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.
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.