Review: Batgirl #50

Overview: In this final issue of Barbara Gordon’s caped adventures, we see her try new ways to protect Gotham, both in and out of the costume.

 

Synopsis (spoilers ahead): After burying James Jr., Jim Gordon laments on how awful Gotham City has become. Barbara urges him to remember the city’s heroes, which only spurs him to express his hatred of Batgirl. Babs leaves in a huff, desperate to use James’ memory to find better ways of protecting Gotham City.

 

Across town, lower-income neighborhoods are protesting in the aftermath of the Joker War. Barbara seeks to make a difference in people’s lives by working as an assistant to Congresswoman Alejo. She reconnects with Jason Bard and begins falling for him, despite their acrimonious relationship. She’s then called to the Batcave and learns that although Bruce Wayne’s billions have been taken from him, he still can donate millions to help the less fortunate. After convincing him to take financial action, she rebuffs Nightwing’s seeking her favor, proclaiming that they keep their relationship professional.

 

In the days that follow, Batgirl fights crime and helps Gotham citizens in small ways. She feels it’s not enough and decides to apologize as Batgirl to Jason formally. Later, she convinces Congresswoman Alejo to forego a police fundraiser and address the concerns of the protesting citizenry. Gordon arrives and urges Barbara to stay clear of the protestors, but Babs talks him into joining the march. Babs feels fulfilled, knowing that as long as she can physically hold out, she’ll save the city both in and out of the costume.

 

In a backup story, Batgirl is deluged with calls for help from various DC heroes, including members of the Justice League and Justice Society. Though she’s valued as a reliable assist, Batgirl feels neglected and envious for a recurring rogues gallery. She also comes across a plot to electronically sabotage various business places via street art left at the scenes of crimes. She deduces the culprit – someone named “Vi Ross” – and apprehends her, forgoing more calls from a predictably ungrateful DC Universe.

 

In the third and final story, Barbara is a Dungeon Master in a D&D game with Dinah Lance, Cassandra Cain, Helena Bertinelli, and Stephanie Brown. Soon the heroes are alerted to a trafficking ring. Babs coordinates their rescue, running things as a type of Oracle, despite donning the Batgirl costume. The women return victorious, and Babs feels confident that this group will always have her back.

 

Analysis: Final issues have to mean something, so what does this one tell us?

 

For example, look to my review of Batman and the Outsiders #17 – the series’s last issue, where the writer ended things with an appropriate state of finality, implementing a transitory state for the characters while complementing their growth and development. For other examples, recall the last issue of the Bryan Q. Miller Batgirl series, Batgirl #22, with Steph Brown looking at the reader and saying, “It’s only the end if you want it to be.”, finishing an all-too-short run that presented her development with cheer and aplomb. One last example I’ll note is the 1980s Vigilante series, Vigilante #50, because it’s infamous. I won’t spoil, but it’s a dark, great, and wholly natural end to that story.

 

My point is that final issues have to carry meaning and present that meaning as the destination. With Batgirl, the central conflict has been the tension of Barbara Gordon maintaining her dual identities. It affected her work life, love life, and relationships with her family—classic time-worn Marvel-esque superhero storytelling.

 

Yet for all its bluster, this last issue exemplifies the fundamental failure in Cecil Castellucci’s run, which is that the conflict and melodrama come at the price of logic, flow, and proper characterization.

 

Point 1) The key element to Barbara Gordon is her force of will to help people. Whether it’s going from professional caped crusader as Batgirl or turning personal tragedy into an iconic career as Oracle, Barbara is someone who’s inner strength gets her through anything, mostly because she’s brilliant.

 

So why, on the day of her brother’s funeral (a funeral attended by only her and her father, leaving one to assume that Babs Sr. either was forgotten about, ignored, or personally couldn’t be bothered to attend the funeral of the one who forced her away in the first place) Babs would take her dad out for burgers and tell him “I wanted a nice today.”

 

What?

 

Instantly, we have our first problem. Barbara’s stunningly dumb in this issue. Whether it’s myopia to read people’s feelings or plain disinterest, her interactions with her supporting cast ring incredibly false. ‘Lest we not mention it, Gordon’s despicable in this issue. His grief and pain are translated through an archetype of a miserly, short sighted “dad” character, and he persistently doesn’t sound like Jim Gordon. Truthfully, this issue should’ve split its focus between father and daughter, culminating with them working through their shared pain and coming together like the strong family unit they should be. But our view into Gordon’s broken heart is second-hand, and we see him as Babs sees him, which is a complete jerk. Grief doesn’t get to excuse him labeling protestors as a mob and Batgirl as a killer.

