Who is Batgirl?

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A new collection explores the character’s back-story, and finds redeeming elements in a tossed-off idea that was half-baked even by sixties DC comics standards.

Ever since her introduction into the Batman universe, Batgirl has suffered an identity crisis. Is she a girl version of Batman? Of Robin? Is she a damsel-in-distress or a heroine in her own right? Is she a bit-player confined to a wheelchair, or can she carry her own series? Is she Yvonne DeCarlo from the ’60s Batman TV series?

All manner of Batgirls traverse the pages of Batgirl: A Celebration of 50 Years (DC Comics, 386 pps, hardcover, $53.99CAN, published Feb. 15 2017). There’s the first Batgirl, kind of a second-thought prototype; the second Batgirl (created at the behest of the producers of the 1960s Batman TV show; for more insight into the origins of Batgirl, read this Gotham Calling blog post), the next Batgirl and another Batgirl. In all, four different characters don the cowl in the pages of this collection.

One of the first things that might strike a casual reader when reading a collection that covers 50 years is the leaps in storytelling sophistication between Golden Age and even Silver Age comics, and contemporary books. This collection makes this leap early on, by following up her 1967 origin story with a 2003 update. In this context, it’s hard not to be bowled over by the economy and humour in the more recent script relative to the 50-year-old one.

In general, readers will want to approach the earlier stories with good humour. One of the most infamous Batgirl stories (included here) is “Batgirl’s Costume Cut-Ups.” In this 1968 story, Batgirl is distracted from fighting the bad guys by a run in her tights. (Although, to be fair, most of us would be distracted by trivial matters if the bad guys were as lame as the Radball Robbers.) At least the art, by Gil Kane, is supple, in that Gil Kane style.

Detective Comics #371 cover

Don’t you hate it when this happens?

Not so the stories pencilled by Don Heck, in which Barbara Gordon (Batgirl’s alias, and Commissioner Gordon’s daughter) runs for Congress.

Politics weren’t enough to hold Babs, however, and by the ’80s this former librarian/politician was working for “Humanities Research & Development,” whatever that is. The three stories from this era were written by Barbara Randall (later Kesel), and have some good lines (one character calls Batgirl “that bleeding-heart Batman rip-off”) but somewhat absurd plots. Though well-meaning, Randall way over-reaches in “The Last Batgirl Story” (1988), in which our heroine proves herself to be a terrible detective as she tracks down a vigilante who is offing rapists and wife-beaters.

Uhm, yes, but now. Mike Mignola cover art.

(Note: I’m skipping over entry “Starling Secrets of the Devilish Daughters,” which features the Joker’s daughter in an idea stretched thin, even by ’70s comic-book standards.)

In that same year, DC published The Killing Joke, the graphic novel in which the Joker shot and disabled Barbara Gordon. DC decided to stick with writer Alan Moore’s grisly development, and since then Barbara Gordon was confined to a wheelchair, still fighting crime but now under the name Oracle. The Oracle stories here include a serviceable, but exposition-heavy tale from 1996, with jagged, dramatic art from Brian Stelfreeze and Karl Story, and a much more fun 1999 piece from the Birds of Prey series, by writer Chuck Dixon and artist Greg Land (it’s my understanding that comics’ fans are mixed in their reactions to Land’s art, in which faced and figures look as though they’ve been copied from fashion mags, but I like it just fine).

By that time, a new character had taken on the mantle of Batgirl. Cassandra Cain is/was a mute Asian American girl who dressed in an all-black Batgirl outfit and fought alongside Batman and his buds, who include the ridiculous Azrael character, a Thor type with no discernible purpose or personality. Greg Rucka’s script, in which Cain has to prove herself, is strong, though artist Mike Deodato makes the characters ridiculously musclebound, in the Image Comics style.

The Cain Batgirl got her own series, and the two entries here – one in which she goes up against a seemingly invincible opponent, the other in which she dons the old (classic) Batgirl outfit and battles Gotham City drug dealers – are among the collection’s strongest, both story- and art-wise (Kelley Puckett and Damion Scott, and Dylan Horrocks/Rick Leonardi, respectively).

Stephanie Brown as a new Batgirl.

Yet another Batgirl followed yet another DC Universe shakeup, this time in 2011. Included are two stories from this era, which star university student Stephanie Brown, who also happens to be the daughter of “an inept costumed villain” (as he’s described in the intro to this part of the book) the Cluemaster. Brown gets a new costume and some lighthearted moments while battling crime in fun, solid scripts by Bryan Q Miller.

Oh, and guess what, finally again Barbara Gordon is able to walk, after a long rehabilitation. A Gail Simone-penned story from 2012 included here brings us up to speed by recapping her history, reimagining her origin and leading up to events depicted in The Killing Joke.

It’s a dramatic and nervy retelling. But, preceding as it does a 2014 story by Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher, it seems to take itself a little too seriously. The last story here, “Burned” is drawn in an engagingly choppy, cartoony style by Babs Tarr (with breakdowns by Stewart; think the art for Bryan O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim), it’s a funny action-adventure story that truly updates Batgirl for a new generation. It might not be the definitive take, but it’s the most enjoyable.

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