This issue lets the plot take a mostly back seat in favour of some intense emotional beats; Barbara’s best friend Alyssia is about to get married so Babs has to balance being the best ‘best woman’ ever and dealing with a romantic figure from her own past. It is a solid read with some great continuity and lovely moments, but it also continues the recent trend of a somewhat aimless Batgirl. As ever, though, the art is top notch and this issue benefits from some even more gorgeous colouring than usual.
Since the end of the opening arc for this new Batgirl run things have felt ever so slightly off. Batgirl #35 started the story of Babs settling into her new surroundings, introducing some new supporting players, and facing off against a mysterious villain operating through hired guns. It was artfully put together – the story was tightly paced and capitalised on a traditional villain-of-the-week structure to keep the action flowing whilst building up that central mystery. Since the conclusion of that story in Batgirl #40 there hasn’t really been much of a driving narrative behind Babs’ adventures; instead the approach has switched to a far more nebulous storytelling structure that is primarily concerned with the soap operatic elements of Barbara’s life. This isn’t in and of itself a bad thing, in fact it is refreshing to see a superhero book spend some more time on the human drama behind the masks, but it has been accompanied by a lack of over-arching story in recent months that has left the momentum of the book stalling a little.
Alyssia’s renewed prominence in the book has been very welcome, and if there has been an arc for the last few issues it is most probably the run up to Alyssia’s nuptials. The wedding scenes offer a number of really lovely moments, and are an important event for comics in general. Alyssia and Jo’s love, and its celebration at their wedding, is treated as any other characters would be, just as it should be. It is great to see the creators genuinely embracing and supporting these characters and providing a welcome representation of non-hetronormative love in such a mature and positive way. The wedding is also easily the strongest part of this issue with some great scenes between most of the character groupings – Alyssia and Babs have a chance to re-affirm their best friends status with some excellent Bab’s as super-maid-of-honour moments, Dinah makes an appearance, and there is some strong work establishing the playful, budding romance between Babs and Luke. It is also worth calling out the page where Alyssia and Jo make their vows as it is absolutely beautiful in art, dialogue, and sentiment.
I often lament the fact that superheroes rarely get to just enjoy the good times (super villains have an annoying habit of gate-crashing weddings, anniversaries, and graduations) so I was really pleased to see that the ’emergency’ this issue was one born of human drama rather than superhuman tomfoolery. Former love Dick Grayson recently returned to Babs’ life after spending his ‘death’ running super secret spy missions for the last few years (there must be something going around – see also Kurt in Black Canary!). Unfortunately the nature of his non-emergency and it’s place in this issue is quite underwhelming – Dick really lives up to his name here. Why he felt the need to drag Babs’ away from both her best friends’ wedding and a date with her new boyfriend for basically no reason at all is beyond me. I appreciate that he is dealing with some tough ‘feels’ right now and is looking to reconnect emotionally with Babara, but his poor timing here just comes across as jealous churlishness rather than charming and soulful.
The flashback to an earlier time is actually a great little moment (I’m especially fond of having the contemporary dialogue come from our heroes’ younger selves) serve as it does to establish the emotional history for Babs, but it felt totally out of place. This issue is all about looking forward, Alyssia and Jo are embarking on a life together, Barbara and Luke are developing their relationship and the presence of Dick, with his melancholic flashback, is designed to demonstrate how Babs’ is letting go of the sad anchors of the past and embracing that forward momentum towards a better life. But this is an inorganic and quite on-the-nose way to bring up those feelings; Dick appears out of nowhere and almost bullies Babs into joining him on a nothing adventure. He comes across as the superhero equivalent of a massive jerk ex who can always charm you to drop what you’re doing and head over to his place in the middle of the night, you know they’ll only hurt you, but you can’t stop yourself. This is presumably the intention of his characterisation in this issue, but I don’t want to read about a Babs who would fall for that trick – she went through a dark spell a few issues back and this behaviour would sit well there, but with everything in her life back on track and especially on a day so important to her best friend it doesn’t ring true to me that she would drop everything and everyone for this guy. Alyssia even calls out Babs’ poor behaviour, “I mean I know she has a habit of leaving abruptly, but I didn’t think she’d do it today“, and I found myself really disliking Barbara’s decision to put a flirtatious romp above her friend (and boyfriend’s) happiness and I don’t think that was the intention. It really felt like the entire Dick Grayson side-show was an excuse to get Babs in the Batgirl costume for a page or two whilst mercilessly hammering home that Babs wants to move on from the past.
