Review: Batgirl Vol. 4: Strange Loop trade paperback (DC Comics)

Through a couple of stories in Batgirl Vol. 4: Strange Loop, Hope Larson seems to be finding a distinctive voice for the series, making the fact of the end of her run unfortunate. But no sooner does this book get good than it stumbles, reminding of some of the other misses over the past 25 issues, and at that point the end seems right. There's sufficient here to remind of the best of the Burnside era, including plenty good art, but also sufficient tidbits to whet my appetite for Mairghread Scott's new run, too.

[Review contains spoilers]

The premise of Larson's Rebirth Batgirl run has been to affect a certain distance between Batgirl Barbara Gordon and her adopted Burnside neighborhood. Larson -- being the first (and essentially only) writer to tackle the Burnside Batgirl besides creators Brendan Fletcher, Cameron Stewart, and company -- first sent Barbara overseas; upon her return, Barbara was still "of" Burnside, but the narrative was peppered with Barbara's recognition of differences, including Burnside's growing gentrification.

The end of Larson's run, then, is much about the decision to put away childish things, and I thought Larson went about it in an interesting manner. The story opens with Barbara fixing herself in a mirror, trying to put on false eyelashes; three issues hence, the chapter ends with Barbara, now Batgirl, regarding herself in the mirror again. Batgirl's just faced her enemy Blacksun, a reminder of her failures both superheroic and romantic, and endured a couple of insults, too. The final scene is all too familiar across media, a woman looking in the mirror, examining her wrinkles and scars, thinking about the toll the years have taken on her and that "I'm not a kid anymore." But Larson, artist Sami Basri, and colorist Jessica Kholinne deliver a fine kicker in the last panel, duplicate of the one before except for the colors, where Barbara resolves, "And I don't want to be."

For a genre built on fantasies of perpetual youthfulness, and especially for a character both as significantly de-aged as Barbara Gordon at the start of the New 52 and then hip-ified for the Burnside era, Larson having Barbara embrace her signs of aging is bold. Larson's story could as easily have turned on Barbara wanting to make changes because of the toll being Batgirl has had on her life, but Larson instead suggests the opposite, with Barbara accepting without shame what her well-spent years have done to her. Larson draws a clear path to how Barbara could now exit Burnside with Scott's new run, having outgrown the trendy neighborhood as a maturation rather than a flaw.

At this point, Strange Loop seemed to have hit a stride that made me momentarily sad this run was ending. Larson teams friends Batgirl Barbara, Frankie, and Alysia on a case, the first time I can remember that happening but in what seems fodder for a whole other series of misadventures. Blacksun is a terrible character (including that his villainous name only makes sense with "black" as a pejorative and misspelling "son") but I thought Larson used the final reveal of his Batgirl-caused injuries effectively. The subsequent story is a charming team-up of Batgirl with her father, Commissioner Gordon. Throughout, Larson posits Batgirl as this local hometown hero -- friends with the mayor, helping out the electric company, chatting with the police -- in a way that's fun, distinct, and distinctly different from her Dark Knight compatriot.

But the two-part "Strange Loop" story brings it crashing down. It begins with a series of astounding coincidences -- friends from earlier in Larson's run suddenly coming to town and Barbara being alerted to danger by the chance of running into them -- that turns out to result from Barbara being inexplicably trapped within her own mind. Not only does that make the last two of Larson's issues a middling "dream sequence" story, but for a while -- until we finally understand that this was all caused by a rogue weapon -- it seems like Larson's going back to the minutiae of eidetic memory from Batgirl Vol. 1: Beyond Burnside. Barbara is finally able to break free -- from her own head -- through making bad life choices; the point is to reinforce what Barbara should do, but this is established far better through her real-world struggles in the earlier chapters than through a fanciful, contrived dream sequence in the end.

Strange Loop is impressively eight-issues long, including a one-off story by Shawn Aldridge featuring Two-Face, and then also stories from the extra-sized Batgirl #25, including by Paul Dini. Most significant here is that incoming writer Scott and also Marguerite Bennett set their stories in the aftermath of Batman's failed wedding to Catwoman, the only Bat-titles I've seen to reference that outside Batman itself.

Scott's "The Reason" is fine, not particularly different in tone from Larson and nothing that made me think one way or another about Scott's upcoming run. Bennett's, however, is a smoldering tale of Barbara and Nightwing Dick Grayson in a hotel room together; it references the last time they (literally) slept together and goes no further, though Dan Panosian's semi-clothed art and the general aesthetic suggests it might. That's a note of more maturity than Larson or previous Burnside runs had, and seems an auspicious, starker, more serious route for Scott to go if she follows Bennett's direction.

Art in Strange Loop is really dynamic, with nice similarity between the semi-animated figures of Sami Basri and Scott Godlewski; either one of them would be right for Titans, Teen Titans, or even a Superman title. Series artist Chris Wildgoose only draws one issue here and so does not even get cover credits, despite his overall contributions and great work. Whomever came up with the Batgirl of Burnside winter coat outfit deserves a raise; Godlewski's hipster "Street Demonz" in Aldrige's issue are a riot, too.

Support Collected Editions -- Purchase Batgirl Vol. 4: Strange Loop

And so, like the final issues of outgoing runs on Superman, Green Arrow, and Trinity, as Hope Larson's Batgirl Vol. 4: Strange Loop comes to a close, the final story tells us that it's time. In Batgirl Vol. 3: Summer of Lies, Larson had some brilliant stories and also some fluff; the same can be seen here, and who knows when one might overtake the other. I'll be interested to see what comes next, especially what's apparently horror-themed stories with art by the usually sunny Paul Pelletier.

[Includes original covers, variants by Joshua Middleton]

Review Date
Reviewed Item
Batgirl Vol. 4: Strange Loop
Author Rating
3 (scale of 1 to 5)


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