Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Batgirl 14: A Courtship of Razors

This review will contain all the spoilers imaginable, including in images.  You have been warned.

 As I mentioned in my post on The Killing Joke, the Joker is back and he's creepier than ever.  This clown isn't playing around, which he made clear in last month's Batman when he stopped by Wayne Manor for some good old fashioned butler-napping.  But in today's release of Batman 14, the Harlequin of Hate showed us that things like murdering nineteen police officers in one go or pouring ammonia in Alfred's eyes is just kid's stuff, and made clear his end game: Batman's support network has made him soft.  Therefore Batman's support network must die.  Moreover, Batman's going to have to help with the familicide.

 In short, we're in for a feast of nightmares, and things like seeing Commissioner Gordon bleeding through his skin are just the appetizers.  The wonderful creative team of Scott Snyder and Gregg Capullo made this clear in Batman, but over in Batgirl, Gail Simone and Ed Benes have hardly been stingy with their supply of nightmare fuel.  The terror is gushing forth like the Overlook Hotel's elevator full of blood.

The plot of Batgirl 13 is simple, though the terror and awesomeness contained within makes this issue more than memorable.  Barbara Gordon's mother has been kidnapped by henchclowns.  Barbara receives a phone call from her sadistic brother, making threats and bizarre demands.  When she is attacked by more thugs in clown masks, she fights back, suits up, and makes her way to the location her brother directs her to, a local roller skating rink.  There she finds the Joker holding her mother hostage.  The issue concludes with the revelation that the Joker's twisted scheme involves Batgirl joining him in holy Batrimony, and he was even sweet enough to propose with her mother's engagement ring.  What girl could say no?

The Good:  Where to start?  Holy dismemberment, where to start?

Simone's Joker is flat-out horrifying.  from the skating rink full of grimly grinning corpses to Benes's disturbing, detailed rendering of the clown's new face.  But he's darkly comedic as well, rolling around on the floor in pink, pom-pom'd skates.  It's said that the Joker should frighten you, make you laugh, and make you hate yourself for laughing all at once, and this Joker is a roaring success.  Gail Simone said on Twitter that the Joker of this event caused a nightmare for her, and it's not hard to see why.  Look at him.  There's a face that will be burned into my retinas and stalking my dreams for a lifetime.

But the Clown Prince of Crime isn't the only villain at work in this issue, despite his talent for hogging the spotlight.  James Gordon Jr., Barbara's deeply disturbed younger brother, has been biding his time in the shadows of Gotham for months since his escape from Arkham Asylum, and finally revealed his presence to his sister in this issue.  He taunts with her over the phone, makes demeaning and nonsensical demands - "Make a sandwich or your mother dies" - and sends henchmen after her designed to echo her past trauma and trigger her deepest fears.  By the issue's end, we're still not sure of just what he hopes to accomplish, but we know that he's cunning enough to use the Joker's schemes to his own benefit, and if that doesn't point to his competence and threat factor as a villain, I don't know what does.  He's like a younger, ginger-ier Hannibal Lecter, minus the cannibalism.

The coloring in this issue pops off the page, complimenting the intensity of the storyline.  Previous issues of the series have featured washed out colors, but this issue is as vivid as could be.  Benes's work here is superb,  from his Hammer Horror-esque Joker to his action scenes, but most of all he sells it in Barbara's facial expressions.  I was nervous upon seeing that the focus for the bottom third of this issue's cover was Batgirl's breasts, knowing that Benes has a propensity for cheesecake art.  I awaited Batgirl 13 with concern that Barbara's confrontation with the man who shot her would end up sexualized.  But the focus here is not fanservice.  It's Barbara, with all her fears and anger and determination, Barbara rising up against any challenge her foes with throw at her.  And it is glorious.

Which brings me to the greatest part of this issue: Barbara Gordon.   This issue is her tour de force, the moment the book has been building to ever since she froze upon finding herself at the business end of a gun back in Batgirl 1.  Over the course of fourteen issues we've seen her working her way back in the world of crime fighting, and strive to regain her confidence after regaining the use of her legs.  She's struggled with depression, PTSD, survivor's guilt, and ethical questions about what it means to be a hero and how much good she's really doing.  

But now she's found her footing.  And she takes all of her insecurities and fears, in the midst of a panic attack, even, and decides that enough is enough.  "They thought I'd be terrified, I'm sure.  Beyond repair, maybe.  Victim of a full traumatic breakdown.  And yet I find I am something else entirely.  Something darker.  Elated."  This is Batgirl, operating at 110 percent, and she's had enough of clowns at the door.  Come on inside, if you don't mind having your bones shattered.  This is the Batgirl that critics have been complaining Barbara should have been back in issue one, but she's all the stronger and more engaging for having seen the build up.  Constant nerves of steel, with a witty quip for every situation?  Boring.  A real human being who fights through her fears and kicks every ass on her way up?  Awesome.

Which brings me to a brief aside on certain critics of this issue, the sort of anti-New 52 Batgirl commentators that dislike Barbara just because she's not Stephanie Brown, or because she's not the "real" Barbara anymore.  The ones who are making misogynistic "make me a sandwich" jokes based on the preview (apparently missing the irony in telling the girl who will make a sandwich and then break your legs to get in the kitchen), or saying that "Mary Sue Batgirl is just going to beat up the Joker, who cares?".  Hey guys?  You can stick a batarang where the sun doesn't shine.  No one complains when Batman overcomes his struggles and punches the Joker in the face, despite Bruce Wayne being the ultimate power fantasy.  If you've reached the point where you have to tear a woman down for kicking ass, then you've officially broken through the bottom of the barrel.  Barbara's here, she rocks, and no amount of sexism or screaming "self-insert!" is going to cancel that out.  Too bad, so sad.

This issue leaves us with tons of questions, and all of them awesome.  Is James going to get Alysia now that Barbara left her at the apartment?  How does the marriage play into the Joker's Death of the Family scheme (and what role, if any, will Bruce play in the ceremony)?  Is James working with the Joker, or does he just know enough of what's happening to twist things to his advantage?  Will Knightfall's new recruits make an appearance?

The Bad:  The coloring on Batgirl's suit was inconsistent toward the end.  Is the yellow ribbing a permanent feature or not?  It keeps coming and going.  Also, I don't know what the writer for Nightwing 13 was thinking, saying that Barbara's cameo in that issue came after the events of Batgirl 14.  That makes no sense, given this issue's ending.  What, did the Joker let Barbara wander around the city for a bit to think over his offer?  That's considerate of him.

Other than that, there was no bad.  This issue was greatness personified.

The Verdict:  Go buy this.  In fact, buy all of Batgirl because Barbara Gordon and Gail Simone are awesome.

1 comment: