Sunday, September 6, 2009

Still Not Sure What Hit 'Em: Batgirl #1 Review

Batgirl #1
DC Comics
Script: Bryan Q. Miller
Pencils: Lee Garbett
Inks: Trevor Scott
Colors: Guy Majors

Capsule Review: Wow! I remember this TV show! It was called Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A pretty blond teen with special abilities has to hide her nocturnal comings and goings and balance schoolwork with crime-fighting. And, apparently, take showers. Bryan Q. Miller's story is fast-paced but reads like a mediocre filler issue of Dark Horse's first Buffy comic adaptation; artist Lee Garbett even makes the main character resemble Sarah Michelle Gellar in a few panels. Choppy action sequences don't help.

After the climactic action in which she somehow survives a building explosion, new Batgirl Stephanie Brown thinks to herself, "Everything I did last night was wrong. Everything." Thanks to the muddled storytelling in this comic, I'm still trying to figure out exactly what it is she did. I don't think I've ever read a superhero comic this averse to showing how one action-- cause-- leads to another-- effect.

Did Bryan Q. Miller's script ordain this, or does penciller Lee Garbett have no interest in simple action-to-action storytelling? You know, the idea that if you show someone doing something in one panel, you should depict either the action's continuance or its result in the next so that things make sense and the reader doesn't have to invent the causes in his or her head. In Garbett's sequencing, he has Batgirl fire a tiny grappling gun in one panel, then swan-dive from the air in the next. I suppose she swung up there during the interval, but why can't Garbett show her doing just that instead of using the now-cliched "widescreen" panel page layout and skipping major action beats?

On the next page, which begins with a jumble of panels that confusingly violate the Western tradition of reading from left to right, a thug apparently fires a pistol through the roof of a speeding car. Apparently, because we see neither driver nor gun, just the bullet trajectories emerging from the roof of his Chevy "Impaler."

Really, if we let our imaginations do the work Garbett should have done with his pencil, we can visualize almost anything happening in this scene. Maybe the driver is super-powered and can spit sunflower seeds at supersonic speeds, fast enough to puncture the car's headliner and sheet metal. Maybe those are large yellow-orange ropes descending from a helicopter. Maybe someone had previously drilled holes in the roof and now the driver's shining a flashlight through them, or going supernova inside the car while shouting, "PANG! PANG! PANG!"

Or maybe those are pangs he's feeling for how confusing this book has become in just three easy pages. We know Batgirl does something because she gets "POOT" as her sound effect. But because she's minuscule and obscured by the car, we're not exactly sure what. Maybe she cuts the bat-cheese? Man, that black bodysuit probably holds the stink in and channels it right into her face mask, too. Nasty.

I believe Batgirl is somehow using her bat-ropes to tie the two cars together because suddenly, they magically lose their rear axles and there seems to be a rope involved.

"Not my best plan," Batgirl nonsensically tells herself, as if there were some less destructive way to stop drag racers in full flight using only your body and some rope. Perhaps she should have simply phoned the police and let them handle it. But then we wouldn't have Batgirl #1, we'd have the first and last issue of Stephanie Brown, Neighborhood Watchperson.

From a distance, the new Robin watches the action through binoculars and remarks, "Tsk-tsk. Sloppy."

We could say the same thing about the artwork. Even more ridiculous is a sequence a few pages later where Barbara Gordon beats up a trio of guys on a subway-- and they haven't done anything to deserve it, beyond looking like stereotypical urban gangstas from central casting. I suppose we're to understand merely from their clothes they're up to no good. After all, Barbara's alone in a grimy, gritty subway car and we all know from movies nothing positive ever happens to women alone on subway cars when gangbangers are near. Garbett can't seem to decide if these walking cliches are behind Barbara's wheelchair or in front of it-- there's a tangent between her chair and one guy's arm that makes it unclear. Garbett doesn't give them a particularly aggressive posture; their clothes and and hip-hop accouterments are enough to make them suspect and ripe for a cathartic beating by the life-enraged Babs.

Notice, too, the one-sided fight happens in a black-out panel and we only get to "listen in" via sound effects. Maybe they should've just gotten some voice actors and foley artists and done this comic book as a radio show.

Later, during the story's climax, Batgirl manages to somehow get little bat-shaped shuriken into some thugs' hands, but we don't get to see her actually throwing them. She does punch a guy, but all we see is a close-up of his squashed face and her disembodied fist. That hand could belong to anyone. It's also an example of Rambo Syndrome, where the hero just happens to be in the right place at the right time. Despite being in the jungle, Rambo knows the singular tree out of thousands an unsuspecting Soviet soldier is going to stop underneath to smoke a cigarette or wipe his sweaty forehead. So Rambo hides in it a few minutes earlier, then drops down at the right moment and cuts the man's throat; he also knows the exact spot of mudbank to squish into to surprise and kill a Vietnamese trooper. Possessed of a similar psychic ability, Steph knows beforehand (or beforefist) what window a criminal's going to peek out of during a tense standoff with police.

Even better, once actually inside the building, Batgirl merely poses with crossed arms while the cop she's ostensibly there to rescue does all the fighting for her. "Oh, he's pretty," she thinks. "Look tough, Steph."

Or contribute. After all, you got all dressed up for the occasion, kid.

With her thrill addiction and self-deprecating wit, Stephanie Brown could be a mildly appealing protagonist in a suburban chick kind of way, and it looks like there will be some tension in the Bat-ranks as she tries to fill a new role some think is above her abilities. I mean, she did get herself almost killed as Robin not so long ago, right? How's she going to make out on her own as Batgirl?

On the other hand, she apparently has the ability to survive smashing through the windshield of a speeding car, dancing on its roof and then jumping off the back with nary a scratch. Hell, she ought to take on the role of Supergirl after that performance. Sloppy, Robin? Let's see you do that, kiddo.

So this is how fan-favorite character Stephanie Brown takes over as Batgirl from the disillusioned and by-now unrecognizably-characterized Cassandra Cain, whose brief appearance in a flashback sequence makes her a meta-textual stand-in for DC’s readership. Poor Cass quits her Bat-family position in seeming despondency over recent storylines, no doubt including the badly-garbled Resurrection Road miniseries that was supposed to restore her to full hero status but only succeeded in alienating readers with its incompetence. I can only assume Stephanie's comment that Cass seems "less chatty than usual" is meant to be taken ironically, but when did Cass ever use a term like "self-delusion?" Kudos to the kid's ESL teachers; they've done a bang-up job and in less than a year or two.

And this is how we go from a hero who once stopped a man’s heart momentarily just to teach him a lesson to one who yawns through class and doodles bat-symbols in her notes. And takes steamy showers.

Progress, baby.

Oh well. Taken as a whole, Batgirl #1's not the worst DC comic in recent history. Any given issue of Amazons Attack still comes away with top honors in that category, although a few single issues of Supergirl from a year or two ago come close, and any book featuring poor Cassandra Cain since her own series ended, with the sole exception of her brief stint in Batman and the Outsiders.

Yep, the action in this book is laughably bad. But Bryan Q. Miller has a way with dialogue-- there's an amusing exchange between Stephanie and the cop-- and his first-person narration isn't as clunky as most. It really seems as though Stephanie's internal monologue depicts her real-time thought process, rather than the bizarre stream-of-conscious autobiographin' a lot of heroes seem to do. And Garbett knows how to draw a mean toothbrushing.

But beyond those meagre charms, Batgirl's biggest problem isn't its botched action sequences. It's that this book doesn't do anything special with the Batgirl concept itself besides put a cultish character in the suit... and the muddled art certainly isn't doing Miller's already overly familiar story situations any favors. Although not having read the raw script, I can't be sure if Miller's script didn't let down Garbett's pencils.

Either way, I really don't see this book as appealing to anyone beyond hardcore Stephanie Brown fans or readers who feel compelled to purchase every single tie-in issue-- even the crappy ones they end up complaining about later-- to whatever over-arcing narrative the Bat-books have happening in any particular month. I might buy it again if Miller injects some worthy Cassandra Cain action into the book. But my fannishness over a supporting character, especially one that's been so badly served over the past few years, is a pretty paltry selling point for a comic.

Buffygirl #1.


Nathaniel said...

I think I actually liked this book a little more than I was prepared to. The Cass scenes are obviously problematic, but they've been discussed to death at this point and everyone knows what's wrong with them--including the writer, I hope, given the fact that DC's official blog was swarmed by people upset about her characterization after this issue came out.

This seems to me to be a classic example of a first issue totally devoted to a writer setting up his pieces--the only problem being that there are way too many in this book. We've got Steph, Cass (assuming that the writer wasn't just trying to appease the fanbase when he said she'd appear again in an interview), Barbara, the girl from Teen Titans that got crippled by Wonder Dog whose name I never remember, this new generic police officer who I don't really care about... Unless the book actually does turn into some weird Batgirl team book, I don't see how all these characters are going to be juggled without causing the plot to move at a snail's pace. But super drawn-out arcs are the big thing in comics these days...

I'd almost kill for this book to just be a Steph/Cass buddy teamup book, but I don't think that's what it's going to be. I guess I'm just going to have to wait for the ominous "big Cassandra Cain storyline" that's supposed to happen next year.

Joel Bryan said...

Isn't it funny whenever DC announces an upcoming big storyline for one of their characters-- especially Cassandra Cain-- we automatically cringe? Just reading that made my stomach drop!

Anyway, those are some good points. There are so many little elements in this comic the story comes across as a bit jumbled and unfocused. I thought the dialogue was just fine, but the basic premise just seems overly familiar. At least Stephanie wants to fight crime, rather than pining for a "normal" life or "searching for her place in the world" or any of those old wheezes. So it has that going for it. If only DC employed artists as editors like they did back in the Joe Orlando days to smooth out Lee Garbett's storytelling they might have something here... eventually.

Yeah, I would've loved for this to be a Cass/Steph team book too. Even if the prime focus were on Steph, who really is a character I find somewhat bland and cutesy-pie. In terms of what they've done with her, giving her the Batgirl identity certainly makes a lot of sense. I'm just not into her enough to come back without Cass as a hook.

Unless they set Cass up as her evil insane nemesis, in which case I wouldn't buy this book on a bet.

Nathaniel said...

What's funny is that just the other day I was thinking about a comment that I think Didio made about Cassandra before the fateful Beechen issues of Robin. It was something along the lines of how they were going to "return Cassandra to her roots, when she was silent and dangerous." And now we have a Cassandra who is as far away from her roots as possible. I wonder how that happened?

I kind of agree about Steph being a bland character--I mostly liked her in relation to Cass. A lot of people have also pointed out that now all of the Big 3 female sidekicks (Supergirl, Wonder Girl, and Batgirl) are blond and white, which doesn't really help her feel any less generic. Even her new costume is pretty much just a modified version of Babs' with a purple racing stripe.

I'm just interested in seeing where the book goes. A lighthearted Bat-book might be a nice change of pace, but I still think it could be lighthearted and include Cass.

Joel Bryan said...

I agree there. A lighthearted book is a great idea. I think Cass has untapped potential for comedy, actually. Especially contrasted with a more conventional, sunny character like Steph.

You inspired a huge new post.