Saturday, October 30, 2010

Bruce Wayne: The Road Home - Batgirl Reviewed

Our story opens with a flashback with Batman - Bruce Wayne - giving Stephanie Brown - as Spoiler - a dressing down. His message is clear: she needs to accept that Bruce is in charge and things will be done his way.

Fast forward to current day and Stephanie - this time as Batgirl - is inside Waynetech Research & Development looking on as an unidentified intruder overpowers four of the security guards. As Oracle, via the comms unit, advises caution Stephanie pretends she can't hear her friend and mentor as she reveals herself and confronts the intruder.

Back at 'Firewall', the Batgirl centre of operations, Oracle - Barbara Gordon - detects some anomalous readings from Stephanie's suit - and we return to Waynetech just in time to see Steph diving for cover as she comes under fire from her opponent. As Steph returns fire with a flurry of batarangs she's knocked from her feet as the mysterious figure retaliates.

Taking stock of her situation Steph realises that she's up against the odds - heatvision, lantern power ... this must be the villain 'Amazo' she's fighting she thinks but Babs is not convinced. As the figure disappears at supersede Steph chases in vain - and the identity of her opponent is revealed to the reader ... Bruce Wayne, on the 'Road Home'.

Later on, Barbara quizzes Steph at her office at Gotham University about the days earlier events as she reveals that Batman and Robin - Dick and Damian - also encountered the mysterious figure earlier in the week: and likewise they came off second best. As Babs considers whether she needs to call in the Birds of Prey she asks for Steph's word that she - Batgirl - will not get involved for the moment.

'Scout's Honor'.

Any promise, of course, can be invalidated with a simple crossing of fingers and before the day is out Stephanie is on patrol in Devil's Square, aided this time by young Wendy Harris - Proxy - back at base. Wendy explains that the 'perp's' suit has left a trail of interference that enables her to track his movement - and the trail ends with Steph in Devil's Square.

As Stephanie makes her way into one of the derelict buildings Wendy finally has details of what was stolen from Waynetech - technology and hardware that enables a bullet to be fired from distance through walls ... and, as she points out, you don't steal such a weapon unless you plan to use it.

Uncovering a map, highlighting 'crime alley' Steph wonders to herself just why it is she can't let go of this particular puzzle - as she's jolted out of her thoughts by a screech of interference from her ear-piece ... and her quarry is again the source of the interference, this time accompanied by half a dozen or so thugs. Donning her balaclava Steph grabs a nearby pipe and confronts the thugs - taking them down one at a time.

Believing she's disabled all of her targets Steph turns her back and sets off for safety ... just as one of the thugs pulls a gun on her. Taking aim the man is about the pull the trigger as the mysterious - almost ghostly - figure knocks the weapon to the ground: none of which Steph is aware of.

As Steph reappears in Crime Alley she finds herself in the middle of a large crowd of Gotham citizens and, on a stage ahead of a public event, numerous members of the Wayne family. Foiled in her attempt to speak with Tim Drake by event security Steph comes to the conclusion that the Wayne family are likely at risk from the stolen high-tech weapon and, with Wendy able to trace the destination of a video feed, again comes face to face with the man who just a few moments before had saved her from a bullet.

Demanding to know the identity of her opponent Stephanie is, unsurprisingly taken aback as Bruce Wayne reveals his identity. Steph's surprise very quickly turns into anger as she gives Bruce a verbal volley before slapping him around the face and almost immediately regretting her actions.

Returning to activities at Gotham U and Barbara finds herself being harassed by Vicki Vale. With Vale making suggestions as to the identities of members of the Bat-family Babs is forced to deflect her accusations before the two women are interrupted by their mobile phones as they bid one-another a frosty goodbye.

Across the city, Stephanie and Bruce once again come face to face, and this time things are a good deal calmer. Steph explains why she reacted the way she did: partly out of fear - that her new life and identity was coming to an end - and partly out of anger - that because of his actions she feels Bruce has no right to take Batgirl away from her.

Almost confrontationally Steph explains to Bruce just what being Batgirl means to her and why she simply refuses to give up her new role ... music to Bruce's ears it seems.

Later on, in the shadows off Crime Alley Bruce and his butler and confidant Alfred Pennyworth are discussing the days activities - and it seems that Stephanie has made an impression on the two men. Confirming that he's content to allow Steph to continue as Batgirl Bruce nevertheless advises Alfred that she and Wendy Harris, as daughter of criminals, will require careful watching.

Elaborating further, and to Alfred's surprise, Bruce explains that in the event of his death or disappearance he had briefed the previous Batgirl - Cassandra Cain - to hand over the Batgirl mantle to young Stephanie believing, as he does, that in life everyone deserves a second chance ...

