Saturday, 19 January 2013

The Superhero As Social Conscience: On Gail Simone's "Batgirl" (Part 4)


"To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best night and day to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting. The world needs you. It doesn’t need you at a party having read a book about how to appear smart at parties – these books exist, and they’re tempting – but resist falling into that trap. The world needs you at the party starting real conversations, saying, ‘I don’t know,’ and being kind."

E. E. Cummings 

Continued from parts 1 & 2 & 3: 

4.

The decision to add the Barbara Gordon incarnation of Batgirl to the New 52's continuity brought a series of considerable challenges. Beyond the headline ethical dilemma that we’ve already touched upon, there was also the quandary of how to make her something other than a minor player in an already crowded line-up of costumed “friends of the Bat”. So many of the typical reasons-to-be associated with secondary versions of line-leading superheroes had already been allocated to others in Bruce Wayne's supporting cast. The attitude-saturated Damian Wayne obviously had pole position where the role of young crimefighter-in-training was concerned, while several somewhat more experienced characters previously associated with the role of Robin could serve as younger crime-fighters finding their way in the wider world  Even more problematic was the fact that a relatively new take on Batwoman now not only now carried her own title, but featured in stories which touched upon issues associated with sex and gender. There were even the likes of Harley Quinn and Catwoman standing as morally ambiguous and contentiously sexually charged women at the edges of the franchise. Whatever choices Batgirl's new line-managers and creators were to make, the world in which their take on Barbara Gordon was to feature seemed fated to be a densely populated one from the off. Ensuring that she didn't begin her new life as nothing more than a nostalgia-triggering collection of traits already associated with her fellow Gothamite crime-fighters could hardly have been a straight-forward, back-of-an-envelope exercise. Furthermore, the fact that the project had to take place within the context of the frequently homogenising storytelling priorities of the New 52 must surely have made the situation all the more testing.


A substantial part of Gail Simone’s solution to this predicament has been the carving out of a role for Batgirl as the New 52’s non-partisan if liberal-thinking social conscience. The superhero comic has always tended to suggest that there exists both absolute, unquestionable virtues as well as particularly laudable categories of heroism. From Superman to Captain America and out to most points beyond, the superhero who serves as a moral compass tends to be someone who knows the right thing to do. The knowledge may come from the likes of their parent's salt-of-the-Earth beliefs or from the patriotic principles of their nation, but the superhero as ethical-exemplar tends to already be well-versed in the values they'll need long before they haul a costume on. It's hardly a tradition that applies to every more-or-less law-abiding super-person. Yet for many of the breed, decision-making is far more often a case of remembering what's already been absorbed than it is a matter of reasoning out new ways of thinking and behaving. And so, these order-serving champions may at times stray from whatever their fundamental values are assumed to be. But they can nearly always reacquaint themselves with their more virtuous selves as long as they re-embrace their original principles. Truth, justice, the American Way, and so on, all kneaded together into a typically vague, comforting, and uncontentious wave of sentiment.

But in Batgirl's case, quite the opposite is often so. Yes, she's operates according to well-intentioned precepts such as do as little harm as possible and show as much kindness as you can. And yet Batgirl's consistently been used to show how hard it can be to understand events when they're viewed through the prism of ill-considered points of view. Even her basic principles rarely manage to survive a scuffle with a protagonist without being called into some kind of doubt. Put simply, the Gotham of the New 52 is such a capricious and brutal environment that old and well-worn world-views rarely prove up to the task of making sense of it. In that, it's the harm that can be caused by supposedly self-evident truths that Barbara Gordon's adventures seem designed to discuss. Through Batgirl, Simone presents us with the idea of the superhero whose virtues aren't rooted in any kind of surety beyond the desire to make things better for both herself and others. As such, it's Batgirl's endless struggles with distortingly one-dimensional views of good and evil, right and wrong, necessity and opinion, which define her. The costumed crimefighter sub-genre tends to present the doubting of generally-held, ill-defined core values as a disadvantage if not a sin. Batgirl, by contrast, is practically alone in continually stressing that the asinine over-simplifications associated with superhero fiction - and all too often contemporary politics too -  have to be scrupulously avoided. In that, the almost constant presence of her doubt matched to her ferociously capable intellect is what marks out Batgirl as unique amongst her costumed peers.


