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Monthly Archives: October 2012

Batgirl: Volume 1: the Darkest Reflection

It being Halloween, I thought a good choice for a review would involve a character that more than a few people are likely going to dress up as.

I recently scooped up a big sample of graphic novels and comics to help broaden my horizons, and focused in large part on ones by DC. After having enjoyed Batman: the Animated Series as a child and continuing that fascination right up to the spectacular Dark Knight Rises, I felt I should investigate the source material for a change.

Oddly enough, however, the sample that impressed me most didn’t centre on Batman himself, but on one of his disciples, Barbara Gordon, alias Batgirl.

Nahnah-nahnah-nahnah-nahnah, Batgiiirrl!

Normally I regard the extended ‘Bat-Family,’ including, at its fullest extent, something like five masked crimefighters in addition to the Dark Knight himself, with scepticism. One masked vigilante is unique, striking and powerful, both to the reader and in-story, but a whole society of them dilutes the effect for me a bit.

A few things drew me to the first volume of Batgirl: the Darkest Reflection anyway; it’s a fairly recent release so I’m on or near the crest of the wave for a change; it’s part of the New 52, DC’s controversial reboot of its entire universe, and it’s written by Gail Simone, who is distinguished as being one of the comic world’s precious few prominent female writers. And I think that after a lifetime of things like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Golden Compass and Sabriel, I’m drawn primarily by female protagonists almost by default.

Batgirl: the Darkest Reflection features Barbara Gordon in her persona as Batgirl. Many years prior, she had been put out of frontline action when she was shot in the spine and left wheelchair-bound by the Joker (an event that formed the catalyst of Alan Moore’s justly renowned graphic novel the Killing Joke). Now, having been the subject of a revolutionary new therapy, she has regained the use of her legs and is working on getting her life back on its old track, and that includes resuming her duties as Batman’s female counterpart, helping keep the scum of Gotham City under control. The tension ramps up as a new killer, Mirror, appears and starts working his way through a hit-list which includes Bruce Wayne, not to mention both Batgirl and Barbara! In confronting the killer, Batgirl also has to test her new physical limits, work through the psychological pressures of resuming a double-life that brought her such trauma, and confront what it means to be a hero and a survivor.

The ‘traumatized hero regaining their confidence’ chestnut is an old one, and I’ve seen it done badly more times than I care to remember. It basically adds up, mostly, to the hero having a setback and moping about it for an episode.

I needn’t have worried here. For my money, Batgirl absolutely nails it. Barbara methodically processes her situations with a charming wit akin to a Joss Whedon character. She doesn’t wallow in self-pity, nor does she take pity from others. She pushes herself hard to prove to herself and the other masked heroes that she’s up to snuff. Having said that, we still get to see the strain tell on her and her personal life, but at the same time, she actually seems to have fun in being a masked hero, and you have fun watching her at it. Better yet, the men in her life, her father, Batman and Nightwing, while caring about her and taking an interest, neither smother nor condescend to her.

The art style is also right in my comfort zone. Not too simple, nor overly stylized. I keep fixating on the fact that Batgirl’s costume is very detailed, not just a second skin whose only purpose is to be recognizable. I just adore the fact that she has grip-pads on her gloves. No cartoon or comic of a superhero I’ve ever seen did that, but it makes total and complete sense.

In short, Darkest Reflection makes Barbara/Batgirl a well-balanced and totally believable person, not burdened by angsty melodrama or one-note toughness. The characters share tension, friendship and genuine respect, and the story is emotionally harrowing, thoughtful and a solid mystery/action tale too.

So all that being so, why the ‘controversy’ I alluded to earlier? This is arguably a case of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t. In the original canon of DC Comics, after her paralysis, Barbara became a full-time hacker and information broker to the Bat-Family, using the identity of ‘Oracle.’ She became justly famous as a brains-centric figure and also a rallying point for disabled comics fans, and a symbol of potential new diversity in comics. So letting her recover (by means not very clearly explained, so far at least, this being only volume 1) undoes that stretch of diversity.

Another thing to keep in mind, however, is what her paralysis represented in the context of the comics world. Gail Simone is particularly well-known as the founder of the website ‘Women in Refrigerators.’ Strange name, I know. What it does is document the trend of female comic characters being used, in effect, as sacrificial objects to motivate heroes to action or raise the dramatic tension. Over the history of comics (and indeed fiction in general) there has been of a tradition of women connected to the (usually male) heroes being murdered, maimed, raped or otherwise horribly mistreated as a way to raise the stakes.

