By this time next month, Barbara Gordon will be back as Batgirl after more than 20 years in a wheelchair for DC Comics’ line-wide relaunch. The response to her de-paralysis has been passionately mixed, but as someone that grew up knowing Barbara as Oracle, I’m excited to see her back on the street. Much of that can be attributed to my confidence in Gail Simone as a writer, especially after this statement in a June Newsarama interview:
“I just don't think [Barbara] was ever presented as a sidekick. She was always smart and usually independent. To me, it was more like she was more like a non-Hal Green Lantern. She shared a name and a motif, but was nothing like a sidekick.”
Robin’s a sidekick whereas Batgirl is an independent contractor, a female that didn’t need to be someone’s cousin from outer space or an Amazon to do what’s right. Simone talks at length about the intelligence and independence that sets Barbara apart from other female heroes, and “Shadow of the Bat” puts these endearing qualities on display as Barbara takes on a Bat-persona to rescue her father. Like Harvey Dent, Barbara Gordon benefits from being established before her costumed alter ego, giving us a chance to make a connection to the woman, not the mask.
After arresting Rupert Thorne with the help of hot-shot Deputy Commissioner Gil Mason, Commissioner Gordon is framed for taking bribes from the very man he’s just arrested. I’m rereading Gotham Central in those nifty little collections DC has been releasing, so it’s nice to have an episode with plenty of GCPD action. Brynne Stephens’ story about police corruption and gangland takeovers must have flown right over my head as a kid, but as an adult I appreciate that the story isn’t less mature because of the target demographic. When Harvey Bullock and the rest of the force organize a rally to grant Gordon bail, Barbara approaches Batman about making a guest appearance, a request he denies so he can actually solve the mystery.
Batman made a promise to James to keep Barbara safe, and he does that by being a huge jerk so she doesn’t try to get involved. Batman has obviously learned nothing from his previous cape-tugging encounter with Barbara. The more emphatically he tells her “no,” the more driven she is to defy him, and his refusal to help her forces Barbara to take matters into her own hands. While Bruce goes undercover as Matches Malone to discover the anonymous source tipping off Mason, Barbara dons a homemade cape and cowl to make sure a Bat-presence is felt at the rally. When a car drives by and opens fire on the podium, Barbara swoops into action, grabbing an ill-tied banner that falls onto the windshield of the shooters’ vehicle.
One taste of superheroism is all it takes and Barbara is hooked, creating her own Batgirl costume to redeem her father’s name in Batman’s absence. Undercover, Bruce has discovered the rogue behind all the trouble, his old friend Harvey “Two-Face” Dent. Batgirl and Robin run into each other on the rooftop overlooking Mason’s apartment, and the two team up against Robin’s will to find out the truth about the hero cop. Following Mason into an abandoned subway tunnel, they discover his connection to Two-Face and find their missing companion. Mason and Two-Face get away, blowing up the walls of the tunnel to flood them with water, and while Batgirl escapes, Batman and Robin perform one of their more implausible escapes by riding a subway car through the water-filled passages. How much property damage has Batman caused? I’m pretty sure not even Bruce Wayne has enough money to pay for all of it.
Barbara’s relationship with her father is what motivates her in life, giving her a connection to the Bat-family she is unaware of when putting on the costume. It’s fitting that Barbara wears Bruce’s outfit, as she is equally driven by her father’s influence. James Gordon and Thomas Wayne both had a duty to their city—the former as commissioner, the later as a doctor—and their children share that duty in the absence of their parents. The huge difference is that Barbara’s dad is still alive, resulting in the major disparity between the two heroes’ world outlooks.
In personality, Batgirl is much closer to Robin, looking at crime fighting as an adventure rather than an obligation. Batman fights to honor his parents, Robin fights to fill the hole left from his parents’ deaths, but Barbara fights because it’s fun. I wonder what Dick and Barbara’s social lives are like, considering they’re both college students who’d rather swing from rooftops instead of hit up a frat kegger. If Dick Grayson is wish-fulfillment for the children in the audience, Barbara Gordon is wish-fulfillment for the adults, a character that makes a grown-up, conscious choice to continue Batman’s legacy. Barbara isn’t a sidekick, she operates as her own separate entity, which fits perfectly for where she is in her life, the transition period between high school and college.
