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Barbara Gordon Stands Up, But ‘Batgirl’ #1 Doesn’t [Review]

The first big wave of relaunched DC Comics titles hit stores yesterday, and I might not be one of the new readers that DC’s trying to hook with their relaunch, but I am a guy who was willing to be convinced that the return of Barbara Gordon to the role of Batgirl was something that needed to happen. As a result, I went into this week’s release of the Batgirl #1 hoping that Gail Simone, Ardian Syaf and Vicente Cifuentes would come out of the gate with a story strong enough that it could convince me that this is how the character should be.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, and the only thing I came away convinced of is that this comic is not very good.It’s not that I’m particularly attached to Oracle, the version of Barbara Gordon that we’ve had for the past twenty years since she was paralyzed in The Killing Joke. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a lot of affection for the character, but as I’ve mentioned before, I’m almost completely undecided on whether the identity of Batgirl or Oracle is a better take.

I love the idea of Batgirl, that she’s the first person so inspired by Batman that she becomes a heroine in her own right, acting on her own to do the right thing. And she does it without Bruce Wayne’s billions of dollars and years of training, and rather through sheer determination. She’s the first character who earns Batman’s respect and trust without going through the same sort of personal tragedy that he did, and that’s a great concept.

On the other hand, Oracle, the identity that Barbara Gordon adopted after her paralysis as the operational leader of Birds of Prey and information broker for the DCU, is every bit as compelling. Again, it’s determination that sits at the heart of the story, the idea of conquering adversity and reinventing yourself, continuing to do the right thing by using your strengths to overcome your weaknesses. Throw in the fact that Oracle used the Internet as a weapon against crime — in 1989, no less! — and she’s one of the few characters to actually become more relevant to the readers in the years since her creation. One of the things Justice League writer Geoff Johns highlighted about the cybernetically-enhanced character Cyborg was that the readers could relate to him because of how we’ve all become dependent on technology, but as Oracle, Barbara Gordon’s been rocking that gimmick for 20 years as a vital part of their universe.

So while returning Barbara Gordon to her earlier identity is, in a lot of ways, the same kind of regressive backslide for a character that almost always turns me right off of a book, I can see the validity to this one, especially if we’re scrapping everything that came before it and kicking off with a fresh start. But one of the problems here is that this is anything but a fresh start.

If you’re a regular reader looking for complete answers about why Batgirl is walking again, but we do learn that the events of The Killing Joke still happened to this version of Barbara Gordon, because it gets a pretty big reference in the form of a nightmare. And that makes absolute perfect sense.

Killing Joke is, after all, one of the comics that most people who are even casually interested in DC Comics have picked up and read at one time or another. It’s one of those “definitive” stories, up there with Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, that’s managed to be seen by the mass audience. Heck, from the looks of Jim Gordon’s red hair and mustache in this comic, they’re even skewing him to look closer to Year One. If you’re looking to get those casual readers to take the next step into picking up monthly comics again, it follows logically that you’d want to build on one of those touchstones. If they liked Killing Joke, you hand this to them and tell them “here’s what’s next.”

The thing is, The Killing Joke is also the comic that says that Barbara’s going to be paralyzed for the rest of her life, and while there are a million comic book ways to get around that — Lazarus Pits, robot legs, Purple Healing Ray, the Flash’s molecules vibrating through the time stream, and so on — it’s never addressed. The only thing we’re told in the book is that Barbara Gordon used to be paralyzed but now she’s not.

Obviously, I wasn’t expecting to have everything about the character explained in a single issue — taking up half a comic with a checklist of things that are different from how they used to be last month isn’t entertaining for anyone — but that seems like a pretty big elephant in the room to leave out, especially given that the paralysis is directly referenced twice, and that this is apparently her first night back at Batgirling.

But even that’s something you can overlook as a device to keep the existing readers curious. If the story itself is solid, then trying to piece together the events that led up to it becomes part of the fun rather than a chore. And to her credit, Simone’s script hits all the notes that a first issue should. Batgirl is introduced and we learn the basic information we need to go forward. She used to be paralyzed, now she’s not, she’s making her big return as Batgirl, and there’s an initial set of bad guys that get trounced, leading to the bigger, overarching villain’s conflict that closes out the issue.

Unfortunately, all that stuff is pretty rough.