It’s a little like the Bechdel Test; any one story can make this device work (it was certainly very powerful in the Killing Joke) but taken as a trend over time and many works it exposes some pretty disturbing currents running through our society and our fiction. The New 52 reboot of Batgirl, whatever else it might be, is making a statement that this tendency should be confronted and subverted where possible. On a related note, another thing DC’s reboot is taking a lot of flak for is that a lot of the female character redesigns are, even by the standards of comics, reckoned to be pretty over-the-top and exploitative.  The feminist blogosphere pounced quite early on DC cover art featuring heroines in poses that were both gratuitously revealing and physically impossible. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the art in Darkest Reflection is very expressly not doing that with Batgirl. Her costume is form-fitting, but her figure and acrobatics seem realistic and she isn’t showing absurd amounts of flesh.

Both interpretations of Barbara have value, and while the New 52 ended Barbara’s time as Oracle, I don’t think they erased it from continuity.  Barbara, while still nervous about whether the treatment will fully work, doesn’t come across as being ashamed of having been wheelchair-bound, and her computer and investigative skills are still one of her most essential tools as Batgirl.

At the end of the day, whether taking disabled heroes out of the DC roster, or using women as pathos-generating punching bags is the greater evil is up to your tastes as a reader. Taken on its own, though, Batgirl: the Darkest Reflection absolutely blew me away. The main character is witty, strong, vulnerable, compassionate, tough, a well-rounded human being. It is precious rare that I encounter a fictional character whose behaviour and speech make me feel as if this is a person I could meet on the street, but this is definitely one such. It’s the best expression of the elusive ‘strong female character’ I’ve seen in a long time. If the Woman in Refrigerators trend (even if you didn’t know it by that name) grates on you, this will be a breath of fresh air.

Godspeed, Batgirl!

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Posted by on October 31, 2012 in Comic

 

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The Whale Road: Regret on the High Seas

I fondly remember an archaeology seminar in university wherein half the people in the class, in the course of the discussion, came out officially as Viking enthusiasts, myself included. Theirs is a faraway memory of adventure, action and life on the edge.

That being the case, the draw of a title and cover like that of the Whale Road by Robert Low was a powerful one to me. The fact that it has been praised by Bernard Cornwell, whose Saxon Stories series have set the style for Viking yarns, was a promising sign.

Hard to argue with that image!

The Whale Road features Orm, living in a village in Norway, who has recently distinguished himself by being lucky enough to slay a bear. His father Rurik has recently returned from years at sea, under his captain, Einar. Impressed by his good luck and the omens of his deed, Orm is brought to join Einar, Rurik and the other Oathsworn, who wander the sea – the Whale Road – raiding distant lands for relics sought by one of the great trading cities of the Eastern Baltic. But Orm can read Latin, and reads in some of the relics they steal signs of what they all add up to: a story that tells the location of the lost treasure horde of Atilla the Hun!

Moving through the great trading centres of Eastern Europe, the Oathsworn follow the obsessed Einar as they face competitors, strange omens and each other’s own demons and agendas on the way to find this treasure, and whatever doom it might bring with it.

Now, from a summary like that, you’d assume that it is an incredibly lively and gripping epic, and indeed I’m sure there is one in here somewhere, but it’s extremely hard to see. The writing is quite dense with prose and exotic names, to the point that it becomes hard to follow. I’m still unclear about just what happened with Orm and the bear at the beginning, and near the end, the Oathsworn are suddenly a part of a medieval Russian army besieging a rival city, and I have literally no idea how they got there or what it had to do with anything.

Characterization is weak, so that I had a great deal of difficulty at times remembering who was who. I actually forgot for long stretches what the main character’s name was and I had to look up the other names I mentioned above before I could add them to the review, and I finished this book about an hour ago.

Orm himself doesn’t have much to distinguish him; in fact, he seems to be more of an observer than anything else. He’s a bit like Ishmael in Moby Dick, but Low keeps giving him various life-defining experiences as befits an active protagonist. And then, of course, I stopped thinking about him while he focuses on everybody else, so that they didn’t have lasting impact. For a kid living in the back of Norwegian beyond, he also seems bizarrely knowledgeable about the politics of 10th Century Europe. It reminded me of Merlin in the CrystalCave, but Merlin was living in a royal court, not a quiet village.

As an expose on the Viking era, its politics, beliefs, its material culture and its living conditions, it is quite magnificent. The set pieces and behaviour that characterize the time and place are certainly very vivid. It harkens back to a time when the world was still very big, and the exotic nature of goods from afar give it a vibrancy difficult to imagine today – which was always my favourite thing about history. Seeing into that era, particularly the bloody and gruesome options for dying and the horrific existence of exploitation experienced by women are like getting smacked in the face. However the story that runs through it is not as strong as it could be. The writing is murky, motivations unclear, the themes are vague and the ending a bit predictable.