But all of this, the goodness of the wedding and the badness of Dick Grayson, doesn’t really speak to the current underlying weakness in the book. Without a strong central plot for this arc there have been a number of brief adventures and a sidelining of elements of the relaunch that had previously been a part of what made it so great. Characters like Nimah and to a lesser extent Qadir have dropped from view, whilst potential love interests like Jeremy and Liam were cast off the moment Luke arrived. It may be that this was always the intention, and that those characters were introduced only as red herrings for the villain reveal at the end of the first arc, but it is still disappointing as it undermines the living breathing Burnside world that set Babs’ stories apart from the rest of the Bat-family. Even Burnside itself, like those other characters, has become a background in the most traditional sense too; the strong sense of place, of Burnside being a different part of Gotham with it’s own denizen’s, heroes, and villains isn’t quite there now. Babs’ school work isn’t part of the story anymore, her relationships with Dinah and Frankie aren’t driving the plot either (Dinah’s absence makes sense given that she has her own book again, but why isn’t Frankie in this more), and she isn’t working towards anything in paricular. Instead we have seen a relatively low-key set of disconnected multi-part stories. Exploring how her father’s regrettable new role as giant-robot-police-Batman and her best friends wedding affect Babara are interesting topics, but without a strong narrative structure that ties them into Babs day to day life they haven’t been as compelling as perhaps they could have been.
Even visually the book has set aside some of it’s great hallmarks – those wonderful page layouts from early in the book where Babs’ remembers and pieces together clues and panels that integrated modern technology into Babs’ world (text messages, emails, playlists, etc.) have been featured far less frequently. None of this is fatal, and the book is still a good read each month, but it definitely feels like the strong artistic and narrative vision which propelled the first arc has been on a lower setting recently. If this issue came at the end of a breathless arc then it would be a very refreshing chance to catch a breathe and join the characters revealing in the emotional climax of Alyssia and Jo’s wedding. Coming as it does after a number of relatively slow, relatively low stakes, and essentially disconnected stories, the impact of the slow down is lost a little to the point of almost stalling.
This is very much still a fun comic to read and my misgivings with the general pace and feel of the recent storytelling shouldn’t be taken as an argument not to read it. Babs Tarr’s art remains absolutely delightful on every page and Stewart & Fletcher are still writing some engaging, witty dialogue (that bow tie conversation is really quite charming), but it’d be disingenuous not to call out the shift in pace that the book has undergone recently. Even if some of that early magic has dissipated, everything still exists in this book to make it truly great once again; this creative team is incredibly strong and the world they have crafted has the potential for more amazing comic books. I have great hope and no doubt that they will recapture what made this book so good.
Batgirl #45 // Writers – / Artist – Babs Tarr / Colourist – Serge Lapointe // DC
– Serge Lapointe is on amazing form this issue, with beautiful colouring in every panel. The various hues of pink give the issue a distinct feeling of the romantic backdrop, but Lapointe isn’t afraid to throw in bold colour changes to add drama and impact (the opening page Babs’ to the rescue panels, for instance, do a great job reminding of Batgirl in action – a choice that immediately raises the stakes of every small crisis).
– It’s a great touch having Dinah and her band Black Canary playing the wedding and singing some 80’s power ballads! It’s cool to see a Babs Tarr version of Lord Byron, Ditto, and Paloma too.
– What with the questionable cameo of Red Robin in Gotham Academy #11 as well as Grayson here I’m beginning to wonder if there is an editorial mandate to shoe horn unnecessary appearances into books as part of a miss-judged cross-promotional campaign. (I appreciate that this is a staple of superhero books but it rarely feels as forced as it has in recent DC books)