Exploring Costume & Identity with the Batgirl of Burnside

batgirl-babstarr22-e1405326700662-619x210

This essay contains spoilers.

Although a card-carrying member of the wider Bat-family Barbara Gordon faces into her dual identities in a markedly different way to Bruce Wayne. Where Wayne lives in isolation, only donning his mask when necessary to obfuscate his ‘true’ nature as Batman, Barbara has chosen to actively engage with the world she seeks to protect. Babs shares an apartment with someone who doesn’t know her secret identity and regularly socialises with friends. She’s working on her PHD, goes shopping, goes out for coffee, and on dates. But the cowl is still an important signifier, one that distinguishes between the different aspects of Babs’ personality. The conflict between this choice to live a normal life and to take on the identity of the Batgirl is one that runs through the veins of this book. Are we defined by the costumes we chose to wear?

Untitled-115

In her civilian get up Babs is the picture of a typical 21 year old; she wears cute contemporary outfits, has a closet full of casual options, but mostly plays it pretty safe in the fashion department (short red dresses aside). Following the destruction of her previous gear and costume in the fire at Dinah’s Babs gets to putting together a new Batgirl outfit – she goes shopping, extensively despite being low on funds (an email from her bank let’s us know she is in the red), and spends time and creative energy on a fully redesigned and re-imagined look. This could just be necessity, the outfit is cosplay-practical because Babs makes it herself at pace, but there is a huge disparity between the care she takes with her Batgirl outfit and the time taken over her regular civilian appearance. When she needs to be ‘made-up’ for a dating profile she asks for Frankie’s help, she wears the same ‘52’ shirt all moving-day then keeps it on at the housewarming party (and even sleeps in it). When Frankie, Dinah and Babs go shopping she is positively wallflowering – she doesn’t engage with the clothes or the shopping, and just shrinks to the centre of the room (not to mention her ‘unimpressed’ face).

batgirl-36-image

But there is a clear focus on the importance of Batgirl’s appearance, both on a meta-textual level (this is the reboot issue unveiling a redesigned costumes that might work to raise sales) and on a narrative one. Babs has just restarted her life, she has moved to a new part of town, taken up new academic study, and she is still trying to move beyond the trauma of her past. At first it almost seems like Babs’ had no immediate plans to emerge as the Batgirl of Burnside. She left her Bat-gear at Dinah’s, and anyhow she has nowhere to store it or park her van in Burnside, she has sworn off her previous friendship with fellow hero Black Canary, and she makes no move to don the cowl until it is a personal necessity (after her laptop and algorithm are stolen). Could Babs have been hoping to start this reboot without ever being Batgirl again? She does after all “want to have fun” as Alysia puts it. Then again, it doesn’t seem like a chore when Babs makes that new costume and goes out to take down the bad guy, she genuinely seems to have fun kicking ass and taking names (“that didn’t feel as satisfying as it usually…” at least before the hangover kicks in). She is all action, strategy, and great one liners by the end of the book.

Batgirl03

Outside of hoodlums and scumbag the first villain that Batgirl faces is Riot Black, a DJ and digital anarchist who runs the Black Book, an objectionable website that hosts any and all dirty secrets. Riot Black is a man defined by his image, he speaks in hashtags and corny ‘edgy’ dialogue, he wears no shirt and joins his followers in their revelry, and believes that everyone’s personal identity belongs to him. Through a network of thieves and hackers he will take your secrets from any electronic device (the bank vaults of the modern age) and expose them to the world. Babs springs into action to defeat Black not because he might expose her secret identity as one might expect, but rather to recover her PHD work, an algorithm that we later learn is a map of her mind (it may have included the secret identity, but the intent seems clear here that Babs wants it back for her PHD more than for any potential secrets). It is a traditional superhero trope that the villain has the heroes secret identity in their grasp, but that idea is subverted as Batgirl offers to reveal her identity freely in exchange for Black deleting everything he has, “I’ll give you me” she says. But Batgirl triumphs through ingenuity, the only ‘me’ Black gets to have is the sharp end of a perfectly executed Bat-strategy.

tumblr_nad5aslvrX1tggwujo1_1280

The Katsura twins, Yuki and Yuri, are introduced to us only in their costumed identities as the Jawbreakers – motorcycle riding warrior twins from the retro anime show ‘Atomina’ (or ‘Science Battle Hero Nuclea’ if you’re a real fan). The only background we get on these characters is consistent with that first appearance though, they want to be the characters from the show in real life. The shop attendant at the Robot Pony anime store tells Babs that they turn up in costume at Otaku events across Gotham and never break character. For these women their personality and how they see themselves, like for many of us, is directly invested in what they wear and how they act – they push people around because they see themselves as the villains. Moreover, the moment they are given the chance to embrace a villainous role they take it without hesitation; they agree to kill Batgirl not just for the money, but to prove that they are “the real Jawbreakers”. These villains want to be who they dress up as, much like Babs becomes more confident and possibly more ‘herself’ when she wears the cowl. That theme, that many people want the world to accept them on their own terms, is what may have caused controversy in the next issue.

tumblr_ngonm57KRo1qcw9rdo1_500

Dagger Type is an artist with a hunger for fame that knows no legal boundary. In the guise of a new Batgirl he robs, fights, and threatens his way across Burnside before putting on an art show that offers to reveal Batgirl’s true identity. Some readers were offended by the representation of Dagger Type, a potentially transvestite character or perhaps transgender, as a 2D caricature of the preposterous ‘other’ (and the negative reaction from Batgirl in particular was also a point of contention especially given her friendship with and acceptance of Alysia, a transgender character). This reading is legitimate and the outrage and hurt understandable, so the eloquent and sincere apology from the creative team is welcome. Many of the characters in the book have sought to identify themselves through the costumes they wear and it is plausible that Dagger Type is similarly presenting himself to the world as Batgirl because he wants to literally be Batgirl, his “becoming” as he says (though a necessarily alternative version of Batgirl to Babs’ one, hence the jewel encrusted costume and criminal lifestyle).

However, there is an alternative reading of Dagger Type that also plays into the theme of Babs’ internal conflict. Dagger Type only ever refers to himself with the male pronoun, he is pictured in typical male clothes at the art exhibition (granted he is also in the Batgirl photographs), his status as trans is never discussed or raised by any character, and he wants to deliver an event/finale to his art installation at a crowded theatre. It is possible that as a performance artist Dagger Type has created a new ‘Batgirl’ character, perhaps in a similar way to those seen in a drag queen performance. The invitation to the unveiling event is described as ‘illustrating’ who is under the Batgirl mask, and on stage Dagger Type states that the “real Batgirl is…me. I, Dagger Type, the artist himself. I am your Batgirl, people of Burnside. The idol you worship.” Dagger Type refers both to ‘himself’ and the fact that he is an artist here; might this entire event be an attempt to recapture the fame and adulation that he feels belongs to him, but that has recently been given to the insurgent Burnside celebrity, Batgirl? In either case it is interesting to note that Dagger Type is taken down by the genuine Batgirl of course, but not in her costume. Babs lost her cowl in the previous fight so has to face the villain whilst they are both unmasked. Dagger Type was right, Batgirl was revealed, and the issue closes with Batgirl taking responsibility for her public image and identity.

4332450-screen+shot+2015-01-16+at+12.58.23+am

Following this event Babs takes to the celebrity life quickly and embraces social media to grow her ‘brand’, but the uncomfortable duality of Babs’ identity is thrust into stark relief as she begins to grow her emotional life as well. On a couple of dates with potential boyfriend Liam, a GCPD officer, she faces questions about the ethics of vigilantism and Batgirl being a “criminal”. The growth of Batgirl as an icon in Burnside, evidenced by fans, photos, signatures, and strangers taking style cues, is mirrored in the distasteful reality show star Jordan Barberi. Potentially the son of a super-villain, Barberi is presented as nothing more than a vacuous celebrity with no consideration for the consequences of his actions, but he has a following on social media and is idolised in much the same way as we have seen Batgirl being (his Pixtagraph likes outnumber Batgirls even). His penchant for drinking and racing leads him to challenge Batgirl to a race after she rashly confronts him in a club; both make foolish decisions that result in considerable danger and damage. Whilst we don’t find out the impact of these events on Barberi, it results in Batgirl being vilified on social media.