 

(Side Note: it can’t go unmentioned that this subplot of Gordon believing to have witnessed Batgirl killing James Jr. was done nearly ten years ago in Gail Simone’s Batgirl #19. It’s way too similar to have been allowed a second time inside of a decade here.)

 

But Barbara’s lack of awareness in this issue abounds in every scene where she’s fighting for the little guy. The scenes of her walking across protests, encountering people of color, and promising to address their needs chafes since so much of the past two years of this series has been her being a crusader for the downtrodden and lower class. It reads like it’s a brand new realization. Heck, even the Burnside run first had the character address social issues back in 2014.

 

The fact is that we’re in an extremely volatile political time at the moment, and the implementation of commenting on current politics in a medium like comic books is so natural, it’s essentially tradition. But Castellucci casts this as a realization for Barbara to suddenly devote real energy towards, not a reality that she’s ignored until now. The brevity of the scenes – the done-in-one clipped panels – robs them of the weight they supposedly have upon her.

 

Additionally, the single issue mentioned in this story is gentrification, which comes off as quaint at a time when news of police violence against black lives is all-consuming in America. The Bat-Books have just come off of a major storyline involving police and vigilante justice. The obvious go-to would be an increased police presence in the lower-end neighborhoods, thus sparking antagonism between citizens and the GCPD, Batgirl, and Jim Gordon. But with the main issue comparatively bloodless and extemporaneous when considering that this is labeled as a Joker War aftermath issue, the scenes of Batgirl addressing the city’s needs are all too brief and anti-septic. It’s a platonic engagement with social justice, on top of which doesn’t seem like the best use of Barbara’s time. She’s provided a presence as Batgirl in helping people before; what exactly is different now? So it’s not as though her intelligence is gifting any new ideas to save Gotham beyond standard community service. It’s a bland solution to an issue that doesn’t belong as a follow-up to her own personal family tragedy.

 

Point 2) Because of the cynical nature of Babs’ do-gooder scenes in helping people with groceries, we have to weigh that against the other members of the Bat-Family, which necessitates Barbara looking better by comparison. Castellucci overplays her hand in this, resulting in Babs being completely out of pocket in the Batcave scene. Firstly, Babs yelling at Batman to put his remaining money where her mouth leaves the reader adrift in wondering how they should be feeling about either character. A scene like this could demonstrate the real ideological difference between Bruce and Barbara, where they see different ways to appropriate the Wayne fortune to help the city, but Babs yells at him where to put his money, and he does it. We don’t see her reaction to his compliance, so what’s the point? The issue of Dick and Tim getting “allowances” from Bruce is also bizarre because Bruce adopted both of them, so, makes sense, and Babs repeatedly has – in the last several runs – distanced herself from Batman to make it on her own. Castellucci casts this as sexism, but it reads like a cheap shot. Why wouldn’t Batman fund her operations at a moment’s notice? If it is genuine sexism on his part, the scene could expand on that, but we go nowhere.

 

But the real stake in the heart is Batgirl rebuffing Nightwing, essentially saying they are no longer friends because he attacked her while under mind control from the Joker – mind control that she personally freed him from. Keep in mind that the two have had pleasant, even romantic interactions in Batman #100, Nightwing #74, and Nightwing #75, all of which occur during and after he regained his memories. So not only should she not be mad at him, why is she? It’s also galling for one gun violence victim to victim-blame another gun violence victim for something she already understood as an incident he had no earthly way of circumventing.

 

The purpose of this scene is to show how Batgirl really, for real, super seriously doesn’t need the Bat-Family, you guys. We’ve seen scenes like this a lot in the past, particularly in Batgirl #3, where she beat up Nightwing when he expressed concern about her. The result is Barbara acting unforgivably spiteful, for the sake of her independence. It’s a “Girl Boss” kind of scene where the Bat-Family is left in her dust as she leaves them with their insignificant concerns about Joker criminals, financial problems, and torn relationships due to getting shot in the skull.