After last week’s marvelous display of female villainy, “Shadow Of The Bat” shows the obstacles a girl has to face if she devotes her life to heroism. The episode exploits Barbara’s inexperience for comedy—the slapstick grappling hook wipeout on top of a bus, being tripped by a tied-up thug and screwing up Robin’s whole stealth thing—but her lack of training can get her killed in the field. Robin is immediately condescending and patronizing upon meeting Batgirl, and when Batman sees them together he cracks a joke about her being Robin’s date.
Robin’s reaction is his childish way of negotiating the competing feelings of jealousy and attraction he feels for Batgirl, but Batman’s just being an asshole. We’re beginning to see the beginnings of the correlation between Batman’s level of asshole and the number of people that surround him, as each new sidekick and superhero team-up makes him just that much more of a curmudgeon. In an inspired twist, Batgirl really does have a little bit of a crush on Batman, but that will come into play later. When Robin tells Batgirl to go home after they spy on Mason, her response is appropriately coy and sassy, putting on a baby voice as she agrees to stop her mission because a man told her to: “If you won’t let me help you, what else can I do?” The animation really sells the moment, with Batgirl’s body language shifting into an uncharacteristically cheeky pose to fit the belittling tone of voice.
I’ve been watching some of the revamp episodes and the absence of Eric Radomski’s gorgeous title cards really does take away from the mini movie feel that has characterized the series. This week’s striking card teases Batgirl’s debut with a slender silhouette that is feminine yet aggressive. The cocked hip adds a flirtatious sexiness, but the balled-up fist serves as a reminder to keep it clean or she’ll beat you down. Visually, “Shadow Of The Bat” is a gorgeous episode, placing an emphasis on the shadows of the title. When Batman captures Thorne, the shadow is what terrifies the criminal most. The above screenshot shows how shadows are used to make Batgirl a more threatening opponent, but Barbara still has a long way to go before the darkness becomes her home.
The team of Dong Yang and Spectrum turns in sleek, detailed animation for the action sequences, but there are times when their out-of-costume storytelling gets a little muddy. Barbara unfortunately carries more of that burden, and I’m not quite sure why the animators have trouble giving her consistent facial expressions. Maybe it’s the exaggerated features of the female face? Barbara’s at her worst during the scene where she discovers Mason’s true allegiance after seeing one of the rally shooters at his apartment. The dialogue suggests that Barbara should look worried and anxious, but it mostly just comes across as befuddled confusion.
If Gail Simone gives us a Batgirl close to the B:TAS version, I won’t have a problem seeing her back in the costume. Headstrong and sassy, Barbara is the first of many heroes to begin a career because of Batman’s influence, and her limited use in the series makes it a treat whenever she shows up. Brynne Stephens isn’t the most subtle storyteller, and towards the end of the episode she starts getting a little crazy with the feminine imagery, having Barbara stop Mason at the base of Gotham’s Statue of Liberty and ending the episode on a shot of Lady Liberty. Stephens doesn’t need to bombard us with historical interpretations of female power, all we need is the redhead with a bat across her chest.
- Batman Beatdown: As a Two-Face goon throws two weak punch into the empty air, Batman kicks him squarely in the chest. Perfect comic timing.
- “Don’t you just love it when gives ’em to you gift wrapped?”
- “Yes, it’s quite alarming. If this continues, you may be forced to take a vacation.”
- Dick Grayson’s missing a Bogart festival in his film class for this crap.
- Barbara’s first weapon against an opponent: GARBAGE CAN LID!
- “What’s next? Weasel woman?”
- “I trust my hunches. Kinda like second sight, y’know?”
- “Nice guy, but a few bats short of a belfry.”
- “At least I can see his bad half!”
- “I see you brought a date.” “She has your taste in clothes.” Oh, casual misogyny.
- “Do you mind?”
- “Would it have made a difference, Gil?”