BATGIRL: SILENT KNIGHT REVIEW

Although Barbara Gordon will always be known as the iconic Batgirl, she never got a solo series named after her in the mainstream DC Universe until Gail Simone’s run in the New 52 reboot. (Although her animated series incarnation did get a series called Batgirl Adventures in the late 90s).

No, the first Batgirl to get a solo series named after her is the now little known Cassandra Cain.

Cassandra Cain has the distinction of being the only POC in Batman’s Bat Family (unless you count Dick Grayson with his Romani heritage- although that gets brushed aside), and one of the deadliest hand to hand fighters in the DC Universe. Not only that, but her immense skills meant that she garnered more respect amongst Batman and the Robins than any other Batgirl has recieved before or after her.

So, what was Batgirl’s first solo title like (excluding Batgirl Adventures)? Well, lets have a look at this 2000s series and see if it’s worth checking out.

THE ARTWORK

To say the artwork is hit and miss wouldn’t be entirely accurate. It’s highly stylised, and everything’s bold, blocky and fluid.

It has big, exaggerated, ugly faces, chaotic panel placement, deeply shadowed faces and often backgrounds and even whole panels are washed in a single color (usually blue green or red) in order to give it a moody, or ominous or more atmospheric feel, while all the civillian life scenes are more colourful and bright. There’s also a lot of line work and sparce dialogue, which gives it a really streamlined feel and made the action scenes a treat to read.

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Props really have to be given to the colorists John Costanza and Albert T Guzman for giving it this really dark, almost film noir feel here

All this works phenomenally for action sequences. Cassandra Cain is an all action no talk (literally- she’s a mute who they taught to read body language). So this art style makes sense… mostly. 

The only downside is that this exaggerated art doesn’t work as well for the more low key moments. In fact, some of the character designs can look hideous- Cassandra is the worst offender. Seriously, she looks a lot like the neanderthalls from Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur in some panels:

When you’re dealing with a tragic child warrior story similar to Dark Angel, Hitgirl, or Leon The Professional, you really need emotional subtlety. And it doesn’t help when Batman’s pulling an expression like this.

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This is a major emotional milestone, yet how am I meant to take this seriously?

Oh God, how can you take that face seriously? Just compare that to the subtlety of  Stephanie Brown’s expression in another Batgirl series:

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So much emotion in that one look, and its so subtle as well. This is a HUGE problem because when we have a character who’s mute – or only tals in broken sentences at best- and has no life outside being a warrior, you really need to rely on low key character moments, subtle gestures and facial expressions to draw us in and help us connect with her. The art doesn’t do that.

This isn’t helped by the double edged sword that is her costume. Don’t get me wrong, her Bat costume looks incredible, Black, sleek, and a monstrous mask that looks like something of nightmares. I really like this costume… and yet. A big problem is the fact that Cass was not originally a villain (not until an editorial mandate happened anyway). Cassandra is a tragic figure- raised as the ultimate assassin and forced to kill when she was too young to know what she was doing, let alone say no. She cannot talk, so she relies on expressions to get her mood across- and this mask that obscures her face robs her of a lot of character.

They say that the reason that Roman Gladiators wore masks was because it was easier to kill a man when they didn’t have to look them in the eye and acknowledge them as human. The same principle goes for Cass, as I reckon that the mask makes it harder to relate to her as a character. It doesn’t help that what with the stitching, it looks like a nightmare mask she’s trapped in.

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But still, she’s made to look like an actual badass warrior rather than cheesecake who contorts her spine to get her ass and boobs in full display every other panel. In that respect, no matter what I think of her costume’s flaws she’s still head and shoulders above 90% of other superheroines out there.

Ironically, as Batgirl loses skill and gains language, the artwork balances out and though is less dynamic and fluid, everything looks better. The characters are no longer an eyesore, though I can’t help but think the biggest thing this improvement achieved is making Cass look pretty, and made the civillian life scenes less of an eye sore.

