Friday, September 30, 2011

Batgirl #1

DC Comics, 20 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Gail Simone
Penciler: Ardian Syaf
Inker: Vincente Cifuentes
Colorist: Ulises Arreola
Letterer: Dave Sharpe
Cover artist: Adam Hughes

Once you get past the Adam Hughes cover with its requisite airbrushed face, there’s a pretty solid comic waiting underneath. The creators of Batgirl deliver a debut issue that’s so jam-packed with proper scenes, characters and action that you have to check if it’s really just 20 pages.

Which is particularly remarkable because this book also shines a light on one of the biggest problems of the “New 52” stunt: Contrary to what the line-wide relaunch with #1 issues would suggest, it’s not actually what you’d call “a fresh new start,” by a long stretch.

The title character, for instance, is once again Barbara Gordon, who was Batgirl from 1966 through 1988. Following an attack by the Joker in Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s 1988 story Batman: The Killing Joke, Barbara had been established as the wheelchair-bound Oracle, who became a protagonist in Birds of Prey, and one of the most intriguing DC characters in recent memory. Now, in the shiny new world of the “New 52,” it seems the events of The Killing Joke still happened—but rather than to become Oracle, Barbara was a paraplegic for three years, and then regained the use of her legs through some ominous “miracle.”

To be fair, writer Gail Simone—who had no small part in making Oracle a success in Birds of Prey—does as good a job with the backstory as you could hope for. Still, it’s becoming obvious here that DC is using the relaunch to make a few handpicked, arbitrary changes to its characters’ backstories, rather than to rebuild their world from scratch. For Barbara Gordon, this means she’s being dragged into some “What if…?” type scenario, away from her history as Oracle and back into her previous role as Batgirl. The remit here seems clear: (1) Put Barbara back in the Batgirl role. (2) Keep The Killing Joke in continuity. (3) Try not to offend too many Oracle fans in the process.

I’m not convinced this is a good approach to the relaunch, to put it mildly—neither in this particular case, nor as a general strategy. Wasn’t one of the cited reasons for the relaunch to make the DC Universe less confusing? That seems to be out of the window here, from the get-go. I couldn’t think of a worse way of trying to streamline things than to transplant a fully realized backstory with tweaks, let alone do it in the first issue. “She still got shot, you see—but she got better!”

Now, as I say, Simone is rolling with the punches and gets a solid story out of the premise that makes those goal posts integral parts of the character’s new backstory. But you can still see the joints. The flashback to The Killing Joke in particular seems like an attempt to clarify the status of that story and appease the people who’ve read it, rather than anything that particularly needed to be in this story. And the vague reference to “a miracle” that made Barbara able to walk again is, shall we say, not the smoothest way of jettisoning the Oracle period.

All that aside, though, there’s a lot more to this issue, and it’s still a good debut, on balance. The creators effectively introduce the protagonist, the villain and the supporting cast and flesh out the characters enough to make them seem interesting and alive. They oversell the cliffhanger, arguably, but given the situation the characters are in, let’s just assume that cop had a cup o’joe or two too many.

Grade: C+

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