You’ve all surely heard the buzz around the latest iteration of Batgirl? It’s amazing to think that DC would put forward a soft-reboot of the character, let alone one that offered such a drastic shift in tone. Gone are the dark photo-realistic visuals and the traumatic story-lines, replaced with a more light-hearted, but no less compelling, affair. The book’s manga-inspired art style has endeared the series to a whole new audience, some of which hadn’t ever engaged with mainstream . Maintaining the depth of characterisation that made the house that Gail Simone built one of the best titles emerging from the new 52. Despite this the change wasn’t without controversy, to the extent that part of the opening story arc began to get meta almost in response to the backlash by having Barbara Gordon face a darker, more cynical version of herself. Volume 2: Family Business continues Stewart, Fletcher and Tarr’ loving tradition of looking behind the cowl and examining what makes Barbara who she is.
Instead of one long story-arc, Volume 2: Family Business contains a number of shorter arcs and “done-in-ones” which give different glimpses into the Barbara’s social life. The first arc features her father; James Gordon, as Robo-Batman and discusses the impact that secrets have on familial ties. It’s an thoroughly emotional story-line, featuring a distraught Batgirl unable to fully open with her august father despite his willingness to open up to her about his new role as the not so-much caped crusader. This is, perhaps, the most self-aware comic when it comes to the ridiculousness of the Robo-Batman design and it isn’t afraid to take digs at some of the creative choices its parent series has made in recent years. It’s rare that you see a comic willing to build that kind of humour off the back of one of the most established characters in comics. The second story-arc features a more traditional mystery involving the murders of a number of software developers as a fledgling love-interest in the form of one Luke Fox; Batwing emerges to shake up Barbara’s world. Throughout the volume Barbara’s role as graduate student is explored and the series truly becomes a college drama worthy of a CW adaptation.
The one constant through these issues is the upcoming wedding of longtime Batgirl supporting character Alysha to her long-time partner; Jo. It is great to see the progression of this story-line given it amounts to the first transgender wedding in mainstream comics. It also provides an interesting balancing act for Babs as she must juggle her role as both maid of honour with her duties as Batgirl. It’s very Peter Parker and not revolutionary in that sense, but the fact that the Fletcher and Stewart treat the wedding as a matter of fact without any added pomp is quite significant. It is indicative of an industry and a creative team that are sensitive to the need for greater diversity within comics, but at the same time recognise that to turn that very inclusiveness into a spectacle is to miss the point. This could easily have turned into one of those “collectors’ editions” special wedding issues, but it instead the event is treated with the respect and dignity that it deserves.
The final issue, examining Barbara’s relationship with Dick Grayson is perhaps the most impactful of the collection. Not only do we get the aforementioned wedding, but we get our first soft-reboot insight into the relationship between these characters. As a long-time fan of the character, this turns Grayson’s playful, flirtatious nature on its head and demonstrates the negative impact that it has on those close to him. It challenges the notion that Babs and Dick are meant to end up together. It questions the narrative that says its acceptable for the good Mr. Grayson to consistently act in a way that toys with people’s emotions, to come and go as he pleases. This is Barbara asserting herself as a woman, standing up to a culture of entitlement that certain male character inhabit and it’s glorious. Dick Grayson may be one of my favourites, but it’s about time someone called him out on his crap. Brenden Fletcher and Cameron Stewart have tapped into an important conversation that needs to be had within the industry and they are effectively tackling problematic tropes by portraying an empowered Barbara who is the author of her own destiny in a way we haven’t seen in many comics before. No longer is she the pre-destined love interest of Dick Grayson, instead the series has given her the opportunity to explore her relationships in a way that reflects contemporary views towards dating. She’s a quirky character and often shy around potential love interests, but Barbara knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to pursue those prospects either.
Babs Tarr’s art improves with every issue with action scenes that are as dynamic as the latest Hollywood blockbuster. It is in the quiet moments in which Batgirl truly shines with Tarr’s manga-esque style allowing for subtle emotional changes to be reflected more accurately than other more conventional styles. Tarr makes effective use of blushing to demonstrate an evolution of the character’s relationships with each other. Much like a well-drawn rom-com, these slight changes in express tell us more than words ever could as to how they characters feel for one another. It isn’t realistic by any means, but it stands out in a sea of photo-realism and endears itself to a generation that grew up on imported anime. Does it go to far occasionally and become far too cutesy? Perhaps, but it has that Teen Titans quality that is hard to replicate, but instantly memorable. One of the interesting aspects of the series’ visual presentation is the almost Holmesian portrayal of Barbara’s cognitive abilities. Barbara Gordon has always been the intellectual powerhouse of the Batman family, but this series gives her a hybrid mind-palace/ detective-vision that allows us an unprecedented insight into the world as she sees it. It makes the us feel more attached to the character as our views of the world are aligned, even for that brief moment. It’s our collective experiments in form like Batgirl and Ms. Marvel that allow our consequential stories to develop in new and exciting ways.
I’ll be honest, it was Fletcher’s Black Canary that inspired me to go back and catch up on this series and I can’t believe I haven’t been reading this for the beginning. A single weak annual that serves little more than as an advertisement for other series in the Batman family of books prevents this from being an almost perfect collection of stories, but it’s mediocrity is only noticeably due to the extremely high quality of work on display everywhere else in this volume. With Batgirl, Stewart, Fletcher and Tarr have created a soup opera that unites a broad readership of fans both old and new. Like it or not, the Batgirl of Burnside is here to stay and long may she reign.
A review copy was kindly provided by the publisher.