Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Batgirl's Not Weak, She's Human

I stayed out of the Batgirl vs. Oracle debate that broke out in comic fandoms after DC announced the relaunch.  Partly my reticence was because, being able-bodied, I didn’t feel it was my place to say what should be done with a disabled icon.  And partly I stayed out of the discussions because I’d only begun reading weekly issues of comics a few months before the relaunch began.  Before that, I’d just read trade paperbacks, and none of them featured Oracle in a starring role (come to think of it, the one I read that most featured Barbara was The Killing Joke).  I didn’t know enough about her to pick one superheroine role over the other.

On that note, I didn’t know much about Barbara’s Batgirl either.  My biggest introduction to her was Batman: The Animated Series, and while I thought she was as entertaining and engaging as the Robins, I never felt particularly close to her.  She was a spunky teen sidekick, fun to watch, and I identified with her because we were both redheaded girls, but I don’t remember seeing episodes that focused on her, and I never gained a deeper connection with the character.

What I did know about Barbara-as-Batgirl’s return, based on my knowledge of her previous work and the interviews I read with her regarding the relaunch, was that if Barbara was going to walk again, Gail Simone would be the best person to write it.

Gail Simone's new Batgirl series launched on Sept. 7.

She loves Barbara Gordon, she kicks ass at writing female characters, and she’s argued against restoring Barbara’s mobility in the past.  I figured if anyone could handle the issue sensitively and compellingly, it would be Gail Simone.  So, despite having never been particularly attached to Barbara Gordon, I picked up the comic shop’s last issue of Batgirl #1 when it was released on the seventh, curious to see how the transition back to Batgirl would be handled.

To my delight, I loved it.  For the first time, I connected with Barbara on more than a superficial level.  I cheered when she took down the bad guys at the start of the issue, cringed at the flashback to The Killing Joke, and felt my heart go out to her when she was threatened with the injury that paralyzed her again and froze up, unable to act.  The issue was everything I hoped it would be.  I have never been paralyzed, shot, stripped, humiliated, or traumatized, but from my viewpoint, everything felt real.  The explanation given for Barbara’s recovery was brief, but I didn’t feel cheated and I’m sure it will be expanded upon in the future.  Her talk with her father was heartwarming, her interactions with her new roommate were amusing, and the scene with the new villain and the gun?  I haven’t felt so emotionally connected to a comic character in years.

And because I am naturally curious (and mildly masochistic), once I was finished reading, I turned to the Internet to see what other readers thought.

The response to the issue was mostly positive.  Even those who opposed bringing Barbara Batgirl back seemed to respect the way the issue handled the transition.  But there was a contingent of dissent I hadn’t expected, and they took fault with the scene I had found most meaningful: Barbara freezing up when threatened with a gun.

The scene in question.

Batgirl shouldn’t be so weak, some readers argued.  It was one thing for Barbara Gordon to wake up, horrified from remembering her shooting in a nightmare, but once she went under the cowl she ought to be able to suppress those fears.  Superheroes are meant to be larger than life, and it isn’t compelling to watch them struggle with real world issues.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but hasn’t Marvel made a business out of creating heroes with real life problems?  And aren’t they currently the top comics seller?

Ignoring that it’s the first issue—I doubt Barbara’s going to be unable to act every time she’s faced with a gun during Gail Simone’s run—watching Barbara freeze while reliving the trauma made her a much stronger character in my mind.  Before this comic, I only ever saw her as “Batman, but a teenage girl and with a parent.”  She was strong and sassy like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but unlike Buffy, I never saw her vulnerable moments on the cartoon, and I was never particularly close to her.  Here, she may not have kicked ass and taken names in the issue’s final confrontation, but she became a real person to me for the first time, and I’m dying to know what happens next, and on the edge of my seat to see how she will forgive herself for freezing up, and how she’ll overcome her fear.

Sure, it’s not typical superhero action, but wasn’t the first half of the comic devoted to Barbara taking down a group of murderers?  Didn’t she drive a motorcycle through a hospital and come crashing through the doors?  It’s not an issue that was lacking in action, and it’s not an issue that was lacking in emotion either.  To me, the combination of the two makes it a much more compelling introduction.  I’ve always liked the moments when heroes don’t seem invincible best.  Batman self-mutilating in A Serious House on Serious Earth, Superman’s breakdown in Red Son, Wonder Woman’s moral dilemma in The Hiketeia.  In my taste, the characters often seem strongest when shown at their weakest moments.

Others have called that moment regressive storytelling, saying the Barbara already worked through her trauma in her years as Oracle and that a relaunch shouldn’t start off by telling the same story over again.