 

All of this leads to the ultimate point, which recognizes the point of this issue. For nearly ten years, DC has strained every vein to justify Barbara’s false exigency, primarily as Batgirl. Hope Larson took her worldwide. Mairghread Scott sought to challenge her familial support group, and Cecil Castellucci worked to pull her at every end. What we’re left with are mixed signals that don’t add up to a complete message. Does Barbara need to find herself elsewhere? Is she like the brighter sides of her father or the darker sides of her brother? Is she more like the Joker? Is she even effective as Batgirl? The problem is that these questions weren’t asked in earnest, presuming that the answer would be one arrived at with ease and simplicity. But it’s been convoluted and incongruous towards Barbara Gordon as an idea. Because Babs as Batgirl had not existed in a generation. Oracle had, and Oracle was written differently than Barbara as Batgirl. She was written with Batgirl being in her past. Now, with Oracle in her past, Babs as Batgirl exists as a new character, but one who must meet the needs of expectation and iconism.

 

So we get needless turmoil between Babs and her father. We get a protracted romantic subplot with Barbara and Jason and vague platitudes about “change.” It’s one thing for Barbara, Alejo, and Jim to protest in the streets, but the fact is that all three are government employees. They can literally enact more change than simply protesting. But this story isn’t about Barbara effecting change; it’s about her optics as a good person and the surface level meaning that that implies.

 

The first back-up is just as bad. For the first time, ever, we learn that Batgirl is just as relentlessly relied upon by the other DC Heroes as she was as Oracle. We don’t know exactly what she adds to each hero’s crusade because she’s in the field as Batgirl, not conquering information as Oracle. This story also states that heroes like the Flash don’t know the difference between her and Hawkgirl and that Babs is envious of having a rogues gallery. What? She’s had a rotating rogues gallery since the New 52, including the Terrible Trio, who are on the cover of this very issue! Also, why would she want that? This run always has her pulled at both ends between Batgirl and Barbara; why would she want continual strife in the form of more villains?

 

Lastly, the villain’s name is “Vi Ross,” and she spreads viruses throughout Gotham businesses, both cybernetic and biological. “Vi Ross.”

 

The final story was the least oppressive, but contradicted established tension in Babs’ life. She’s content that she can always count on the Birds of Prey and other Batgirls to help her out, yet she ignored them throughout her run. When Luke Fox told her she needed help two issues back, she maintained that no one would help her. What exactly happened to change that?

 

The idea of these characters playing D&D was amusing, however. A neat little thing that I’d like to see more of in the future.

 

But it goes back towards the main point, which is to present Barbara Gordon as this heavy-hitter hero by commandeering a rescue mission for these Bat and Bird characters. It’s pretty straightforward, with Babs saying basic things like telling Orphan to stick to the darkness, something she instinctively knows to do already. The point of this was to appeal to the Oracle fans, but it read like a hollow boon that had no intention of going anywhere past the unconvincing reassurance that DC loves Oracle just as much as we do.

 

On the artwork, Emanuela Lupacchino from the first story is a solid draftsman. Her work recalled Adam Hughes, although the sequential paneling was breakneck in some scenes like in Jason’s kitchen. Marguerite Sauvage’s artwork in the second story I didn’t like at all. Aneke’s art in the last story was solid, and I liked how Cass was drawn, although her mask and gloves as Orphan were weirdly missing.

 

Final Thoughts: Cecil Castellucci’s run on this title is not one I’d recommend to people looking to read Batgirl, but it’s also indicative of the core problem with the “Babsgirl” topic to begin with. The main story was full-speed ahead in either having Barbara retire from the role or reveal herself to Jim and Jason, yet she does neither. James Jr. is forgotten about after the first scene, and nothing is fundamentally different, aside from his death. The illusion of change, like the use of real-world social issues, is a time-honored tradition in comic books, but the transparency of that illusion is demeaning to everyone involved. Like with Simone and Maigrhead Scott before her, one wonders how much editorial influenced this run to its detriment. Nevertheless, it is symbolic of how aggressively this final issue tries to punctuate the need for Barbara and Batgirl, and it results in the complete failure in relaying that need.

 

Editor’s Note: DC Comics provided TBU with a copy of this comic for review purposes. You can find this comic digitally and help support TBU in the process by purchasing this issue through Comixology

Liked it? Take a second to support The Batman Universe on Patreon!