Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Batgirl #16 Reviewed

"Fugitive!" screams the cover as our hero Batgirl - Stephanie Brown - finds herself accused of murder, on the run, quite literally, through Devil's Square and away from the pursuing GCPD.

With beads of perspiration on her brow Steph's caught in the police spotlight as she wonders just how she's found herself in this position - she 'knows for a fact' that the murder was committed by a mysterious group of students dressed like the Grim Reaper but the officers just aren't giving her the opportunity to explain this.

At the other end of her comms unit Steph's friend and mentor Oracle - Barbara Gordon - calmly and matter-of-factly advises that, first things first, they need to get her away from the police before they turn their attention to clearing her name.

Leaping from roof-top to roof-top, and once again narrowly avoiding capture, Steph thanks her good fortune that Bruce Wayne is currently away from the city: no doubt still feeling a little insecure about her position she's sure the situation wouldn't reflect favourably on her in Bruce's eyes.

Now isolated on top of one of the derelict buildings in Devil's Square Batgirl finds she has few options as a police helicopter equipped with spotlights looks on. Following events via the comms link Oracle advises that she's dispatched 'The Ricochet' but that it'll take a few minutes to reach the pick-up point.

Making her move Batgirl makes an unusual, and yet somehow typical for her, gesture in the direction of the helicopter as she disappears through a broken window ... and in turn tumbles down through the building shell, bouncing from beam to beam until she finally crashes onto the floor.

Picking herself up off the floor and dusting herself down Batgirl doesn't seem particularly surprised to find Detective Nick Gage - alone - on the scene. Revealing that while he knows Stephanie is innocent Gage does his best to explain why the police force are chasing her - the victim's father was a police officer and the force takes attacks on 'family' very seriously.

Handing her a batarang that he'd removed from the murder scene Gage notices that Steph whinces as she tests her shoulder - the look on her face is nothing however, compared to when he pops her dislocated shoulder back into place. Fearing that there are other officers close by Gage offers to divert them and gain Steph some time ... and what starts as a potentially embarrassing moment ends with a firm handshake.

Under cover of darkness Steph makes her escape thanks to The Ricochet.

Next day at Gotham University, and following Oracle's advice, it's 'business as usual' for Stephanie. On her way from class, and despite having her arm in a sling, Steph's doing her best to blend in as her friend Francisco catches up with her and wonders about her speedy exit from their study group a few days earlier. Wondering whether another of their friends Jordanna is still angry with her Francisco looks on in some embarrassment as Jordanna, with megaphone in hand, is taking part, possibly even leading, a demonstration against the 'murderer' Batgirl.

Confronting her friend to protest Batgirl's innocence Steph simply has to concede defeat as Jordanna reveals that her motivation is not justice but rather to use the shocking events that have taken place on campus to slide through some of her school work.

Later that day, and now back at Firewall, their base of operations, we find Steph and Babs discussing the events of the last few days - under a microscope Babs analyses blood from the recovered batarang believing it was added after Newton's death. As Steph puzzles just why anyone would want to frame her for murder Babs explains that she now believes it was by way of a distraction - and the trace of radiation that she's discovered on the batarang may well help them explain why.

Using Firewall's advanced technological resources Barbara is able to isolate the potential origins of the radiation - an abandoned warehouse across the city.

As Steph's determination and good humour turns to frustration and anger Barbara reminds her young friend that there's a bigger picture in front of them than simply proving her own innocence ... followed by further affirmation that she's not alone - "Team Batgirl all the way".

Returning to Gotham U we join Wendy Harris - Proxy - working by torchlight in one of the universities server rooms. Muttering away to herself - or more to the point her deceased brother Marvin - Oracle, once again via the comms link, interrupts for an update on her task. That task, we learn, is to piece together as much of the data as possible that was contained on the USB flash drive stolen from Newt at the time of his murder. Confirming that she's at the terminal that Newt first accessed when uploading the contents of the drive Wendy is further interrupted by a security guard who firmly asks her to finish up her work and leave so he can lock up behind her.

To Barbara's frustration and dismay Wendy makes reference to her disability and asks if she really needs to leave before asking how the guard knew she was there in the first place. A look of relief and excitement sweeps her face as she discovers that the rooms are monitored by closed-circuit cameras. Over to Oracle ...

In the meantime Batgirl has gained access to the previously believed-abandoned warehouse where she observes four of the group known as 'The Reapers' loading packing crates into a van. Wondering how they managed to overcome the guards - and why indeed an abandoned warehouse needs guards in the first place - Steph leaps into action knocking one of the crates to the ground in the process.

As she engages 'The Reapers' Steph notices that the lid of one of the crates is loose, takes a peak and is understandably surprised to find some hi-tech equipment inside. As the fight continues Steph takes out one Reaper after another until they are all either unconscious or disarmed. As she reaches down to remove the mask from one of her mysterious opponents Steph finds herself caught in a flood of torch light ... Detective Nick Gage and officers from Gotham PD.

As the officers rush in it's immediately obvious that Batgirl is no longer their target - privately Gage explains that Oracle had supplied his department with footage of a group of the Reapers chasing poor Newt across the campus. As the police take their prisoners away Gage realises that one of them appears to have disappeared, Oracle warns of an isotope spike ... and everyone except the Reapers are knocked from their feet.