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THE STORY

It’s an interesting story. Basically, Cassandra Cain is a half Asian girl who was trained from childhood to be an assassin by a killer called David Cain. The central gimmic is that instead of teaching her how to speak, she learned to read fighting moves as a sort of ‘language’, and thus she is mute. Honestly, I am not sure if this is one of the dumbest ideas I’ve ever heard of, or the coolest.

But then I remembered the Silver Age and Bat-girl’s plan to escape her enemy’s prison by cutting out paper bats and throwing them out of the window, and now it all of a sudden seems completely reasonable.

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Yes, this was completely normal in the Silver Age, which brought us time travelling Wonder tot, Rainbow Batman, Zebra Batman, Batgirl’s ‘Crime Compact’, as well as the demented Bat-baby

Anyway, this is an interesting concept, and creates a certain dilemna in terms of story telling. Since not only. It further shoots itself in the foot by choosing a costume that does not show her face, and an artstyle that does not lend itself to subtle expression.

The workaround was by making Batgirl more of a subject than narrator. Most of the first few issues are narrated by Oracle (Barbara Gordon, who was the previous Batgirl) and Batman. 

Now, a mute protagonist could present a challenge – it could involve Cass slowly learning how to talk, bonding with Oracle, maybe even remembering what her father taught her… but instead they went for an ass pull and had a psychic magically healing her. Seriously. 

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They tried to make it seem like less of an asspull by presenting it as Batgirl having to choose between being the ultimate warrior and mute, or a less skilled, average fighter but able to talk. However, this was clearly done because the writers wrote themselves in a corner by being mute, and didn’t know how to keep this up and keep her interesting. 

It’s a shame, because it was a genuinely interesting problem and there could have been a lot of character development involving bonding with Oracle as she slowly learned language and how to hit in- especially if learning language helped her remember what Cain said as he was training her. Instead we got what we got, with her language skills resulting in her fighting skills becoming more inconsistent, which was a shame, but still made for interesting reading.

It also had another disadvantage of constantly pitting Cass against Mooks. Interestingly, in spite of being by far the deadliest Batgirl and one of the best hand to hand fighters in the DC Universe, her debut fights and achievements are less impressive than Stephanie Brown’s. Even though Stephanie was in part defined by failure and weakness. Still, Stephanie went up against Scarecrow, the calculator, and even a brainwashed Huntress and Catwoman, as well rescuing both Dick Grayson and Barbara Gordon.

Both Barbara Gordon and even ditzy Bette Kane got to debut against masked crooks. Here, most of the time Cassandra went against nameless, maskless goons and her biggest threat wasn’t any foes- but rather whenever the writing team needed to give her a random nerfing. This nerfing is explained by the fact that when she gained the ability to talk she lost the ability to read movements, and yet she appears to get her skill back after a training session with Lady Shiva and it still turns on and off.

Speaking of Lady Shiva, the biggest bright spot was their fight. Lady Shiva is one of the strongest martial artists in the DC Universe, whom Bruce trusted to train Tim Drake (the third Robin) and whom managed to knock Jason Todd (the second Robin) flat on his ass in A Death In The Family. This moment made for one of the strongest conflicts in the opening issue. Often, when I see a superheroine pitted against another female I raise my eyebrows slightly, because it just so often feels like ‘hmmm… this should be girly and this foe has a vagina- lets put them up against each other!’ I still remember when Babsy in Gail Simone’s run called half the DC Universe’s female superheroines in to help her and I was wondering ‘what? No Nightwing? Why ignore the male superheroes when the city’s at stake?’ But no, Lady Shiva and Cass Cain make sense. She is also an ultimate fighter who is dedicated to attaining the peek of skill.

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It’s been said that Batman is the least interesting character in his universe, and it’s his contrast with his Rogues gallery  as well as Superman and his allies that makes him interesting. I suspect the same is true for Cass, as her rivalry with Lady Shiva was great fun. Lady Shiva’s ideals and approach was the complete opposite to Batman’s. Plus, having two of the most badass Asian superheroines in the same comic was pretty awesome.

Another high point was that we saw a more softer and melancholy side to Batman. Far from being the immoving stoic, he genuinely cared for Cass, and was the perfect foil to Cass’ father who only viewed her as a killing machine.

