Friday, 30 November 2012

On Batgirl #12, by Gail Simone & Ardian Syaf (Part 1 of 2)

In which the blogger, who's several times been asked about the matter, explains something of why he had Batgirl #12 in his Top 10 superhero books list for 2012;
Everytime I Fall is in part a study of the ways in which two very different individuals fulfil the responsibilities they've assumed as costumed vigilantes. In establishing the similarities and differences between Batgirl and Batwoman, Gail Simone has opted to make not a single reference to either their gender or sexuality. Anything that's not directly relevant to how these two characters attempt to fulfil their missions here as crime-fighters has been excised from the script. It makes perfect sense that this should be so. Barbara Gordon and Kate Kane are already recognisably distinct characters in terms of their personalities and everyday lives. But there is the problem of why Gotham should need two red-haired Bat-heroines when each is no more remarkable in terms of power-set and appearance than the other. Given that DC Comics obviously intends to keep both of these profitable properties in print, how are they to be differentiated one from the other, and how is their mutual presence in the same city to feel fascinating and compelling rather than repetitious and devitalising?

To focus on two super-women largely in terms of how they fight crime and little else is of course hardly unheard of, although it is comparatively rare. But it's a sign of how cliched the representation of women still tends to be in the superhero book that I can't recall another comic which has so completely pushed aside all the traditional markers of unblokeishness where its female leads are concerned. More so, it's notable that that's true for the whole issue where it comes to the interaction between Gordon and Kane. At the same time as Simone is emphasising how tremendously able Batgirl and Batwoman are in their campaign against Knightfall, there's simultaneously the deafening absence of anything of home and family, love and sex, fathers and partners and mentors and friends, self-consciousness and trauma, gender roles and the negotiation of them, and so on. In that, it's not that the story is suggesting that such influences are unimportant. There's no suggestion at all that female characters should for one ideological reason or another be entirely abstracted from anything that could suggest the social construction of identity, and I'd hate to suggest that's so. But Simone does seem to have narrowed her focus to the business of how these two superheroes approach the task of imposing their own particular definition of order. In doing so, the fact that super-women are rarely defined exclusively in terms of their approach to attaining justice becomes all the more obvious.

There's certainly none of the blustering of the hyper-sexualised superheroine sold as a symbol of empowerment, or even of the considered example set by the super-matriarch who expresses a sincere and laudable opposition to misogyny in thought, word and deed. (*1) Instead, the admirably able and - in their own contrasting ways - passionately committed Kane and Gordon are defined with a tight focus which, if it had involved two super-men, wouldn't have been noteworthy at all. Men are, after all, regularly characterised according to how they perform and nothing else when they pull the long-johns of justice on. And yet, to define two headlining female members of the cape'n'chest-insignia brigade exclusively in terms of the job that they do as vigilantes is still something of a surprise, and, quite frankly, a relief too.

*1:- Though if you want a brilliant example of how each type can be used to terrific effect and admirable insight without worthiness or prurience, try here.

With nothing else to distract us from the way in which Batgirl and Batwoman pursue what's effectively their vocations, Simone's plot serves as a kind of controlled experiment, in which two very different characters respond to the same situations. Though this is only part of what's to be found in Batgirl #12, it's for my money the most intriguing part of an enjoyable process. As is typical in Simone's stories, we learn about who Batgirl and Batwoman are in contrast to each other through their behaviour rather than via info-dumps, soliloquies, narration and so on, with character and action being very much inseparable. And it quickly becomes obvious that there's no question of either of them being redundant in the new DCU because of the other's existence.

Gordon, for example, is a woman who considers both means and ends as being vitally important, and the relationship between the two is constantly something that's she's concerned with. To her, everything that she does is an uncertain and yet essentially sacred expression of a desire to do as much good and as little harm as possible. Because of that constant process of self-reflection, Batgirl lacks something of the short-term, mission-centred clarity of purpose and method that Batwoman holds to when in the field. Yet Simone shows us that what Gordon lacks in absolute focus is more than compensated for by her ability to step outside her preconceptions and avoid hidebound thinking. When viciously attacked by Kane, for example, Gordon's able to immediately over-ride pain, anger and pride despite having received a fearsome, nose-threatening head-butt. In doing so, she succeeds in bringing a purposeless punch-up to a swift close. In a woman who was less fundamentally strong and principled, such a degree of doubt might led to hesitancy and an unshakeable despair. It could certainly create the impression that such a character was unlikely to be useful in a comic-book war against crime.Yet Gordon's determination to do the right thing while refusing to be defined by uncertainty and fear means that she uses rather than submits to the same qualities. In that, she brings a unique fusion of compassion and independent-mindedness to her campaigns. It's a quality that enables her empathy to stay engaged and her mind to keep processing even when circumstances might threaten to demand a thought-wiping fight-or-flight response. Even when her thoughts are almost obliterated by pain, she's able to over-ride instinct and act with restraint and purpose. This is not, in the world of the super-person, a common or negligible trait at all.

By comparison, Kane is every inch the soldier. For her, the shortest distance between two points - after whatever consideration time allows - is always the most compelling road to take. Although she's obviously a careful planner when opportunity allows, she's far more likely to aggressively pursue a pre-arranged strategy than Batgirl is. If Gordon aspires to justice decently achieved, then Kane fights to attain the most acceptable outcome she can with the maximum of efficiency. While the women's two agendas strongly overlap, as we'd expect from folks occupying the same side of the line, they've clearly different ways of getting thing done. And so, Kane's tendency to forcefully respond to the possibility of a threat is, as we've mentioned, shown in the way in which she attacks and beats Gordon in the book's first few pages. Where Batgirl would have hesitated in the absence of evidence of a threat, Kane opts to put the mere possibility of one out of action. And in most any other story, the question of Gordon's beating and Kane's violent methodology would form the spine of the plot, with the matter of apologies and forgiveness dominating the tale's conclusion. But these are in essence professionals, and the misunderstanding between them passes without any further comment when the evidence of their common cause arrives. Once again, it's the fact that they are quite distinct individuals that's the point of the exercise. More important to them than ego in the short-term is the fact that Knightfall's "going to make Gotham an abattoir". Needs must, with Gordon recognising a potential ally and Kane a imminent disaster.

These are, after all, superheroes for whom the greater good is everything, and Simone elegantly furthers the point by never having a scene in which apologies are made and accepted, nascent friendships begun and flowering respect expressed. Where it's been traditional to associate female characters with the expression of emotional truths and difficult thoughts and feelings, here we have an untypical focus on women for whom immense responsibility and a lack of intimacy almost entirely over-rides sentiment. Those in the blogosphere who've complained that Kane and Gordon don't seem to bond over their shared experiences have surely missed the point. Instead, it's the quiet touches in the book which show a developing respect if not affection. The fact that it's Gordon and not Kane who takes the lead in the operation to free the imprisoned Rickey, for example, shows that there's a measure of appreciation that's quickly developed on Batwoman's side. After all, Kane wouldn't ever let an untrustworthy amateur take the point in a mission that's as dangerous as this, and Simone trusts us to note this without her having to ladle on the schmaltz.

The clear differences between the two remain obvious even when they agree to combine forces. For example, Gordon is shown hesitating to leave Kane behind as a trio of super-villains threaten, and that's despite the fact that their agreed strategy demands that she does exactly that. "We have this! Go!", shouts Batwoman, and we can see that these two would baffle and irritate each other if they were forced to spent too much time in the field together. Where Gordon puts compassion above nearly everything else, Kane reveres efficiency in the name of a necessary cause. To Kane, Gordon's concern is a mark of a dangerously inefficient approach, and even a moments delay to express concern might have catastrophic consequences. It's a point that Simone establishes concisely in a single panel - see above - and again, it's an example of how she can define aspects of character without slowing up the forward momentum of the plot.

