Barbara Gordon And The Challenge Of The Anniversary Issue: Batgirl #25 Reviewed

by Noah Sharma

Lately DC has decided that twenty-five issues is an anniversary. All of the DC Rebirth titles have seen extra sized issues at extra sized prices for their twenty-fifth installment. It’s hard not to see this as a bit of a money tactic, hiking the price of a monthly book and giving it an importance that once was reserved for issue #50s or #100s, however, there’s a degree to which I can’t deny that there’s something to it. In the era of the eternal #1, getting twenty-five consecutive issues, especially with more to come, is actually kind of a big deal. So congratulations Batgirl, but what kind of celebration has DC prepared?

Main cover by Rafael Albuquerque

Well, to be honest, Batgirl #25 is one of the more interesting takes on a familiar anniversary format that I’ve seen. Like many of these issues, the book contains several stories examining core parts of the character, with one hyping the upcoming arc. That’s pretty standard, but what’s interesting is that three of the four stories are treated as a continuous narrative. The first chapter, “The Reason”, leads directly into the second, “Hopeless Romantic”, while the third turns away but does so with a caption establishing the shift. It’s only the final story that truly gets the anthology treatment.

Interior art by Tom Derenick, Sean Parsons, and Stephen Downer

“The Reason” is an important story to Batgirl right now. As Batgirl is called farther back into the Gotham mainstream (theoretically by circumstance and the fallout of the Bat/Cat wedding and not by DC editorial) there has been concern over whether Batgirl will return to her classic, but possibly outdated, tone; hold fast to the divisive “Batgirl of Burnside” characterization, or dive deep into the grim faux-realism of the New 52 again. This is also the first taste that fans will get of Mairghread Scott as Batgirl writer and her first ongoing chapter for DC. And that’s all just fine with me, because “The Reason,” while treading familiar trails and limited by all the standard pitfalls of the anniversary story, manages to thread those needles rather impressively.

Scott tells the story of a teacher named Duane who found himself caught up in a Bat-family adventure in two very different ways and, in doing so, tells a couple of other stories as well, not least of all a solid Barbara Gordon tale. Anniversary stories are often hamstrung by the same importance that separates them from any other plot, forced to ‘say something’ about the character on demand. So it’s notable that I think this one really does say something about the original Batgirl.

From the first words, Scott is handling one of the best loved and most hated elements of Barbara Gordon: her motivation. Or perhaps I should say her lack thereof. Unlike nearly every other member of Batman’s entourage, Barbara doesn’t have a defining tragedy or a pathological need to do what she does, she’s just a deeply caring person who saw that the Bat was capable of doing something that her father wasn’t able to do. At its worst, this can paint Barbara as a superior being, who morally rose above every other human in Gotham and matched years of training with gymnastics training and the sheer kindness and spunk of a middle class white girl. Here, however, Babs is written as someone who finds her own motivation. As librarian, senator, information broker, we’ve all accepted that Barbara is someone who fundamentally wants to help, and here we see how the high of helping people gets Batgirl through the night and where it falls short. And unlike plenty of Batman stories that drown in man-pain™ there’s never a self indulgent suggestion that she might need to stop, just the deeply relatable feeling of not knowing exactly how you’re going to continue.

Duane’s story is an engaging one in its own right and the connection that Batgirl and his mother share feels close, yet fraught with awkwardness and respect as it logically must. Babs feels like the millennial smartest girl in class grown up into a position of authority that we know that she must be, and the ways and places that she flinches, or stops herself, or seeks comfort are perfect for a reintroduction to the character. This is a Bat-character and that means being a human fighting against the very unfairness of life, but it’s also personal and built-on connection and the hope of peace in a way that’s decidedly unique to Batgirl.

