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.


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.

I will never catch up on reviews

…if I don’t do a bunch of short ones all at once. Thus:

The Golden Mean, Annabel Lyon

I checked this out on Gavin’s recommendation and because I love Alexander the Great. Your claims that he was a psychotic alcoholic have no effect on me because in my mind he is exactly the way Mary Renault writes him in Fire from Heaven and The Persian Boy. The Golden Mean is about Aristotle when he comes to Macedon to tutor young Alexander. Though Lyon was clearly influenced by Mary Renault’s books, she gives a more nuanced picture of Alexander, showing a brilliant but disturbed young man who provides real heads for plays and mutilates the bodies of soldiers he has killed. Lyon uses modern language, with much swearing, and although that could have come across as stilted, it, er, it doesn’t. Hooray. Also, check out Ms. Lyon’s list of ten very good books about the ancient world.

The Magicians and Mrs. Quent, Galen Beckett

Advertised as Jane Austen with magic, The Magicians and Mrs. Quent completely failed to satisfy me. Other reviewers have noted that the book’s three sections are dramatically different in tone, the first being quite Jane Austen and the second quite Turn of the Screwy, and the third more straight fantasy. This bugged me, and I didn’t care for the characters anyway, and the world-building felt lazy. So, not a success. This was for the RIP Challenge.

The Fall of Rome, Martha Southgate

Big yes to this one. I have been wanting to read it for ages, on Eva’s recommendation, and it didn’t disappoint me. Latin teacher Jerome Washington has been the only black faculty member at a Connecticut boarding school for boys throughout most of his career. His ideas about decorum and racial equality are sharply challenged with the arrival of Jana Hensen, a longtime teacher in the Cleveland inner city, and Rashid Bryson, a young black student trying to get away from a family tragedy. Beautiful, complicated racial and family dynamics and lovely writing, multiple narrators, Latin, and a boarding school setting. I wish Martha Southgate had written fifteen more books besides this one, instead of only two. Behold this quotation, which I think is great:

“Racial integration?” He nodded. “What about it?”

“Well, I’m not against it, obviously, or I wouldn’t be here, right? But there’s some problems with it that I just want to talk to people about. How this place isn’t really integrated enough. We – I mean people like me – are just here to round out somebody else’s experience. That’s what it feels like, anyway.”

American Furies: Crime, Punishment, and the American Prison System, Sasha Abramsky

The American prison system is awful. It’s just awful in every way, what with the insanely punitive mandatory minimum sentences, and the poorly-trained guards, and the lack of care for the mentally ill, and the shortage of educational programs, and the–look, just everything. It’s awful. Sasha Abramsky is a careful, clear writer, and I defy you to read this book and not feel furious at the end of it.

Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Alan Moore is just not for me. When I read his books, I think of how much in sympathy I am with his views, and how important a writer of graphic novels he is, but I do not think, Wow, this is an enjoyable read. I more think, Wow, this is rather a slog. Wish I could be reading something more awesome. Now and then an image or a plot element will catch my eye and please me greatly, but these never last long enough to make my reading truly enjoyable. I also found the conclusion deeply unsatisfying: just a big info-dump of cackling villainy. I was fascinated, as I always am, with the way the 1980s seem to have been predicated on the assumption that nuclear war with Russia was imminent. And then the Berlin Wall came down! Miraculous! This was for the Graphic Novels Challenge, which I have already been awesome at this year but I cannot stop being awesome at it because graphic novels are worthwhile! Even when they are not my particular cup of tea.

Glimpses, Lynn Flewelling

Glimpses is a collection of Nightrunner short stories, with lots of fan art. It was sent to me as an e-book by Reece Notley of Three Crow Press, for which much thanks. These are stories that fill in the gaps in Seregil’s and Alec’s history: how Seregil came to be Nysander’s student, a small glimpse of Alec’s life with his father, and like that. If you are a fan of the Nightrunner series, and do not mind lots of graphic sex (I admit I can be slightly squeamish this way), you should check this out. To me, the nosy girl who wants to know exactly how everything went down, this short story collection is an excellent addition to the Nightrunner world. Lynn Flewelling has a light, amusing way of writing, and I always enjoy spending time with her characters. But if you are a stranger to the series, do yourself a favor and read Luck in the Shadows and Stalking Darkness first.