Cain was another great villain, as his obsession with creating the ultimate killer was highly reminiscent of Lydecker from dark angel. I’m looking forward to seeing him in future issues.

But a big flaw was to include an annual in this. It involved a completely different creative team and it feels out of place. It basically involves Batman and Batgirl pursuing this cheesecake Indian shapeshifter whom once they catch up with proceeds to infodump her whole life on them. It’s more focused on the plight of the untouchables and how they have few rights in India, and honestly, since this character has no relevance to anything I can’t bring myself to care about the conflict.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Overall, it may be flawed but with its brilliantly fast pace action, fluid artwork and an excellent standoff against DC heavyweight Lady Shiva, this series was a good start for Batgirl. In all honestly, a big part of the reason I love this is because as an unstoppable trained from birth, Cassandra Cain makes for an excellent power fantasy.

However, the issue is held back by the fact that Kelley Puckett clearly hadn’t quite thought through how he was going to handle Cass’s muteness and the central concept behind her fighting skills, and so the random psychic ‘quick fix’ solution made it feel so cheap. Even so, its definately worth checking out, if for no other reason than its an interesting part of the Batgirl legacy.

RATING:

3.5/ 5

REVIEW: The Batgirl Of Burnside vol 1- A great start for die hard fans and newbies alike

When I picked up this title, I was wary of what this new series would bring. I was worried about this story being taken from Gale Simone’s capable hands and put into the hands of some misogynist who doesn’t care about her character. However, I need not have worried, because not only does this series treat Barbara with respect, it also gives it a very unique identity distinct from the Big Man himself and helps put a bit of distance between Barbara and the Killing joke.

You don’t need to know anything about Barbara’s history or Gail Simone’s run to enjoy this comic, and it’s a great place to start if you’re interested in checking out a Batgirl comic for the first time.

However, here’s a quick run down of her history. If you’re not that interested, then skip straight to the section marked The Batgirl Of Burnside, where I begin the review of this book.

BARBARA GORDON: THE ADAM WEST YEARS

The Barbara Gordon incarnation of Batgirl was created during the sixties for the Adam West television show in order to increase female viewership. The character they created was Commissioner Gordon’s daughter, a strong 25 year old with a doctorate in Library sciences and was basically a genius and the picture of what the women’s rights movement looked like at the time. DC incorporated her into the comics shortly afterwards as part of the bat family.

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Feminism: proving that it’s not only the boys who can provide a brightly coloured target to distract people from Batman!

She solved crime alongside Batman and Robin, appearing in the comics but never taking center stage except for years later in Batgirl and Robin year One, where we got to see her backstory, which involved her becoming Batgirl after she was denied the chance to become a detective due to sexism in the force .All throughout she was a popular character, but eventually her character became less prominent and she was gradually phased out, ending in her retiring as Batgirl to join congress… at least a dignified end to a prominent character. And then came this….

THE KILLING JOKE

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The Killing Joke. If you know anything at all about Batgirl, you’ve heard of Alan Moore’s (V for Vendetta, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen)  ‘The Killing Joke’. Yeah, it was a psychological piece that was not meant to be cannon and it reduced Barbara to a pawn who was humiliated, paralyzed and victimized in a power game between three men. Moore himself said that he regretted what happened, and that the editors should have reigned him more, but they were like ‘cripple the bitch.’

BARBARA GORDON: ORACLE- DOWN BUT NOT OUT

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Even sexist editors and being wheelchair bound won’t stop Barbara from fighting crime

Barbara was reduced to the wheelchair permanently (even though this takes place in a universe with magic, space aliens and characters who have come back from the dead), but fortunately, Kim Yale and John Ostrander did not agree with her treatment, and decided to make sure her character wasn’t sidelined. Thus the Oracle was born- a genius detective in a wheelchair who provided intel to other superheroes. During that time, Stephanie Brown and Cassandra Cain took up the mantle of Batgirl with varying success (Cassandra Cain’s run beginning in Silent Knight is really worth checking out).