In previous issues Babs’ identity has taken centre stage, driving the narrative, and donning the cowl to do good as necessary, but here Batgirl is the sole driving force. Again and again characters are shown to react badly to Batgirl’s presence – she and Dinah fight whilst, shrouded with shadows, Batgirl looks more like the brooding Dark Knight than ever, Batgirl shows up at Qadir’s home uninvited and he responds (unsurprisingly) cagily, and Liam tries to arrest Batgirl for the damage she does to CJ’s diner. Batgirl has only ever been warmly received by characters in this book (outside of villains), but here she takes over Babs’ life and causes nothing but problems; unlike previous issues we see very little of Frankie or civilian Babs (besides her dates with Liam where they discuss Batgirl throughout), and Babs’ PHD work suffers as she sleeps and drinks through the day to compensate for her Batgirl identity frustration. Babs is struggling to reconcile both sides of her personality, both identities, here and things are likely to get worse as the faux-Batgirl from the fringes of previous issues has been joined by a faux-Babs as well. Even her enemy has dual identities.

oAlz4TN

In many superhero books the most compelling villains offer a reflection of the protagonist; Batman’s duality in Two-face, Charles Xavier’s idealism vs Magneto’s unchecked pragmatism, and so on. In this book we haven’t seen the arch nemesis yet (or have we?!), we have only been given some rogues-of-the-week for Batgirl to fight. They are an eclectic mix but with a unified nature. These villains are reflections of Barbara Gordon in many ways, Riot Black shares her eidetic memory and tech-savvy, the Jawbreakers share a formative experience from pop-culture, Dagger Type wants to be famous as the style icon Batgirl (which Bab’s herself embraces through social media and selfies), and Jordan Barberi shares a celebrity status and a certain recklessness. But more than that they all share a desire to curate their own image. They have a desire to present an idealised version of themselves to the world, through their Pixtagraphs and HOOQ profiles, their art, music, and lifestyle. The most important question though is this, which version of Babs’ is her ideal identity, the PHD student with friends and a social life, or the Batgirl of Burnside?

four

Batgirl // Writers – Cameron Stewart & Brendan Fletcher / Art – Babs Tarr / Colours – Maris Wicks

All art belongs to the copyright holder

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “Exploring Costume & Identity with the Batgirl of Burnside

  1. Excellent reading, especially the fact that Batgirl has no corresponding reflection to serve as an arch enemy. It’s one key failing of the sidekick phenomenon in super heroics: if you look back at all the sidekicks, the majority of their best known conflicts are between them and their mentor’s villains in order to bring up a different aspect of that relationship.

    In order for Babs to get more respect, she needs to be more individualized. This is why Birds Of Prey worked so well: it introduced rival hackers for Barbara to go up against. This new Batgirl is something a lot more social, so it has to be her social identity now that creates the conflict.

    Like

    1. Thanks for your comment, I’m glad you liked the piece. I’ve really enjoyed this book so it was a pleasure to dig into, and the themes of identity are really well employed by the creative team.

      I agree, in many ways the Babs’ side of the character has been more influential on this reboot than the Batgirl one, not least because most of the supporting characters and locations are related to Babs (we have no costumed sidekick or Batcave, just Babs’ friends and apartment). That means that for the arc to have a satisfying conclusion we will definitely need a villain whose conflict is tied to directly to Babs.

      My potentially outlandish theory is that the algorithm itself, a map of Babs’ mind, has gained sentience and has been released into the internet following the Riot Black incident. I think this is why there are so many mentions of bugs/problems at HOOQ, and also why this villainous ‘Batgirl’ wants the real Batgirl dead – so that the algorithm can become the ‘real’ Babs/Batgirl.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s