by John Burnson



(DC Comics)

Review [16.Nov.2009]

Fast and Furious

Some comics pass in a blur. One of them is meant to.

That book is Batgirl, the newest — and nimblest — inhabitant of Bruce Wayne’s Gotham belfry. The fastidious reader is advised to wear a hat while turning the pages, lest its wake muss the hair.

This is not your father’s Batgirl. Commissioner Gordon’s daughter Barbara — so eye-catching as the red-locked heroine in the 1960’s Batman TV show — has been wheelchair-bound since dealing with the Joker some years back. (Having ditched her old look, she now goes by the handle “Oracle” and serves as a near-omniscient data-clearinghouse for good guys like the JLA and, of course, Batman.) Rather, today’s Batgirl is a 17-year-old lass named Cassandra Cain — raised from birth by a master assassin to treat combat as language, with the dual result of being practically mute and fighting as fluently as others speak. To Batgirl, a tête-a-tête is exactly that. Batman took her in to the Bat-family, somewhat out of respect — she had been one of Oracle’s most resourceful operatives — but largely because, with her background, she doesn’t need much watering.

So we already have: Female. Young. Capable. Perceptive. Sympathetic. The first two are amazing enough in superhero comics; the entire five lead us to give up drinking. And yet, the creators of Batgirl didn’t reholster their pens with the heroine. Batgirl is that rare comic which reads as if it were inked with a broom — the panels swoop, pause, and swoop again. The camera shoots figures from odd angles, as if the photographer can’t keep up with his subjects. At the heart of the action is Batgirl herself, whose combat style outleaps grace. Grace suggests informed movement; Batgirl can’t be bothered by rigid concepts like “movement.” Instead, she flickers in and out of scenes as needed. One moment she is not there, and then she is speaking volumes with fists and feet. When the comics’ artists are feeling especially confident, she doesn’t even leave speed lines.

And yet, the lead character’s combat instincts are only half of Batgirl‘s uncanniness. The other half is the storytelling ability of writer Kelley Puckett and the artistic team of penciler Damion Scott and inker Robert Campanella. Batgirl is the perfect marriage between writer and artist: Neither party reveals what the other wishes hidden. Puckett drops words like bread crumbs; Scott and Campanella draw scenes by matchlight.

As noted, Batgirl is a teenager, and, as with any teen, you aren’t going to enter her world easily. Since Batgirl can speak only hesitantly, readers not only have trouble discern her intentions through her self-mutterings, they also cannot make out the intentions of other characters through her murmurs to them. In a sense, the world of Batgirl is the world of the deaf. Yes, Batgirl can hear (and understand), and Puckett writes as much dialogue as necessary (but no more); however, the spoken word is just a leaf blowing in the wind, in a vernacular dominated by muscle. As a result, Batgirl possesses a noiselessness that induces its own vertigo. Most stories lack even a title. Befitting a book in which the lead character wears a hand-stitched costume, Batgirl shuns ornamentation. The main colors are black and silver. In most hands, these would serve the twin mistresses of Misery and Gloom; however, in Batgirl, they pulsate like dye through the veins, painting a world that gleams like a reflection in an onyx mirror.

Another abstention of Batgirl is the heroine’s encounters few supervillains. The stories in Batgirl are more subdued than your average super-stomp. Batgirl is, essentially, a bit player in the world, and most stories place her in the paths of other bit players — not just criminals, but outcasts of all sorts. By seeing their mistakes, she might fix her own.

If you notice a whiff of alienation to Batgirl, you’d be right. But, this is the alienation of heading in, not out. Batgirl caught Batman’s attention when she cast off — by choice — the murky moral code of her father/trainer. She has taken her young, uncertain life into her own hands. She does not pity herself, and others do not pity her (at least, not for long). She is a comet, orbiting at the outer edges of the solar system, but on a course through the void to the light at the center. The pleasure of Batgirl is that of the astronomer, picking out the new details as the illumination improves.

There is an idea in psychology that the most creative people are those born last in a family, since they had to employ the greatest ingenuity to gain a seat at the table. In Batman’s house of crimefighters, Batgirl, all elbows and knees, stands as a testament to that view.

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