The big question everyone is asking: is Hope Larson going to bring Batgirl back to her potential glory? I won’t make you suffer through a whole review to get the answer. The short of it is that Hope has put HOPE on the horizon. “Beyond Burnside” gets us out of the Gotham burb and half a world away to Japan, where Babs is taking some downtime to start fresh. Her last life isn’t entirely gone, but it’s faded far from view and references to Gordon Energy, Frankie, and all the Burnside business are fleeting and downplayed in favor of moving boldly forward.
And this is a bold forward motion.
Some of you will be disappointed to see that Batgirl’s still wearing her silly Doc Martens, but for me the costume was the least concern. What matters is that Babs is portrayed as a young woman again and not a silly frivolous stick-thin teenager. Her behavior is level-headed, she’s not squealing every other panel, and her fight style has gone back to taking things seriously instead of playing up the “cute”.
And all without sacrificing nice moments like this
Rafael Albuquerque is on art duties and his style is a great departure from the speed lines and manga mouths we’d been getting on the Fletcher/Cameron run. Babs is a bit impish at times, but again, there’s nothing wrong with her looking young (she is young). More importantly, she’s treated like a superhero instead of a bobbysoxer running around, in over her head, with villains she consistently fears she can’t handle alone.
This first issue is mostly set-up, but it contains all the compelling story elements you want to see at the start of a fresh run: interesting new characters, an exotic locale, a mystery to be solved, a unexpected ally, an ambiguous villain, and a call to action.
We meet Babs’ totally believable childhood friend Kai, who we know more about and understand better than we ever did Frankie after a dozen issues. Kai occupies that grey area between friend and possible enemy–we don’t know what kind of trouble he’s into, but Larson does a great job of setting Babs and Kai up as potential polarities (in a flashback with Gordon, he tells them as children that cops’ kids turn out to be cops or criminals themselves and we know which side Babs is on).
We also meet a new hero named Fruit Bat (a centenarian superhero who fought in the 40s). She’s retired now and when Babs first sees her she’s a crippled elderly woman in a wheelchair named Chiyo Yamashiro. Babs is excited to interview her, though her caretaker son is very disrespectful and Yamashiro herself seems too feeble or disinterested in the process. That is, until a curious Sailor Moon-looking clown woman attacks Kai looking for a formula and Batgirl is given an assist in defending him by a very able-bodied Fruit Bat who for a brief spell is once again a magnificent fighter.
THIS is actual girl-power!
The spell is only temporary, however, as the Sailor Moon Clown escapes and Yamashiro tells Babs she needs a teacher if she is to take on whatever this case may prove to be.
This points Batgirl to an MMA (multi-martial art) event in Singapore and by the end of the book she’s bringing Kai with her in the hopes of extracting him from whatever mess he’s stumbled into.
There’s nothing earth-shattering about this issue, but Larson does things well: she sets up the globe-trotting nature of Babs’ adventure and infuses the book with some fun cultural moments. I’m especially pleased that Babs loves octopus (I love octopus!). She also makes use of the full range of Batgirl’s skills–even if just briefly. It’s through her computer savvy that she identifies and locates Fruit Bat, she gets to use her combat and grappling skills, and we also see her eidetic memory in action. It’s not only a nice introduction for the character for new readers, but a strong indicator for old fans that Larson has a grasp on the things that makes Batgirl cool without overplaying any of it.
And she does all this without losing Babs’ youthful enthusiasm or humanity. She still goes out drinking with Kai (but responsibly!), and she still dresses like a young woman (without looking like a selfie slut or a child masquerading on halloween so much).
As mentioned earlier, Albuquerque is the right artist to get this off the ground. His style is full of fun expressions without sacrificing what’s heavy in the storytelling. He can take us from a funny moment like Kai puking over a reaction to lunch, to a more serious moment like Fruit Bat trying to convey information to Batgirl while suffering a spell–without it feeling inconsequential or overly cartoony.
For an artist who took a lot of flak over putting Batgirl in a compromised position on a cover once and who has had a reputation for sexualizing superheroes in the worst way, I am very pleased with the work he’s done and feel like the criticism has been largely unwarranted. There was plenty of opportunities here to be gross about the school girl outfit on the villain or Batgirl’s potentially skin-tight costume or even Fruit Bat–but the book never gives pause when dealing with the female figure; all of Albuquerque’s fight sequences are purposeful and the center of the attention is on the power of the action rather than upskirting or butt-shotting or whatever it is that makes “girl fights” so spectacularly stupid sometimes.
I thought the caricature of Yamashiro’s son was a bit overdone, and the overall design for Kai is a bit peculiar (with that big head and that beaky nose), but I’ll take these oddities any day over characters I can scarcely tell apart, which was among the problems in the previous run.
Guys and gals, Batgirl is back in this issue. It’s just a start, but it’s a solid one!
- You like Batgirl! This Batgirl comic features Batgirl! Which has really been a hit and miss reality for a long while now. Rest assured, Barbara Gordon actually shows up in this book and she’s way cool again.
- You want a fresh start! Don’t we all!
While my numeric score may seem a bit hedgey, make no doubt about it: I am thrilled with this new beginning for the former Burnside Bat. The weakest thing about this issue is that it’s mostly ramp-up, but that’s hardly a bad thing if you’ve been waiting a long time to rekindle your love for Barbara Gordon. She’s looking and sounding great under the auspices of Hope Larson and Rafael Albuquerque and the book overall feels like it’s headed in a solid direction. We’re likely going to see some character growth in terms of Babs’ fighting skills as she trots around Asia trying to solve a mystery surrounding an old childhood friend. Couldn’t be happier to be along for the ride!