Since relaunching in Batgirl #35 the rejuvenated Barbara Gordon has fought an eclectic mix of villains, public opinions, and emotional situations, but the real threat has remained in the shadows. Writers Cameron Stewart and Brendan Fletcher reveal all in this very satisfying conclusion to their opening arc, and artist Babs Tarr, with colourist Maris Wicks, delivers incredible art on every page. This has been a deep, brilliant, and emotionally complex story, and this conclusion does not disappoint – excellent stuff.
There is a lot going on in this issue and it is complex in myriad ways, but every thread is so well handled and the plots so deftly put together that it never feels overwhelming or rushed. In fact the pacing of this issue does a very effective job of building tension and a sense of escalating doom throughout, without ever becoming an exhausting mess. The same can really be said for this run as a whole; it has been crafted as an accessible and ‘light’ reboot, yet if you want it there is some deep of comics/character/social-commentary beneath the surface and this issue is no different. There are revelations, resolutions, action scenes, and exceptional character moments, and it is all delivered with some truly beautiful art. Over the past 5 issues we have seen Batgirl go up against a number of enemies, each one being a shade of her own personality, and the reason for such a diverse yet unified rogues gallery is as satisfying as it is brilliant; the algorithm that Bab’s wrote when she was still raw and recovering from her trauma, has become sentient and it wants ‘its’ body back.
The concept of personal identity, how we perceive ourselves and think others perceive us, has been a central theme of this book since the relaunch; it is a brilliant conceit as it taps directly into the meta-conversation about Batgirl’s new costume and the new creative team itself, the writers are literally writing about their own creative process. Rather than run from or disregard what has come before Stewart and Fletcher have embraced Babs’ history, but they have also allowed Babs to organically move past it – everything that happened in Gail Simone’s previous run is still very much a part of this Batgirl, but the new writing team and Babs herself are looking to get past that dark time in her life. So as the book has changed tone and style, Babs has pursued new interests, moved home, changed costume, established a new network of friends and superhero-support, leaving one dark truth unresolved; that maybe Babs’ cannot escape that dark past, that maybe it will always be the moment that defines her.
The true villain of this book, the alternate Batgirl who has been recruiting villains all along, the algorithm is imbued with the darkest part of Barbara Gordon, her anger and thirst for revenge from before she could process what had happened to her. The genius of this conceit is that it allows the entire book to highlight how much Babs has changed since that time, she has moved from a victim to become a survivor and a hero. The algorithm meanwhile remains trapped in that same moment of confusion and anger, the moment it gained sentience, and it has plundered Babs’ new life for ammunition to use against her – her warmest memories, her public identity, her self-worth. Each villain seen so far has been a counterpart to Babs’ in some way so it is only natural that the culmination of this theme, the arch-nemisis, would be a direct counterpart to Babs’ entire identity. This corrupt copy of Babs’ mind has twisted what it means to be a hero and a defender of Gotham; its broken logic dictating that all crime can be stopped if you remove all the potential perpetrators. This isn’t the most original evil A.I. plan, nor is the Wargames-logic-explosion an all-new resolution to it, but the themes at play here are far stronger than any single element of this villainy. Much as Gotham is the product of its vibrant and brilliant people, this book is so successful because of its strong, diverse, and compelling characters.
Alongside identity as a key driving force for this arc, there has always been the idea that relationships, and friendships in particular, are one of the most important things in Barbara’s life. The dual relationships that have shaped this book, and especially this issue, are those of Babs and Dinah, and Babs and Frankie. Frankie has been a big part of Babs’ new Burnside world (And rooting their friendship in the same moment as the algorithm is a canny move) so it is fitting that she looks set to become a big part of Batgirl’s world too. There have been plenty of mentions of Frankie’s expertise in coding so it was pleasant to see that pay off in the final pages of this story; Frankie shines when she patches the algorithm into the big screens to warn everybody, and then goes on to deactivate the satellite – she proves herself a keen field ally for Batgirl and it is great to see a hero that isn’t afraid to put a little faith in her friends. Similarly Dinah gets a chance to step in and take out the HOOQ drones, as well as giving Batgirl cover to make her escape from the cops. Dinah and Babs’ have had an up and down time in the recent past, but their deep bond has always been clear, so it was a great moment when they shared a touching farewell (and then Dinah departs for her new Black Canary book from Brendan Fletcher and Annie Wu – I can’t wait!).
Babs Tarr has done some incredible work in this series and her art here is as wonderful as ever. Every panel is expertly put together and Tarr has such a great way with faces that every moment of pain, anxiety, anger, and joy is brilliantly realised. This is mirrored to great effect in the slowly deteriorating portrait of the algorithm – as it loses its grasp on its identity as the one ‘true’ Batgirl it begins to fragment, distort, and decay, and Tarr renders that process will ghoulish brilliance. In fact the art here all reads amazingly well and just looks so effortless, but the complexity of the panels and the real depth of detail go to show that a lot of great work has gone into this book. The panel of everyone cutting loose and partying after the day is won is a superb piece of artwork that captures the reader experience perfectly – I was celebrating with them. Tarr’s art is supported throughout by some astounding colouring work by Maris Wicks – there are sunsets, and shadowy rooms, and half remembered experiences, and outdoor parties, and all of it is captured in nuanced and sophisticated palettes. Even subtle moments like the activation of the drones and the imbuing of the algorithm with Babs’ darkest self are enhanced by brilliant colouring. It is also worth calling out the layouts by Cameron Stewart as these are really great as well – we’ve seen some excellent pages in this arc (Babs’ memories of the party and chasing the perp in the first issue still stand out as memorable favourites) and there are some more terrific layouts here too, just take another look at that Riot Black take down! The art, layouts, colouring, and lettering are all at their best in this issue with some dizzyingly incredible pages on display. A particular joy was the expansive double page that shows the HOOQ party and calls out the algorithm’s targets in some scene-setting-stakes-raising-tension-escalating-brilliance; and it is full of amazing details too (Tarr is such a generous artist in this regard, always giving readers rewards for paying close attention, like the Sailor Moon inspired incidental character designs). There is simply spectacular work from the artistic team throughout this issue.
This has been a book to watch and a pleasure to read since its relaunch last year, and the conclusion to the first arc does not disappoint at all – the plot is well-considered and offers up a rich tapestry of themes and emotions, the character dynamics are complex and rewarding, the action is fast paced and brilliantly constructed, and the art is just perfect. If you aren’t reading this book then you’re genuinely missing out on the start of a new era of comic books.
Batgirl #40 // Writers – Cameron Stewart & Brendan Fletcher / Artist – Babs Tarr / Colours – Maris Wicks // DC
Notes and Observations:
- Neat thematic Ghost in the Shell reference on the first page, both in issue name (Ghost in the Cowl) and the text layout.
- A few of the lighter relationships (and playful red-herrrings in the central mystery) received only fleeting references this issue which is an unfortunate necessity given the restrictions on pages and pacing; as such we only get brief check-ins with Nadimah, Alysia, and Jeremy, and Qadir is similarly only briefly on-page (I hope he’s not done being Batgirl’s Q!).
- Liam the cop does get a nice mirroring of his first on stage appearance at the Dagger Type take down – back then he commended civilian Babs on her good work and here he finally puts a little trust in Batgirl.
- I love the involuntary reactions that are peppered throughout this book – really small word balloons like “OMG” and love hearts. I don’t know if that is the work of Tarr or the letterer Jared K. Fletcher, but its great.
- So the debugged and rebooted algorithm with Frankie at the keyboard is going to be the new Oracle, right?
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