I am going to say two controversial things about myself. Firstly, I have never been overly fond of the Batfamily. Secondly, I was not a fan of Gail Simone’s run on Batgirl. The first of these is down to Batman’s overall overexposure. While there are elements related to Batman I enjoy (Batwoman), I tire of the side titles getting pulled into Batman’s story and the brooding Mary Sue often bores me unless very well written. The second is just a matter of taste. After reading the first six issues of Gail Simone’s run, I found the tone dour, the villain lackluster and Batgirl herself a little overwritten and silted. I was very ready to never read a Batgirl comic again.
When this new take on Batgirl got announced, I actually found myself hopeful. The editor of the Batman books had changed and the doors seemed to have opened to a range of new creative visions. Gail Simone’s last issues before leaving Batgirl lightened up, showing some of the fun that had been missing from the book. The new costume looked practical and not exploitative in the slightest. The writers were promising a brighter, more youthful book and for once Batgirl was going to be targeted at girls. Everything seemed to be going the right direction. I was actually planning to buy a Batgirl comic again and my anticipation was through the roof.
Batgirl #35 is everything I had hoped for.
Batgirl #35 tells the story of Barbara Gordon starting over fresh, moving across the river to a gentrified outer region of Gotham known as Burnside. In this issue she meets new friends, says both hello and goodbye to old friends and confronts an all new villain. This all happens in the space of 20 story pages. While not a new #1, this issue is very much a fresh start for the Batgirl series and the characters acknowledge as much within the narrative. The darkness of the preceding issues, and the depths they took Barbara to are the driving force behind her move to Burnside. It is very easy for a new reader to jump in right here, but this is perfect example of how to make something new reader friendly without throwing out everything that has come before. Gail Simone’s story is respected and wrapped up within the first few pages, and is used as a jumping off point for the rest of the story.
The new location of Burnside is a welcome change from central Gotham across the river. Gotham has always been presented as oppressively dark, hauntingly ancient, foreboding, dense and rain soaked, tones that tends to seep into the stories told within it. Burnside however, is presented in a very different light. Burnside is the sort of place that people go to to live in Gotham without having to live in Gotham. It’s filled with tech start-ups, artisanal coffee shops, queer communities and students. For fellow Londoners, imagine Shoreditch, move it south of the Thames and you have Burnside.
Burnside is every gentrified city block you can imagine crushed into one. For many, this type of place is a dream come true, a creative hub tucked within a grand city. For others, especially many from that grand city, they can see that these places can be strange microcosms with their own cultures and tribes. In this issue, Barbara straddles the line, but seems to learn towards that second side of the line. On the one hand, Burnside is shown to be very welcoming place for Barbera and somewhere that she can comfortably start over. On the other hand, she comes across as an outsider from Gotham proper. This outsider nature allows her to become an audience surrogate figure, leading the reader through everything that makes Burnside so different to central Gotham.
Some of the strongest parts of Burnside are its diverse characters. While Barbara is leaving her trans-woman roommate Alyssa at the start of the issue, one type of diversity is replaced by many more. After Alyssa leaves the story, the issue is still populated by at least three brand new queer characters, two of whom are people of colour. Even better, they are presented as characters over and above their sexuality, with motivations and goals separate from just being a token moment of representation. Characters like this offer a another great contrast to the often very straight and white Gotham city.
Speaking of characters, this issue introduces a fantastic new villain. I will hold off on spoiling the character too much, because there is a reveal at play in the issue, but I will try to describe him. Imagine the most annoying person on your Facebook feed, combine them with the most vile parts of 4chan, and the reach of Wikileaks and you have some sort of idea of what the issue’s villain is like. He’s sexist, objectifying, controlling, pretentious and not only uses hashtags in spoken dialogue, he uses them in the most obnoxious way possible. This issue’s creators have managed to create one of the most hateable villains I have read in a long time, someone you really want to see punched in the face and get their comeuppance, and they didn’t need to mutilate, rape or kill anyone to do it. It’s kind of remarkable.
Obviously, the most important character in the issue is Batgirl herself. She is still the same character she has always been at her heart, but Stewart and Fletcher highlight some different elements of her character in the issue. Barbara’s age is highlighted here. She is 21 and taking the time to act like it. She is a student, working on her masters degree. She gets drunk at a housewarming party, and suffers for it the next morning. She is even (in what is actually a very clunky line of dialogue) offended that people think she looks younger than she is, a criticism that was levelled at the book when its more cartoonish art style was revealed. All through this, she still comes across as heroic and admirable. She gets wasted, but her photographic memory can still be relied upon the next morning. She is monstrously hungover, but still takes time to chase a petty thief across town. She ends up without her costume, but takes the time to make a brand new one to put across the right image for the final showdown. DC has always been about characters to aspire to, and Barbara is still that aspirational figure here. The face that she fights crime out of costume shows that it’s not about being a Bat, its about doing the right thing and being a hero, no matter what.
The best thing about this issue is definitely Babs Tarr and Maris Wick’s art. Babs Tarr fills the world with life and detail, her characters full of charm, personality and life. Some of the standout artistic moments of the issue come when visualising Batgirl’s photographic memory. A double page spread early in the issue highlights this perfectly. The art zooms out on these pages, showing the entirety of Barbara’s apartment for the first time in the issue. The now of Barbara and her housemates are presented in full colour, contrasted with the glowing blue of the apartment as Barbara remembers it being during the party. The way the entire room changes, with key objects highlighted, is reminiscent of Detective mode in Rocksteady’s Batman Arkham games, and Maris Wick’s colours really bring this to life. One of my favourite elements is the way Batgirl appears in multiple places across this two page spread, giving a sense that this is happening all at once within Barbara’s head, letting the reader in to the way a photographic memory works for Barbara.
Stewart, Fletcher, Tarr and Wicks collaboration peaks on a later page in the issue, where Batgirl is investigating two leads into the same mystery. The narrative flips from panel to panel between the two conversations, but with the dialogue from one person leading seamlessly into the others, even though they never meet. The art and colouration is key to making it clear that these are two separate discussions, but this is comic book storytelling at its finest and a fantastic example of what can be done with sequential art.
At its heart, Batgirl #35 is a comic that hits the zeitgeist perfectly, and is a comic of its time in the very best way. If you are looking for gritty and dark, this isn’t the comic for you, but there’s plenty of that elsewhere in DC’s line. Batgirl does offer realism, but it’s a bright realism, a fun realism. This is a comic for 21 year olds, a comic for anyone who has every used Instagram, a comic for anyone who has been a student. I’m coming back for the next issue, and I’d recommend you pick this one up and see what’s so good about it for yourself. Batgirl #35 may have moved out of the New 52 house style, but it is all the better for it.
Batgirl #35 is written by Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher, with pencils and inks by Babs Tarr, colours by Maris Wicks and lettering by Jared K. Fletcher.
If you like what you read, you can buy it now via Comixology