Interior art by Tom Derenick, Sean Parsons, and Stephen Downer

Of course nothing is perfect. A story of this length that communicates so much about three characters has to be condensing something somewhere and, as such, the arcs here are undeniably archetypal. In addition to the familiar directions, Batgirl falls just short of the amount of agency I feel this story needs. It’s completely believable and honestly admirable to see Babs seeking advice from someone with greater and different experience, but its all a little too didactic. It veers a little too close to the ‘wizened black woman explaining life to a sad white person with far less reason to be upset’ orbit and then gives our magical guide a little too much authority in an attempt to make it clear that it’s aware of the struggle of people of color. Barbara doesn’t really contribute, just adding enough to pivot the conversation to the next stage of this effective monologue. It’s a good one, and one that suits Barbara’s character as well as Duane and his family’s, but in places it feels like the edges have been rounded off a little too obviously.

Still, “The Reason” proves an effective anniversary tale that also sets up the rest of the book, ties in quickly to the latest Bat-event, establishes the tone of a run, and shows us some lesser seen parts of the Gotham City story. Not a bad debut for a writer under some heavy editorial demands…

The story is pencilled by Tom Derenick and inked by Sean Parsons. The initial impression is of a comfortably above average DC house style, but closer inspection reveals standouts for good and ill. Closeups prove a strong suit for Derenick, with pointed moments brought clearly to life by unfussy panels that demonstrate an understanding of interiority and bone structure despite their limited pen strokes. However you’ll also find a surprising number of anatomical oddities throughout the story, such as stretched faces and oddly angled hands and limbs. These issues tend to appear, or at least are far more noticeable, in panels that are somewhat simple and seem to scale down more poorly. The assumption I’m led to is that these were simply the panels that got less time, so we’re seeing Derenick at his best and Derenick under a time crunch.

Interior art by Tom Derenick, Sean Parsons, and Stephen Downer

The colors by Stephen Downer might not jump out at you in every panel, they’re making strong choices and a big difference all throughout the story. The gentleness of reflected light and the softness of skin come through wonderfully here and one panel depicting the events of Batman demonstrates just how bright Batgirl is, even in the darkest of moments.

Despite being a nearly seamless continuation of “The Reason”, “Hopeless Romantic” is actually penned by the returning writer of the last Batgirl #25, Marguerite Bennett. Needing a friend after the events of the last story, Babs makes some time to decompress with one Richard John Grayson.

The story is a love letter to the modern Batgirl and Nightwing relationship, with nothing but a swanky hotel room, some sweet former-Robin abs, and a deeply engaging conversation to support the story. With nowhere to be until morning and all the potential energy of the last story saved up, it’s an incredibly interesting short nevertheless.

Bennett’s ideas of what a happy ending looks like for Batgirl and Nightwing, separately and perhaps together, are delightful and full of all the potency and tension of a primetime drama. This one also has a little bit of an author filibuster quality about it, but the characters hold it together. Bennett’s relatably unlikely Barbara Gordon is back, doing all the things that Babs does best: overthinking things, lashing out with sarcasm when she’s uncomfortable, and being an adorable nerd. Her pragmatism revealing an achingly truthful desire for safety and trust is perfect and wonderfully suits her arc as opt-in superhero and police commissioner’s daughter.

Interior art by Dan Panosian and Jordie Bellaire

Perhaps unsurprisingly Bennett’s Dick Grayson is something of a scene stealer. I might be mistaken but this might be the first time that Bennett’s actually written the mainline Dick, and, either way, it’s clear that she should be welcome back anytime. It’s hard to remember a time that Grayson felt so utterly genuine in recent memory. Bennett’s take eschews some of the generically amazing qualities of Dick in favor of a version that leans into the fact that he’s sweet, often insufferable, tragically earnest, and more than a bit of a dork.

That’s not to say that she’s the new definitive writer for the character. The longtime Nightwing fan in me can’t help but think that, deep down, Dick loves the grime and claustrophobia and infinite potential of Gotham to improve and be rescued while Bruce, for all his unhealthy dependency on Gotham, is the one who suits a jet-setting wedding with a designer dress and a well earned vacation waiting for him. Still, you have to hear how ultimately frivolous these kind of complaints are in my fanboy whining. The little details – the near worship Dick reserves for his bride, his certainty, his knowledge (and preplanning!) of a dramatic designer wedding dress – clinch this as quintessential Grayson while adding detail rather than idealized everyman charm.

