By Patrick Larose
A part of me wonders that when an independent comic creator enters the mainstream superhero genre, there’s this pressure to emphasize the superhero aspect in a superhero story.
I can understand how it might be intimidating, after all, these are stories driven by iconography and, due to their long lifespans, demand constant reinvention, and new ideas. It’s tough for me to admit that it’s a genre driven by style-over-substance but there’s only so much you can do with a character like Batman over a 78-year career.
It’s that particular superhero-style that’s overwhelming characterized this run of Batgirl—the premise of Batgirl going on a vacation across eastern Asia interesting, the villains bright and weird with a central mystery that lies heavy on the bizarre faux-science-fiction of comic books. The action scenes have been fun, the artwork and colors on point but at the end of the day, I’m left wondering what this story really says about Batgirl as a character.
Issue four starts as a culmination. We’re one out from the finale so finally we learn who these masked villains are, what they have to do with Kai and why any of them are doing any of this. Moth, Hardhat Boy, and Schoolgirl are there former students who all flunked out of their placement exams. Locked out from the career paths of their choice, they were preyed upon and recruited by an international criminal to commit masked international crime.
Despite these first moments amounting to what is basically a drawn-out fight scene driven by exposition, I realized they’re probably the most compelling moments of the current run. The Schoolgirl and Juku (Hardhat Boy) aren’t as much villains as they are co-workers. We understand their past and even if they don’t like each other, they’re both emotionally driven to work together and do something, which in this case is to beat up Batgirl.
The series run to this point has been so fixated on being a travelogue of Batgirl’s vacation that never does her investigation ever feel anything more than ancillary. She goes from city-to-city, landmark-to-landmark, and this constant pace has never given her the time to dig her heels into the conflict. The story tried to use this one constant, her old friend Kai, as the physical stakes of the conspiracies at play but they never could quite get his personality and narrative to align with Barbara’s making him feel displaced as if from another story.
I think this is why so many traditional and functional Batman stories have based themselves on villains who are reflective in some way to Batman or use Gotham as an emotional landscape. They’re founded not just on a crime needing to be investigated but ensure that the stakes of the investigation are reflexive of the lead character.
I can see almost how a superhero story can almost feel like a cheat-mode for narrative structure. Who cares about making the conflict relevant to the character's personality when you can fall back on them being a hero and thus willingly pursue any conflict you fancy.
Yet that's exactly what this current run has done, making Batgirl a tourist in her own story. So while the artwork's been kinetic, the dialogue sharp, there’s still never beena narrative reason that makes Barbara Gordon push back a little harder against this international crime syndicate of students. Which is strange because with this new issue's revelations there's so many emotional angles that can be approached just because it's Batgirl fighting these characters.
Barbara's a super genius, a product of the Western education system. She got straight A's in school and went to college on full scholarship and now uses that degree to run a multi-million dollar company. These villains, her current adversaries, are students who were never smart enough and never had these advantages available and there's a tension there as this privileged white girl beats up a bunch of people who became criminals because they didn't have access to this education.
This tension is zoomed past in favor of using Kai as another damsel in distress and a ticking time bomb of a superpower serum, making Batgirl as a character unimportant to the story and easily copy-pasted with any other hero.
When I think back on what drew me to this new series in the first place, I remember the Fruit Bat of the issue one—this character whose life mirrored Barbara’s own career as Batgirl—and the promise of planting Gordon in the center of an MMA league. These aspects, as interesting as they seemed, vanished as another stop on her vacation itinerary and I just wish we could have slowed the pace, stopped for a minute and figured out why she ever needed this vacation in the first place. What does this character's history and place in life really mean when placed in the center of this story.
I’m bummed out by all this. Glancing over everything I’ve written this review comes off as overly negative. I don’t hate Batgirl; I’m just disappointed at these interesting concepts and characters being lost in a narrative without much focus. From the moment the deadly Schoolgirl was introduced, I wanted to see what was going on with her and four issues later she’s still the most engaging part of this narrative.
Narratives, even in superhero stories, need more than an established name. They need a reason—a fault line the geography of our characters that the stories prod and explore. The series could have been so much more than a vacation under the guise of an investigation, it could have been about the reasons some superheroes need time off and connections outside of their lives of vigilantism.
Now, however, what I want more than ever is a comic about a group of kids who flunk out of school only to be recruited and trained to be an international crime syndicate. Maybe a story about a bunch of kids donning masks for a life of international danger in the hope of a second chance and maybe a young girl still hopeful even in spite of the overwhelming cynicism of her coworkers. That sounds like it could be pretty good.
Writer: Hope Larson
Artist: Rafael Albuquerque
Publisher: DC Comics
Format: On-going; Print/Digital