Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
I have to think of a better title for this project than “Female Superheroes.” That doesn’t describe very well what I’m hoping to do. I explained the experiment’s concept last week, but the gist of it is to take a close look at superhero comics named after female characters and determine which are worth supporting and which aren’t. First up: Gail Simone and Ardian Syaf’s Batgirl.
I grew up on Adam West Batman reruns, so I expect certain things from Batgirl. She needs to be smart, she needs to be brave, and she needs to brighten up the joint whenever she’s around. Batgirl as I learned her isn’t driven by a dark quest for justice; she fights crime partly because it’s fun; mostly because it’s just the right thing to do. Because I learned her that way, it’s been difficult for me to get interested in the post-Barbara Gordon versions of the character.
I know some of you are already getting ready to tell me about Stephanie Brown, but I do know about her and you’re right. My problem is that I never gave her a chance after Cassandra Cain. I liked Cass as a character, especially when Dylan Horrocks was writing her series, but she never felt like Batgirl to me. Her darkness made her interesting (though I’d argue no more interesting than Barbara Gordon), but it also made me uneasy about her using that name. She was alright as a Batgirl, but she was going to have to lighten up considerably before she could be the Batgirl.
Stephanie Brown had her own obstacles when she stepped into the role, what with being killed in an extremely controversial way and then made the poster-child for proper treatment of female superheroes. I’m not saying that she shouldn’t have been the symbol of that campaign; I’m just saying that the justifiable frustration around how she was treated leaked into my reading of her as a character. It was aces that she was getting to be the new Batgirl – good for her – but though it was a great move for Stephanie, I didn’t want to read about another Batgirl who had that much baggage.
You see where I’m going with this.
By the time I found out that Bryan Q Miller’s series was pretty much exactly what I wanted from a Batgirl comic, the New 52 had already been announced and I decided against jumping in late. Besides, a rebooted DCU was the perfect opportunity to jettison all the darkness around Batgirl and return her to the colorful fun I remembered from childhood. And let’s be honest, that’s what we tend to want from these characters: the versions that most make us feel like children again. The problem is that there are so many of us reading these comics – of so many different ages – that we don’t all share the same childhood memories. I may want Batgirl to be plucky and carefree, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of her fans – most of whom are way more invested in her than I am – want the same thing.
I was very aware of this going into Gail Simone and Ardian Syaf’s Batgirl #1. I read and sympathized with the complaints about taking Barbara Gordon out of her wheelchair and putting her back in the Batgirl costume. But I was torn about it. The better part of me empathized with Jill Pantozzi and those who felt the way she did. But the selfish part of me was glad to be getting My Batgirl back. I felt guilty about that, but it wasn’t going to keep me from enjoying the comic. Something else did that.
If you’ve read the New 52 Batgirl, you’re way ahead of the story here, but the new series isn’t about the happy-go-lucky Barbara Gordon I grew up with. Killing Joke still happened and Barbara has to deal with it. Simone has described the series as a “survivor’s tale” and that’s what it is. At the end of the first issue, a criminal points a gun at Batgirl and causes her to freeze, paralyzed by the memory and trauma of being shot by the Joker. It’s a powerful scene, but it’s what caused me to decide that the comic wasn’t for me. Revisiting it for this experiment though, I’ve changed my mind. It’s not what I expected or thought I wanted, but it resonates deeply.
I don’t know if every survivor goes through Survivor’s Guilt, but Barbara Gordon’s certainly experiencing it. In the first few issues of the new series, she’s struggled with the cure that allowed her to walk again. The word “miracle” is used a lot. She knows that she’s been blessed in her recovery and isn’t sure how to feel about that when other disabled people in the DCU don’t have the same option. I can’t help but feel that there’s some heavy meta commentary going on here too.
Simone’s already gone on the record as being sympathetic to the objections about Barbara’s walking again. Is Barbara’s guilt partially inspired Simone’s feelings about helping her leave the chair? Or am I just reading my own guilt into it?
I identify with Barbara. Like I said above, I feel guilty about getting My Batgirl back at the expense of someone else losing her hero. I’m not for a second suggesting that the way I identify with her comes close to the way so many other fans have identified with her – Barbara Gordon is a huge deal to a lot of people – but it’s a powerful hook that I didn’t see coming from that first issue. I’m glad I went back and gave the series another shot.
There are other things to make it worth recommending too, especially Barbara’s relationship with her new roommate. I still miss the old Oracle/Black Canary banter from Birds of Prey, but Barbara and Alysia help with that. And Alysia – the surprisingly supportive, bartending activist with a mandate against “creepy boyfriends” – is a fascinating character on her own. That relationship is an interesting juxtaposition with Barbara’s relationship with her dad, who’s wrestling with the urge to continue protecting his daughter. Commissioner Gordon feels pride in his daughter’s new independence, but he’s still her dad. He wants to coddle. Part of Barbara’s journey as a survivor is to leave him and that’s hard. Alysia looks like she’ll make it easier.
I just watched Love Actually again last week and there’s a line in there that Emma Thompson says to newly-widowed Liam Neeson: “It was always going to be a totally shit time. Just be patient.” Batgirl’s coming out of her totally shit time, but there’s still a need for patience, both for her and for me as a reader. She’s never quit being smart, she’s braver than ever, and given time, I’m confident that she’ll get back to lighting up rooms again as well.