The title of this book is “Burned” and I guess the $20,000 question is: will you get burned if you buy it?
Let’s face it, we’re all bringing a lot of expectations or judgments to this book before even cracking the pages. I’ve decided for the purpose of this review to read it through the eyes of its previous audience (myself included) to give you a sense of the breadth of the changes that this new creative team brings to Batgirl. But I will say up front that future reviews will be more honed for those readers who I think are the intended “new” audience for the new direction of this book.
Yes, that’s my way of saying that if I’m harsh with this review, it’s to purge the demons of my own hopes and disappointments before settling into the new order. It doesn’t help that the book gives me plenty of fodder for criticism, but there’s really positive stuff here too. So if you’re on the fence about whether to ditch this title or give it a try, keep in mind that the overhaul really is designed to attract a very different audience and you’ll be challenged to either join that audience or get left behind.
Cameron Stewart and Brandon Fletcher (co-writers), introduce us to Barbara Gordon’s new life in Burnside with her roommate Frankie (where’s Alysia? More on that later). Almost immediately Babs is embroiled in some neighborhood crime that appears petty at first, but has larger implications as she uncovers a theft ring. There’s good stuff in here about the perils of social media and online privacy, but the book is overall crammed to the gills with stuff going on, so give yourself lots of breathing room to read this (it’s not a lightweight flippy-flippy book).
Babs to the rescue!
Frankly, I flat-out enjoyed Babs Tarr’s artwork throughout (based on Cameron Stewart’s breakdowns). Some people have referred to it as “kiddie” or “cartoony”, but I think the extremity of the tonal shift from the previous creative team warrants a visual shift as well. And what I found with Tarr’s work is that it’s expressive but can be serious when it needs to be.
Babs definitely looks younger than her prior depiction and an ongoing reconciliation of the two different Batgirls is going to be a little rough until or unless they can meet in the middle somewhere–Batgirl of her solo title needs to become Batgirl of the whole DC Universe. For now there’s no reference to her father or events in Eternal which have featured her prominently, so brace yourself for an almost complete severance.
Meanwhile, I’m okay with the new look, I do like the new costume, and I think Tarr brings good positive energy to the storytelling–something that’s been lacking in this title for a long while. She also very effectively uses compositions with small call-outs to bring together a lot of elements within a scene: memories, social media, etc. I don’t know if that’s Tarr’s contribution or part of Cameron Stewart’s instructions in the breakdowns, but it’s a great choice for a book that relies heavily on technology to tell its story.
Weirdly, for being such a Luddite, I actually enjoyed the use of texting in the story and the way it was represented on the page. I normally cringe at too specific real-word references that will likely be dated five years from now (timelessness is a hallmark of good comics), but in this case it’s used well and let’s face it: this is the reality of the state of the world. Communicating any other way would strike the current generation as false. I really wish the texting wasn’t so full of typos and other stupidities, but I guess that’s real life too.
Also good: Black Canary! References to the fallout with the Birds of Prey! I really enjoyed the continuity here and Black Canary is a character I’ve grown to love, so I’m all for her hanging out with Babs for a while as things get sorted out. Also, it was good to see her dress Babs down for being a shallow nitwit (though I have to ask: where was Babs going when she started to run up the stairs before Dinah stopped her?).
Later, working on a theft case, Babs sets up an online dating profile and then announces she needs new clothes. I turned the page with trepidation thinking: oh God, please no! No trendy shopping montage! Thankfully what we get instead is her putting together her new Batgirl costume. For those of you who don’t like her new costume and want to complain that it offers no protection and looks like a Halloween getup, you might want to wish it had been a shopping montage, but personally I was relieved to get to Batgirl being Batgirl.
This issue comes out of the gate with a lot of stumbling. Cameron Stewart’s cover is not good. It’s executed very well, but subject-wise I find it off-putting: why is she taking a selfie in a public restroom? Am I missing a joke here? It’s not only barf-worthy narcissistic (she’s doing that annoying thing of looking at the phone), but I’m really having trouble reconciling Babs as the Bat-family member who started life as a librarian-turned-congresswoman with this picture of a self-absorbed child. Also, nobody else in the room even seems to take notice. Given the storm of outrage on the opposite side of the outpouring of support for Batgirl’s new look, I feel like this cover is a bad editorial choice that deliberately alienates the naysayers. Look for Babs Tarr’s generic variant or Kevin Nowland’s monster variant if you feel similarly.
Moving on from the cover, right from page one there is sadly much to nit-pick: What happened to her plan to move with Alysia? Not that I care (sorry to say), but I expect we’ll get an explanation eventually? This really eschews all ties to Batgirl No. 34, however, which I find a little disconcerting.
