First Issue Collector’s Item is a periodic, ongoing look at that most illusive (and, in many instances, ultimately valueless) pop-culture artifact: The first issue of a comic book series. This week, DC Comics continues to offer issue #0s looking at the origins of the heroes at the focus of the New 52, and Oni Press has something new from Greg Rucka. First, lets take a look at Gail Simone’s slightly tweaked Batgirl origin story in Batgirl #0.
Though I fell somewhat short of my goal to write about all fifty-two new or relaunched series DC Comics trotted out sometime last year to the chagrin of folks who obsess over the way comic books are numbered (in my experience, a staggering amount of people) and the eventual glee of the DC bigwigs whose calculated gamble paid off better than anybody could have anticipated, allow me to float forth a theory on why this massive undertaking rocked the DC Universe to its core. Though several changes have come down the pike that haven’t been universally well-received—Wonder Woman’s Amazonian tribe as a group of maneating baby killers, Superman having never dated Lois Lane, Superman making out with Wonder Woman, Batgirl getting over the whole quadriplegia thing—The New 52 wasn’t ever an initiative to tear the multiverse asunder, assassinate your favorite characters, or front an unstated cultural agenda. The purpose of this whole thing was to make collecting individual issues into trade paperbacks an easier enterprise, one that wouldn’t scare casual readers off a page on Amazon as soon as they saw that a trade collected issues 634-645 of Detective Comics.
Seem unreasonable? I admit, I have my own stupid reasons for believing this. When I was sniffing out new, recent comic books to check out after years away from the scene, I blindly purchased Scott Snyder’s Batman: The Black Mirror without knowing that Bruce Wayne was “dead” and that Dick Grayson—that’s Robin to the unacquainted, Nightwing to those who are—had taken over the mantle. It was almost a happy accident that The Black Mirror is one of the best Batman stories ever written, because I was seriously blindsided. By resetting the numbering and continuity of its every property, DC Comics was saying “Come in, the water’s fine.” They also started their new universe in media res, relying on the fact that casual and hardcore fans alike knew enough about Clark Kent to not demand an entire issue explaining why The Man of Steel showed up to work in a pair of blue jeans. Besides, holding off on such important matters ensured that, later, the origins of our various heroes and villains could be told and retold anew, and here they are, just in time to celebrate the one year anniversary of the company resetting their clock.
Barbara Gordon, the woman under the Batgirl mask, is a character who has been whittled down to a fine, working point over the years, but even with Batman: The Animated Series and Batgirl: Year One lurking in the culture’s collective subconscious, the nature of the internet dictates that a simple image search for Batgirl is just as likely to pull up a 1960s cover of Detective Comics where Batgirl pauses in her fight against crime to fix a run in her nylons, or, worse, an image of Alicia Silverstone. (For the record, the first image I get is of Cassandra Cain, a character who has yet to debut in DC’s brave new world.) If any of Batman’s allies is due a concrete origin, it’s Gordon, whose role in the Batman family was most drastically changed by The New 52. Series author Gail Simone has previously delved into the whys and wherefores of Gordon’s miraculous recovery (the events of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke are still central to Batgirl’s story), so Batgirl #0 is left to deal with why Barbara Gordon started dressing up like a man who dresses up like a bat, and the resulting comic book is pleasant, if mundane.
The important elements of Batgirl remain unchanged from practically every iteration of the Barbara Gordon character: She’s the daughter of a hero cop, exceptionally smart, compassionate, driven, and a bit of an outsider. The inner-monologue running through the book even offers the words “exceptional” and “driven” as two that people use to say about her when they really mean “weird,” as Barbara isn’t a normal girl, kung-fu fighting criminology student that she is. She visits the GCPD one day to gather interviews for a class project, and, this being a comic book, it’s hardly a surprise when her day is crashed by the arrival of a big-bad. His name is Harry X, and he’s a Canadian cult leader mid-extradition to the great white north for the grisly murders of several women who didn’t take to his teachings. Harry X is your prototypical generic comic book bad guy: a hulking, bald man with a messiah complex, outfitted in jeans and a black t-shirt. The all-girl army that attempts to spring him look a little more distinct, but it’s his size—the the kind of challenge that represents to a novice crimefighter—that we’re supposed to take notice of. If Barbara can’t find a way to stop him, it’s likely that several cops will die, and a bad man with an all-girl army will be roaming the streets of Gotham.
What’s clear reading Batgirl #0 is that Gail Simone absolutely owns this character in a way no other comics scribe has, and there’s a lot of pleasure in reading Barbara’s running monologue. Given that this story is in past-tense, Barbara’s narration is more vital here than in your garden variety issue of Batgirl or Birds of Prey, and its rarely intrusive. Simone’s attention to history and small character detail has won her a cultish following on social media websites like Tumblr, and she earns her rep here when Batman drops in on the action, sees the overmatched Batgirl clad in a GCPD-made replica Batman costume standing over a bloodied and unconscious Harry X, and compliments her. It’s nice to see Bruce Wayne like this, as a potential mentor and father-figure, even if its to someone not quite in need of those things.
Still, Batgirl #0 suffers from the sense that Simone has been there and done that with the character. She’s not reaching for anything radical or pushing new boundaries, and, given that this issue sees her reunited with her regular Birds of Prey artist Ed Benes, Simone can’t quite escape those feelings of deja vu. That kind of consistency isn’t a bad thing in a series—and is largely why I’ve kept up with Batgirl—but it’s not enough to distinguish this issue in a huge, brand-wide event. But its also somewhat nice that Batgirl #0 continues steadily in its mission at this convenient jump-on point. Even in the increasingly dark DC Universe, Batgirl remains a fun, breezy read, and Simone, one of the most forward thinking creators in comics when it comes to issues of gender and sexuality, continues to write a woman who could exist in flesh and blood, where many in neighboring books remain fodder for adolescent wet dreams. That alone makes Batgirl a comic worth celebrating.
Batgirl #0. Written by Gail Simone. Drawn by Ed Benes. Released September 12, 2012, by DC Comics.