Well, I haven’t read about her overcoming her traumas before.  For me, this is all new, and for me, it’s making the character more sympathetic and human than I’ve ever known her to be.  And even if I had read about Oracle’s struggles with PSTD before, I’d like to think I’d still appreciate them here.  Frankly, I would have felt cheated if I’d seen the new villain assume the gun pose from The Killing Joke only to see Batgirl take him out with no reaction.  To me, that’s cheap.  As of the relaunch, this Batgirl hasn’t had all the time Oracle had to overcome her traumas, and she has to deal with a new set of threats.  She’s still learning to adjust to her regained mobility, and I’m glad Gail Simone showed what an impact the threat of losing that freedom again had on Barbara.  The realism and sensitivity shown in the issue insured that I’ll pick up next month’s installment, and the next, and so on.

It’s not my place to tell anyone how they should feel about the new Batgirl series.  But I hope those who are critical about the first issue’s ending will be willing to give the second one a chance.  I see the scene as a touching, engaging moment, and this is a book I definitely won’t want to miss.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

"Why Do You Waste Your Money on Comics?"

“Why do you waste your money on comic books?”

It’s a question I’ve heard many times before, but most recently my father asked it last Saturday while we were waiting for our orders at the Cracker Barrel.  I’d been recounting my latest adventure with my friends, when we’d piled into the car on DC Relaunch Day and rushed to the comic shop for the new issues (I got the last copy of Gail Simone’s Batgirl, and it is fantastic).  I was thinking ahead to next week, and the comics I’d pick up then, when that nagging little question snapped me back to the present.

I remember the first time I held a comic book.

In Corydon, Indiana, where I grew up, there are no comic shops.  The nearest city that offered them was a least a twenty minute drive away when I was a kid, and it wasn’t a drive I would pester my mother into making because, having never seen a comic book, I didn’t understand the appeal.   I hadn’t been introduced to the comic book nerd stereotype at that age, but I had books and cartoons and it seemed to me that those were all I needed to be entertained.

That first comic book was a Batman Adventures, revolving around Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn and some sort of mind-controlling lemonade they’d concocted (Or so I remember, anyway, but I was about seven, and back then I thought hammerhead sharks inhabited swimming pools, so who knows how accurate any of this is).  My sister and I happened across it in my great-aunt and uncle’s garage at a family reunion, presumably discarded by another relative around our ages.  Now, like most children growing up in 90s, I loved Batman: The Animated Series.  And like most middle children with a domineering older sister who wanted to be both Batman and the Joker (and Catwoman, and the Commissioner, and anyone else the scenario called for), I loved Harley Quinn best of all because she was the one that I got to be whenever we played Batman.

I was hooked.  There were books about Batman?  Books with Harley in a main role?  Books that I could carry around and read whenever I wanted, unlike the one half hour of the day when I could watch the cartoon?  Why had no one shared this miracle with us before?

(Looking back, I was destined to become a fan fic writer from the beginning.)

Now, if I hadn’t been a seven year old with the attention span of kitten in a room full of cardboard boxes, I would have become a diehard comic reader then and there.  And if I had, maybe I’d be too jaded to care what non-fans think about the literary merits of my weekly purchases.  But as it is, I didn’t start frequenting the comic shops until college, and as such I’m here, defending my superheroes online.

It’s disheartening to see people dismiss all comics (except maybe for stories like Maus and Persepolis) as badly written kiddie-fare or wank material for unsocialized man-children.  It’s annoying to have family members who enjoy the works of Dan Brown turn their noses up at my reading choices.  But most irritating of all is when disparaging comments about comics come from people who, in all other circumstances, would approve of most any book gaining popularity, because at least it’s getting people to read.

I could provide dozens of links to stories demonstrating that even comics featuring men and women in tights and masks are capable of displaying complex themes and characters.  But what does it matter if someone is just using comic books for entertainment?  I was a lucky kid.  My mother is a librarian, and I’d been read to since I was a fetus.  Comics or not, I was going to read.  But not everyone has those luxuries.  And if kids learn to enjoy reading through following heroic adventures and dynamic art in comics, then more power to them.  My mother’s library has begun carrying classic literature in graphic form, and I sincerely hope no one started griping about bastardizing literature when they saw that.

(Though with that said, really, they couldn’t have picked a better artist to cover Shakespeare?)

But comics shouldn’t be relegated to a last ditch effort, either.  They ought to be approached the way most anyone (outside of literary academia and pretentious Amazon reviews) views other people’s reading choices: it may not be their cup of tea, but it’s nothing to mock.  You can have your harlequin romances, I can have my superhero team-ups, and we can all be happy.

In my experience, comics have been so much more than a $2.99 purchase that I read through in five minutes and then instantly forget.  Comics got me into costuming, which taught me practical skills and gave me the excuse I’ve always wanted to run around like it’s Halloween far past October.  Comics got me into fan fiction, which not only helped me polish my writing skills as much as my college courses have, but also introduced me to a writer’s community where I met some of the best friends I’ve ever had.  And it was a comic book, Wonder Woman, who got me involved in feminism.

Wasting my money?  I’ll never regret a penny of it.