Yet, since Batwoman's fierce focus comes combined with such an admirable sense of discipline and honesty, it's quite impossible to regard her as the lesser of the two. Simone's purpose, it seems, isn't to suggest that either Batgirl or Batwoman is the better person, or the more estimable superhero. Instead, each is established as a formidable prospect, and their choices reflect quite distinct points of view rather than any overall practical or ethical superiority. Though Kane does seem far more self-contained and stand-offish, she also bears no grudges, plays no games, and never thinks twice about working with the women she's so recently suspected of ill-doing. Similarly, Gordon's willingness to accept without returning Kane's blows in the name of the greater good might make her seem less formidable in a physical if not moral and practical context. But Simone undercuts any sense of Batgirl being the weaker of the two through a variety of strategies, including that of having Gordon ready at any moment to begin the fight with Kane again on her own terms if that's necessary. There's nothing starry-eyed and naive about the ceasefire she negotiates, given that she's holding a Bat-a-rang behind her back in case negotiation fails to achieves her ends. She abandoned the brawl because it placed in danger the people she longs to help, but fighting itself is a necessary evil that she'll embrace if she has to. (Of course, it's also Batgirl who stands alone against three super-villains later in the tale so as to adequately bait a trap, a fact that again establishes that discretion on her part really is the better part of valour, rather than an alternative to it.)

Time and time again, the strength and limitations of each character's approach are sketched out, and in what's actually a remarkably small number of pages for the mass of information that's delivered. Instead of offering two-dimensional caricatures from which one can be chosen as "the best" or "the nicest" or "the toughest", Simone presents us with two superheroes whose skills and mind-sets leave both seeming as capable and as interesting and as different as the other.

What was the point of the team-up, asked some reviewers and commentors, when supposedly so little happened and so little was achieved? What did Batwoman add to this comic at all? The mind - to use a phrase that's rarely entirely appropriate - boggles.

If you've a moment a kill, you can find the second part of this here;


  1. I'm pretty sure I've got this issue holed away somewhere in the house. That I'm not 100% sure is a testament to how forgetable I found it.

    I know I've said this before, Colin, but I really can't get behind this book like you do. One small sticking point is that one looks like a superhero, and the other looks like a movie adaptation of a superhero. There are just the two characters whose designs clash with the new 52-niverse because they weren't updated with everyone else: Batwoman and Damian-Robin. If nothing else it's a testament to the lack of overall editiorial oversight or cohesive vision for the setting.

    Regardless, I have to point out one section of your text here:

    "The fact that it's Gordon and not Kane who takes the lead in the operation to free the imprisoned Rickey, for example, shows that there's a measure of appreciation that's quickly developed on Batwoman's side. After all, Kane wouldn't ever let an untrustworthy amateur take the point in a mission that's as dangerous as this, and Simone trusts us to note this without her having to ladle on the schmaltz."

    Obviously the real reason Batgirl is in the lead is that it's her title- which is certainly fair enough. Even if we had been treated to a tale of an uber-able Batwoman, completely outshining Batgirl in every way, that would be fine so long as the viewpoint character was Gordon. That can be her story, otherwise I'm reading a Batwoman title.

    But as you've pointed out here, the two ARE treated as equals, that Batwoman almost immediately recognizes Barbara as such, and for that I have to ask, why? What was the clue that told Batwoman she could count on Batgirl to effectively pull her weight? In my mind, there was none, beyond the editorial fiat stating to push Batgirl to the forefront as the more "iconic character".

    It's incredibly difficult, your argument notwithstanding Colin, to see the need for both a Batwoman and a Batgirl title. And before you say it, I know, I know! The multiple Batman titles and Batman-style comics (Nightwing, if nothing else, though he's obviously quite unique from Batman..) would argue otherwise, and it IS a good thing to have more female-lead comics out there, but I just don't think Batgirl is the book to get more people into the medium.

    (continued below..)

  2. (con't)
    If not for how aware I am that they're pushing Gordon as "the one true Batgirl", whatever that's worth, then I would be asking why the solo book for Barbara? The strategy for a good many of the 52 books is to go the team route, built around one solid selling character, but allowing dark horses to take off from there, with the fingers crossed result of finding other popular characters to launch a franchise with, examples of which being Tim Drake Robin being the lead in the Teen Titans book, Red Hood leading in his eponymous book, Booster Gold as the centre of the JLI book, as well as, to an extent, the Green Lantern books.

    Considering this hook/lead-character-with-surrounding-team strategy, it seems like it would have been a natural to make it "Batgirl and the Birds of Prey". The character chemistry is already there, though necessarily altered by the change from Oracle to Batgirl, and it's not as though Gail Simone hasn't worked with this premise before.