For Batgirl at her best is not just a character who’s formidable enough to face off against the likes of the Owls and Grotesque. More importantly, she's usually able to approach each new situation in its own terms rather than according to the givens of left and right, radicals and reactionaries, frontier justice and dovely restraint. At times, that means a well-planned superheroic punch-up can serve as the best possible way forward, as occurs when Batgirl plots to belatedly rescue Ricky from Knighfall's private torture chamber. Her immediate opponents have shown themselves to be "three pissed off metahumans" who are exceptionally unlikely to respond to reason, and so violence tempered with whatever restraint is possible becomes the only option. Elsewhere, violence becomes something to more purposefully restrained. When preparing with Batman to end Gretal's campaign of revenge, Batgirl asks him to remember that their opponent is the product of a particularly dehumanising experience. "Try to be kind," she asks him, and in doing so makes the point that it's easy to mistake a vulnerable - if profoundly dangerous - human being for a stereotypical "super-villain" who deserves nothing more than a jaw-breaking thrashing. It's a refusal to behave according to the more dubious traditions of the costumed vigilante comic which Batgirl regularly condones. As such, Barbara Gordon is even willing to suffer a painful beating without retaliating if and when the circumstances demand, as they did during her fractious first encounter with Batwoman.

      
Batgirl's willingness to listen to and act upon her doubts can lead her into serious mistakes, as the costs of her choices as well as the quality of her intentions are examined. (Simone's stories are very much not right-on polemics suggesting that the most liberal intentions will automatically inspire the most virtuous of outcomes.) But then, in a chaotic world without certainty, mistakes are simply inevitable. And so, Batgirl irresolutely backs down when faced with the dubious authority of Charise Carnes' private security force, and the consequences of that indecisiveness for the young thief who she leaves behind are undeniably tragic. Yet elsewhere, she ends up investing faith in characters who might have more typically been cast as irredeemable rent-a-thugs suitable only for a heroic beating. With both Danny The Weasal and a timelost Talon, the strategy of mercy turned out to be the very best option, with both characters eventually responding positively to Batgirl's example. In that refusal to perceive a conflicted opponent in the terms of the irremedial Other lies a deliberate challenge to the least appetising conventions of comic-book vengeance-porn. (Self-interest is rarely entirely incompatible with generosity in Batgirl.) In that, Batgirl was anxiously choosing faith over fear in the light of the knowledge she had, rather than behaving as a folk-devil of a tree-hugger, practising kindness because of the ludicrous conviction that it will always, inevitably work


The central challenge for Barbara Gordon hasn’t been to overcome her doubts so much as to maintain them. As such, the greatest danger that she's faced has been the return of The Joker, whose psychotic behaviour has succeeded in provoking an unsuppressibly violent and eventually murderous response in her. The positive reinforcement created by social-minded role modelling is obviously never going to influence such a profoundly damaged psyche, and Batgirl never once imagines that it will. Yet this most disturbing of threats has - understandably - provoked an extreme and brutal reaction in her, and it's this tragic corruption which helps illuminate how different a "conscience" Barbara Gordon is. The righteous if on occasion reluctant rage of the cruelly-provoked crimefighter has often been used to promote the virtuous necessity of hyper-violent solutions. But in Batgirl, the title character's descent into rage and cold-heartedness is used to illustrate how fragile and compromised any of us can become. For in allowing the Joker to determine her emotional response to their conflict, she’s handed over to him the one power that he most craves, namely, the ability to determine how others perceive their own existence. From the moment that Batgirl felt compelled to ignore “the voice” inside her which demands she pay attention to mercy as well as survival, her fight with the Joker was effectively over. It’s the psychopath’s triumph to force victims to accept that the universe is a cruelly meaningless place, and the menace that the Joker poses isn’t merely a physical one. Almost uniquely in the superhero comic, Batgirl’s struggles with him don’t cause the reader to hope she puts a definitive end to his menace, but rather to hope against hope that she doesn’t. As such, the reader cares at least as much for the survival of Batgirl’s doubt as they for the survival of the character herself.

 
For younger superheroes in particular, doubt has often been the mark of an uneasy adolescence whose passing – if correctly negotiated – may well result in a far greater sense of self-identity and assurance. For members of the cape'n'chest-insignia brigade in general, doubt has repeatedly been used to indicate a hero who's lacking the will to sacrifice in the name of the greater good. In short, doubt is regularly defined as a quality that's a serious disadvantage, if not actually a sin, and it's one that's traditionally required purging before the hero can return effectively to action. Yet Barbara Gordon’s doubt is the expression of her very finest qualities, and it inspires rather than undermines the generosity and determination which marks her out as a uniquely compassionate superhero. To have her doubts displaced by a conviction that there’s only one possible way of dealing with the Joker is to see the very qualities which make Batgirl so important and inspirational disappear. The illusion of certainty is Batgirl's Kryptonite. It destroys her ability to function as an ever-questioning, forever-adapting protagonist, and reduces her to little more than yet another brutal and brutalised costumed brawler. Though comics are full of characters with exceptional intellects and water-tight memories, there are few if any headlining superheroes who tend to use their grey matter with as little ego and prejudice as Barbara Gordon tends to. As such, the sight of her finally abandoning all but the most vicious and final methods is a deliberately disconcerting one. For if the message of so many of today’s super-books is by all means necessary, then that of Batgirl is, as we've discussed, winning through monstrous means is anything but a victory..


