Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Batgirl #9 Reviewed

Following one or two reservations - okay, I'll say it, disappointments - with the previous issue I'd really been looking forward to seeing the return of a more familiar Batgirl with this release. 'Batgirl Rising: The Flood' marks the start of a new four-part story-arc that begins aboard a train screeching along the tracks through Gotham City. From the conversation between the driver and his Control it's clear something is amiss, that the driver isn't able to stop the train. Inside one of the carriages a middle-aged man - Johnny C - with a clear grudge against Gotham City wears explosives strapped around his waste as the passengers look on in fear.

As the train dashes in and out of the next station without stopping we see Batgirl - Stephanie Brown - desperately hanging on to the last carriage as she communicates with Oracle back at the Batcave. Having pulled herself up onto the roof of the train Stephanie surveys the situation inside the car, courtesy of thermal vision, and for the first time appreciates the scale of her task.

Rejecting Oracle's suggestion that she call in backup, Steph 'tools up', asks for the train to be plunged into darkness and ... CRASH ... swings through a window, knocks Johnny C from his feet amid a flurry of one-liners, calmly disarms the man and, with the lighting restored, receives - and accepts - the appreciation of the grateful passengers.

Soon afterwards, with the dramatic events behind them, Commissioner Gordon approaches Stephanie with a word of thanks, a warm hand on her shoulder and a reminder to be cautious. Stephanie seems a little taken aback by Gordon's comments, and as she reflects on a job very well done, it begins to rain before, almost immediately, catching her in a downpour.

In the meantime, with the rain getting heavier and forecasts suggesting that the weather is set in for the next 24 hours, over at the Computer Sciences lab of Gotham University Barbara Gordon is at work in her office accompanied by student Wendy Harris.

While Wendy works to repair some electrical equipment Barbara is reminiscing about a previous encounter with Wendy's father - The Calculator - in which she foiled his attempts to cure Wendy of her paralysis using a dangerous procedure and ground-breaking technology.

Recounting the events that led to her brother Marvin's death and her own physical condition, Wendy's emotions get the better of her and she snaps back at Barbara's well-meaning words of encouragement, before pushing Barbara further away with some harsh words. The mood changes somewhat as the two are joined by Stephanie - now out of uniform of course - who is reminded that she and Wendy have met once before, at the fundraiser for the Thompkins Clinic. As Wendy leaves the office Barbara asks Steph to follow her ...

Across the city, at the offices of Elysium Tech, Commissioner Gordon and Detective Nick Gage look on bemused at the blood-soaked body of an Elysium employee who had been discovered in very mysterious circumstances - it appears at first inspection that the individual had locked himself in the room and taken his own life, however it's not at all clear how or why. With blood covering the floor and the walls around the body Detective Gage identifies an unusual smell in the air around the deceased ... curious!

Returning to the space beneath Barbara's apartment building we are introduced to the 'Team Batgirl' new secret base in the making - Firewall! In a fantastic, fun panel, amid the high-tech workstations we see a number of buckets and pans catching drops of water as we are reminded of the atrocious weather conditions outside. As Barbara works to establish network connectivity and discusses her concerns and frustrations about Wendy with Steph she receives an alert that there's another incident underway at the offices of Elysium.

A coincidence?

As Stephanie makes her way to the Elysium facility Detective Gage is already on site investigating the earlier suicide when the alarm sounds. Drawing his weapon, and making his way to the source of the security breach, he asks one of the staff members who had been assisting him to call for GCPD back-up - with alarming consequences for the young employee.

Arriving at the scene - level 38, Restricted Research - Gage is swept off his feet as he runs into a large security guard. As he soon realises that the man is behaving suspiciously Nick finds himself at gun-point as the guard reels off a puzzling string of binary code. As the trigger is about to be pulled the weapon is knocked to the ground by a well-aimed batarang thrown by Batgirl. As Gage and Stephanie engage in clumsy verbal flirting the guard turns, runs, leaps through a window and falls towards his death. Stephanie immediately races after the man and does her best to catch him, but she just can't hold his weight.

Later that day both Stephanie and Detective Gage are at the West Mercy mortuary, collecting the results of the security guards autopsy. As the two wait, Barbara is back at the Batcave analysing the mans blood sample ... and she comes to a startling discovery.

Ordering Stephanie to return to the Batcave Barbara explains that the sample contains a colony of nanites that are transmitting a subtle wi-fi trace - technology that Barbara has seen before.

The issue closes at a property out in Slaughter Swamp as the rain continues to fall: sat in front of a bank of displays is none other than the aforementioned Calculator. Viewing pictures of his daughter Wendy, he turns to the lifeless, decaying body of his son Marvin and declares that they are going to 'save' the girl.

'And you won't want to miss the best part' ...

Following last issues 'dip', in my opinion, this issue felt like a real return to form. With Lee Garbett back on pencil duties and Guy Major taking care of colours, the art returned to a quality and style I've come to expect with this series and this, is turn, gave the book a much more confident and familiar feel.

I commented after reading issue #8 of Batgirl that Stephanie just didn't seem like ... well she didn't seem like Stephanie: I've grown very fond of this cheeky, self-believing while at the same time self-deprecating young woman and in the last issue I just didn't see enough of her. Thankfully, throughout the pages of this issue I feel 'my' Steph returned with a healthy dose of wise-cracks, confidence, inner strength and physical comedy - none more so than during the opening pages of the book as Stephanie is towed at high speed behind the speeding train!

The appearances of Wendy Harris through previous issues of this series have puzzled and intrigued me in equal measure and, with the introduction of The Calculator into this story we get quite possibly the first indication of her true intended role. She's felt a little superfluous to the cast of characters up until this point so I'm glad for the opportunity to see her in a different context and I'm looking forward to seeing this particular theme develop.

Our first glimpse of the 'firewall' - the base of operations for Barbara and Stephanie - was something I also enjoyed. There was a nice sense of humour throughout these couple of pages - I thought the 'Now you're talking my language' exchange between Barbara and Stephanie was particularly charming. It'll be good over the coming months to see Barbara and Stephanie create their own home ground rather than relying on others 'cast-offs': it's a small but important step towards Batgirl - the character and the title - becoming more self-sufficient I think.

Throughout the early issues of this series Phil Noto produced some quite exceptional covers and new artist Stanley 'Artgerm' Lau has continued the tradition with his contribution to this issue - portraying Batgirl looking wind-swept, rain-soaked and sitting atop the sort of roof-top architecture of Gotham City that Bat-books are famous for, this cover is quite beautiful.

In summary, this was a very good first part of a new story arc - with themes continued from previous issues, 'new' characters introduced, a number of clues indicating the direction the story could be heading and an ending that leaves me keen for the next issues.

Welcome back Batgirl.

Batgirl #9
Written by Bryan Q. Miller with art by Lee Garbett, cover by Stanley "Artgerm" Lau
Published by DC Comics, 32 pages, $2.99

My reviews of Batgirl are also published at The Batman Universe Editorials blog - part of The Batman Universe network, and now, I'm delighted to say, over at The Batgirl to Oracle Podcast message board.