Also, meet Babs’ new bestie, Frankie, who she met three years ago but never mentioned, ever. We’ve basically traded transgendered Alysia for bisexual Frankie. Why not just keep Alysia? Eh. Frankie is a coder and the fact that letterer Jared K. Fletcher has emphasized this word tells us maybe the new team wanted a smart character to be Babs’ future cohort rather than a social justice terrorist.
We’re still on page one, by the way. Babs says “Is he that the blackmail guy with that website? Book something dot-com?” So much for Babs’ photographic memory–is “black book” really so hard to recall? Or is she pretending to forget? Three pages later she’s having ghostly recall of previous incidents and conversations, and Frankie explains to her friends about how she’s eidetic, so it especially struck me as weird.
Then Babs makes out with random guy Troy in a drunken heat. And, I dunno, I have had at least one female roommate in my life and I never traipsed around our rental in my panties (and neither did she!). Couple that with chicks hanging out on the couch gossiping and calling her “Babes”, and I was feeling pretty antagonized (and we’re just two pages in!).
Next up–ugh–the coffee shop! Babs orders froo-froo coffee at Chiroptera (which is the scientific name for bat, in case you didn’t know). While I liked the name of the joint, the fact that we’re already doing the coffee thing not even five pages in made me want claw my eyes out. Also, the guy with the stolen tablet was asking for it by going to the restroom and leaving it on the table. Dumbag. Apparently Burnside is full of trendy stupid people. We are still kinda in Gotham, right?
Later references to a “guy in an owl print vest”, a girl with green hair going through their crates of vinyl (seriously?), a guy named Sevin, and sundry other bits were equally queasy. I feel like I’m critiquing a particular lifestyle (and being rather harsh about it), but it’s not really about the lifestyle so much about the aesthetic of comics. I fully admit here that I’m old and comics for me as a kid were counterculture, not the latest dish served up from café trendy. I identified with the characters because they were outside of the norm, not the mod squad. Sigh. I promise I’ll get over it and drag myself into the 21st century. In the meantime still have Harley Quinn to keep things off keel.
Moving on from the references, there are other problems in the writing:
- Page 11: we get an intercut scene as Barbara questions some friends from the previous night’s party about stolen items. The nine-panel composition should work, but the dialogue is awkward and disjointed; the panels don’t flow, and it’s needlessly difficult to follow the conversations.
- Then Babs wants to set up a “Hooq” online dating profile. I get it that she’s investigating the thefts, but given that she was snogging all over Troy, it’s completely disingenuous for her to claim she doesn’t know anybody and therefore needs social media to help her meet new people (headsmack).
- Naturally the exact right guy takes the bait and somehow he can’t make the connection that the hot red-headed girl who just said she can’t make their date is Batgirl? Oh man….
More of this, please, and less mocha latte
Stewart and Fletcher need to give Tarr more room to breathe. So much action is crammed into so many little boxes! This is too complex a story for a single issue and feels both rushed and overstuffed. Where it looks like we could have had some really nice action sequences in the climax, we instead get a single page with 12 panels. Twelve! And that’s pretty common throughout the book: it’s very dense and compressed. To her credit, Tarr makes it work, but I hope in the future they ease up and let her draw a little broader and a little splashier.
And are those hashtags in speech balloons coming out of Black Riot’s thug’s mouth? And censor blurring on him giving Babs two middle fingers while calling her a bitch? Seriously.
Some Initial Feelings about the Overall New Direction
I’ve been pretty harsh in my comments which are all really a subjective reaction to an aesthetic I’m not fond of (trendy, slangy, girlie stuff), but that doesn’t mean this is a bad book. It’s entertaining and I can see how many fans (old and new) will embrace this. The best thing about it is that the creative team seems to be pulling Babs out of the gloom, giving her more to do than mope about her lot, and (at least in this issue) is tackling “modern” crime through technology in an interesting way.
I also like that there’s somewhat of a stronger focus on detective work and Babs’ smarts. I’m on board and hoping this will shore up as it gets more established. And next month, when I come to the table to review No. 36, I promise I will be putting aside my prejudices (as much as I am able).
- You want to see what all the fuss has been about and decide whether to get on the bandwagon (you’ll really have to judge this one for yourself).
- You’re ready for a Batgirl who is a girl. Radical concept, as that may be.
- It’s time to put fun into your comic schedule with something that seems to want to be teen-and-up appropriate, even if it’s got somewhat questionable content.
This is a rocky transition for a fresh start, but it’s definitely fresh. For anyone who loves the character (whether they were reading the previous books or not), you’ll want to give this a try and see if it’s to your tastes. Tarr’s art is lively and detailed, her environments have real character, and Babs looks good in her new togs (an extra half-point for the art alone). I’m less enamored with the writing thus far, but optimistic that the stories can (and will) get better. Could definitely do with less girl talk and hip references, but I’m hopeful that the characters will mature and the writers will explore a balance between a book aimed at new teenaged readers and the faithful audience of long-reading adults.