Who's That Batgirl? 'Burnside' Charms Despite StumblesBarbara Gordon gets a perky makeover in the new Batgirl Vol. 1. Critic Etelka Lehoczky says the series is a clever exploration of identity in the digital age, but suffers from occasional cluelessness.
"I guess you can't trust any Batgirl these days," Barbara Gordon says roguishly (she does everything roguishly) in Batgirl Vol. 1: Batgirl of Burnside. It's a sly, even subversive line, referring to the fact that the role has been played by many different characters — and in many different ways — over the years. With Barbara's comment, the authors reiterate their cleverly layered theme: Identity, especially in the digital age, is anything but fixed.
For its first twist, this series reimagines Barbara herself. She's got a new Batgirl costume that inspired intense fan and non-fan discussion when it was first revealed. She's also got some new friends and a determinedly forward-looking mindset. There's barely any sign of the girl who was shot by the Joker and left paralyzed in Alan Moore's notorious Batman: The Killing Joke. (At least, not at first.) She's also got a new, rather preadolescent physique courtesy of artist Babs Tarr. It's fun to watch her bound around weightlessly, but her spindly limbs could use a little meat. At least her refashioned outfit looks tough: It's got a moto-styled jacket, Alexander Wang-esque tool belt and, best of all, yellow stompy boots.
Batgirl's new, yellow-booted stomping ground (or stompy ground) is Burnside, a dupe of Brooklyn. Burnside is "the 'cool' hood ... I've never seen so many tattoo shops on one block," one character says. The authors have clearly been instructed by their DC Comics overlords to make the series as youthful and au courant as humanly possible, and they don't stint. Ever. Seldom does a page go by without the characters ostentatiously texting, hacking or snapping selfies. (What, no Chatroulette?) Barbara meets a cute cop at a crime scene, but they don't actually go out until he tracks her down through the comic's version of OK Cupid. It feels a bit like the worldview of a well-meaning but befuddled dad who's trying to keep up with his teenager. Think Randy Marsh on South Park.
The slightly harried of-the-momentism extends to the social and cultural realms. In her first stories Barbara encounters one character with dreadlocks and crutches, one with a headscarf and a third with two moms. Such diversity would be heartening if it didn't feel so forced. Muslim Nadimah in particular has nothing to do but listen supportively to Barbara.
The aroma of cluelessness clings especially closely to a character introduced midway through, a cross-dressing, dimensionless villain who's a hack take on the "hysterical queen in makeup" trope and has already angered trans folk. For all their sedulous social progressivism, when it was time to get scary the authors couldn't think of anything to do but deck out a guy in lipstick and runny eyeliner. It's a shame, because the character does carry through the authors' exploration of the fragility of identity, including a cover that nods cheekily at the too-big-to-fail role of a superhero. If only the authors had known how to play with the instability of gender in a thoughtful way.
That's particularly disappointing considering how cleverly they engage with questions of identity otherwise. An artist who appropriates Batgirl's image anticipates the recent real-world controversy over selfie stealer Richard Prince. Another villain raises a warning flag about the potential for people's online information to be used against them. When the authors reference Batgirl's painful history it makes a jarring contrast with the otherwise upbeat tone. That's no bad thing.
Batgirl's gadgets are cool, too; one of them is an instant-set foam that encases a baddie in the driver's seat of his car. Unfortunately, though, the action scenes lack oomph. There's never that sharp, visceral "Wow!" feeling that a great action panel evokes. However graceful and peppy she may be, Barbara never manages to blast beyond conventional limits in a spectacular way. This is partly Tarr's fault, partly a panel problem. The squares are almost always too cramped and uniform for drama.
In other respects, though, Tarr triumphs. Drawn like retro Barbies or characters out of romance comics, Tarr's girls have a jokey, knowing quality that offsets their kittenishness. And there's real joy in Tarr's lines, a buoyancy that's like a manifestation of gratitude. It's as if not just Barbara, but the world around her is celebrating her apotheosis. Every line seems to say, "Isn't it great? A whole new me!" Maybe not great, Batgirl, but it's pretty good.
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com. She tweets at@EtelkaL.