    Actually, to answer my own question (well, to answer it twice, since the "pushing Barbara to the forefront" is the other reason she got her own title) I wonder if having "Batgirl and the Birds of Prey" would have made too glaringly obvious the reduction of ability that would have taken place going from Oracle to Batgirl? If so, it's unfortunate that an idea for a cool book is thrown out immediately for the sake of hiding away the fact that they are trying to fit a square shaped Oracle into a circle shaped Batgirl.

    I hope I'm not sounding too unthoughtfully biased against the book or your review of it, Colin, and naturally I'll be eager to read your second part of thoughts on the issue(s).

    1. Hello Isaac;- "Obviously the real reason Batgirl is in the lead is that it's her title- which is certainly fair enough."

      I'm not sure that I'd accept that where a Gail Simone book is concerned. It's my experience that her scripts have a degree of internal coherence which means that it's hard to ascribe the presence of anything in them to something such as "She's the title character". And - obviously :) - I do believe that the script does hang together extermely well. In fact, I think it's a fascinating example of how the form of a typical Bat-office book, as a sub-species of the New 52, can be used to deliver a degree of depth which isn't always present across the line.

      "What was the clue that told Batwoman she could count on Batgirl to effectively pull her weight? In my mind, there was none, beyond the editorial fiat stating to push Batgirl to the forefront as the more "iconic character".

      I too wonder whether the team-up was generated by Ms Simone, suggested by editorial or cooked up through discussion between the two. But I don't think that you're crediting the script here. There are four points which change the two superheroes' relationship. Firstly, there's Barbara's willingness to behave as Kate wouldn't, namely by conceding the brawl. Secondly, there's the fact that Batgirl shows that she's behaving from good intentions without guile, and that's underlined through the "Uncle" interaction. Thirdly, there's the fact that Barbara presents the evidence of her case; that's the key issue. But lastly, there's the two-panel sequence in which Batwoman express doubt that heroism has a meaning in Gotham, and Barbara, who has already showed that she believes in doing the right thing, suggests that they prove that it still does. So, yes, I think the situation has been established. There certainly is a sense that Ms Simone doesn't have the space that she'd usually take to establish a relationship, but whether that's true or not, what we have here is - as I was going on about - the groundwork for such a thing.

      "It's incredibly difficult, your argument notwithstanding Colin, to see the need for both a Batwoman and a Batgirl title."

      Oh, it's a problem, isn't it? But then, corporate comics are more and more about creators making sense of profit-based decisions. Wolverine and Spider-Man will be in the Avengers and logic thrown to the winds. Under those conditions, the creators who are most to be treasured are those who make the constraints work. And under the extreme constraints of the New 52, I think GS is doing a fine job.


    2. cont;

      Which was meant quite sincerly and certainly not intended as faint praise.

      I too greatly regret the disappearance of Oracle. To say the least. I think it was a catastrophic mistake, but it wasn't one of GS's making. My regret at Oracle's passing doesn't overshadow what I think is a fine new book staring "a" Barbara Gordon. That's not to say that I don't have problems with it, or rather, with the New 52 itself and the constraints it places on what is and what isn't appropriate storytelling. But I do enjoy watching GS using the new norms to try to deliver her typical depth as well as the new model of thrills'n'body traum'n'Gotham-noir.

      I'm not a fan of the New 52 at all. I think it's been a terrible squandering of opportunity. I couldn't be less interested in the idea of a universe of a million super-teams, most of them abstracted from any version of real life at all. But then, I respect Batgirl all the more because of the odds against it where my taste is concerned. The grimness, the Jokerness, the Oracle-lessness; it's not my idea of an immersive universe I want to be immersed in. Yet as the issues have passed, I've grown to thoroughly enjoy Batgirl, especially from issue #9 onwards.

      But of course, and as always, I of course welcome your opinion, and I respect our differences. We've had a few along the way, and it's never been anything but a civil and interesting process talking things through :)

  3. Oh, thanks for the response Colin, but I should clear up one point on my end. When I was asserting that there was no clue as to why Batwoman would treat Batgirl as an equal partner, or thereabouts, and suggesting a lack of evidence for their deciding to work together, I didn't mean to gloss over the points you brought up at all, rather I should have said "it's evident why Batwoman would thing Batgirl an admirable person, what with her conceding the brawl so quickly/humbly, but where was the clue to point out that Batgirl was a capable crimefighter."

