Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Bat: Gail Simone's Relaunch of Batgirl Sparkles! | Fanboys Anonymous
Gail Simone's run on the relaunched Batgirl series has been pretty well received by both fans and critics alike and, for my money, is easily the best written of all DC's New 52 titles. With the second TPB (Knightfall Descends) due for its UK release next month, this is perhaps a good time to revisit the first volume (The Darkest Reflection) to see just what it is that's had Batfans all aflutter.

Batgirl Volume 1, by Gail Simone (Birds of Prey, Wonder Woman), Ardian Syaf (Blackest Night, Brightest Day, Justice League, Green Lantern) and Vicente Cifuentes (Fantastic Four, Hulk)
Batgirl never could get the hang of
that 'Live long and prosper' thing.
We don't need another hero

I must admit I've always had mixed feelings about Batgirl. On the one hand, I tend to subscribe to the idea of Batman as a loner and I find it difficult to buy into the number of second-tier vigilantes who tend to make up the extended Bat-family infesting the rooftops of Gotham.

Batwoman? A glossy gimmick best left back in the Silver Age. Azrael? There is no way the Bat would tolerate his psychotic activities. Damian? Ugh. A Bat-son? Really? The Spoiler? A joke. Anarky? Just ... why?

On the other hand, having grown up with the original Batman TV series in the 1960s, Batgirl - specifically the Barbara Gordon incarnation of Batgirl - has always been an integral part of the Bat-universe for me. I know I should find her bright and perky disposition completely at odds with the grime and gloom that pervades every other aspect of Gotham but, somehow, the city just isn't the same without her!

So, when I first heard that DC intended to allow Barbara Gordon to strap on her utility belt once more, my mixed feelings became positively scrambled! Whatever you might think about Alan Moore's decision to let the Joker shoot poor Babs through the spine, without that life-altering event, she'd never have reinvented herself as Oracle: computer genius, master hacker and all-round information broker to Batman and, indeed, the entire Justice League. And now she was going to leave all that behind?

Barbara Gordon remembers being shot and crippled by the Joker (see Alan Moore's "The Killing Joke")
Bang! Luckily for Barbara, the Joker only ever
uses those guns with the silly flags inside!
History can be rewritten

For those of us who don't hang on every word in DC's press releases and rely on the comics themselves to tell us what we need to know, Batgirl's history in the New 52 universe is more than a little confusing. The fact that Barbara Gordon was shot and crippled by the Joker is still canon. Whether or not she ever operated as Oracle is not entirely clear but, based purely on the issues collected in The Darkest Reflection (Batgirl issues 1-6), it seems not. Whether or not Stephanie Brown or Cassie Cain ever donned the Batgirl mantle is also a little grey but, again, it's probably safe to assume not.

Batgirl imagines herself in the wheelchair she used as Barbara Gordon (and Oracle), having been crippled by the Joker in "A Killing Joke" written by Alan Moore
It's the car, right? Chicks love
the car!
As with many other of the New 52 titles, this rewriting of recent history presents a serious hurdle for the book to overcome. Comic fans can be rabidly loyal to their favourite characters and many devotees of Cassie and Steph, therefore, were quick to voice their dismay at the idea of Barbara supplanting their she-bat of choice.

Similarly, fans of Oracle quickly made it clear that they were unhappy to be losing the only disabled heroine in the DCU and one of DC's few strong female characters who didn't dress in spandex or flash her cleavage. For Barbara to leave her wheelchair behind and successfully resume swinging from Gotham's gargoyles, she wouldn't only need a great surgeon, she was also going to need a damn good writer.

It's not who you are underneath ...

And that's where Gail Simone comes in. Simone, of course, has a huge reputation - firstly as an ardent critic of DC's treatment of female characters, and secondly as an award winning writer on the Birds of Prey title. But, approaching this book for the first time, none of that mattered to me. I'd never read Birds of Prey and the only work of Simone's I had read were a few issues of her frankly unimpressive run on Wonder Woman.

