Friday, September 30, 2011

When Batgirl Discovered Art

Batgirl and the homeless guy.  This is from Batgirl #51 where Dylan Horrocks introduced the concept of Cassandra Cain shocking people by saying inappropriate things.  The story containing these moments is a two-parter in which Poison Ivy has tricked this goofball artist wannabe into helping her create a mind-controlling garden the heart of Gotham City.  It opens with your standard comic book action sequence-- Gotham police chasing some generic criminal scumbags in cars, Batgirl swoops in from some impossible angle and saves a homeless man from being run over.  It's not really integrated into the plot, so it's more just a framing device that sets up an interesting concept only to give it up in favor of a standard and somewhat stale super-villain plot.

The book's artist uses a chalk-line device to outline each panel featuring the homeless man because his thing is making lines on the sidewalk with a piece of chalk.  These frames-- reminiscent of some of the stuff the art team on Alan Moore's Swamp Thing series used to play with-- set him apart spatially and conceptually from the chase, in much the same way he's extraneous to the main story, with quick cuts from oblivious artist to the car chase, right up until Batgirl appears.  Then Batman shows up and explains to her the man is creating a map of a fantasy Gotham City, one from out of his head.  Batman sympathizes with him, describing him as "an old man who should be in the hospital," and telling Batgirl he also wishes the real city could be like the man's pretend one.

It's pretty neat thinking of Batman as being so aware of Gotham City he knows all about the psychosis of one of its street people.  There's almost an element of caring on his part.  And truly, Gotham is Batman's city.

Digression-- Batgirl sports enormous breasts during this sequence.  Later, she's shown wearing only a towel, and after that a little black dress; by this time, her breasts are a more natural proportion compared to the rest of her body.  Perhaps her costume has some sort of breast-enhancement padding.  I suppose it could be some kind of armor, but it apparently cups, lifts and separates.  It's as if Batgirl gets her armor from the Combat Goddess collection at Victoria's Secret.  It's not a superhero comic with a female protagonist if it doesn't feature at least some objectification, I suppose.  The towel scene is more than a little gratuitous-- okay, Batgirl showers after she fights crime, hooray for hygiene, but the conversation could have taken place at any point before or after she cleaned herself up.  As ridiculous as this is, I'm much more horrified by the bizarre facial construction throughout.  The rendering is so hit-or-miss, Cass's forehead also changes sizes frequently.  If this were a movie, they'd have hired six different actors to play each role.  Digression ends.

The chalk guy disappears until the end of #52, after Batgirl, Oracle and Batman defeat Poison Ivy and return Gotham City to its normal, overrun-with-crime-hellhole state.  On her way home or to fight more criminals, Batgirl swoops over the guy, and he's still at it, making his chalk map.  Batgirl, a little wiser in the ways of art, gazes down at him in passing, an ever-so-slight and enigmatic smile showing through her mask.  The Rick Leonardi art is a major improvement, more consistent with character appearance and with stronger storytelling.

What was the purpose of the chalk artist?  Was he there to contrast with Poison Ivy's "art?"  Just symbolic of a more pleasant Gotham that can never be?  Perhaps if the story had been more about Batgirl's reaction to this concept and a deeper exploration of the nature of art itself, with the Poison Ivy plot tied more into that, he might have had more of an organic fit.  More of a story-driven purpose.  As it is, he serves as a marker for another idea that really demands a more thorough investigation, rather than more super punch-outs and rope-swinging.

Can you imagine what it would be like to explain art to Cassandra Cain?  I wonder if Barbara took her to an art museum following this adventure.  I really wish that had formed the crux of the next issue.  It would have done more for her mental health and development as a well-rounded person than that time Barbara took her on a cruise, made her wear a bikini and exposed her to the male gaze like one of those parents who teach their kids to swim by tossing them into the deep end without warning.

It's not certain art would register on Cass, the purpose of it all.  Try to explain to her the concept of "art for art's sake," for example.  Much less the whole of art history.  Would she prefer abstraction to the representational, or vice versa?  As someone who can "read" people's movements, would she read the artist's intent?  Could she look at visible brushstrokes on a canvas and "see" the artist's technique, or the moment pigment hit pigment?

What would Cass's own art look like?  Would she draw something childish, yet disturbing?  Two crude stick figures, one with pointed ears and a cape and the other toting a gun, a small figure cowering between them, in response to Barbara's request to "Draw your family?"  Maybe a looming Barbara, threatening to crowd a smaller figure completely off the page.  Or would she be able to recreate the physical movements making up the art methods she saw in the museum?  Or how about action painting? 

I can see Cass getting really into Jackson Pollock.  Flicking paint on a huge canvas on the floor, pouring it, splashing it.

Something violent, something savage, paint splashed and slashed across the canvas.

Too bad we'll never get to see that.


Nathaniel said...

Gigantic breasts Cass always weirds me out, because it's so antithetical to how I view the character. My two favorite Cass artists are Damion Scott and Ale Garza, and I think both did a good job of emphasizing her athleticism over bust size. Though Garza's Cass has the same 'looks totally different in costume' thing going on, since she must gain about 30 lbs of muscle mass in just her legs when she puts on the costume. Leonardi would be a close third in my favorites, though.

But if you ever want to see the creepiest portrayal of Cass, hunt down the Batman: City of Light miniseries. Not only is it a lousy Cass story, but she has such enormous breasts that the artist saw fit to draw nipples poking through her costume. It's awful.

Joel Bryan said...

I like Garza's Cass a lot. And Scott was simply awesome on the character. He really set the standard for how I think she should be portrayed-- kind of a spidery, compactly muscular physique. He gave her face a lot of character, rather than trying to make her a supermodel who happens to fight crime. He made her a deadly little martial artist with a lot of personality that she couldn't help but show despite being mute.

That City of Light thing sounds like my least favorite artist's tendency: "I'm going to draw my female characters as the kind of sex objects I like to masturbate to, and there's not a danged thing you can do about it, unless it's with one hand as well."

I like cheesecake art when it's appropriate, or it's well thought out, like Adam Hughes who makes his super-women look like they can actually handle themselves. I really don't want to see someone with a lot of Robert Crumb fetishes and complexes and sexual hang-ups drawing Black Bat, though.