THE NEW 52 REBOOT

But when the New 52, the reboot of the DC Universe created to appeal to new fans, they took Barbara Gordon out of the wheelchair and gave her back the Batgirl mantle. Yeah, this caused controversy as it miraculously cured one of DC’s only disabled superheroes, and (initially) removed Stephanie Brown and Asian Batgirl Cassandra Cain from the role. After Daredevil, Professor X and Hawkeye (he’s lost a lot of his hearing in the comics), Oracle is one of the most prominent disabled superheroes about- and one who doesn’t have superpowers that specifically make her disability almost irrelevant (a la Toph Bei Fong who sees with earthbending), so a lot of people were understandably upset.

Me personally, I totally understand why people are upset about this, but I’m glad to have Barbara back. In a world where people have come back from the dead, radiation is basically magic that does anything you want, we have magical cures left right and center, I don’t see why Barbara had to be permanently in the chair. I don’t see why The Killing Joke was ever cannon, as it worked better as an imaginary, psychological study of the two adversaries. Her history should never have been influenced so heavily by a comic that was never even about her, and doesn’t make Batman look great after if the last few panels of him laughing with The Joker, the man who damaged the lives of two of his most loyal crime fighting allies, and Batgirl of Burnside is a step in the right direction.

I am sad that Cass Cain almost got retconned out of history and I think it would have been good if someone else could have taken up the Oracle mantle (like how Kamala took up the Ms Marvel mantle after Carol Danvers became Captain Marvel). But I digress, and shall move on to Gail Simone’s run on the new 52.

In Gail Simone’s run, The Killing Joke is still canon (although Bab’s Oracle years happened in a very compressed timeline), and she took her out of the chair and had her finding her feet again as a superheroine, dealing with PTSD thanks to the Joker’s attack.  It was a decent run- but was held back by its links to tie in events, which made it extremely confusing for new readers, and the fact that it kept on bringing the Joker into it, but wouldn’t let her defeat him, so it felt like a weak and somewhat unsatisfying arc that was chasing its own tail.

NOW, ONTO BATGIRL OF BURNSIDE

Now finally, the Batgirl Of Burnside continues from Gail’s run and begins the process of distancing Batgirl from the Killing Joke and bringing her into her own. Ironically, this story achieves what The New 52 was trying to achieve… it keeps her vital traits, while beginning a new story which requires no prior knowledge of Barbara’s history. One of the pivotal events is Barbara Gordon losing her old costume in a fire and having to create a new one and it’s absolutely amazing. Far from the sexualized boob socks, and revealing clothes we’re used to seeing, this costume looks fantastic, practical, and also doesn’t stray too far from its iconic routes- which is where I think the attempts to redesign Wonderwoman’s outfits run into trouble. This is recognizably Batgirl, but her already great costume looks so much better.

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In fact, the whole story is stronger for the way Babs is portrayed. She’s still every bit as beautiful as she was- but she’s clearly not sexualised. She doesn’t wear clothes that no real woman wouldn’t wear, doesn’t possess those bizarre gravity defying boobs that confuse me more than some of Batman’s Silver Age plotlines;  she dresses like a normal 21 year old and she doesn’t stand in any ridiculous hip cocked boobs out pose. She has an expressive face, and all her poses convey her emotions and personality. In short, she feels more like a real person than just some bizarre sex doll.

This story is just so, so much fun. It’s drawn in a gorgeous bright, eyepopping style that helps give this world its own identity. I really think they utilized the lettering well throughout the comic- social media is a big part of Babsy’s world, and this is shown through speech bubbles; we’ll see the text pop up like an iPhone message when they’re reading a text, or we’ll see what looks like an iPhone play screen showing a song that’s playing during a car ride. All this really helps show that this world is immersed in social media and to great effect, and it really helps modernise Batgirl’s world.

And the colouring is great too. I mean, look at that sunset  below, and how bright everything is. I also love how a lot of the background panels are blank with bold colours during action scenes- it makes it look bright and energetic and kind of reminds me of the old school comics while still feeling really modern.

