Monday, November 22, 2010

Batgirl #15 Reviewed

This new chapter in the life of Batgirl opens with Wendy Harris recounting to Barbara Gordon an earlier conversation she'd had with Stephanie Brown during which the two young women explored the history of the Bat family ... Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, Steph herself, Barbara Gordon, Tim Drake, Damian Wayne - Batman, Robin, Nightwing, Red Hood, Spoiler, Red Robin: in fact(almost) everything you could possibly need to know about the world of Batman in 10 minutes and 3 pages.

As Wendy and Barbara - Proxy and Oracle - continue their conversation we see them studying a large illustrated whiteboard located, as they are, in Team Batgirl's base of operations known as Firewall, deep in the basement of Barbara's apartment building.

'Grass Before The Scythe' is the first of a two-part story-arc entitled, quite appropriately 'The Lesson'.

Another time, another place. Gotham University and Stephanie is in something of a day-dream: idly sketching herself - in her guise of Batgirl - defiantly remembering the earlier history lesson with Wendy while showing little or no interest in her academic studies before being shaken from her thoughts by the intrusive, not to mention barbed, comments of fellow student and study partner Jordanna.

Struggling to defend her own reliability and contribution to the group - she may not have brought along her study materials but she did bring donuts! - Steph's grateful for the support of the female students' mutual friend Francisco as he attempts to calm the situation.

As the two women step back from one another - Jordanna with head in hands pondering the consequences of failing and Steph genuinely questioning what it is that she does actually bring to the ground - the 'friends' are distracted by another student running along the corridor, papers in the air screaming for help.

With more insults from Jordanna a curious and concerned Steph excuses herself and leaves the room.

Outside the university buildings the panicked student - Newton, who we'd met in a previous issue of course - desperately tries to catch his breath hoping that he's shaken off his pursuer. Sadly, for Newt he'd done no such thing as, under cover of darkness, he finds himself surrounded by a number of cloaked and hooded figures. With the young student begging for his own safety the mysterious figures tighten their circle while threatening their target - 'Join or die', 'Pay the toll' ...

With Newt at this point close to tears his saviour arrives: Batgirl launches an aerial assault on two of the figures while suggesting that she'd already identified clues as to the identities of the 'hunters' - history major? English major? Leader?

Repelling her attackers with some ease Steph is surprised to hear a familiar voice over her comms unit - from Kord Tower it's Oracle. After a brief catch-up - during which Babs assures Steph that it's probably best that she doesn't know all of the details regarding her recent activities - Steph distracts the hooded attackers long enough for Newt to make a break for safety. With the situation apparently manageable - if not totally under control - Steph is surprised and confused to find the group the focus of a most curious character who introduces himself as The Grey Ghost and proclaims that he is Batgirl's 'guardian angel'.

Revealing that the weapon he used to floor one of Steph's attackers was 'merely' firing rubber buckshot the Grey Ghost goes on to explain that if the pair are to form a partnership then he'll need to maintain a degree of anonymity. Closely monitoring events from back at base Barbara has managed to identify the man as none other than Johnny C. - real name Clancy Johnson - previously seen attempting to blow up a city-centre train and more recently seen in jail curiously declaring his support for Batgirl.

Explaining that the last thing she needs - wants even - is a sidekick Stephanie finds herself momentarily blinded by a flash of white light as Grey Ghost issues a warning that at some point he will be needed.

Regaining her vision moments later Steph discovers that not only has Grey Ghost disappeared but so have the hooded figures. Realising that Newt is still in danger Stephanie asks Barbara to try to locate his whereabouts 'before it's too late'.

Sadly, it seems it's already too late as the young man once again finds himself surrounded by the mysterious hooded group. Protecting what Steph had earlier identified as a USB flash drive hanging from around his neck Newt again begs for his safety while refusing to give the group what they are demanding because, we learn, the 'price' would be too great.

Next morning Gotham City police - led on this occasion by Detective Nick Gage - have the regrettable task of shielding the young mans lifeless body from onlookers while trying to figure out what caused his death. Noticing lacerations around the neck of the deceased Gage figures that the victim had an item stolen from him ... and that item might help explain why he had died.

Barbara joins the Detective at the crime scene and, not wanting to reveal too much about Stephanie's overnight encounter - reveals that she'd heard that 'guys in robes' had apparently been chasing the victim ... words that seem to hit home with Gage.

Saying his goodbyes and getting back to work a fellow police officer interrupts Gage, as the officer in charge, with news that new evidence has just been discovered - evidence the officer is sure wasn't there a moment ago.

Switching locations to the Brown household an understandably upset Stephanie reads the morning newspaper as her mother prepares breakfast - waffles of course! Concerned for her daughters well-being as, the newspaper reports, students face tremendous stress, Mrs Brown asks Steph for reassurance that if ever she felt under that sort of pressure she'd let her know. Explaining that her grades - nicely described as a 'B-hive' - are proof that she's not unduly troubled by the pressures of school life Steph nearly chokes on her morning juice when her mother reveals that she'd been thinking about moving the family home.

Recovering her composure, and while mopping spilt juice Steph goes on to explain that moving would mean leaving university and that going to school has been one of the best things she's ever done and, furthermore, for the first time in her young life she actually feels accepted.

As the two women embrace Steph goes on to say that she finally feels in control of her life and she's got her mother to thank for that.

