Friday, November 20, 2009

Batgirl #4: Field Test

Batgirl is possibly the book I'm enjoying more than any other at the moment - perhaps the storyline hasn't so far pulled up any trees but the writing, and particularly the dialogue, feels fresh and fun while the artwork and page composition is clean, rich and imaginative - very much to my own tastes.

I'll admit to feeling a bit puzzled when I saw the cover of this issue - 'Meet the New Batgirl!' it proclaimed as we were reintroduced to Stephanie Brown in her new Batgirl costume. 'Surely we met the new Batgirl over the previous three issues' I thought. By the end of the issue I think I had a better Idea where the creative team were coming from with this statement.

For me, this issue has a theme - or moral - of 'the first few nights are always the hardest': the story begins with new University student Stephanie explaining to her mother that she's too busy with school work to take a break and ends - seven hours later and after a night of adventure - with Stephanie struggling to get out of bed prompting some motherly words of encouragement ... 'the first few nights are always the hardest'.

With their bickering behind them, Stephanie and Barbara Gordon are back at base preparing for the night ahead. With the new costume linked in to Barbara's computer network Batgirl is ready for action. Within an hour of her 'shift' starting Stephanie breaks up a robbery and makes an unexpected guest appearance on one of the city's open-top bus tours. Minutes later she finds herself in the middle of a city-wide blackout as a result of a power cut.

In the meantime Barbara is called away to the Thompkins Clinic where an angry and frustrated Wendy Harris refuses to accept that she's used her legs for the last time. After hours of intensive exercise Wendy finally can take no more, breaking down in tears - distraught about her own physical condition as well as the loss of her brother Marvin. Clearly these are difficult times for Wendy but Barbara is on hand to comfort her ... 'the first few nights are always the hardest'.

Over at the Gotham City Police Department Jim Gordon and Detective Nick Gage get a call that takes them to Monarch Meadows Stadium where they find the badly-burned body of a city employee. Continuing onto the D.W.P. facility the officers are helpless to intervene in a confrontation between Batgirl and an unexpected adversary ... Livewire. With an inevitable conclusion the issue closes.

So, what was the line 'Meet the New Batgirl!' about? This issue is, in many ways, the proper start of the new run of Batgirl. The first story-arc, Point of Origin, had a 'prelude' or 'zero issue' feel about it - over those three issues we witnessed the handover of responsibility from Cassandra, Stephanie fighting for her own identity, Barbara resisting and resenting that there's a new Batgirl in town.

Building on solid foundations, this issue sees Stephanie embracing her new role. Yes, she's quick to put herself down - 'I'm almost fifty percent sure nothing could go wrong' she says when asked if she'll be ok - but she's got a genuine self-confidence that possibly says as much about the naivety of her young years as it does her talent.

Out of costume Stephanie appears much younger than in costume and this serves to remind us of her vulnerability - yes, she's been well been trained and has great back-up but she's still a young girl: this, along with the wise-cracks and bravado go a long way I think to explain the comparisons with Joss Whedon's Buffy Summers - quite a compliment to Bryan Q. Miller's writing I'd say.

At the moment, for me, the core of this book is about 'burgeoning relationships' - Stephanie and Barbara, Barbara and Wendy, Batgirl and Gage, even Stephanie and Batgirl - and I'm looking forward seeing these develop further.

After three distinctly stylised covers Phil Noto delivers something a little more conventional - the inclusion of dialogue aside - for this issue while the interior-artwork team gets a bit of a shuffle with Tim Levins now working alongside Lee Garbett - practically a neighbour of mine here in South West England! - on pencils.

A solid, enjoyable and entertaining read, with good writing and nice artwork suggesting good things to come for Stephanie Brown and friends.

'The first few nights are always the hardest'.