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The style is a lot more cartoony than  in most comics, and in this case it allows for more exaggerated facial expressions which really helps get character across. It’s a world apart from the dark, broody world of Batman, which some fans have criticized but I think works really well in this case. I mean, Batgirl isn’t Bruce Wayne. She’s an ordinary young woman who fights crime and who achieves incredible feats thanks to her determination, resourcefulness and a desire to help people regardless of the obstacles against her- not a brooding millionaire who saw his parents murdered before his eyes. She’s meant to appeal to a new audience- a young female audience- so making her adventures fun and having her deal with things like Uni, friendships, and using social media makes perfect sense.

This is what you want from comics- fun, and every moment of this comic is a riot- whether its seeing her struggle with school work, partying with her friends or fighting Anime inspired robot motorcycle riding twins. Come on, a part of everyone wants to see that, and this kind of fan, insanity is what comics can do which live action television and other mediums can’t do so easily. The brighter art style also gives it a lighter more cartoonish aesthetic, which makes all the silliness easier to swallow.

Some of it is silly- and I don’t fully buy some of it (I have a few questions about the ending, which I won’t go into due to spoilers), but its tone makes it something I can swallow more.

The one problem I- as well as a whole host of other people-  ran into was Dagger Type. Oh dear, Dagger Type.  There was a pretty fun storyline about a fake sparkly batgirl imitating the real one and taking selfies, becoming an internet celebrity, and basically causing trouble. It was fun… and then we got to the reveal, and it turned out that the fake Batgirl was a man… a psychotic, melodramatic Drag Queen/ cross dresser (it doesn’t specify which) who is the unholy union of the sissy villain and the psychotic gender bender ( think Silence Of The Lambs). Yeah, kind of a disaster and quite a slap in the face to people who are trans/ gender fluid or who are not gender conforming in some way. Especially since with Barbara’s trans lady roomie Alysia, Renee Montoya, Batwoman and Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy now confirmed to be an item, the Bat Universe is one that has been pretty LGBT friendly. Not a great move. Notice how he suddenly looks extremely deranged as soon as his gender’s revealed and goes crazy? Yeah, very Buffalo Bill.

HOWEVER– what is the most incredible part of this story is how the creators responded to this problem. They didn’t give a ‘I’m sorry you were offended this was not how this was meant to be read’ non apology, but they listened to the critique and admitted their errors in a highly sincere apology. That shows a lot of maturity and respect for their fans, and makes them a team whose work I’d still want to follow. Afterall, even the most well meaning and liberal of us can make mistakes.

The rest of the issue recovered, however. I liked the inclusion of Black Canary, and I loved the good solid fun everyone was having. Barbara has so many positive female friendships- from Black Canary, to Alysia Yeoh, to her new roommate Frankie and her Muslim colleague- that felt so natural, warm and fun, that it was enjoyable. Not only that, but the cast is so naturally diverse- from the bisexual and gay black characters, to Barbara’s Muslim coworker, who were all smart, likeable young people living their lives.

I liked how social media was incorporated- Batgirl goes on ‘Hooq’ (a form of Tinder) and there’s also a storyline about her positing her antics on social media. This is a perfect way to make her life more relatable to the younger fans its trying to appeal to, and it feels genuine and not written by some old guy trying to be ‘down wit da kidz’.

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I was also pleased that Alysia remained a character. Alysia was Barbara’s transgender roomate that appeared in the New 52, and regardless of whether fans loved or hated Gail Simone’s run, the one thing everyone could agree on was that Alysia was great. A spunky liberal activist, she was kind, capable of helping even Batgirl out of a scrape and she had the kind of genuine friendship with Barbara that is unusual in comics- not only that, but she was one of comics rare transgender characters and her transgender status wasn’t what defined her. She’s not especially prominent here, but she hasn’t been canned and that’s a relief.

It also teased the idea of her new roomate, Frankie, becoming the new Oracle- which would be amazing: it would allow Barbara to return to the cowl, and we could keep a strong role model for disabled reader. This time one who isn’t defined by a mysogynistic misstep by editors who don’t give a damn about the character.

VERDICT: Batgirl is great fun and what the New 52 run should have been: new, with a distinct identity and no comic history knowledge required for new readers.

RATING: 5 smackdowns from Babs/ 5