The Bat-family is a sprawling one, taking on new characters at a regular pace to keep Gotham’s prodigal son rich with skilled people he can call on for help. Introduced twenty years ago, Cassandra Cain is neither a wizened veteran nor a new addition to the group. She’s been on and off the bench for many of those years thanks in no small part to a complicated backstory, one that can be difficult to honor without casting Cass in a negative light or removing what little agency she has left.
Shadow Of The Batgirl gives Cass a masterfully crafted new backstory, guided by canon but not at all beholden to it. Writer Sarah Kuhn has a well-deserved reputation for excellent female-led adventures thanks to her YA series Heroine Complex, and books like the Clueless and Barbie graphic novels prove she has a firm grasp on how to handle beloved characters with lasting legacies. Many of the new DC books for middle grade and YA readers have been good, several have been great, and Shadow Of The Batgirl is excellent: It successfully introduces new readers to a character, provides them depth and growth, and the plot fits gracefully alongside existing stories. Readers who are ready to graduate from Superhero Girls books or cartoons—or who fall in love with Cassandra in the new Birds of Prey movie—will find Shadow Of The Batgirl a welcoming home.
The book retains the meat of Cassandra’s history as a child-assassin, trained to kill by a man who called her daughter. It begins just as she starts to struggle against that training, running away from the only life she’s known. While this version of Cass is largely non-verbal (and mostly illiterate) thanks to the isolation and threats imposed by her father, curiosity and a desire to understand the world around her give Cass the motivation to quickly build up language skills other iterations of the character never gained. Her fleeing quickly leads her to a library, and people who want to help; she makes several new friends, not the least of which is Barbara Gordon. Kuhn handles Cass’ trauma with gentle firmness; the runaway is given space to grieve and fear without being told that either one is weak.
The story in Shadow Of The Batgirl is strong enough to stand alone, but so is the art. Some of the other DC kids books have suffered from an overabundance of words from authors more experienced with prose, but Kuhn trusts artist Nicole Goux and makes sure dialogue stays out of the way of her work. Cass’ expressions skew towards uncertainty and discomfort, but her face here is far more demonstrative than how many artists draw her; Goux gives the character a real sense of kinetic energy and power, taking full advantage of the scope of the library she calls home. Chris Peter’s colors are muted and fall inside restrained palettes, but feature fascinating texture from what looks like a digital ink wash. Many of the best visuals in the book are of Cass’ outfits, often cobbled together from the lost and found but eminently cosplayable.
Shadow Of The Batgirl is not the first of DC’s middle grade or YA books to deal with a second-generation hero, but it features a more complicated and emotional transition as a title is passed from one hero to another. Cass spends so much of this book seeking her own identity and making choices about who she wants to be, while Barbara is doing the same in a quieter way. Watching two young women making part of their journeys together is a wonderful and rare thing in comics, and Shadow Of The Batgirl is truly special for featuring it. That they’re guided and comforted by an older woman who has gone through much of the same herself makes the story that much sweeter.