Full of classic, romantic details and sincere and snuggly chemistry contrasted against well earned sexual tension, the story is easily one of the most memorable parts of the issue. Free from the restrictions of a larger plot or a headlining story, Bennett decides to swing for the fences and brings Scott’s loaded bases home as she knocks it out of the park.

Of course it doesn’t hurt to have Dan Panosian at her back. With overtones of Sean Murphy, some subtle tastes of John Romita, and just a hint of Babs Tarr, Panosian delivers a textured and pleasantly angular look that smolders just right for this story. Characters are highly malleable, perhaps too much so if you’re the sort that pays attention to Dick Grayson’s nose, but, even if they change a bit from panel to panel, they’re gorgeous in nearly every one.

Interior art by Dan Panosian and Jordie Bellaire

Of course, as much as this story would have been breathtaking in black and white, almost anything looks incredible once you hand the pages over to Jordie Bellaire. Bellaire is the top of game for good reason and she knows just how to bring out Panosian’s panels while adding something of her own to it. Her familiar firelight colors interact, and notably choose not to interact, with the characters perfectly, building to a final page that’s simply awesome.

The next story is a teaser for Mairghread Scott’s upcoming run. Once again Scott wastes no time demonstrating to the reader that she knows Batgirl and gets this character. I admit that I feel she falls into the trap of making Barbara’s eidetic memory into too much of a superpower, actually undercutting Batgirl’s incredible competency a bit, but that’s almost par for the course with Babs these days so I don’t judge it too harshly. Scott’s own quiet wit and liberal leanings inform Barbara beautifully, just as they did, in a thoroughly more loudmouthed way, Green Arrow.

Speaking of her brief run on Green Arrow, Scott continues to derive clever stories from the, relatively, mundane realities of prison, bringing back Gail Simone creation Grotesque, changed by his time in lockup. Eschewing the lightning powers and appropriate gargoyle aesthetic, Scott presents a younger feeling version of the character, coincidentally given a biker look to allow Yvonne Craig’s classic motorcycle to appear once again.

Interior art by Paul Pelletier and Norm Rapmund

I don’t think that Grotesque has a single line of dialogue that I wouldn’t categorize as generic. Despite this, I actually found myself really liking his presence. A quick jab at the 1% does little to distinguish him and his few other lines could be put in almost any villain’s mouth but his flippant delivery and obvious drive makes him much more enjoyable on the page than I expected when I heard that Grotesque was returning. I think my favorite addition is the hint that its no longer he that is deserving of his nom de crime.

As I mentioned above, this one has very little to do with the previous two stories, despite  a quick attempt to tie it into the greater narrative. While the “one week later” caption feels fairly tacked on, the story actually benefits significantly from its connection to the rest of the issue. With frequent mentions of a happy couple and some well supported but ultimately speculative assumptions of a loving, protective husband from Batgirl, it’s not hard to read memories of “Hopeless Romantic” into this story. And that’s great because it helps to overcome the natural tendency of readers to not care about anonymous victims in a genre that’s chalk full of them. Suddenly these nameless yuppies have a spark of Dick and Barbara in their relationship and it’s kind of tragic to see Babs walk through the evidence of the night.

Scott uses narration rather well and gives us a well structured little detective yarn. Unfortunately there’s not a whole lot to it. The story is nothing new and doesn’t really provide any insight into the content of the run, especially any that won’t likely be rehashed in first page narration when issue #26 releases. This is just a way to sample Scott’s tone and “The Reason” probably does that better. Unfortunately, and despite doing very little wrong, “Value” winds up the most forgettable of the issue’s four tales instead of the exciting preview of things to come, even if the benefits of the issue’s structure on it are really interesting.

Paul Pelletier and Norm Rapmund bring a quietly distinctive look to “Value”. It’s not cartoony, nor is it photorealistic. It embraces the feeling of realism more than the look. Barbara feels like a real girl with her own look and a normal person’s reactions peeking our from behind her training. I particularly like how squat her nose looks from straight ahead, it gives every one of these panels a bit of pugnacious momentum.