All in all, it was something of a disappointment. Low definitely knows his history, and he cares passionately about it. I wouldn’t want to suggest otherwise. I actually regret not enjoying his book more, but I feel as though he spends too much time showing off the history and not enough telling a story. Bernard Cornwell has the same virtue of research but his storytelling style is the other way around; the story is informed by all the history, but the history is secondary.

If you are interested in the Viking era, by all means have a crack at it, but Cornwell’s Saxon Stories are as well-researched and also much more fun to read.

 
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Posted by on October 16, 2012 in Book

 

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The Dark Beyond the Stars: Cold Comfort

I was recently reflecting that it had been quite a long time since I read a science fiction novel. As a kid, I read a few of the classics; Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End and Frank Herbert’s Dune stand out most significantly to me. Short stories by the likes of Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov also linger in my memories.

It had been while since a story in that tradition had come my way, but I realized that I’d seen one years ago that I’d let get past me. To wit, The Dark Beyond the Stars by Frank M. Robinson. I have no knowledge of the man or the rest of his body of work, but the premise intrigued me and there was a favourable blurb on the back of the book from William Gibson, who is the reigning king of cyberpunk, one of science fiction’s most current subsidiaries. So, after having idly glanced through it as a teen, I hunted it down again.

Published in 1991, the Dark Beyond the Stars begins with seventeen-year-old Sparrow suffering an accident during an expedition to an unknown planet and suffering total retrograde amnesia. As he recovers physically, he needs to learn from first principles who and where he is.

The ‘where’ is the starship Astron. For two thousand years the vast vessel has plied the stars with one objective: to find alien life. And so far it hasn’t succeeded. The ship has been continually on the go for generations. Huge amounts of it have fallen into disuse as the crew has dwindled over time. There are only two constants: the mission, and the captain, who, conditioned to be immortal, has led the ship continually this entire time. He remains stoically devoted to the mission, but the sheer endless tedium and failure to find anything in the vast expanse of the universe had made much of the crew weary and cynical.

A crisis arises even as Sparrow is getting a handle on his environment and his relationships with the people around him, who all know him but who he cannot remember anymore. The Astron’s new course is toward a promising new cluster of stars, but there is a huge gulf – the Dark – that will take generations to cross, and the engineers and technicians in the crew know that the Astron, needing to replenish materials and supplies at times and in pretty bad shape to start with, won’t survive the crossing. As Sparrow begins to reconstruct his life and relationships, he finds himself drawn into conspiracies and conflicts of loyalty, and a race against time to save the ship and its people.

Like a lot of perfectly good science fiction novels, I found the prose a bit dry. Robinson’s writing style is much more straightforward than, say, David Weber’s, and his strengths are in dialogue and emotions. Describing events, I found my concentration slipping at times, so that I tended to take in the scenes in fairly broad strokes. In general, this is a problem I seem to have with some novels where I have trouble connecting and I feel like I’m taking in the story from a great distance.

Nevertheless, although this story seems to linger in obscurity, I found it had quite a lot of good stuff to offer. At first the amnesia situation seems like a convenience to justify lots of exposition, and it certainly does that, but it also turns out to serve the story, and lead to a mystery underlying the conflict of captain and crew that works very well.

The characters are all pretty interesting people, and there is some neat drama to be had, although again it isn’t as deep as some, at least to me.

What I found particularly interesting is the psychology of the crew. There’s an overriding sense of weariness throughout the story, of a fundamental loss of human joy and purpose that the crew work hard at combating but is always there.

This is compounded by the situation that informs it; this mission has been going on for two millennia, searching for some life, any life, and hasn’t found a single germ. This is actually an option I’d never really thought of. I’ve seen stories where the aliens are benevolent, like in Star Trek; malevolent, like in Alien; I’ve seen them be overpoweringly strong, like in Childhood’s End; I’ve seen them be just another species, like in On Basilisk Station, and sometimes they’re just impossibly weird, as in H.P. Lovecraft’s works. But I have to admit that I’d never really thought of the idea that aliens would just be…not there.

Throughout the book, the debate goes on between characters about whether the math favours other life or not, and both arguments (ones made in real-life science) are eerily plausible. You share in the crushing depression and loneliness that the Astron’s crew feels as a result of their bad luck, and the maddening knowledge that you can never be sure. The question is, is the grand goal of finding alien life worth wearing out your own life and those of the people around you?

The Dark Beyond the Stars turned out to be a pleasant surprise and a nice refresher on science fiction. The best science fiction isn’t about space or aliens or starships; it’s about us, and Frank M. Robinson has that down. The prose is rather dry, but the story it forms is quite good, the themes and emotions are all there; the story is actually quite original and comes with a small but really neat twist at the end. It’s a bit of a slog sometimes but a story well worth reading.

 
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Posted by on October 1, 2012 in Book

 

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