fletcher can run toward what Simone -- likely for the purposes of separating the new Barbara Gordon from Oracle -- had to run away from. After five trades, Simone's stories still remained vague on how, exactly, Barbara overcame her paralysis, perhaps so as not to reignite the controversy over Barbara overcoming her paralysis in the first place. And yet by the time Burnside is over, Stewart and Fletcher have already delved into brain scans and implants and algorithms, and all but resurrected the specter of Oracle, even if that Oracle is a symbol of technology run amok (at least for the time being).

But, even Stewart and Fletcher positing Oracle as a villain suggests some hesitation to embrace the character that I'm not sure I understand just yet. Within the writers' Secret Origin story -- which, nicely, stays faithful to Simone's Zero Month issue -- there's clearly a space where Barbara Gordon, once Batgirl, could have been a young Oracle for a while before re-taking the Batgirl cowl. I don't think this would take anything away from Barbara's friend Frankie becoming the new Oracle, and would have at the same time probably appeased some readers and given the Barbara Gordon Oracle a rightful place in the New 52 (though I recognize the adage that cautions writers against giving the readers what they say they want). And for a book that's markedly tech-positive, the themes of electronic spying and judicial overreach seem out of place amidst the characters' heavy reliance on social networking and text messages.

Indeed, one of the best parts of Burnside -- aside from Tarr's dynamic art -- is the writers' use of technology. In modern fiction, I think authors struggle to integrate common technology effectively -- see, for instance, awkward usage of blogs and new media in the early New 52 Superman comics, or the completely implausible social media networks prevalent in your average episode of Law & Order: SVU. In the first chapter of Batgirl, however, the writers use texts and emails as effective narrative devices, and further both a dating app and an Instagram-type photo site are each integral to the plot. It feels realistic and hip, which is tough to do when so much intentional hipness usually falls flat. Extra points to the creative team also, in the footsteps of Mark Waid and Chris Samnee's Daredevil, for a great visual representation and use of Barbara's eidetic memory.

I'm eager for the next volume of Batgirl, though frankly with the kind of tired Oracle tease, I'm more eager for the Batgirl: Endgame issue to see this team pit Barbara against the Joker, and then also I'm curious about the new Black Canary series. I'm not that enthusiastic about Black Canary Dinah Lance as the lead singer of a band -- I get it, she's "Canary," she sings -- but I am curious to see how that title's creative team explains away Dinah's new status quo. At first I thought Dinah wasn't in the band so much as working undercover to protect them from something or another, but the oddest part about Burnside is when Dinah just suddenly moves out of Barbara's apartment and -- poof -- she's a singer. I felt I'd missed a step and I'd like to see how they're going to make it work.

Batgirl Vol. 1: Batgirl of Burnside is, again, the Batgirl we needed, because we need comics that look different and have different sensibilities. It is not necessarily the Batgirl I wanted, solely because it's not the kind of fiction I particularly gravitate toward and not entirely what I want in a Batgirl series. It's only the first volume, however, and I don't have to tell you how much potential this book shows; I'm more than happy to come back again and see what the next book offers.

[Includes original covers, designs, advertisements, sketches]

Next week, Gotham Academy!


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