This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on October 9, 2014.
I was very excited about the debut of Batgirl #35. Editor Mark Doyle has been reinvigorating the Batman family of titles with new creative talent and a fresh, diverse vision that began last week in deservedly lauded Gotham Academy #1. Batgirl #35 had the look and design of something fresh, a street level take infused with youth culture. Upon reading the issue today I was met only with disappointment and frustration. The issue fails to live up to its incredible hype and suffers from a variety of issues within its script. However, I want to start this discussion by focusing on the work of artist Babs Tarr and colorist Maris Wicks, because their work here is outstanding. If nothing else, this issue serves as a strong declaration of their skill and craftsmanship.
Tarr’s work as a designer shines through in every page of this issue. Character outfits appear natural, yet also reflect an aptitude for fashion
. They evoke the intended tone of youth and urban sensibilities perfectly. That applies to the wide variety of interiors ranging from coffee shops to nightclubs as well. What’s even better are the characters that occupy these outfits and settings. Tarr has a knack for cartooning, exaggerating and forming dynamic expressions to create comedy, sentiment, and motion . Cameron Stewart provides the layouts for Tarr’s pages and should be commended for his assistance in some of the bold compositions that Tarr delivers.
Maris Wicks’ colors are similar to that flat shades of Jordie Bellaire’s work. It’s a style that conforms with Tarr’s cartooning perfectly. Her work emphasizes the comic’s strong design elements, highlighting each unique element rather than blending them together. They also help to tell the story. There are several unconventional compositions in Batgirl #35 that reveal the hero’s thought process. Wicks’ colors help to guide readers through the page and to pull out the most important pieces of information in crowded panels.Tarr and Wicks excel at telling this story through visual cues. Their work here has guaranteed that I will check out any projects they are involved with in the future.
However, I won’t be reading anymore of Batgirl. Their quality work is incapable of making up for the flaws in this script. The most obvious offense of this script is its dialogue. The cast of young, urban characters read as if they are being written by someone much older who learned how this demographic speaks by briefly skimming
Tumblr and Instagram. Barbara and her friends regularly use acronyms and phrases that I (as someone who exists within this exact demographic) have never heard spoken aloud or typed. There is a constant application of cute nicknames and signifiers like smiley faces that quickly become an eyesore within this story and distract from what is actually occurring on the page.The low point comes in the form of DJ Riot, the villain of the issue. Although he is clearly being written to appear as an obnoxious jerk, his speech patterns go so far as to be laughable. His constant use of hashtags in speech are both annoying and incorrect. If it is being assumed that he uses hashtags so regularly they have become part of his speech pattern, then he should at least use them correctly. Instead they are attached to nouns almost at random. He says things like “Damn, Bae, you trippin!”, a phrase that has only ever been used as parody.
Multiple sequences and lines of dialogue make this comic read as a story written in the manner of men imagine women to act and speak. One particularly egregious example comes when Barbara corners a thief. He accuses her of being fourteen and she responds by shouting, “I’m legal, loser.” Legal could refer to a variety of things including the voting and drinking age. However, the phrase is most commonly used in reference to the age of consent and it bears the connotation. It’s completely reasonable that Barbara would be upset at being told she looks like a fourteen year old. It’s just as unreasonable that her response would be to inform this thief that she is able to legally consent to sex.
There has been ample discussion about an early sequence where Barbara blacks out and upon awakening discovers a potential sexual encounter from the night before. Although I did not find the sequence to be sexist, it presents itself from a male perspective. Dialogue is used to lionize the young man whom Barbara almost slept with while so intoxicated that she is incapable of recalling who he is. He is referred to as a “gentleman” for not sleeping with Barbara and opting for the couch instead, but only after having been pried off of her. What is treated as good behavior is simply the absence of bad behavior. Not sleeping with a woman who is incredibly intoxicated shouldn’t be applauded, it should be expected. Instead the relationship between intoxication and involuntary sex is completely ignored, and this man is the hero of the sequence for simply not doing the wrong thing.
My problem is not that someone outside of the gender and age demographics of these characters is writing them. It’s something that Kieron Gillen does regularly and his success writing young women in comics like Phonogram and Young Avengers has been incredible. The issue is that these characters do not speak like women or young people. They speak and behave like ridiculous caricatures of young people.
Beyond the troubling and inauthentic characterizations, the plot itself is trite and undercooked.
Barbara’s character changes based upon the needs of the plot. One moment she is an incredibly intelligent and intuitive. She can recall the layout of multiple city blocks and construct the best possible path, then walk through her memories of stranger’s at a drunken party in order to discover suspect. Yet she forgets major details about her own equipment until it is convenient for her to remember. The story functions as a self-contained mystery only because it is forced into that shape. Many of the connections go far beyond coincidence and become convenience. Although there are clever moments, they are strung together in an obvious fashion.
The term “plot hole” is both over used and misused on a regular basis. However, there is an egregious enough problem with this script that it cannot be ignored and qualifies as a genuine plot hole. Barbara contacts a thief as herself on an app that resembles Tinder. She gives the thief her physical appearance, location, and real name. Upon meeting him on the app, she arranges a meeting in person. She proceeds to cancel the meeting with a text mere moments before approaching the man as Batgirl. The coincidence is already extraordinary, not to mention that Batgirl looks exactly like Barbara. She even references exactly what Barbara has just done to him, as Batgirl. The only possible reason this criminal does not know Batgirl’s real identity is that he received significant brain damage from the beating he is given. It’s a lazy piece of plotting that creates a significant disruption in reading.
Batgirl #35 illustrates that comics function as a collaborative medium and have to be judged as such. Tarr and Wicks provide outstanding work, but the flaws in the script still ruin the experience. It’s impossible to recommend this issue on the strength of the art alone when the dialogue, gender presentation, and plotting are this troubled. It’s an unfortunate disappointment, but one that needs to be acknowledged. As much as I wanted to see this concept succeed, I cannot honestly say that it does. The problems in Batgirl #35 are too big to not discuss.