    It's not for nothing that there have been examples upon examples of various Bat-family members telling other super people and copycats to get out of the game, what with their lack of proper training/skills/temperment. That's what made it so noteworthy in the Aztek book when Batman specifically told the title character that he was clearly trained enough to be a superhero (though also this is likely evidence of a more than slight mary-sue treatment on the part of the writers towards Aztek).

    I suppose, and this isn't a criticism of this issue, but rather the series as a whole, this ties back into the lack of reason given for why Batgirl IS Batgirl. Mind, this isn't me advocating for a grim'n gritty raison d'etre, I liked that Batgirl operated simply because this was something she was capable of doing. But the story has gone out of its way to show us a stumbling Batgirl- this was done to ameliorate the outrage against suddenly undoing a paralytic injury- but really, if Batgirl can't convincingly protect herself in these dangerous situations she's throwing herself into, how can she justify going out night after night?

    This is actually where the grim n' gritty origin comes in handy. If you can handwave this irresponsibility by saying the character is driven to it regardless of their physical conndition, well, that explains it. I guess what I'm saying here is- what drives Barbara Gordon?

    I may have fallen off my original train of thought, but hopefully the cars are connected?

    1. Hello Isaac:- My assumption is based on two things. The first is that Batgirl has to have a rep, and the rep has to have reached Batwoman. I doubt Kane would be putting down someone he'd heard nothing good of with such force, after all. Matched to that would be the signs of competency show in terms of research, experience and prep. Batgirl's fought the folks in the tower before, and lived to tell the tale. Finally, we might point to the fact that Kane was allowing Batgirl to take the lead which she herself stayed hidden. If Barbara had fallen, Kane would've been free to pursue her own agenda. Or rather she would if she were more cynical than I believe she is.

      So, if we're looking at the ability to punch out super-villains, that's just a matter of record.

      I think the fact about the "stumbling" is that without it, the Joker/crippling backstory becomes all the more gratuitous. Again, it's an aspect of the new Batgirl that I dislike intensely, but those are the cards GS has to play with. If the Killing Joke-esque situation occurred, then it has to have consequences, and part of the hero's journey is the overcoming of internal and external conflict.

      As for how does she justify going out night after night when she's - to a greater or lesser degree - vulnerable, that's what makes her heroic. She's not out to win, or to be guaranteed such a thing. She's out to do the right thing, as well as to reclaim her life from the shadow of the terrible things that the Joker did.

      A fierce desire to do the right thing combined to a determination not to let mental and physical limitations hold her back? I'm not sure what else you want from a street-level, costumed acrobat. And there's no doubt that Batgirl is improving, both psychologically and physically.

      It's not Oracle. But it is still a compelling example of trying to deal with the worst in an admirable way. I fear we'll have to respectfully disagree here.

    2. That's fine by me, Colin. I have no doubt we'll find ourselves in some accord at some point soon, so there's hardly any need to get too concerned about it.

    3. Hello Isaac:- Seconded :) All the best!

  4. And this is one of the reasons that I enjoy reading Gail Simone so much. We have two fighters, two heroes, who just happen to be women, doing their level best in a bad situation, and using their individual strengths and weaknesses...just like any male hero.

    It's lovely.

    1. Hello Sally:- It is, isn't it? We'd not bat an eyelid at two blokes being considered in that context. But how is it possible that two women always have to marked by other concerns?

      Which is why Batgirl isn't just a pleasure, but a relief too. I'm pleased to hear you've been enjoying it too.

  5. Wonderfully insightful piece, Colin, one which I hope all DC writers will read and heed. I hear that Gail's DC exclusive contract is up today; I hope she's sticking around on Batgirl.

    Mind, I could stand her taking a shot at Kate Kane's series ...

    1. Hello Martin:- Thank you.

      Have you come across the following, posted late last night on Bleeding Cool:

      It's just rumour, of course. But looking at the rumours for the line as a whole, it does look as if we're in for another bout of interesting times. Sadly, I suspect I'm going to be reading more about the Not-So-New DC than I am of it. Gone are Morrison and Cornell. There's not much left where my taste is concerned. Gail Simone, of course. At least she's still there. (And said without snark, in case a cynic thinks there's any there.)