Having recovering their position just a few moments later, Batgirl, Gage and his fellow officers realise that the prisoners have somehow escaped and taken some of the tech with them. This isn't over.

Returning to Firewall and Stephanie and Barbara realise that to have escaped so quickly the Reapers must have a 'speedster' as part of their group. Analysing some of the data that Wendy recovered Barbara explains that she's uncovered designs and information for just such a speed suit. Questioning just why the warehouse was filled with high-tech equipment and what the Reapers could want with it all Stephanie vows to find Newt's murderers and bring them to justice.

Elsewhere, in an unidentified location, the Reapers are 'debriefing'. As well as their plans are going they realise that they need to do better - and with Batgirl onto them that's not going to be easy - and that if their paths cross again they'll have to 'take care' of her ...

"Fugitive!" felt so right for this issue - as with the classic 'Fugitive' Doctor Richard Kimble himself Steph knew she was innocent, her closest friends and associates knew she was innocent and we, the readers, knew she was innocent. And just like Dr Kimble Steph's challenge doesn't stop with proving her own innocence - she needs to prove others guilt: this is a storyline that I can quite happily see running for some time yet.

From a character development point of view I thought Stephanie's early references, which at the time felt almost incidental, to Bruce thankfully being out of town and, she assumes, unaware of her predicament were really quite telling. Coupled with Steph's later 'heart-to-heart' with Barbara about her apparent need for validation quite beautifully reminded me of the journey that she's been on - and the jolt that she's received with Bruce's return. As readers we know that Bruce has been, on the whole, hugely impressed with what he's seen from Stephanie in the role - her role - of Batgirl but we possibly forget that she's not nearly so convinced of his total support.

Through just a few panels, I felt writer Bryan Q. Miller gave us the shortest of glimpses into the mindset of young Wendy Harris - resisting the urge to think of herself as merely the "other" member of the team I was reminded that she's been through an awful lot in her own short life in recent times and beneath the obvious tough veneer there's a gentler, softer side to her. Having initially been a little confused when she was pictured talking to her late brother Marvin, on second and even third reading I felt this gave us quite a touching, if somewhat brief, glimpse at a more vulnerable Wendy than we've seen so far in this wonderful series.

The relationship between Stephanie and Detective Nick Gage was, for me at least, another important feature of this issue. Switching effortlessly from the enjoyable verbal indiscretions - "I could kiss you right on your ... cheek!" - to a sense of real trust and belief in one another, maybe even more so from Gage himself, and back to the playful one-liners.

The mysterious group known as The Reapers have so far proved to be an effective and, at times, quite puzzling, foil for Stephanie. At first they appeared to me to be little more than a group of misguided students up to no good and I've a feeling there's more to then than perhaps I've so far given them credit for. We shall see!

Switching focus onto the art - I have to say that as much as I appreciated Dustin Nguyen's illustration throughout issue #15 I enjoyed the art in this issue so much more. No doubt as much down to my familiarity with Mr Nguyen's unique style the cast of characters in this issue felt familiar (there's that word again), approachable even - I took a sense of warmth from each and every page that I didn't always feel with the previous issue.

Without doubt one of Mr Nguyen's great strengths is his ability to capture movement. I've written before about the feeling of dance that he's already managed to impress on his rendition of Batgirl and this was further evident throughout this issue - I felt I could almost hear Stephanie's cape billowing out behind her as she ran from the police and, later, leapt to surprise The Reapers.

Once again I found my admiration for the cover grew the more I considered it: initially I felt the city skyline surrounding Batgirl was rather too dark and lacking in detail for my taste but after reading the issue I appreciated the sense of Stephanie being captured in the spotlight which in turn cast shadow on her surroundings. Once again the cover image is offered as something of a 'bonus scene' from the interior story. "Fugitive!" indeed.

I've said it many times before and I look forward to saying it many times again: Team Batgirl are fantastic!

Batgirl #16
Written by Bryan Q. Miller, pencils by Dustin Nguyen, inks by Derek Fridolfs, colours by Guy Major, letters by Travis Lanham, cover by Dustin Nguyen
Published by DC Comics, February 2011


Josh said...

Great review Zaius. I'm thinking of placing this series back into my pull list, it sounds like it's pretty good right now and I'll have some extra money lying around from Streets of Gotham.

Zaius said...

Thanks Josh - I appreciate your comments.

How have you been enjoying Streets of Gotham? I've not been picking it up - would you recommend I pick-up the collected editions?

Josh said...

Well I have been enjoying the current Hush arc. The only problem is that they're kind of ripping the readers off right now because the issues are so short. Granted there's a co-feature, but the last month's main title was only 10 pages long! Of course this shouldn't be a problem if you wait and buy the collected editions, so as long as the story keeps up I'd definitely reccomend House of Hush on trade. What luck I have; I start picking the series up and liking it again right before they announce it's being cancelled.

Also, thanks for the comment about the podcast. I appreciate the feedback. If things go as planned, the next episode could be out this weekend or early next week.