        

Barbara Gordon’s mission in the New 52 has been to create meaning for herself and safety for others, and to do so without papering over the essentially absurd nature of her own existence. The attack which left her paraplegic for years also took her already limited capacity for taken-for-granted thinking. (She was far too bright to hold an excessive tolerance for untestable hypotheses anyway.) As such, Simone's Batgirl can't fall back on any kind of received wisdom which claims to make sense of her precarious and often intensely anxious existence. As a consequence, she's burdened not with the choice between doubt and action, but with the truth that the latter without the former means inevitably squandered opportunities, the perpetual threat of despair, and the probability of moral corruption. Doubt matched to a determination to create her own sense of things is what drives her, and it's what makes her seem so utterly infuriating to the various  antagonists she faces. For nearly all of them are unable to perceive any alternative way of making sense of the world, beyond the baleful pseudo-certainties which their disturbances and disorders create for them. Only the Joker has succeeded in imposing something of his world-view upon her, testing her humanity in exactly the way that the fear of the unrestrainably savage and disordered Other tests all of ours.

to be continued.

7 comments:

  1. Its a remarkably good testament to Simone's writing that shes managed to make this work - most expected a disaster in the making when it was first brought forth that Babs - showing me age, everyone called her 'Babs' back in the Seventies - would get the use of her legs ban and that Oracle would be no more.
    I had my doubts too. Her previous BoP run was less than absorbing - compared to the previous run from issue 59 to 100ish which I re-read recently and was superb - and her WW tenure had an eyebrow-twitching scattergun approach that attempted with some verve to inhabit different fields but only ended up resembling 'choose your own adventure' fan-fic. I was seriously beginning she lost her touch but Batgirl has relit my fire.
    We are getting a fully-rounded female character here, offset by some of the most curious side-step plots ever witnessed by megoodself. Intriguing villains with dubious motives that become more intriguing as they come out, and well-choreographed fight scenes. Two missteps - drop Babs' over-annoying roommate [not funny and never will be] and enough already with the Joker, a vastly overdone villain. Despite loving her first BoP run, it was barely a half-dozen issues before we got the old old 'Babs opening her door to the Joker with a gun' flashback over and over again.
    You know, this Batgirl reminds me of the old [up to issue 600] WONDER WOMAN! She was kind, compassionate, didnt suffer fools gladly or allow anyone to fool her more than once - she saw th egood, or at least the potential in people.
    Todays Diana is a bland cipher and supporting character in her own book - when she isnt portrayed as a bloodthirsty axe-swinging warrior that is. Its like Simone has written Babs almost like Diana should be.

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  2. I forgot to add that another thing I like about her writing is how she differentiates Batgirl from the other female Batman heroes, like the overly sexual Catwoman, the vengeful Batwoman or the Huntress. It proves theres still a place for a dofferent kind of heroine.

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    1. Hello Karl:- I can't think of Barbara as "Babs"! That would seem ... disrespectful! (Babs does feel tremendously 70s, doesn't it?)

      Batgirl gets some terrible stick at times, and at first I did struggle with how it was both VERY New 52, and yet VERY much Gail Simone too. Much of what I'm blogging out in these posts stems from my attempt to make sense of the at-first apparent conflict between the two aspects of the book.

      I'm glad to hear that you've enjoyed BG. You've obviously been reading Ms Simone's work for longer than I have. It was her Wonder Woman run which introduced me properly to her writing, and I seem to have enjoyed it more than you did. (The Power Girl 2-parter remains a particular favourite of mine.) The first and by far the longer BOP run is something that I'm resigned to only being able to afford if it's collected into a great doorstep of a collection or too. Secret Six, by contrast, I've gone back and read and admired from its beginning right through to its premature end. I couldn't afford that either, but needs must :)

      As of course you'll know, I'm also impressed by how GS has ensured that Batgirl has a character and a purpose all of her own. That's of course what I was trying to ramble on about in the above. And it's no small achievement that that's been achieved. What I most admire is the way that that's been done without relying on the old shortcuts of either hyping up the character's powers or cranking up the mindless spectacularisms. It's smart and heartfelt work, invested with a considerable degree of passion and political commitment. Thankfully, unlike the much missed Secret Six, it seems that we're to be able to enjoy the GS Batgirl for several more months at least.

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  3. If you'll permit me a momentary (yet germane) political digression...as I read your essay this morning with the Sunday morning political shows in the background, it occurred to me that so much of the political discourse in the U.S. is defined, and indeed coarsened, by an overabundance of self-assuredness. With respect to the recent gun control debate, for instance, you're certain to find fractious Republicans and Democrats vehemently arguing their respective points of view while simultaneously obfuscating and demonizing the POV of the opposing party. While few politicians, except perhaps the most hard-bitten ideologues on either side of the aisle, would be caught on camera arguing that the President means to repeal the 2nd Amendment or that all gun owners are unreasonable, violent fanatic, so many of them are comfortable stopping JUST SHORT of espousing such extreme arguments. Of course, this isn't to say that having strong moral convictions can't be a virtue at times, or that one shouldn't fight passionately for what one believes. But when one tends to see the world in absolutist, Manichean terms, they lose the perspective needed to solve serious problems in a clear-headed, effective manner.

    So I say all that to say kudos to Gail Simone for presenting us with a hero in Barbara Gordon who isn't afraid (for the most part) to allow for a healthy amount of self-doubt to creep into her decision-making process. And as you seem to suggest, it's a virtue that is needed as much in the DC 52 universe as it is in our own.

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    1. Hello Anthony:- It's exactly that kind of debate that Batgirl serves as a welcome antidote to. I can say that I agree entirely with the points you're making. There's no quality as dangerous to civil discourse as certainty, and no quality more vital than doubt. Yet it strikes me that there's been a concerted effort on the part of a range of interests to increase one form or other of certainty while diminishing the value of rejecting absolute values. Of course, certainty is a terrific quality to encourage if those folks who possess it are agreeing with you and you want to exploit that. And, human nature being what it is, people do prefer to be agreed with, and to be able to reduce complex and challenging issues to apparently simple solutions. To have Batgirl operating in a world where just about everyone possesses fixed and extreme values except - with a few exceptions - for herself is an incredibly smart and productive way of establishing a role for her in the New 52, and intriguing the audience too.

      But more than that, and reflecting very much what you're saying too, it's good to have a superhero who represents those of us who aren't sure about everything, and who, for all our principles and beliefs, are at least anxious to live in a culture where evidence rather than faith - in its widest sense - is most respected.

      Not that I'm not saturated with prejudices of my own. But I'd rather inhabit a culture which encourage their being challenged than one which seemed to want me staying that way ...

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  4. Fascinating piece, Colin. You're entirely correct about why Barbara must resist killing the Joker, becoming a monster. But boy, I could stand it if she did moida da bum; I'm sure she could be rehabilitated. Meanwhile, the biggest monster in Gotham's history would be gone.

    I'm anti-death penalty, I don't wish to see an execution ... but perhaps just a wee killing, in self-defence, obviously!

    DC has made the Joker such a murder machine that it makes no sense for Gothamites to resist killing him, the first chance they get. I'd prefer it wasn't Barbara, but she more than most knows that his threat has to be ended. I'd be happy we're she to simply design a decent prison, something Gotham sorely lacks.

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    1. Hello Martin:- Thank you.

      You know, reading your reply, I realised that one case for the use of the Joker in some if not all of the Bat-books recently could be to test the values of the readers :) Can they read this material and not descend into a member of the hang'em'high brigade?

      Another thought after your comment; my problem with the DCU where its typical-human if clearly insane/psychopathic characters are concerned is the myth that no prisoner can hold them. No matter how selfish the Optimates of Gotham City are, I'm convinced they'd invest a great deal of their riches in a secure Arkham. The consequences of not doing so are just too terrible. The same goes for the mass of the city's citizens. Indeed, America is REALLY good in locking people up and keeping them there. That's one major continuity hole right there; why are Gotham's jails so terrible at their job? Private business could make a fortune off of Gotham's jails. How is that Arkham's not only utterly inept in psychological terms, but almost entirely insecure?

      As a metaphor for a justice system that seems to do anything but stop crime, Arkham might have value. But it's not designed for that, is it?

      As for the Joker's fate at the end of the series; I'd put up with the fall from an improbably high railway line into the darkened water below, as in Mad Love. Still, if Barbara G. does try to kill him, or even appears to succeed, that does open some interesting stories. I'd rather it didn't happen, but at least we know Gail Simone will be around to tell such a tale if it occurs ...

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