Prior to picking up this book I'd read that the 'Road Home' series of one-shots was intended as an opportunity for readers to catch their breath before Bruce Wayne's return and as such I wasn't, if I'm honest, sure just how relevant to Stephanie Brown's journey as Batgirl the title would be. By the time I reached the last page of the book not only had I enjoyed my read I felt like I'd learnt an awful lot about Steph and what being Batgirl means to her.

First things first though, Shane Davis and Barbara Ciardo's cover - ahead of publication I'd seen and enjoyed the fantastic eight-cover Road Home 'banner' but did wonder just how eye-catching and effective the individual elements would be as stand alone covers. Of course I needn't have worried as we were treated to a fantastically detailed, warm, representation of Stephanie Brown as Batgirl standing proudly in front of the appropriately coloured Batgirl logo.

In terms of storyline, dialogue and narration I really don't know of a better written book than the one we're currently receiving from Bryan Q. Miller and this issue continues that trend. Likewise, the quality of the interior art throughout the series has been particularly high and Pere Perez - who I'm becoming a big fan of - reaches the heights I've come to expect from him.

It's almost a superfluous observation to make (I'm going to make it anyway!) but Mr Miller really does have Stephanie off to a tee. I simply love her dialogue - at times she comes across as a vulnerable young woman in need of direction and support and, elsewhere she's headstrong, determined and formidable. Alongside the quips and throwaway one-liners we hear strong declarations of intent linked-in with, at times, thoughts of frustration and regret - and it all blends so naturally.

I enjoyed how, early in the issue, despite coming up against a formidable opponent, Steph's cheekiness shone through - pretending that her comms link was breaking up as she went into combat, spelling out words in clearly defined syllables as things started to get out of hand before recovering her composure with a confident 'peek-a-boo'. Genuinely quite charming.

Although only running across two or three pages the scenes which Steph spent with Barbara at her University office were something of a highlight of the issue. I sensed the feeling of safety that I believe Steph feels when she's with Babs - perhaps in a way that she can only otherwise feel with her mother. It feels like a time when she's able to relax, lower her guard and behave like any young woman of her age would ... safe in the knowledge that her 'safety net' - Barbara Gordon - is there to catch her if - when? - her enthusiasm gets the better of her. These pages are made all the more touching, I think, as artist Pere Perez adopts a subtly different, softer, style with a bright, clean colour palette.

I thought the scenes where Bruce eventually unveiled and explained himself to Stephanie told us a tremendous amount about the young Batgirl. From initial anger, through shock and panic to considered determination. I found it interesting how, in the series as a whole, we've reached the point where Steph has accepted and embraced her role and yet here we're reminded that her appointment had never been endorsed by the one person who has the ultimate say. Two speech-heavy pages of Steph explaining to Bruce what she's been through and how she feels ending with a refusal to give up being Batgirl told me just how much thought she's given to the position and responsibilities she currently holds.

I also found it noteworthy that having in recent issues declared "I am Batgirl" Steph concluded her impassioned speech with "I want to be Batgirl" which spoke to me of a heightened sense of insecurity upon Bruce's return.

The reveal from Bruce that he'd left quite deliberate instructions with Cassandra Cain to pass the Batgirl mantle over to Stephanie in the event of his death or disappearance intrigued me and I'll be very interested to hear more about this particular aspect of the story.

The closing pages of the issue, featuring as they did Bruce confiding in Alfred, were particularly thought-provoking I thought. As the two men discussed Stephanie it was clear that she'd made a big impression on the two men, that Bruce was reassured that she'd grown - and grown-up - that he could rely on her but that he didn't completely, for now at least, trust her because of her background.

As I've already indicated, the interior art from Pere Perez throughout this issue was very much to my liking. Capturing the warmth of the panels that I've been enjoying throughout the series so far I appreciated how he captured Steph's youthfulness at the same time as he's able to represent Batgirl's maturity. As I've said before in previous reviews, I'd have been very happy for Mr Perez to continue on the book in Lee Garbett's absence.

As the book closed we caught a glimpse of pages from Bruce Wayne's 'White Casebook' - I thought this was an interesting and enjoyable way to close this particular chapter of the story and gave us a nice insight into how Bruce now perceives Steph in her new role.

Top marks - recommended reading.

Bruce Wayne: The Road Home - Batgirl (One Shot)
Written by Bryan Q. Miller, art by Pere Perez, colour by Guy Major, letters by Dave Sharpe, cover by Shane Davis and Barbara Ciardo
Published by DC Comics, December 2010