Barbara Gordon enjoys herself, having returned to the role of Batgirl
Everybody wants to be a bat!
In The Darkest Reflection, however, she proves to be superbly suited to the task of bringing Barbara Gordon to life. She clearly feels very close to this character and both Barbara's dialogue and her frequent internal monologues sound natural and convincing. I tend to be highly critical of the writing in comics but here Simone shines. She writes in a voice which successfully squares the cheery optimism of Barbara's 1960s TV persona with the determined mental toughness of the survivor shot and paralysed by the Joker in the 1980s.

Still from the 1960s "Batman" TV series starring Adam West (Batman), Burt Ward (Robin) and the sexy Yvonne Craig (Batgirl), also known for Star Trek (Orion slave girl, Marta)
Sometimes the original really is the best!
In Simone's hands, we have no trouble believing that Barbara Gordon is a character who, having regained the use of her legs, would brush herself down and confront her fears and self-doubt head on.

As she pits herself once again against super-powered criminals and costumed psychopaths, we can understand why. Unlike her dark, brooding mentor, she isn't driven by a deep-seated need for justice or revenge. Simone convinces us that Babs is out there because she loves it; she was born to be Batgirl. Her "Barbara Gordon" identity is never just a convenient mask as Bruce Wayne's is so often described, but when she's flinging herself from rooftop to rooftop at the end of a Bat-rope, you just know that's where she belongs.

Whether soaring across the Gotham skyline or patrolling the streets on her trusty Bat-cycle, Barbara's joy and enthusiasm at being back in the cape is genuinely infectious!

... it's what you do that defines you

As for the story itself, there's a lot to like in this first volume. There are superheroic fisticuffs aplenty, and we're introduced to two new villains: a serial killer named Mirror and a super-powered assassin called Gretel. Gretel comes across as a fairly generic super-villain (psychic powers) but, just as the best Bat-villains throw some aspect of Batman's own psyche into relief, Mirror is clearly a vehicle to highlight Barbara's own sense of survivor's guilt. It's not exactly subtle, but it's a nice touch all the same.

Characters from Barabara's past also make a brief appearance. Batman (or rather Bruce Wayne) and her former lover Dick Grayson (as Nightwing) both cross her path in this volume. As is so often the case when superheroes meet, she and Nightwing quickly fall to fighting each other rather than criminals, but again Simone comes up trumps, taking this hackneyed scenario and giving it a new and poignant twist (sorry - no spoilers!).

Image of Batgirl (Barbara Gordon) taking down a bad guy with a typically gymnastic vaulting move
In her day job, Barbara is a librarian. Best not to
let your books get overdue.
While these cameos provide a link to Batgirl's past, however, the book also has an eye on the future. At a time when it seems to be increasingly unfashionable to show heroes "off the clock", Simone takes a particular delight in sharing Barbara's personal life with us. In this volume we meet two new characters who enter her domestic life: her new housemate Alysia and, without giving too much away, someone who seems destined to provide an overarching plot line which could run for some time.

Batgirl Volume 2, by Gail Simone (Birds of Prey, Wonder Woman), Ardian Syaf (Blackest Night, Brightest Day, Justice League, Green Lantern) and Vicente Cifuentes (Fantastic Four, Hulk)
'Knightfall Descends'. Presumably
the villain will becalled Tautology.

In summary, Batgirl: The Darkest Reflection is a mainstream superhero book of the highest quality. It relaunches Barbara Gordon as Batgirl, successfully weaving together her tragic past with her action-fuelled present, while setting in motion some interesting sub-plots for the future. It strikes a fine balance between keeping us entertained with her costumed crime-fighting activities, and giving us an insight into the thoughts, feelings and motivation of a very human character; a character we can (and do!) actually care about.

The second volume of Simone's relaunch, Knightfall Descends, is released in the UK in paperback on 5 November and I pre-ordered my copy as soon as I'd finished reading Volume 1. Have you ordered yours yet? Or do you still see Barbara's return as a Bat out of Hell?

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