ADVANCE REVIEW: Batgirl Vol. 3: Death of the Family will be released on October 23, 2013
Batgirl Vol. 3: Death of the Family reads like a compilation CD you might order from television. It includes some of Batgirl's greatest hits as she uses her skills to bring some of Gotham's infamous villains to their knees. Though she is disguised as Batgirl, Barbara Gordon is not only well trained enough physically to go head to head and fist to fist with anyone who threatens her, she also sports an eidetic memory and detective skills that make her an ideal addition to Gotham's Finest.
This collection comes very close to being a wonderful addition for any Bat-fan, but falls victim to the "women in refrigerators" treatment, ironically assisted by the woman who coined that very phrase. Batgirl is a wonderful character, but this material does not present her in a strong enough light for her to leave the shadow cast by Batman. This collection may as well be titled Batman: Death of the Family featuring Batgirl because the Caped Crusader overshadows Batgirl.
This collection contains stories from Batgirl #14-19, Batman #17, Batgirl Annual #1and Young Romance #1. Most of these selections center on Batgirl confronting and dealing with her past. First, she must face the Joker for the first time since he crippled her. Then, she must face her broken family's troubled past and her maniacal brother. If this were not enough, she must also struggle through a major loss in her "Bat Family."
The Joker storyline eclipses every other story, rightfully so…he's the freakin' Joker and he is a crazy, violent bastard. His appearance and his ice cold treatment of Batgirl make you cringe, yet you cannot stop reading. It's like a horror movie. Dark, foreboding music plays in your head, signaling the chalk-white faced killer is approaching. You know you are going to be startled and jump, but you do not have it in you to look away. You want to feel the shock.
A part of you wants to see the Joker torture Batgirl physically and emotionally –though you root for her to save the day. The Joker does not disappoint. Batgirl is face to face with a man who paralyzed her. He is a man who has haunted not only her nightmares, but her daily life. She has fought and struggled to slowly regain her ability to walk, to care for herself, and even to become an expert fighter. But the thought of the Joker has haunted her heroic rehabilitation.
Now being within reach of him fuels her anger to an almost fever pitch. Batgirl craves the moment that she can rip the Joker limb from limb and make him experience her pain. She possesses the knowledge and training to do that, but she's not able to unleash the vengeance she has dreamed about for years.
You can feel the rage building within her. You can feel her squeezing her fists until they are tight and her knuckles are white. The Joker has made her powerless once again. He has paralyzed her from extracting justice as he has her mother gagged, bound, and sitting on top of a bomb. That's not enough for the Joker. He takes it to the next level of evil. He has cut off her mother's ring finger and uses it to propose to Batgirl!
These scenes with the Joker make me skin crawl, yet, I thoroughly enjoy them. When he kisses Batgirl, I can imagine the stench of his rotten flesh and his sour breath. I feel almost guilty for enjoying it, like I have broken some secret female code because one of my sisters is in trouble. It reminds me of the relationship between Freddy Krueger and Nancy Thompson, the heroine of the first A Nightmare on Elm Street film. Freddy haunts Nancy, but more than the mere haunting, the real thing that makes you shudder is the underlying sexuality and flirtation between the two characters.
Even though the Joker does not just "kill the bitch" in this story, he certainly plans a horrible fate for Batgirl. He wants to marry her, remove her limbs, and hold her prisoner. What fiendish reason did the Joker have for his plan? Not because he is evil or crazy, but because he is resentful that Batgirl is weighing Batman down with her compassion and empathy for the Gothamites they protect.
It would have been much more fulfilling for the Joker to plan torture Batgirl just because he is the Joker and torture and insanity is what he does. Instead of allowing Batgirl to stand as a character on her own, this connection to Batman weakens her character and personality. This leads to a classic to a feeling of her being a classic “woman in the refrigerator.” Of course, had there not been a Batman, there may never have been a Joker or a Batgirl.
But Batgirl could be strong enough of a character that the stories do not have to namedrop or have cameos made by a disguised Bruce Wayne. It would be strange for Batman to suddenly never appear in any of Batgirl’s stories, but an occasional appearance can still be made while allowing her to evolve.
Not only do the writers rely heavily on Batman references to add girth to the story, but they also play the "girl card." The Joker wants to separate Batgirl from Batman because of her compassion and empathy. These are emotions typically associated with women and are often viewed as signs of weakness. Joker essentially wants to punish Batgirl for what he views as weakening Batman and for her (albeit stereotypical) feminine characteristics. The fact that he has plotted a wedding only reinforces this theme. He takes a day that is culturally viewed and marketed as an event that defines women and makes it a monstrous sham.
The writers are not the only ones to blame for exploiting femininity. The artists focus on Batgirl's breasts and sprawled legs throughout the pages of this book. The fact that this book is a collection of stories makes this even more apparent. It is almost as if every Batgirl comic is required to show her flying through the air using a grappling hook with her legs spread as her body is centered on the page at least once per issue.
Reading each issue month to month, it is easy to not notice these repetitions, but combine several single issues in a book and these images become redundant. It is almost like stock footage has been inserted. Recycling these images is boring to the reader. It would be much more visually engaging and exciting to see Batgirl in pursuit either on foot or in an interesting vehicle. She does not have the funds behind her gadgets like Batman enjoys, but she could be creative with a Ford Tempo or a beat up pickup truck that she has altered. This would also add complexity to Batgirl.
; She is intelligent, a combat fighter, and she knows her way around an engine.
Batgirl also has long hair that flows under her cowl. As a woman with long hair, I could not imagine fighting crime with my hair down. Long hair, unfortunately, is an easy target in a fight. It can be grabbed and pulled, used as leverage to bring a person down to her knees. I find it unlikely that a woman who has been trained in physical combat would allow her long hair to make her vulnerable.
Long hair that is not bound in a ponytail or braid can also just be a giant source of frustration, especially in a physical activity. Long hair gets in your face and in your way. Batgirl, who swings from building to building in a sleek, streamlined costume, would not want to struggle with long, annoying hair blowing into her face, eyes, and mouth. It is almost like a staple of the super-hero genre, though. To show that she is a girl, Batgirl must have long hair. It is a similar mindset to the idea that Daisy Duck or Minnie Mouse are set apart as female because they have pink bows in their hair. Batgirl is allowed to fight crime and be as tough as a man, but she must be depicted as feminine –even if it is inconvenient for her character and unrealistic.
Batgirl's brother, James Gordon, Jr. plays a major role in this book. He is almost as evil as the Joker – though no villain could be as evil as the Joker. James Jr. is twisted enough to hand over his sister to the Joker and also brave or crazy enough to pair up with him. Though he's a major character in this collection, Gordon's stories are not as voyeuristically entertaining as the Joker's stories. Perhaps it is too early to tell about Gordon as a villain. The Joker is infamous and has been around for decades. You know he is a wild card and will surprise you.
However, in the shadow of the Joker, it can be hard to follow what James Gordon is really trying to accomplish besides mayhem and destruction. He alerts Barbara that the Joker's gang are coming for her, and he tricks her into thinking the joker is contacting her. Later on, he convinces Barbara that their mother has managed to escape the Joker's kidnapping of her, which allows Batgirl to unleash her wrath onto the Joker. From the evidence in this book, all we know about James Gordon Jr. is that he is disturbed, dangerous, and is cooking up a scheme to punish his mother, perhaps for the dissolution of their family. I would have liked if this book contained one more story to highlight Gordon and truly show how diabolical he could be.
A hidden gem in this collection is a basic "girls rule" story involving in which Catwoman and Batgirl basically team up. It is interesting to think of the parallels between the two women. They create an interesting Yin-Yang combination. The plot of this story has nothing to do with the other stories in this collection, but it adds an interesting dimension to both characters, namely that Batgirl is not 100% good and Catwoman is bad, but not evil. Sometimes there is a gray area where "good" and "bad" meet and it is hard to decipher the difference. This story does a nice job of exploring that idea.
Despite the assorted clichéd images of breasts and Batgirl flying through the air, I do love many of the visuals presented in this book. Gotham is not polished. It is a dirty, dark metropolis with plenty of shadows to conceal criminals and the heroes that keep watch.
Daniel Sampere’s talents are showcased in every scene involving Batgirl. He pays a fantastic attention to detail starting with the crimson flowing locks of Batgirl's hair escaping her cowl down to the tread on her boots. Her hair and cape show movement. He also is not afraid to show her curves. She is not depicted as a teeny tiny, petite woman. She is fit, but not so chiseled and muscular that you wonder how no one has figure out Barbara Gordon is Batgirl. Not to be outdone, Ed Benes provides ominous cover art that foreshadows the vulnerability of Batgirl at the hands of Joker lurking in the background.
The artists also do a great job at visually reinforcing the ideas and themes contained in the storylines. The city's homeless play a huge part of these stories. The detailed and slightly darkened artwork illustrates that idea of poverty and hopelessness. Another instance of this reinforcement is when Catwoman and Batgirl join forces, there is a page that shows them right next to each other, back to back and ready to fight. They have teamed up and are literally fighting back to back. This visualization also strengthens the Yin-Yang idea from earlier.
At times, this book seems a bit uneven, which isn't unexpected since it was part of the giant "Death of the Family" storyline. The artistry behind most of the panels and scenes are wonderful, but sometimes it seems as if an easy route has been taken. This is also an issue with the writing: there is an entire history behind each member of the Gordon family, but they are not explored. For example, had these complicated backstories been shared, James Gordon’s evilness might have matched if not rivaled that of the Joker’s. Instead, cameos by Batman and even a brief love story between Batgirl and Ricky, a troubled Gotham youth she has tried to keep from turning to a life of violence and gangs, are shown when that space and time could have been used to establish James Gordon, Jr.'s motives and vileness.
I enjoyed the book and recommend it, but there are many missed opportunities. Hopefully, Batgirl can eventually get the treatment and complexity she deserves as a character, but I feel she just has not achieved it yet.