Later on, at Firewall, Wendy and Barbara are hard at work when Steph reports in for an update. Babs reveals - using Steph's own layman's terms - that she's currently scanning wifi routers around the university campus to see if she can detect any trace of the data from Newton's flash drive. Explaining that she's so far failed to find any information about the hooded figures - referred to as the 'reapers' - that she'd previously encountered Steph is distracted by the Bat-signal illuminating the night sky.

Making her way across the city skyline Steph brushes aside suggestions - suggestions turn to orders - from Barbara that she return to Firewall immediately. Watching the evening news bulletin Babs and Wendy look on in horror as news of new evidence in the investigation regarding the death of the son of a retired GCPD veteran - Newton of course - are announced.

Arriving at the Bat-signal rendezvous point Steph turns as she hears her name ... and she finds herself at gunpoint and under arrest for Newton Flitwik's murder.

Next: Fugitive!

After something of a short break - last months excellent Batgirl issue being part of the 'Bruce Wayne: The Road Home' series - my favourite monthly title returns: and once again the creative team hit all the right notes.

This being Dustin Nguyen's first issue on art duties let's start there. I've said before - "numerous times" I hear you say! - just how much I've been enjoying the art through this series and, being very much a conservative when it comes to change, I have to admit to being a little ... apprehensive about there being any such change. That's certainly not intended to be disrespectful to Mr Nguyen, who's work I've certainly admired for some while now - I'd have felt that way no matter who was taking over.

Aside from seeing the cover when the issue was first solicited I'd avoided any 'sneak peak' previews of the interior art preferring instead to wait until I could absorb the issue as a whole. Long before I'd reached the fantastic final splash page of Batgirl being arrested at gunpoint any apprehension I'd felt about change had been laid to rest - and then some.

Not only did the art 'fit right in' with the tone of the series but by opening the issue with three pages of the cute and charming 'mini Bat's' it felt like the creators were making something of a statement to me and other 'conservatives': "new season, new look - but everything you love about the book will continue just as before".

The 'mini Bat's' were superb I thought - I've seen the concept before (it was on Dustin Nguyen's DeviantArt site I believe) and they suited the book perfectly: fun, endearing ... in a word - unique. Combined with Bryan Q. Miller's fantastic writing these pages made for an ideal introduction to the book.

Since it was first solicited I've come to really appreciate the cover of this issue - the more I look at it the more I see: the Gothic roof-top architecture, the imposing Gotham skyline, the detail and colours on Steph's costume, her flame-like cape, the look in her eyes ...

For me the series has been notable for, amongst many other things, some fantastic splash pages and we get another couple in this issue - the early page of Wendy and Barbara looking at the whiteboard in the cavernous basement space was certainly a treat I thought.

Mr Nguyen draws a beautiful Batgirl - elegant, flamboyant, graceful - who almost dances her way through her encounters with the 'reapers'. By the same token, his interpretation of Stephanie Brown as an awkward, clumsy yet caring young woman is one I can appreciate.

Turning to the story and once again we're treated to an engaging, humorous, at times touching tale.

Part of the reason why the 'mini Bats' pages worked so well is, for me, the context they were used. I've read elsewhere suggestions that all Bat-family books should start with such 'recap' pages but for me this suggestion misses something of the point. The commentary was simple, child-like even, precisely because they were written from the position of Stephanie explaining to Wendy rather than Mr Miller, the writer, explaining to us the readers.

Some of the dialogue used during these pages was an absolute treat and had me laughing out loud - 'No, you shut up!', 'I'm a criminal!', 'I wet the bed!' - as did the discussion between Steph and Wendy - 'And everything was great ...', 'Because I'm paraphrasing. Now shush', 'And Damian became Robin-Robin'.

Again, I'm enjoying reading the distinctly different personalities of Stephanie and of Batgirl. In costume, Batgirl has become a self-confident, focused, controlled individual while Steph, at times at least, feels somewhat younger than her 19 years - certainly lacking confidence and still very much still a dreamer.

I'm intrigued by the 'Reapers' I must say - who are they and what do they want with the data on Newt's USB drive? If they are indeed a group of university students as Steph identifies I'm wondering just what's driven them to these lengths. Likewise, the 'Grey Ghost' seems a fun character and I'm curious just what it is he knows when Steph tells him she doesn't need a sidekick and he tells her 'you will!'.

The return of Detective Nick Gage was a welcome one - last seen if I remember correctly wandering away, deep in thought, at the end of issue #13 I'm looking forward to learning more about his background and, just possibly, a secret or two!

The book ended on a genuine cliff-hanger - one that I just didn't see coming to be perfectly honest. I'm now eagerly awaiting the next issue to discover just how is Steph implicated, how does she make her escape - Fugitive! - and how does she clear her name.

Great writing, super art and throughout this series I've come to appreciate the scale of the contribution that a good colourist can make to the look and feel of a book and once again Guy Major makes a massive contribution here - subtle tone changes create a visual soundtrack as scenes and moods change from one page to another.

In closing, this was another wonderfully enjoyable issue of Batgirl from a simply fantastic creative team - beautifully written and complemented by some fantastic art: what more could we ask for?

Batgirl #15
Written by Bryan Q. Miller, pencils by Dustin Nguyen, inks by Derek Fridolfs, colours by Guy Major, letters by Sal Cipriano, cover by Dustin Nguyen
Published by DC Comics, January 2011