Review – Batgirl (Issues 35-50)

It’s over!!! Well, kind of. Batgirl actually has two series starting up soon with two new creative teams, and I think there are two transition issues by the team that’s been working on it. But I don’t know how much the new teams might change things. And at the very least this particular run has been neatly wrapped up and I’m about as satisfied with it as I could be as a complete story. So it’s a kind of ending.

I’ve been a little obsessed with this character and story, so you just might have seen or heard me ramble on about her/it a few times. 😉 Will this be the last one??? Probably not. I’m sure I’ll find reasons to revisit it even if for some reason I totally hate whatever the new teams do with the character. (Note: I don’t think I will. Batgirl and the Birds of Prey at least looks interesting, if not what I wanted it to be. But it’s still going to be awhile before I get around to reading it.)

Should we start with the covers? If you follow me on Facebook or G+ you’ve already seen me post about them. Not even sorry. 😀 Okay, for simplicity’s sake I’ll list off the characters on the right (final) cover from left to right so I can mention names without too much confusion. Stephanie/Spoiler, Dinah/Black Canary, Barbara/BATGIRL, Frankie/Operator, and….Bluebird. (Harper, apparently. But I had to look it up just now and I’m pretty sure if I talk about her I’ll be using her superhero name.)

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There’s so much going on here. It actually took me a minute staring at the final cover to figure out why it made me happy and seemed so familiar. At first I just noticed that she was doing the selfie thing. BTW, this is the selfie Batgirl. That first cover there got a lot of annoying criticism from people who clearly didn’t bother to read the comic and was the sole reason given for her being left off a list of positive female role models in comics. I have many many feelings about that. But for now I’ll just say I very much approve of Selfie-Batgirl and I was excited to see her (and the creators) owning that in the conclusion’s cover. Then I finally noticed the stickers on the mirror and realized it was the same cover, her taking a selfie in the same place as in the first issue, but now it’s different.

First the most obvious: look, friends! Batgirl has friends now. Lots of friends. I mean, she had two of them in the start of the series. But things with her and Dinah started off pretty rocky and she was on her own as Batgirl because Frankie didn’t know her secret. Now, Bat-friends! All the Bat-friends. I would have loved if this was the team going into Batgirl and the Birds of Prey. Sadly, from the little I’ve heard it seems that’s not the case and it will dwindle down to just Batgirl and Dinah. I hope I’m misunderstanding that or at least that this gets picked back up later. The conclusion has Barbara and Frankie with brand new headquarters and it definitely has a team feel. It would be upsetting if Frankie’s just pushed aside now.

There are other changes, though. Look, a new band sticker! Black Canary isn’t only Dinah’s superhero name, it later becomes the name of her band. Right after she and Barbara reconcile, Dinah takes off to start this exciting new thing, which you can read about in her own comic! So it’s a nice callback and a reminder of how much not only Barbara has changed and grown, but her friends have too. And the “hooq” sticker is gone because of spoilery things that are hard to explain so I’ll just let you read and find out.

I think that’s all I have to say about the cover. Now a very brief word (for me) about my least favorite comic ever. The Killing Joke is a mildly interesting exploration of the Joker’s motivations that would be fine if it stayed that way and was separate from the canon. It might as well be, for the most part. Its biggest influence in general is definitely the way people have interpreted the Joker since then. But its biggest contribution to the story, the thing that’s really remained an important unchangeable event, is the Joker’s assault of Barbara. During this story, without being given any chance to act as Batgirl, to react at all to the Joker on her porch beyond looking shocked), she’s shot, stripped, photographed, and loses the use of her legs as a result.

The worst part of all this for me isn’t even what happens to her, although that’s bad. It’s the fact that she’s not treated as a hero in her own right. She becomes a shell to be used by a writer who doesn’t seem to understand or care about her at all. It’s her image, but she’s not there.

The actual physical results of that assault have been reversed already. For awhile she continues fighting crime primarily using her mind, taking on the name Oracle and helping other heroes by monitoring the city by computer. Eventually she regains the use of her legs through medical treatments and becomes Batgirl again. And that’s all great. I love her as Oracle, I love her as Batgirl, and I’m glad she’s able to keep being a hero no matter how that happens or what name she takes or whether she can walk. But it didn’t really help me deal with that loss of humanity. She got better, but it was still only dealing with the physical, moving us beyond what was done but not confronting that theft of her agency head-on.

To me, this run has been all about that. The very first issue is about identity theft and blackmail. Later issues deal with a false Batgirl, challenges against Barbara’s right to portray herself as she sees fit after her superhero identity is stolen that way, questions about what makes us who we are, outright attacks on her mind. From start to finish this Batgirl is primarily dealing not with physical threats but with other people trying to control her information, identity, image, mind. Everything that makes her who she is. And those attacks come from strangers, friends, even herself. She’s constantly having to question who she is and whether she can trust her own mind.

On the “silly” (but also really very important) side of this, we have the selfies. For awhile there, Batgirl’s doing a lot of this. She defeats the first enemy with a selfie (the scene in the first cover), but then after someone pretends to be Batgirl and messes with her reputation she also starts taking photos with fans and therefore taking control of her own image. One of her friends criticizes her for it and it doesn’t continue throughout the series, but I’m really glad she did it in the first place and spoke up for her right to do it. Because it’s an issue in the real world too.

Girls are mocked for selfies all the time. Gosh, how vain someone must be to want to take pictures of themselves all the time, right? It couldn’t possibly be that they’re having fun and want to remember hanging out with friends, or that they just liked the way they looked that day and it gave them a confidence boost, or heck just because they can take pictures of whatever they want and it’s really no one else’s business. On the other end of that, some have noted that women and girls are constantly objectified. You don’t have to look far to find pictures of what women are “supposed” to look like or to see a woman being mocked for not looking the way she’s “supposed” to look. Selfies are a way for women and girls to take ownership of their images and show themselves the way they want to be seen. That’s important, and I was glad to see Barbara defending it in the same way.

On the other end of the spectrum, on a few occasions she has to do battle with her own mind. She has to figure out what makes her who she is, determine whether she has lost sight of her mission, confront false memories. She’s constantly taking control of her identity and doing the work to assure herself that she is doing the right thing and that she can trust herself even when people are using her image and memories and work against her. It’s amazing.

There’s one issue where a couple of people felt the Joker’s assault was retconned away. She realizes some of her memories are false and in one panel where she’s processing this several memories are depicted. That’s one of them. But I don’t think that’s meant to say it didn’t happen, because she hasn’t sorted through them yet and wouldn’t only be remembering the false ones. I think it’s left up in the air and is probably still ultimately meant to be canon. At the very least, something happened there because the attack wouldn’t have been possible without the implant she got to regain control of her legs.

But it doesn’t matter. I’m not sure it would actually help things to just wipe that incident away. The damage has already been done. What happened here instead is that Barbara got to confront it. This time she was able to regain control of herself her motivations and actions and identity. Over and over again. She could not possibly be more her and have asserted that more fully. And so the readers too get to cheer for her successes and are also empowered to take control of their own lives and not let other people tell them how they should act or think.

Because Batgirl’s victories aren’t just over supervillains, they’re victories over the everyday attacks we all face. And she doesn’t win because she’s a superhero and therefore stronger and better than the rest of us, she wins because she’s already lost so much and she’s determined not to let anyone else control her like that. She turns her weaknesses into her strengths.

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