To start with, we have the Big Villain, The Mirror, so-called because he has a mirror on his chest that scares people, which I’m going to go ahead and guess is because it shows them their own corpses. He shows up on page one in his spoooooky cape, appears to expose himself to an old man, and then drowns him by putting a garden hose in his mouth and blowing him up like a water balloon.

That is hilarious. The problem is that I’m not sure it’s supposed to be. Simone’s pretty handy at using both dark humor and outright slapstick in her comics — see Secret Six and her incredible breakout run on Deadpool for examples — so while it wouldn’t be entirely out of character for her to go ridiculously over-the-top with this guy, I can’t shake the feeling that he’s supposed to be taken seriously.

But that can’t be right, because his entire gimmick is that he seems to be going around killing people that should’ve died but didn’t — the guy he drowns with a hose was the sole survivor of a shipwreck — which would mean that this was an actual villain who appears to be based on the Final Destination movies.

After that, Batgirl herself shows up in one of those godawful new costumes with all the seams and piping that look like they were based on designs Joel Schumacher never got to use, and things start to get confusing. Mainly, it stems from the fact that Batgirl has an internal monologue going at the same time that she’s talking to herself out loud in order to psych herself up for impending bat-themed violence. That’s not the confusing part, although it is worth noting that there’s some pretty strange choices in her pep talk that kind of make her sound like my grandmother talking to a kitty cat:

No, the confusing part comes later, when she’s talking out loud, and delivering narration in captions, and then somehow talking out loud to other people in captions all at the same time:

It’s not only on Simone’s end, either. Syaf even seems to forget that one of the characters is wearing the plastic smock of a “vintage halloween costume” — something that’s slightly important to the plot, as it’s how Barbara was inexplicably able to track down the bad guys — from one panel to the next:

The entire book feels awkward, and most of all, rushed. The bad guys at the beginning are paper thin goons who introduce themselves by talking about how scary they are. They even have a scrapbook, which incidentally is full of what I think are supposed to be newspaper clippings about their crimes, but what look more like squares of gray construction paper. Maybe that’s the big revelation about the DC Universe? In the New 52, crime reports are issued in single paragraphs of centered Times New Roman!

And it doesn’t get any better as the book goes on, either. While it’s an interesting way to convey that she doesn’t have the resources she used to as Oracle, Barbara moving out of her father’s house and into a tiny apartment because that’s the best she can afford is straight Peter Parker Lite, and her new roommate…. Look, I know it’s the first issue and there are only so many pages to devote to introducing characters, but she reads like you could find her in an index of stock characters if you looked did a search for “quirky + artsy.”

The worst, though, is the last page, which makes absolutely no sense. Basically, the bad guy shoves a guy out of a window in a hospital while holding a gun on Batgirl, who doesn’t move to stop him because she’s reminded of being shot by the Joker and she’s — wait for it — paralyzed with fear. Again, I can see what we’re getting at. Barbara’s defining characteristic is her determination, and it seems pretty clear that Simone is setting her up to conquer a fear by persevering, even if it is a little much of a groaner for my taste. This is not the bad part.

The bad part is that there’s a cop in the room who was guarding the guy who was just defenestrated, who suddenly pulls her gun on Barbara and declares her to be a murderer — excuse me, a MURDERER! — because she “let him kill that man!” Not only is this every bit as awful as that time in “Grounded” where the woman blamed Superman for her husband dying of cancer because Superman didn’t use his heat vision to cut his brain tumor out, it’s actually worse. Why? Because the guy who did the actual murdering is still in the room! Like five feet away! And in case you missed this bit, the cop has a loaded gun.

Admittedly, this is the first issue, and there’s still the possibility that next month’s could open up with Batgirl saying “I let him die? Lady, you’re the one with the pistol,” but given Batgirl’s mortified “Dear God, what have I done?” closer, I’m pretty sure that’s not going to happen.

I wanted to like this comic, and on some level, I feel like I made it as easy as possible for the new DC to make that happen. Generally speaking, I’m a fan of Gail Simone’s work, I like Barbara Gordon, and more importantly, I’m open to the idea Barbara Gordon as Batgirl. This could’ve been the comic that sold me on it and made me want to see more, but while there’s plenty of kicking in that opening fight scene that’s played as a celebration of the character quite literally getting back on her feet, it’s all mired in a story that feels like a first draft.

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