Batgirl #35: Making Out, Dressing Up, And Defeating The Forces Of Misogyny [Review]
Barbara Gordon is for girls. This truth has been obscured over the years, most notably in the Batman: The Killing Joke, in which the classic Batgirl was shot, sexually abused and paralyzed by the Joker and taken out of costume for decades. But just as Superman stands for unimpeachable hope and Batman for rigid justice, Batgirl stands for girls doing what the hell they want. From the moment she debuted as part of the classic Batman TV show of the 1960s, this was clear: she was a librarian, she rode a motorcycle decorated with chiffon ruffles, and she did not give a damn that Batman wanted her to hang up the glittery puple cape and cowl. She was no sweet-tempered Kyptonian cousin, no kid sister, and no swooning girlfriend. As Mike Madrid detailed in The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines, “Batgirl is a female Batman can actually regard as a brilliant peer and a partner in the war on crime, the same way he would a male.”
In her best adventures, this ember at the core of her character is stoked to a roaring flame—her time as Oracle, the fan-favorite super-hacker and enduringly powerful symbol for disabled persons in superhero comics; her portrayal as part of the Gotham Girls webseries and Batman: The Animated Series; and Scott Beatty & Chuck Dixon and Marcos Martin's Batgirl: Year One come to mind. But these moments are brief, because as we all know, girls don’t read comics. Mostly, Barbara—the true Barbara, as all our favorite interpretations of these imprecise characters are the “true” ones—has lain in wait, a winking promise in the hands of a good-enough creative team. I’ve waited too. I’ve waited through mediocre art and ill-chosen storylines and a reboot I’m still not unequivocally behind. Today, as vibrantly portrayed by Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher. Babs Tarr and Maris Wicks, she has arrived in DC's Batgirl #35.
So yeah: this is a Barbara for girls. Dudes are welcome too, but if you’re not into that, you can go ahead and leave. That’s the most exciting and most distinguishing aspect of this issue—there are no bones thrown to the conventional superhero audience. Tarr envisions a world of bunny-eared smartphone cases and lucky Goodwill finds—the world I, as exactly the kind of insufferable, post-grad, peter-pan-collared young woman so many love to hate, live in. I am hardcore coveting Barbara’s army jacket and hardcore ogling Troy, her drunken make out partner, who is straight up the hottest dude I’ve seen in a comic since I last reread Ouran High School Host Club.
Working within Stewart's deft page designs, Tarr’s command of body language is incredible, nailing rooftop chase scenes, angry phone calls and hangover stumbling alike with a delightful underlying levity. I remarked, upon the reveal of her costume redesign, that it should be hung up in the DC offices and labeled “THE WAY FORWARD.” I’m going to expand that a little—Tarr herself is the way forward. Contrast Barbara as portrayed in the first issue of her New 52 reboot with Tarr’s take. In the former, she sports a severe ponytail, khakis, chunky black shoes, a leather blazer and an olive turtleneck—sort of a Talbot’s Greatest Hits ensemble. In issue #35, the ponytail alone speaks to her transformation: relaxed into a beachy updo with a bit of a pompadour, it looks…well, like what my friends wear, especially combined with her raglan tee and stylishly high-waisted jeans. Enlivened by Wicks’s candy-bright colors, this Batgirl has the look down—in part, simply by caring about the look. Its priorities are not those of a typical cape comic, and it is announces this from every page.
I’ll be honest, though: I expected greatness from Tarr from the first. It was the story I wasn’t certain about. Hipster Batgirl is conceptual dynamite, potentially destructive or transfixing. Would it all just serve as a lol-PBR-and-Animal-Collective patina atop business as usual? Would it be, quite frankly, embarrassing? The architecture of this issue’s story might have been put to cringeworthy ends: Tinder and Instagram stand-ins serve as plot points, its central conflict is ripped from the Jezebel headlines, and someone makes a joke about fixies on the first page. But co-writers Stewart and Fletcher…well, to be an oblique millennial for a moment, they get it. Their commitment to the premise, and most of all, their humor, keep the story fun and punchy. They never condescend to it, never mock, never show anything but the utmost devotion to the lives of Barbara and her friends.
It’s funny—I want to say they succeed through employing the classic Marvel tenets of relatable-young-person characterization. But, in fact, Batgirl #35 is DC at its aspirational best. Barbara is the young woman in the city. She’s got a coffee order at a regular spot, an intimidatingly cool major, friends with edgy haircuts, a badass pair of Doc Martens. Details like an overdrawn bank account and a lack of academic funding keep it grounded, but it is ultimately a fantasy. Superhero comics have always, ostensibly, been fantasies, but as is ever the case, these have traditionally been in service to the male id. Batgirl #35 serves my wants and needs, and it has a really great time doing it—which, funnily enough, makes the whole superhero thing easier to swallow. I haven’t felt totally comfortable with the genre for a while now, as the capes and tights grind uneasily against the stubbly sensibilities of today’s mainstream. But Barbara Gordon: liberal arts maven by day, costumed crimefighter by night? I love it. The conceit is transformed from an exercise in just-go-with-it to the bright, bold daydream superheroes represent at their best.
But beyond all that: this is a comic about Batgirl explicitly defeating the forces of misogyny. The bad guy is Hunter Moore, had he been bitten by a radioactive Spencer’s Gifts employee. He speaks in hashtags, has white dude cornrows, sends dick pics to his enemies, runs a club called (ick) Genuflex, and delights his public with gross-out photos of hospital patients. I’m sure comment sections everywhere will be full of complaints about how on the nose this is, how pandering, how ridiculous, but I love it. Comics cannot afford to be subtle when it comes to gender politics. The world cannot afford to be subtle when it comes to gender politics. Barbara Gordon, as a fantasy figure for today’s young woman, should absolutely be taking on the blight of revenge porn.
Apart from fulfilling the promise her character has contained since 1967, and apart from being politically important, it’s just really, super fun for me to see Batgirl kick male entitlement in the teeth. It’s the necessary thematic complement to all those dour articles people like me write, and it’s part of the fantasy as much as the cute boys and clothes are. Barbara gets to do what we all wish we could do: stop the bad guys, swiftly and entirely and utterly unrealistically. My interaction with comics is not often truly escapist—but I only realize it when something like this, that addresses the real stressors of my life, takes me away from them. And it reminds me all over again how valuable and inspiring escapist fiction truly is.
Though I enjoyed Gail Simone’s take on Barbara, this Batgirl is the first time that I’ve felt the controversial loss of Oracle was justified. That’s really the highest praise I can give this issue: it justifies the reboot. It does not erase my concerns, but it quiets them. It’s just so enjoyable, so exciting, so satisfying to indulge in this little corner of the DC universe, to scope out the wardrobe Tarr has provided everyone with, to watch as the cast flirts and fights. My hope is that the creative team understands that their greatest strength is all that sets them apart from what has come before and what surrounds them and that they will double down on this. Give me character drama, romance, unabashed emotion. Give me everything people love to hate about women’s entertainment. I will worry with each issue that the team will succumb to the pressures of this industry—but for now, I’m content. Content to spend some time in Burnside with Barbara and her besties.