Review – Batgirl, Vol. 1: The Darkest Reflection

Gail Simone’s Batgirl fails to make a case for Barbara Gordon’s return in “The Darkest Reflection”, a story with some promising ideas and solid art but not much heart. For a more in depth review, read on…

Babs is only Batgirl in the darkest timeline. If Jeff Winger had gone for the pizza, Steph, Cass and Babs would be sharing the lead in a title called “Batgirls”. I’m not sure how that timeline plays out, but I’m working on it, don’t worry.

I’ve stated more than once that Gail Simone is one of my three or four favorite comic writers working today.  At her best – as she often was on Birds of Prey and virtually always was on Secret Six – she could blend darkness and humor, action and character-based drama, like few other creators in the industry.  Simone is a hugely talented writer, and seeing her name on a book just about always means it’s a book worth picking up.

Which is why her output in the New 52 has been so immensely frustrating: There’s precious little of Simone’s distinctive voice to be found.  And while that may make sense for Fury of the Firestorm, which she co-wrote with friend and respected artist Ethan Van Sciver, it makes less sense for Batgirl, the book it seemed like she had been born to write, and the book that pales in comparison to very nearly everything else she has written.  After panning the series early on, I revisited it during the “Night of the Owls” crossover and found it improved, if not by as much as I’d  hoped.  Still, it was enough to lure me into picking up the first collection when it released.

Unfortunately, Batgirl: The Darkest Reflection still suffers from many of the flaws to the first two issues that drove me away in the first place, though it does improve as it goes on.  Part of it is the villains – The Mirror was unmemorable at best and downright silly at worst… and he was often at his worst.  While Gretel was a definite improvement, she still ran into some problems as the plot to hunt her down had a few too many contrivances to sit well with me.  The biggest problem, though, especially from the Mirror, is the lack of a genuine threat.  It’s a case of telling without showing; having Babs tell us how scary he is is a poor substitute for actually making him scary, and while I hear it constantly, I never really see what sets him apart on the page.  It’s cheap drama, though I give credit to Simone for trying to bring some new blood into comics, and I think Gretel in particular could grow in some interesting directions in Gotham, given time.

But I think the biggest problem one of tone.  For example: At times, Simone almost seems to be writing Babs as suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is actually a really interesting direction to take the character… but it’s also not a direction that conflicts with Simone’s dialogue and with the nature of an action-adventure series – which this very much is.  This means that what could be an interesting character trait that humanizes Barbara, injects drama and gives her something to work towards instead often feels like a half-formed idea, or a trait they flirted with before backing off.  After all, next time Barbara gets a gun pointed at her, she reacts perfectly fine – she even comments about how fine she feels.  But the book maintains that grim, dark tone, even when things get weird or goofy, and that can lead to an ill-conceived mish-mash of conflicting tones in some places.

Ardian Syaf does solid work here, drawing Babs and Gotham in clean, crisp lines, joined by inker Vicente Cifuentes (who fills in on pencils now and again).  Both artists are well-served by colorist Ulises Arreola, who manages to make Gotham more vibrant than it normally seems without sacrificing any of the darkness for which the city is known.  The art is fairly typical, but it serves Simone’s story well, and Arreola in particular stands out for making the book come to life.

There are seeds of things that I really like.  Though I think the Gretel resolution – the repeated 338s in particular – doesn’t hold together very well at all, it does lead to the book’s best scene, as four big-time mob bosses hold up traffic, firing their guns into a crowd as they start mugging civilians… for three dollars and thirty-eight cents.  It’s dark, it’s funny, and it’s a great way to establish Gretel as a creepy, weird new Gotham villain as she has the mobsters mow down their own loved ones as a distraction.  It shows that Simone is finally finding a way to reconcile her tone with Barbara’s adventures.  Batgirl has a lot to live up to, and if Batgirl: The Darkest Reflection ultimately fails to do so, I think it at least suggests that it’s a work in progress, one that may find its legs soon.  After all, when most issues are better than the one before it, that’s generally a good sign for the future of the book.

- Cal C.

read/RANT

Discussion

In the interest of fairness, I tried VERY hard not to compare this run to Bryan Q. Miller’s Batgirl, which is (in my opinion) THE essential Batgirl story in the legacy’s history.  Similarly, Barbara’s strongest role has been as Oracle, and I have a hard time believing that she will ever again approach that level of relevance… but, because that doesn’t enter into Batgirl: The Darkest Reflection at all, I tried not to mention it in the review section.

That said, if any readers are interested, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.  Batgirl has become something of a troubled legacy.  Stephanie Brown has become a somewhat notorious football for DC to kick around and taunt fans with, Cassandra Cain was given – repeatedly – to a writer who neither understood nor liked her before forcibly retiring her (only to be saved at the last minute by Morrison), and Barbara Gordon was at her most interesting when she was Oracle.

I understand the logic of making Babs Batgirl from a corporate level, which is always the level DC discusses when they talk about the decision – she’s iconic, she has brand recognition, etc… – but no one has yet to explain why Batgirl is necessary, and why Barbara should be her, from a creative level, which is the important one.  Simone actually comes close once or twice in the opening issues – the PTSD angle – but never really looks at the issue in a meaningful way.

Cassandra had the inherent League of Assassins drama, as well as her growth from an illiterate assassin into a proud, capable young hero.  Stephanie had the drama of balancing college, superheroics, and a disapproving mother terrified that Steph would die again as she fought to regain her self-confidence and really become Batgirl.  I’m open to Barbara having a reason to do this, but we’re never really given one here.  What’s her inspiration?  Why should I care?  What makes her tick?  Why gives up being Oracle?  Where is the drama coming from?

