Monday, April 13, 2015

Batgirl #35-40 "The Batgirl of Burnside"

Last month saw the completion of the first storyarc of the "Batgirl" revamp, which has since been lauded as both a commercial and critical success. The revamp has attracted significant attention from the debut of the character's costume redesign and was eagerly anticipated by an audience looking for something new in DC's output. The publisher has repeatedly faced criticism for failing to bring enough innovation in its line wide 2011 makeover. When contacted to follow up Gail Simone's "Batgirl" run, the new creative team was finally given a chance to do just that, create a modern superhero title that tried to reach out to current urban audience, consisting mainly of younger people.

By specifically targeting teenage girls, the publisher has seemingly given an unprecedented amount of freedom to artist Cameron Stewart and writer Branden Fletcher. And while Stewart's other commitments relegated him to a role of breakdown penciller and co-writer, they also allowed Babs Tarr to add her own touch on the pencils. The colorist Maris Wick's completes the creative team that has cemented the image of Batgirl for a new generation of fans.

The first issue starts slowly, asking the reader to trust the creative team as it exposes them to a new cast of characters and a change in the setting. Batgirl has moved to Burnside, a Gotham suburbia that for all intents and purposes functions as an extension to a college campus. Thus, most of the characters that populate the book tend to be young, trendy people, obsessing over self image and social media. This perfectly compliments the creative team's vision of Barbara Gordon as an overachieving post graduate that is trying to find a new place in the world for herself and her crime-fighting alter ego.

The creative team's debut calls back to the character's superhero past but in a way that provides a clear break from who she was. The in-story explanation goes on to add her longtime ally Black Canary to the supporting cast and introduces the conflict between the two that they try to resolve over these six issues. It naturally deals with the changes Barbara has been going through and the new ways she uses to battle the fashion conscious, off the moment threats that begin plaguing the lives of herself and her new circle of friends.

These pages show that everyone in Burnside is taken with the Internet culture and are thus easily manipulated by dating websites, tech savvy multimedia artists and reality TV stars, which are certainly a far cry from the serial killers and Batman rogues that the character has been dealing with in the past. Nevertheless, the creative team is careful to maintain a through-line between the episodic stories, dealing with a genuine threat behind the seemingly unconnected attacks at Burnside. It strikes right at the heart of Batgirl and once again calls into question her new way of life.

Every chapter of the wider story is similarly paced, starting dense with a wide variety of characters all feeding into the eventual conflict that resolves in well staged fights and ending on a cliffhanger that maintains the reader's interest in this new creative direction. There is a variety of well dressed, wispy new characters, but Stewart and Fletcher wisely choose to spotlight the few key people in Barbara's life, while purposefully leaving out return appearances from her father and Batman.

Both are repeatedly referenced, but it seems that the creative team has deemed their presence as something that would only distract from the story they were telling. It was imperative to make sure that the new tone of the book had more to do with "Scott Pilgrim" than Scott Snyder's "Batman" and in this respect, the book completely succeeds. Yet, the Bryan Lee O'Malley's young adult sensation already feels outdated when compared to the lifestyle trends depicted on these pages.

There's no doubt that "Batgirl"'s modern hipsters will feel dated in a decade or two, but as of now, they are presented in such a way that the new, and more importantly, teen audience can sympathize with them. Thereby, it makes sense that the larger threat uniting the individual enemies would come from the character's past. The creative team themselves seem to be confronting their own vision of Batgirl with the conservative past of the well trod Batman spin-off story model.

On one side, there is Black Canary questioning Barbara's every move and criticizing her media friendly new role as the Burnside's protector. Dinah is presented as a slightly older version of the female superhero that nevertheless ultimately embraces a new role for herself. What's preventing Batgirl from doing the same is Burnside itself, which continually reshapes to fit the latest social trends, the locale's relationship to its new suburban protector as fickle as the latest Internet sensation and easily manipulated by the unseen mastermind.

That the protagonist nevertheless manages to triumph and in every way that counts leaves her past behind is inspiring in all the right ways. Despite the hardships, Barbara Gordon still manages to establish new friendships, starts her academic career and finds herself entering a romantic relationship. None of these start off perfectly for the slim, long-haired heroine, and at one point near the end she seems like she will break from the outside pressure, but with the help of her friends, she find a new strength in herself to overcome the adversities and continues on with her life, stronger for the experience.

It's strange that such a female positive, life affirming story with a diverse cast was at one point painted as ignorant to the issues dealing with the transgender experience. The creative team had clearly contrasted the problematic depiction of a villain with a positive image of a well adapted cast member carried over from Simone's run, but it was apparently deemed too subtle by some of the more sensitive audience members.

Despite the controversy, the revamp can be deemed a success in every aspect, and has already lead to the establishment of the Black Canary spinoff. In fact, it will debut as part of the company's line wide makeover, inspired chiefly by "Batgirl"'s success. It has been announced that the series will continue with Babs Tarr providing full art, sans Cameron Stewart's breakdowns and there is every reason to think that it will grow even stronger. Now that the title has successfully established itself as an entity distinct from its dark roots, and has in fact crafted the narrative around the protagonist embracing her newfound freedom, the creative team should be set to likewise continue forward with their storyline. Their audience will only grow as books like "Batgirl" and "Ms Marvel" stop being exceptions and the industry starts providing entertainment for fans of all backgrounds, having finally found a way to market beyond their existing demographic.