The aforementioned Grotesque redesign is pretty great and the biker theme of the story lends some extra excitement to a short but unusually visceral fight scene. And Jordie Bellaire is back to mix harsh red with some pleasantly faint warm tones. There’s a different texture to this story and it keeps things fresh and supports the art nicely.

The final story completely gives up on the illusion of an interconnected narrative and instead focuses entirely on what it wants to be. I mean, it wouldn’t be a modern Paul Dini story without some ladies in cheesecakey costumes, a tragically relatable villain, and a member of the Wonderland Gang to spotlight, but it’s totally at peace with that. The latest member of Jervis Tetch’s menagerie of knock off villains is March Harriet. Harriet was a minor player in the original Wonderland Gang story but she comes into her own here. I’m not sure that she necessarily needs another story after this one, but “March Madness” is more than justification enough for her to return.

It’s not as clear as it should be how Harriet’s ears work, what the relation between the hypnotic and the electric properties of her tech is, but it’s a minor distraction. Dini paints a picture of a mundane criminal pushed through the Gotham looking glass by the lack of justice for the corrupt and the powerful. It’s very much Dini’s niche but that niche won multiple awards and made the man synonymous with Batman for an entire generation and, to be honest, it’s not any less effective here.

I really love how Dini uses the Mad Hatter in this story. Tetch remains a monster but a compassionate one and his influence allows Dini to create two warring villains that make sense in the Gotham City landscape without feeling beholden to the Hatter or his iconography. It uses Harriet and the short’s mcguffin to build up Tetch and uses his credibility to establish the stakes naturally. It’s a lovely way to solve some of the problems of the short story format and make this tale feel more integrated into Gotham.

It’s also nice to see a classic Dini tragic romance explicitly between two lesbians, something that 90s Standards and Practices sadly wouldn’t have allowed. The more mature framing also allows for a jab at Batgirl that comes close to feeling lazy but pulls through for its implicit refutation of the idea of Batgirl as a mere franchise of Batman.

Harriet is sinister but very fun and there’s the same strong understanding of Barbara’s characteristic seriousness and how it mixes with her compassion that the entire issue thrives on. The tone is light with some fun comics feel. It’s fan service in a number of ways and may never be relevant again, but it’s a nice addition to the issue, even if I wish it had fit into the structure of the book better.

Interior art by Emanuela Lupacchino and Jordie Bellaire

Being a bouncy comics romp full of pretty girls in skintight clothing, there’s really not a better artist in mainstream comics for this piece than Emanuela Lupacchino with Ray McCarthy. Lupacchino packs pages full of content, fitting the entire story into its brisk ten page running time. There’s a whole lot of dialogue in them thar’ balloons, but I don’t think there was a single panel where it felt overcramped or rushed. There’s plenty of room for fun adventures and cheeky gags, but the emotional core reads clearly and stops you in your tracks, no matter how small the panel.

Given the name, the color palette is oddly autumnal, but it’s lovely and far less overpowering than you’d think. Once again: Jordie Bellaire.

Bellaire leans into Lupacchino’s look, delivering a look that’s much less ‘Jordie Bellaire’ than “Hopeless Romantic”’s. It’s still fabulous though, with its flat, cel shaded look and slightly pallid quality bringing out the art.

You won’t be missing plot by passing on Batgirl #25, but you will be missing out on story. With a really cool, if somewhat half-baked, structure to the issue, and some really smart stories, this is a worthy anniversary issue. You shouldn’t come to this feeling like it’s the first chapter of Mairghread Scott’s run, in that respect it’s more of a prologue or a proof of concept, but every story does a strong job of illuminating what’s great about Barbara Gordon and effortlessly disarming the minefield of expectations about Batgirl stories being ‘too grim’ or ‘too flighty’. There’s no ‘killer app’ here, “Hopeless Romantic” coming the closest but only for DickBabs shippers, yet Batgirl #25 is a wonderfully complete package that should please longtime fans of the original Batgirl and succinctly makes the case to any willing converts.

Batgirl #25 is currently available in comic shops from DC Comics.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: