Okay folks! Now we’re cooking with gas. It’s unfortunate that Barbara Gordon needs to be unconscious on a table in order to be interesting in her own comic book (let alone an AI version of her), but this is what it’s come to. And frankly, the change of pace in this month’s “Mindfield” is definitely welcome!
Part of me is exhausted with this ex machina storyline (brain mapping and all the fantasy backup memories that go with it). I didn’t care for it in the regular Batman book recently and I don’t like it here either, but this is what we have to work with and I accept that it’s an interesting angle for consideration in an increasingly heavily-tech-reliant world.
And for once Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher have made the tech accessible and digestible so we can move quickly past the improbability of it and just get to the story.
And yet what a lovely nostalgic low-tech view of Babs’ past in this one sequence!
The story is that the Fugue has co-opted Barbara’s brain, planted false memories, and is basically destroying her mind. Black Canary and Frankie decide to try to combat this mental virus by introducing Babs’ de-bugged AI backup (the one that tried to take her over early in the Stewart/Fletcher run). There’s some nice circularity here that feels like it’s finally paying off as Frankie and the AI go into Babs’ dreamscape to try to convince Babs to fight Fugue and take her brain back. Actual Babs spend most of the comic in a state of collapsing consciousness, terrorized by nightmares and incapable of discerning reality for Fugue’s implanted memories, but we do get to see AI Babs running amuck with Frankie exercising some actual agency (even if she doesn’t quite understand that she’s not actually Babs).
Personally I’m uncomfortable with the way Frankie controls the AI (with threats of destruction), but that will take me down a whole moral path of raging against what amounts to creepy drone slavery to begin with, so I recommend you all watch Black Mirror and draw your own conclusions in terms of the ethical nature of this sort of brain-tampering technology.
Why this Book is Better than it’s Been in Months
First of all there’s no time in this story to be “cute”. We’ve finally hit a crisis point that everyone is responding to with appropriate seriousness.
The art reflects the danger: no cartoon monsters here!
Secondly, despite a lot of exposition (which is typical of Batgirl these days), the plot moves forward, pushed both by the narrative and the artwork, in a way that keeps your eyes scanning. I’ve found a lot of the previous issues running up to this one to have a lot of filler, action with no purpose, and, again, cuteness for the sake of cuteness. Everything here serves for a change.
Thirdly, even though the villain is silly, there are actual stakes here. When Babs has fought against masked villains in the streets throughout this creative team’s run, it’s never felt like there was any actual danger and Bab’s saying she needed backup felt wrong on so many levels. Here, Babs is incapacitated so needing help is a given. And since her AI is really a map of herself, we get to see Batgirl be Batgirl in a way we haven’t seen in a long time in this book.
It Takes a Village
Whether by accident or design, this book is the product of so many contributing artists, they didn’t even bother to break the attribution by page:
“Damn” is right. But look: Bill Finger!
The good news is that there’s no real really glaring discrepancy in the art. The book as a whole flows really well in spite of all the different artists because the aesthetic is generally consistent throughout. The work overall has a lighter touch with more broadly drawn facial expressions that have come to signify Babs Tarr’s style as the principal artist on this series. And because the plot deals with layers of consciousness and varying degrees of reality, variances in the characters seems a natural thing. A similar technique is regularly employed for the Harley Quinn series for whenever Harley experiences some altered state.
Particularly effective is how we track Batgirl’s “looks” through the sequence: her appearance as the AI, in the costume prior to the creative shift, and to an even earlier look when she first began her crusade as a pony-tailed teenager. We also get dream cameos from Gordon and Batman, which is fun even if the characters are played as distortions of themselves due to Fugue’s interference.
All This Sounds Great–What’s the Problem then, Now?
First of all, it’s Greg.
Yes, it’s still Greg even if he’s a figment of Babs’ corrupted memory. And secondly, it’s worse than the fact that he’s “just Greg” as it turns out Greg is really just a bank robber that Babs put away early in her career come back for mega-revenge.
It’s not a very satisfying reveal, first of all, because we don’t know this guy and don’t care, but also because it requires pages of exposition to explain (and explain in a really unsatisfactory way since it requires a bank robber to mastermind all this from prison, spending an untold fortune on developing this technology that he could probably use to rule the world instead of petty revenge–but whatever, supervillains, right?).
There’s are other problems: Bluebird and Spoiler trying to suss out Fugue’s lair (on whatever thin evidence they are tracing), while Dinah stands around being mostly useless except to suggest the 11th hour solution to a tech problem she doesn’t even understand (lucky that).
Clearly this is all setting up for the future Birds of Prey series, but it feels forced at best. Yes, Babs needs Frankie’s help to get her out of her mental mire, but once again I feel like her agency within the pages of her own comic is routinely compromised. She’s just not a very good superhero–and she used to be!
Add to that the “megahedron” city-wide destroyer in the wings (yawn), and you have a plot that’s basically the typical ticking time bomb that the heroes need to find before it goes kablooey.
But there are, indeed worse things. This book is completely readable, has some nicely designed page layouts once we get into Babs’ nightmarescape, and offers some genuine tension as Frankie and Babs’ AI have to work together to rescue Babs from her own muddled memories. While I can’t say I’m excited to see where this goes, it does end on a good launch point (which has never been a strong point of this title under this team), so it also has that in its favor as well.
- You want to read Stewart and Fletcher at their best in a long while. The story is cohesive, even if it’s over-explained and has elements that aren’t great.
- You were a fan of the AI sory early in their run or a fan of these wild high-tech type plots in general.
Fugue is still a silly villain, but at least he seems to be presenting a challenge more fitting for Batgirl than we’ve seen in a while. Though the heavy-tech storyline may be problematic for one’s suspension of disbelief, it’s not belabored or made so intricate as to be completely off-putting. Babs’ AI alter gets to do some high-flying kicks for the sake of action, and while there’s nothing too deep about Babs’ mental layers, it’s nevertheless interesting to take a tour of her career as Batgirl in an alternate universe sort of vein.