“Superhero X wouldn’t do that!”
It’s a debate that’s been around since the first character was written by someone other than his or her creator. Dialog changes, behavior changes, and some fans begin to question the validity of the recent portrayal of their favorite character. Eventually we hear the phrase “that’s out of character.” It’s a criticism steeped in the long history of corporately owned, episodic superhero comics, comics which have been published regularly for 50 or more years. While it’s not always a legitimate complaint, it does happen, which begs the question: Does it matter? Or, perhaps more importantly: Should it matter?
The impetus behind this column is Batgirl #35, but before I get to that, I should talk about one of the more defining character reversals we’ve seen from a superhero in decades: the Man of Steel movie.
I know people who are hardcore comic book fans who really enjoyed Man of Steel. I am baffled by that. My opinion ranges closer to Mark Waid’s, although he never mentions the giant plot holes which drove me batty.
But I don’t understand people who consider themselves comic book fans also claiming they liked Man of Steel — because that wasn’t a movie about Superman. Even if you ignore the fact that (SPOILERS) Superman kills Zod (and how do you ignore that?), there’s the simple fact that he spends no time at all trying to protect the people who are being killed left and right by this giant fight he’s having with other super people.
That’s not Superman. That’s not who Superman is. It’s out of character.
But if comic book fans were able to enjoy the movie, does that, then, mean that character doesn’t matter? This was the movie version of Kal-El, not the comic book one. So do we just pretend that this is the Superman we get on the big screen? And is he still Superman?
Or is this the result of having wandered through the desert for so long, so desperate for a glass of “Superman movie” that anything will quench our thirst?
The announcement of the new creative team and new direction for Batgirl built expectations up beyond belief. Here was a new creative team taking an established character in a new direction, a direction that appeared to be substantially different than what we’ve seen from the rest of DC’s line of superhero comics. Batgirl #35 looked like it was going to be fun. It was going to be bright and energetic and it would appeal to more people. The cover alone was enough to get people excited (justifiably so).
The reviews for Batgirl #35 haven’t been as universally positive as you would have thought given the build up, but it does appear to be getting more love than dislike. Our own Chase Magnett has a nice review up, and I think he covers a lot of what I didn’t like about the comic (although I disagree with him on the point about the random dude at the beginning). Chase’s review comes in a vacuum, though, as he addresses the storytelling on its own. And I think that’s a valid and insightful approach and I think, when looked at that way, the story falters.
But, in my mind, there’s another problem: it’s not a Batgirl story.
A lot of what Batgirl #35 got right is on display in Juliet Kahn’s review on Comics Alliance. I’ll get into that in a minute, but first I want to pull this quote, which is actually a quote that Kahn uses in her review. It’s from The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines by Mike Madrid: “Batgirl is a female Batman can actually regard as a brilliant peer and a partner in the war on crime, the same way he would a male.”
Kahn goes on to point out that this aspect is put on full display in the best Batgirl stories, which, unfortunately, is the problem, because by that definition Batgirl #35 is nothing at all like the best Batgirl stories.
I understand that this is a bold, new era for Barbara Gordon. I can relate to cutting loose after a big life change, so the fact that she got hammered and made out with random dude actually makes perfect sense to me. But she’s still supposed to be Barbara Gordon and Batgirl. In many ways, she’s always been the smartest member of the Bat Family. She’s always seemed to be the most thoughtful, the one who considers all the angles, but with less distance than Batman.
Barbara Gordon doesn’t leave her laptop out to get stolen.
It might seem like I’m picking nits here, but it’s even worse if you consider that we’re still supposed to believe that this is the woman who used to be Oracle. Oracle doesn’t leave her technology out for anyone to take.
Barbara Gordon doesn’t hide her Batgirl things at Black Canary’s, let alone hide them there without telling her. Because she’s Batgirl, not Spider-man: she IS Batman’s equal. She doesn’t do stupid things.
I have no doubt that much of the enthusiasm for this new version of Batgirl comes from a genuine enjoyment of the story. I would also hazard a guess that a good deal of enthusiasm also comes from the simple fact that so many superhero fans have been wandering the depressing desert of the New 52, only to finally find the oasis that is Batgirl #35. There’s water there, yes, but I think there’s been some fracking somewhere close by.
But either I’m way off base (and god knows it’s happened before), or there are a lot of people out there who have no problems reading a Batgirl comic that features a character who isn’t really Barbara Gordon.
Or is she?
I suppose that’s where the dilemma lies. This is just a new interpretation of Barbara Gordon, so it’s still her, right? Superman in the Man of Steel was just what a modern day version of the character looks like, yes? Thor says “ass” now and the Vision talks about diarrhea. These things are all “in character,” because the creators are always changing and it’s the stories that matter.
But, you know, if I’m buying a Wolverine comic to read about Wolverine then I want the Logan in that comic to actually be Logan, not some dude who just looks like him. If I’ve spent any amount of time reading about a character, if I’ve become even a little invested, then I want that character to be, at his or her core, the same no matter who the creative team is.
Superman protects the innocent. He doesn’t look the other way when people are dying around him.
Batgirl is the smartest person in the room no matter where she is, and I don’t mean book smart. She thinks things through, at least enough to balance her checkbook (which she is apparently unable to manage these days).
Character matters. The Marvel age of comics didn’t create a revolution because Spider-man was strong or the Human Torch was good looking. It created a revolution because Peter Parker was like us and Johnny Storm was a guy we knew and Ben Grimm is how he made us feel. We love Superman because he’s aspirational. We love Batman because we’ve all felt powerless, and he took that power back.
Character matters because we grew up with these people. We love the characters even more than we love the costumes, because costumes change, but the characters stay the same.
Or at least they should.
Would Batgirl #35 have been better had it featured a Barbara Gordon who resembled the one Gail Simone had written for the three years previous, the one who’d been portrayed in comics for 50 years? Who knows? It would have been a much different story, one I’m disappointed we didn’t see.
In some alternate reality, Superman saves the planet by actually saving people. He floats up into the sky and the people cheer and yell their thanks, and as he goes off to fight the bad guy, the people he saved hurry off to help others, because they’ve been inspired by the Man of Steel.
That’s the movie I wanted to see.
That’s the story I want to read.
Because character matters.