Review: Batgirl, Gail Simone

My DC project is officially launched! Not only has 19% of my reading been comics so far this year (though it’s early days), but I have also now completed half of my New Year’s Resolution re: DC comics, which was to read two substantial runs on two different DC comics. First up: Gail Simone’s Batgirl.

Batgirl

Gail Simone’s run on Batgirl follows Barbara Gordon as she’s getting back into the game of fighting crime on the streets after several years away. My main takeaway here is that Batgirl cannot cut a break. Every time she arrests one criminal who’s determined to murder her, another one pops up, like the world’s most sinister game of Whack-a-Mole. (Is that the game I’m thinking of? Where you whap the things on the head and they go back down into their hole but then another one pops up somewhere else on the board?)

A recent miracle cure (I know) has given Barbara back the use of her legs after a years-ago attack by the Joker. Though Barbara’s physically able to return to the work of catching criminals on the mean streets of Gotham, she still struggles mentally. Her reflexes aren’t what they used to be, and more significantly, the trauma of her attack by the Joker continues to affect her day to day. Simone’s excellent on Barbara’s ongoing feelings about what happened to her — she’s angry about it, and angry with herself for what she perceives as letting it happen, and memories of the assault flash into her mind at inconvenient times, leaving her frozen and stunned when she most needs to be up and fighting. But Barbara also refuses to be defined by her worst day, and she continues to get back up and keep on fighting evil.

Holy hell, Gotham is the worst. Is this typical of street-level comic books? I have most often read the mid-level ones, where the Avengers or the X-Men are saving the world from things, and I miss out the street-level fighters like Luke Cage and the Punisher. But goddamn, in Gotham it seems like nobody ever has a good day. Not the superheroes, not the villains, and for sure not the civilians. Everyone gets nonstop murdered. I prescribe a rousing course of trauma-focused CBT for the entire citizenry of Gotham.

Look, this is my first significant read of a DC comic, and I don’t want to overgeneralize here. But you know that perception that like, Marvel has the jokes, DC has the grimdark? Reading Batgirl did not shift that perception for me. It isn’t just that Barbara constantly has people gunning for her, although she does, and it isn’t just that Gotham is an unbearable violent shithole with no redeeming qualities, although it is. Reading this comic, I got so tired of Barbara facing mastermind villains who were specifically, personally targeting her trauma history, manipulating her into super-triggering situations, and then taunting her at great length about her inability to save her loved ones. Are there no villains in the DC universe who just want a whole bunch of money or to experiment on innocent civilians without involving superheroes? Do all the DC villains devote upwards of half their time to specifically ruining the lives of the heroes of Gotham?

These are not rhetorical questions. Please answer them in the comments. If the answer is yes I may need to rethink this DC reading project and also not buy that one shirt I wanted to buy.

I still really want this shirt.
  • Akilah

    Um, I totally want that shirt. And yes re: Whack-A-Mole.

    I can’t answer any of your other questions, unfortunately. All of the DC Comics I read were from about 10-15 years ago (or longer) and were definitely of the grimdark variety. Except maybe Wonder Woman?

  • Shivaun

    Hi, a friend poked me to respond since I’ve read a fair amount of DC books. I tended to have more of a scattered approach than reading long runs though.

    “Are there no villains in the DC universe who just want a whole bunch of money or to experiment on innocent civilians without involving superheroes? Do all the DC villains devote upwards of half their time to specifically ruining the lives of the heroes of Gotham?”

    I think Gotham and the Batfamily books in particular do lean this way. Like, with villains directly accusing Batman of creating a concentrated centre of terribleness there and questioning if he’s made things worse. Regular criminals don’t want to mess with Joker AND Batman, so only the worst ones stay.

    Batman is known for planning for everything, so a villain plans for his plan, and Batman plans for that plan, etc. Batman’s very obsessive and dedicated to fighting crime, and any of his villains reflect that same drive back at fighting/corrupting him.

    Throwing your worst moments or weaknesses in your face is something I associate with supervillains in general, but I think that Superman, Batman and Batgirl, in particular, have the most stories about people (mostly Joker and Lex Luthor) obsessively trying to ruin their lives and make them re-experience past trauma? I would think that Dr. Doom might fall into this as well, but I only know him from Squirrel Girl.

    I’ve read more Oracle than Batgirl stories, and I haven’t read Simone’s whole run. With Barbara Gordon in particular, the writing tends to go to the well of past trauma pretty frequently (maybe just because The Killing Joke was so popular). Even the Batgirl of Burnside run after Simone’s, which had a fun and colourful atmosphere, touched on this.

    For lighter stuff, I would suggest checking out Power Girl and Batgirl Vol 3 (Stephanie Brown). Wonder Woman also sidesteps a lot of this, as she doesn’t have a singular arch-nemesis or a character-defining trauma incident.

    For a darker story that’s not as grim, I really enjoyed Manhunter (Kate Spencer) about a lawyer turned vigilante/anti-hero.

    • I can’t remember if I thanked you on Twitter for this but thank you SO MUCH for this run-down! I am taking it all into account as I move forward with my grand DC experiment.

  • I don’t read enough comics to answer, but I do also really want that tshirt

  • Kailana

    I don’t read enough DC comics to have any opinion. lol I read mostly Marvel because of Marvel Unlimited and really wish DC would do something similar!

    • I do too! I think if there were a DC Unlimited I’d at least try it out and get a feel for the world. I wonder if they have something like that in the works — it seems insane not to!

  • Stefanie@SoManyBooks

    I was thinking you would convince me to try DC comics but so far it’s a nope. I do really like the shirt though 🙂

    • Hahhaha, I’ll try to do better in future. I really feel that there are the perfect DC comics for me lurking somewhere out there, and I’m determined to find them this year.

  • Terri

    I second Shivaun’s rec of the Stephanie Brown!Batgirl, and I also remember Blue Beetle being a fun, lighter series (the run where Jaime Reyes is Blue Beetle.)

  • “But you know that perception that like, Marvel has the jokes, DC has the grimdark? Reading Batgirl did not shift that perception for me.”

    Not that I’ve read a lot of DC, but I haven’t encountered enough to shift that perception for me, either. Maybe Batgirl of Burnside… it’s like, I may still want to live in Marvel’s NY, but I would never want to even visit Gotham. Ever.

    • Yes! Exactly! Gotham seems like THE WORST PLACE. I used to think the DC movies were exaggerating how terrible everyone thinks Gotham is, but no, it’s terrible, it’s a war zone.