Thursday, 8 September 2011

Gotham, Bless My Aim

I had no intention of buying Batgirl, digitally or otherwise. I've got no interest in the character, whether the Barbara Gordon version or any other. I've never read an issue of Birds of Prey that I can recall, or anything where Gordon was protagonist. As a kid, I remember her from the occasional appearance on the 60s Batman show, but that's really it. I am about the last person that this title is aimed at.

Gordon'd been Killing Joked into Oracle by the time I was reading the UK Batman reprints, and my main feeling about her was annoyance. Oracle was a shortcut for lazy writers. Batman has a puzzle? Phone up Oracle, she'll have the answer. Now, Oracle as a concept is great: an information broker for the superhero set. Just as inspired was Brad Meltzer's reinvention of the Calculator as her villain counterpart, one of the few good things to emerge from the Identity Crisis series. But in the Bat-books she becomes a way for the writers to avoid having to write Batman doing detective work. I can't particularly blame them. Writing good detective fiction is hard. But if you find yourself writing a title called Detective Comics, maybe you should put the fucking hours in.

Batman-as-Detective is a trope that hasn't really filtered through into the various movie-verse Batman films, and it's a shame. I've been known to posit a convoluted argument that the Nolan movies show him doing detective work as a modern real-word detective understands it- electronic surveillance, interrogation, CSI-type methods- and I was interested to note Tony Daniel intending to use the same approach in his upcoming Detective Comics run. It's mirrored in the development of crime fiction over the decades, too, beginning with Holmesian cerebral types working through mysteries intellectually, through to modern fiction in the Inspector Rebus mould, where investigators rely on footwork, guesswork and informants to break their cases. But I don't really think this was deliberate choice on the film-makers' parts. People just don't tend to think of Batman as being a detective anymore.

But I like the stories that revolve around mysteries (or Riddler-puzzles), that show Batman using his intellect like a superpower. Oh, my kingdom for a bird-themed Penguin heist. Paul Dini was particularly good at this, as was Alan Grant during his classic Detective / Shadow of the Bat run with artist Norm Breyfogle. Writers like Chuck Dixon and Doug Moench, unfortunately, were not. These writers have their fans, but I've never been keen myself. Perhaps I'm remembering wrong, and maybe my recollection is distorting the issue, but I always think of them as the worst offenders when it came to casting Oracle in an expository role.

I was never that enthused by the Bat-family anyway. I'm a fair bit happier these days, maybe because writers I like have been handling the characters. But pre-Grant Morrison it seemed like every other Batman title had Nightwing or Spoiler or (worst of all) the bloody Huntress co-starring in it. I got sick of the hangers-on, and subscribed whole-heartedly to the Batman-as-loner approach.

Problem is, the grim night-stalking loner take tends to tempt writers towards a complete fruit-loop portrayal, much like the one Christian Bale is currently rocking. It's fine for the relatively brief run-time of a movie, but becomes unrelentingly grim to read month after month. I always thought a good balance would have been having Batman solo in his own title, and with Robin in Detective. Or, these days, in the Batman and Robin title itself.

At the other end of the scale, in the hands of bad writers the Bat-family become one-note caricatures, with Batman as grim moody patriarch and Nightwing as prodigal son. I've always seen Nightwing himself as a lightweight Batman, only for the character to come into focus for me in the Happy Batman role pre-Return of Bruce Wayne, to the extent that for the better part of two years my favourite comic was, in essence, Nightwing and the Little Psycho. In fact, Morrison, Snyder and even Winick have written such a good Dick Grayson that Nightwing itself is a title I'm looking forward to, and if you'd told me that in the 90s I would've looked at you funny.

The return of Barbara Gordon (I almost typed "the original Batgirl" there, bat-fans, which isn't quite true) as Batgirl is not without controversy. In a typically tone-deaf manner, DC have removed one of the few extant heroes who live with a disability. And not only is this not the first time, it's not the first time with this title, having previously replaced an Asian Batgirl (and only member of the Bat-family from a minority background) with a white one (and turning her into a villain, to boot), not all that long ago.

With all of this in mind, of all the DCnU titles I was intending to pick up, Batgirl wasn't one of them. Because of issues with the Comixology service which I'll likely go into in a future post, it ended up being the second digital title I bought after Justice League #1. And it's superb. Imagine my surprise.

Gail Simone is a talented, well-respected writer who, with the exception of a brief Deadpool run some time ago that I really dug, tends to work on characters I don't give a crap about. On the strength of this issue, I'm tempted to go looking for the other stuff I've missed.

The stand-out revelation, however, is Ardian Syaf's art. It's gorgeous. It reminds me of Scott Kolins at his best, but a lot more physical, in keeping with the acrobatic style of the protagonist. And, joy of joys, the women are all drawn in decent proportion, meaning the title isn't a complete fucking embarrassment to read (DC can feel free to use that quote in advertising, should they wish). There's a lot of go to the issue, a lot of action. I even like the busy, armour-esque quality of the new costume, the first of the DCnU redesigns that fit into the artist's style, and world. Syaf seems at ease with the new look in a way that even Jim Lee has trouble selling (and Lee did the damn redesigns).

Classic adventure comics, really, but modern in style rather than regressively retro. And a lot happens, too. You learn everything you need to know about Gordon, a bit of necessary backstory, a bit about her personality (and it's good to see a writer not dismissing the debilitating effects of post-traumatic stress), plus you get a new villain and two fight scenes. Awesome fight scenes. It has all the wit, personality, density and kineticism that Justice League #1 was completely devoid of, making the latter seem even less substantial and more patronising that it did initially. This is how superhero action comics should be done.

But the best part, without doubt, is the single caption-box line used as the title of this post. It demonstrates the kind of subtle touch the great writers have when it comes to characterisation. It tells us that Gordon is a woman with faith in something greater (and as a trauma-survivor who regained the ability to walk, I imagine she would be), but also distinguishes her from Batman. I'm not sure if Batman really has that much faith in Gotham- and why would he? He thinks he has to wage a non-stop war himself because he doesn't trust the populace to deal with the monsters of Gotham. But Batgirl does have faith in her mother-city despite everything she's seen and has been through, faith that echoes in her interactions with the police officers and her father (himself a senior official of the city.) Unsurprisingly given the family connection, she believes in the police force in a way that Wayne, the orphan of murder victims, clearly would not. And it's another subtle hint, in line with recent explorations of Gotham's history in the Gates mini-series and in the upcoming Western DCnU title, plus a continuity of architectural design as seen in the JL#1 art, that Gotham herself may be a character of hidden significance in the rebooted universe.

You can read a lot into that single line, and not just because it's bad-ass. The mark of a great story-teller, and a great story.