Published on August 1st, 2012 | by Joshua Mosteit3
Jack of All Trades – Bats on the Wing
Reviews of BATGIRL VOL. 1: THE DARKEST REFLECTION and BATWING VOL. 1: THE LOST KINGDOM
Haven’t gotten your fill of bats yet? With Batman headlining four — now five — titles, how could you not be tired of the old bastard showing up every book this side of the Source wall? Honestly, this is worse than Wolverine at his peak with the shear number of cameos Bruce has been putting in. Nevertheless, today we have two books inspired by the dark vigilantism of the Bat. Barbara Gordon, miraculously walking again, returns to the rooftops of Gotham as Batgirl while the Congo sees its very own Batman patrolling the skies with Batwing, a Batman, Inc. affiliate.
Batgirl Vol. 1: The Darkest Reflection
Now we arrive at one of DC’s more questionable moves with the reinstatement of Barbara Gordon into the role of Batgirl. While not the originator of the role, Barbara Gordon certainly stands out as the most memorable Batgirl, in no small part due to Batman: The Animated Series, a legacy which follows her into the current Young Justice series. In 1988, Babs hung up the Batgirl mantle to pursue a normal life before events of The Killing Joke put any future superheroic aspirations to a permanent end. Since then, rather than vanishing into the annals of DC history, Barbara gained new life as Oracle, information broker and computer expert, providing support for the entire Bat-family as well as the wider DCU when needed. As well, Oracle played a key role in Birds of Prey, an all female team of crime fighters originated by Jordan B. Gorfinkel and Chuck Dixon but perhaps most famously written by Gail Simone, creator of the now defunct Secret Six.
Simone returns to write for a character she clearly has deep affections for as DC’s altered continuity allows Gordon to regain her mobility and return to the role that first got her into the superhero game.
We join Batgirl as she tracks down a set of serial killers, foiling their plot to murder an innocent couple for kicks, but in the process she earns the ire of a new masked villain stalking Gotham’s streets. Mirror, a glass-faced hood with an unique MO: targeting survivors of near-death experiences. And both Barbara Gordon and Batgirl have made his list.
Guilt and miracles suffuse The Darkest Reflection as the book is less about Barbara’s return as Batgirl and more about her personal recovery from the events of The Killing Joke. She isn’t just up and about, swinging from rooftops with the best of them immediately after abandoning the chair. No, recovery takes time, consuming both the physical and the mental. An early incident sees Batgirl frozen terrified by the sight of a gun pointed at her midsection, right where Joker shot her three years ago. As a result, Batgirl misses the opportunity to rescue a victim of Mirror. Naturally enough, Barbara blames herself for this failure and kept help but reflect on her own survival against the odds, both from the Joker’s bullet and her numerous stunts as Batgirl. It’s a smart area of focus given the character’s backstory and a great way of getting Barbara back into action without simply shrugging off a life changing disability.
Regardless, Batgirl lacks the charm of other Simone books. Partly for the darker focus, partly for the lack of compelling secondary characters to complement Barbara’s sweet pea personality. You have her new roommate, Alysia, but in her few scenes she barely has any time to develop beyond a few quirks into something tangible and relatable. More often, she simply acts as a soundboard for Barbara’s current dilemma, delivering ironically appropriate advice or simply listening to Babs extol her woes. Nightwing and Batman put in requisite cameo appearances and while Nightwing’s exchange with Batgirl is rather touching, they don’t really do much beyond their cameos.
The majority of the narrative unravels in Barbara’s head with narrative captions pushing much of the plot. On the one hand, Barbara’s self-aware commentary provides much of the character’s charm; on the other, one can’t help but yearn for some deeper intrigue, mystery, or suspense. Babs’ narration undermines the tone, making light of dark situations and jokes out of action beats; at times you just want her to shut up, let the images speak for themselves, and get on with the story.
While certainly not as bad as other products of the relaunch, Batgirl suffers for the same reasons. Fundamentally, this is backtracking and while in a few years some great Barbara Gordon Batgirl stories may be told, the road their slogs through a swamp of been-there-done-that. Despite the utterly botched execution, at least Green Arrow’s reimagining brought something different to the character (different, yes, if not original). This is Batgirl as she once was, as immortalized in Batman: The Animated Series and as she remains in Young Justice. There’s never any doubt that Babs will overcome her post-traumatic stress and her survivor’s guilt, so Gail Simone’s respect toward the character as a handicapped individual feels more obligatory than anything and blunts the dramatic tension because we know the ultimate conclusion. In the end, this is a story that was necessary to tell given the reboot, but didn’t need to be told in the grand scheme of things. We already had two capable Batgirls in the wings and a comfortable, well-adjusted Barbara Gordon as Oracle, yet here we are going backwards because everything old must be new again.
I enjoyed this book for what it is, to make that clear, though remain disappointed for what it could have been — and a bit peeved for costing Stephanie Brown and Cassandra Cain a role in the DC universe. It’s worth a read for the ardent Batman family fan but perfectly skippable for anyone on a budget.
Batwing Vol. 1: The Lost Kingdom
The Lost Kingdom fairs a bit better than Darkest Reflection, mainly due to focusing on a relatively new character with an unaltered, nay expandable, backstory. Indeed, David Zavimbe, alias Batwing, marks the first in-continuity black Batman and one of the few superheroes headlining a series outside the United States, so already this book has a lot going for it in terms of showing me something new. After all, fighting crime in the questionably stable political climate of the Congo carries a very different set of risks and hazards than Gotham City.
That said, however, the plot of The Lost Kingdom plays things pretty straight, something I can’t quite decide works to the books detriment or advantage. After all, you want to attract new readers with familiar trappings yet consummate Batman fans may want to see more than a non-superpowered hero fighting yet another homicidal maniac. As such, despite all the action and plot complications, the average reader is likely to see many of the twists coming. One in particular isn’t fully resolved in this volume but no doubt any reader will suss out the “twist” coming in future issues given events leading up to it.
Debuting in the pages of Batman, Inc. (though his character design takes inspiration from an obscure issue of Batman, per Morrisons culling from obscure bits of continuity) David Zavimbe works by day as a police officer in the fictional city of Tinasha in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and by night as the vigilante Batwing. Unlike other Batman family characters, Batwing relies primarily on a suit of powered armor with flight capabilities along with the requisite multitude of gadgets. Though like many in the Bat family, he inevitably relies most on his fists to get the job done.
Someone is killing members of the Congo’s former superhero team, the Kingdom, making a show of each kill and massacring anyone who opposes him. Thus, Batwing rises to the occasion and begins a manhunt for the maniacal killer. And that’s all that need to be said plot-wise. It’s a basic setup and an effective framework for establishing David’s character, tying in nicely to his past as a child soldier and the path that led him to Batman, Inc.
Given the setting, certain hot button issues get touched upon, including AIDS, child soldiers, and warlords, but these elements never cross the line into heavy-handed prosthelytizing or stereotypical caricaturing. They’re things that exist given the setting and Winick wisely acknowledges them without giving them undue focus or turning characters into mouthpieces. With the minor exception of some clunky dialogue around introducing the fact that David’s parents died of AIDS, leaving him an orphan, something that could have been fixed with an additional draft or editing.
Thematically, the book dwells on the typical Batman family stable of subjects. The corrupting influence of power. The moral boundary between righteous vigilantism and hopeless vengeance. Confronting villainy while resisting the temptation to kill. Much like the plot, these tropes are played fairly straight. As such, this isn’t an example of Judd Winick’s best writing — a lot more creativity and verve went into Catwoman — but neither is it bad by any stretch of the imagination; quite the contrary, like Batman, Batwing carries the least amount of baggage from the reboot, allowing the book to just have fun exploring interesting, dark, and dramatic directions.
Artwork by Ben Oliver is gorgeous, the right mixture of realism and stylization that is at once stunning, highly emotional, and kinetic, although his backgrounds and exterior locations leave something to be desired. It feels often that characters exist in a void or a barebones location — walls without details, streets without people, like film backdrops that haven’t been finished yet. Nevertheless, the amount of work Oliver puts into a single expression should serve as an example to DC’s lesser artists.
Lastly, a brief tangent, Batwing carries on DC’s dubious ratings system which labels each issue “T for Teen” despite the hefty amounts of gore and bloody violence which skirt well into 16+ territory (and yet again it’s a Judd Winick penned book that inspires me to harp on about this issue). Resident villain Massacre pretty much specializes in dismemberment and senseless slaughter, leading to some brutal images.
A solid book, more so than Batgirl, but, then again, Batwing didn’t carry with it the number of unfortunate implications and glass-walking subjects as Batgirl, so properly comparing the two is a bit unfair. Nevertheless, Batwing remains the more recommendable book, less bogged down in problems, much more straightforward and entertaining. I can’t help but look forward to seeing where David’s story takes him.