Sunday, March 22, 2009

More Batgirl Fun...

Despite the inanity of her recent miniseries-- which shed more than 13,000 readers over the course of its lackluster six-issue run according to Comichron -- I'm still a fan of the Cassandra Cain Batgirl character.

Did you ever see the movie The Sand Pebbles? Epic flick, just wonderful. At the end, Steve McQueen gets shot. Dying, he shouts in frustration and confusion, "What the hell happened?" That's how I feel about the Batgirl miniseries. What the hell happened?

Look here… in July, Batgirl's debut issue ranked 66th—one place ahead of Batman and the Outsiders, which also features her as a supporting character—and moved 34,404 copies. Not especially spectacular, but not bad for a relatively minor character. Perhaps it was a little disappointing considering the Internet controversies regarding all the mishandling of Batgirl and the supposed build up of anticipation of her return to a starring role. But still, Batgirl #1 outsold Supergirl #31 by 5,597 copies.

Then what the hell happened? Batgirl #2 sold 27,695 to Supergirl #32’s 28,099. Batgirl lost 6,709 readers while Supergirl shed just 708. As the cliched story meandered and went nowhere, the erosion continued. Batgirl #3 sold 24, 925; #4 sold 23,498; #5 sold 21,591; and #6—the standard-issue climax—sold a mere 20,747. That’s right—of the thousands of people who bought the first issue, 13,657 no longer cared how the story ended. Wow! That’s a pretty steady decline in readership, don’t you think? Batman and the Outsiders #14 sold 32, 158 that month. Supergirl #36 climbed all the way to 45,485 units sold!

I know it’s tempting to blame the character. To say, “Well, readers really don’t care about Batgirl after all.” Tempting, easy… and wrong. The wrong lesson to learn from this debacle. The character is compelling, Batgirl... wasn’t good. It was the opposite of good. If you started at good and walked in a straight line, you would be approximately halfway to Batgirl's quality if you stopped at mediocre.

It's not the series' basic premise that's at fault. After all, you'd expect someone manufactured to be a killing machine, someone who's severely emotionally damaged, to seek revenge for having been brainwashed and turned into a racist dragon lady caricature of cartoon villainy. You just wouldn't expect such a plot to play out over six issues of perfunctory, cliché-ridden, early 1990s video-game-like fight sequences—small combats with anonymous henchpeople leading to boss battles. Koike Kazuo used to do these kinds of revenge plots the right way. Quentin Tarantino made two whole movies about a wronged bad-ass on the vengeance trail. So it could've worked if more effort and research had been put into the front end.

And as crappy as all that is, most of the plot not dealing directly with the drug-induced brainwashing mess is just nonsensical.

A major component of Batgirl’s appeal is that she is unique, a twisted freak trying to make good. But in the miniseries, she's at war with literally dozens of girls almost as capable as she is in the fighting and killing. They train right in the open in Gotham City, in a dull brick building (the art is the best part of the series and even it’s merely banal). Deathstroke spends millions of dollars putting this army of unbeatable martial arts women together, then blows them all up for no particular reason. Batgirl puzzles out the secret behind this nefarious yet idiotic scheme in a flash of non sequitor insight at the end of issue #5 because the writer's wasted the previous issues on bland fight scenes and inane conversations and now has to wrap things up in an “exciting” climax.

What the hell happened? The story's end is... wow. Complete with a quote stolen from Batman Begins (the last thing you want to do in your crappy story is reference a good story and make the readers long for something more competent) followed by a cop-out, followed by the ol' "We saw what you did and even though the artist sort of botched it, we're going to fix it with some expository dialogue" ploy. Again... wow.

What the hell happened? Once again, Batgirl is plagued by some embarrassingly poor characterization. How did we go from a Batgirl who, at one point, gives away her real identity to a government agency so she can be Batgirl full-time without any of that boring civilian stuff, a girl who literally makes a death pact to get back her fighting skills in order to stay Batgirl, one who defies Batman when he "fires" her and then fights him toe-to-toe to establish herself once more... to one who whines about how unfair life is and just wants to be “normal?”

I remember that from all those early episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer; but I don’t remember it from any issue of Batgirl. The world-beater who just wants to fit in, who just wants to be like everyone else.

Remember Jen Yu from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? She has all these amazing skills and wants to be anything but normal. She's in furious rebellion against a world that would confine her to mere normalcy. Of course, because society so limits her everything she touches ends up ruined and she destroys herself, but still she has moments of glory on the rooftops and in that absolutely insane restaurant fight. To exist and exult in action and capability no matter the cost, even if briefly. I always felt Batgirl was somewhat kin to Jen Yu, what with her death wish, love for her abilities and unconcern with personal safety.

You know, Batman digs her skills but fears for her, Barbara Gordon's terrified for her. Nope, turns out all along Batgirl just wanted to be a normal teen girl and go shopping and write about crushes on boys in her diary. Brilliant. It takes a special kind of genius to impose something so counterintuitive and familiar and wrong on a character like Batgirl.

Oh, and to that end, Batgirl gets a lame love interest. Of course she does. We can't have a girl character without a little romance in the story. Batgirl instantaneously falls in love with some random, uninteresting character she meets at a coffeehouse (how unoriginal!) and we know this not because the story builds to it or the artwork makes us believe there’s any kind of frisson between the two or that the dude has anything resembling a personality, but because Batgirl simply tells us in a few narrative captions. Because bad storytelling dictates there must be several cutesy-pie scenes in a coffeehouse with a nice-boy lover. Yawn.

Months ago, when this miniseries was first announced, I begged DC to put someone other than Adam Beechen on the book. To put someone unexpected, someone top-notch, someone edgy and gutsy and original on the script. Someone who could do something dark and hard-hitting, a la Kill Bill meets Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Someone who had read and absorbed Koike Kazuo’s Lone Wolf and Cub and Lady Snowblood, rather than someone who had written the most generic episodes of Hi! Hi! Puffy AmiYumi and couldn’t even get Ami and Yumi right.

Beechen is probably a nice guy and generally adequate doing kiddie stuff, and he said all the right things in the interviews before the series' release. So I was willing to give Batgirl a try. What a letdown. Once again Beechen proved he's never grasped the essence of Batgirl as a character or the dark, tragic yet strangely giddy tone her stories require.

Despite DC's inability to do anything interesting with Batgirl, I still love the character and her unfulfilled potential, and often doodle her in my sketchbooks. Here are a couple of recent drawrings I did...

The first one is a swipe of Alejandro Garza's cover to Batgirl #60, slightly modified. Pretty heavyhanded, unfortunately. I want to draw it a few more times to see if I can't get it right!

I think it's funky how huge some artists make Batgirl's breasts, especially in her skin-tight costume. Is the original supposed to be leather, or some heavy, protective material like Batman's? Is it something like the Lycra stuff top swimmers or gymnasts wear? In any of those cases, even if she did have large breasts, they wouldn't jut out perfectly round the way so many artists depict them; they'd be sort of pressed down and much less prominent... and Garza's one of the mildest offenders. Anyway, I have my own version of Batgirl's costume I like to use and I imagine the material as fairly heavy, similar to athletic wear, and her body as smaller, more wiry/muscular. The stitched-mouth mask seems obsolete now that she can talk as well as anyone, and I've always felt she wanted to embody the Batman legacy moreso than the Batgirl one. So I split the difference and gave her some sort of old school Batman garb.

The next one is totally original:

Yeah, it's a butt shot. Sorry, folks. It's not so much that I'm against rear views as such; mostly, I get tired of them as an excuse to reduce female comic book characters to two sexual elements, literally tits and ass. Also, when drawing these artists usually twist the torso way too much so they can get more boobage into the drawing. Mine isn't meant to be sexy or anything. Batgirl's expression sort of says, "Oh, I didn't see you back there. Time to turn around and kick your ass!"

I like putting a short cape on her as an accent piece. I'm with Edna Mode-- a long cape is just wrong, and dangerously so. Especially for a swirling martial artist like Batgirl. She'd be fighting the cape most of the time instead of the villains.

I'm going to do full-color marker renderings of these sometime this week! I need to fix some proportions first though. And work. And clean my apartment. And eat. Life just interrupts my comic book-based fooling around on a regular basis.

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