Barbara seems to have been made Batgirl again because corporate marketing teams think she’s the easiest Batgirl to sell ad space for.  And that?  That’s a fucking travesty.

Am I completely missing something from this opening volume?  Babs fans, what makes her stories speak more to you than those starring Steph or Cass?  Why do you think DC thought there could have been four Robins, but then claimed that having Steph or Cass ever be Batgirl would somehow confuse people?

6 Responses to Review – Batgirl, Vol. 1: The Darkest Reflection

  1. xxadverbxx says:

    If you want most my thoughts, you can dig through for my reviews on Batgirl. I had enjoyed the first issue as it showed promise despite not getting to everything. But it quickly fell in my book and the fact that it seems it is yet to answer the question of why she’s no longer Oracle and is back to being Batgirl (besides the fact she has use of her legs again) upsets me. Like you I believe her to be the greatest as Oracle. She may not have been able to run across rooftops or physically kick someone in the head, but she did a lot for not just Batman and his family but the entire super hero community. Stephanie at the same time really felt like she earned the role from how she started out, to the messes she caused and/or helped clean up. She earned the role, not to mention she had the original be her mentor for a while as well.

    I mean really, what do we get now? Someone at least seemed to realize Oracle was a good character for now Green Arrow has his watered down version just tossed in from out of the blue and knowing his secret. Add in that Babs has (at least last I read) been a subpar Batgirl who at her best so far seems around Steph’s worst in the role just isn’t panning.

  2. wwayne says:

    Cassandra Cain is the worst Batgirl ever, in my opinion. Her stories were boring as all hell. I didn’t read much of the Batgirl run starring Stephanie Brown, but I liked what I read. Anyway, Barbara’s stories talk to me more than the other 2 combined. I think it’s because I was deeply sorry for her being on a wheelchair, so seeing her back in action is priceless to me. I still remember how joyful I was when I found out she was walking again: I couldn’t believe I was so touched by a comic book, to me it was almost like it had happened to a close friend. Anyway, I understand your point of view: you think Barbara was more useful and functional as a character being Oracle, while now she’s just a face in the crowd of the Gotham vigilantes. On this point, I completely agree with you.
    At the beginning, the story was simple: there was Batman and his sidekick Robin. Then Nightwing raised: it was a great move (it is one of the greatest comic characters of all time, so he definitely deserved a solo series), and most of all it was a justified move, since he was covering a Gotham zone Batman couldn’t care enough of (Bludhaven). Then a lot of other vigilantes (and sidekicks) came after Dick, but, as far as I know, DC never told us WHY they were necessary for Batman and for Gotham. In some cases, even their creation wasn’t necessary: for example, there was no need to replace a great Robin (Tim Drake) with an unbearable one (Damian Wayne).

    • Cal C. says:

      I never read much Cass, but I liked what I did see of her in other books. What’s more, she’s got a lot of solid conflicts and ideas at the core of her book… something Babs just doesn’t have right now.

      I get what you’re saying about Babs, but I just don’t see it. There’s no joy to be found in this book, and we didn’t even get a transition between Oracle and Batgirl. One month, she was in a wheelchair; the next, she could walk. If they’d done an arc where she triumphantly returned, that would be one thing, and I would share your joy. But as it is, it seems like a market-driven, meaningless twist. There was no character work, no plotting, just change for the sake of change. And, at least going by this volume, it just didn’t work.

      Also, I’m always surprised to meet people who don’t like Damian. He’s such a delightful little snot, it baffles me that he is so loathed by some people.

  3. lebeau says:

    Cal, I think you are right on the money with this. I was sad that we were losing two of my favorite books in the relaunch (Miller’s Batgirl and Secret Six). But I was hopeful that some of the new offerings would stand as suitable replacements. Simone on Batgirl seemed like a no-brainer.

    I am going to assume, based on the final product and the rumors we’ve been hearing out of DC, that Simone’s Nu52 work is suffering under “editorial mandates”. Frankly, it sounds like DC is a terrible place for writers these days. Under these conditions, it’s amazing we are getting any decent books at all.

    As for who should carry the mantle of Batgirl, my answer is pretty much anyone but Babs. Babs as Oracle was a vibrant and unique character. One of the most important in the DCU. Babs as Batgirl is perhaps the least interesting Batgirl of the three choices. Steph would be my #1 pick (with Miller reinstated as writer – I will buy that right now). But I wouldn’t mind seeing Cass get another try.

    I can live with Babs as Batgirl if the stories get better. But I am not holding out a lot of hope at this point.

    Can I dare to dream of a day when Simone can return to Secret Six? Or a version of Suicide Squad that includes Deadpool and Catman? (Although I do enjoy the new SS for what it is.)

    • Cal C. says:

      It’s disappointing how little of Simone’s voice there really is in this book. I suspect a huge part of it is that this seems like a job Simone was given, rather than a book she had a solid idea for, pitched, got, worked on, revised, etc…. It seems like something that’s being put together on the fly in all the worst ways.

      Simone remains one of my favorite comic writers, but I’m honestly not even sure if I’m going to get the next volume of Batgirl.

  4. [...] Justice League International, Batgirl and Suicide Squad, this is just about as mediocre as they come.  Abnett and Lanning do have some [...]

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