Friday, January 21, 2011

Batgirl #17 Reviewed

As always, my review includes spoilers - if you don't want to know what happens in this issue of Batgirl then stop reading now!

Batgirl #17

Opening in their sumptuous quarters high up in Wayne Tower this latest instalment in Bryan Q. Miller's Batgirl series opens with Alfred Pennyworth entering Damian Wayne's bedroom carrying a hearty breakfast for his young master, drawing back the curtains ... only to discover young Damian hanging upside down from a rope secured to the ceiling.

Although initially startled Pennyworth quickly regains his composure and enquires whether the boy might be wise to spend his evening sleeping rather than exercising - a suggestion immediately batted away with the retort that if his father Bruce Wayne manages with just a couple of hours sleep then so can his son.

Not convinced Pennyworth points out that without adequate rest and nutrition Damian will inevitably find that his growth is "stunted" - and again his words of concern are instantly dismissed by the youngster who, as we know, is more than a little touchy about his age, size and perceived lack of experience.

Moments later, alone in his room, Damian takes a bite from his breakfast, activates his personal audio-recorder and dictates Red Casebook entry number 345 - there is, we learn, hope for Alfred yet in the young boys eyes.

Elsewhere, a sound-asleep Stephanie Brown - Batgirl of course - is in the middle of either a dream or a nightmare before being woken by her mother with breakfast-in-bed. As she realises that she's once again overslept Steph jumps from her bed in a panic, grabs her breakfast and begins to dress for the day ahead: one day into her first real Batman Inc assignment from Bruce we learn and she's already running late.

As her concerned mother wonders out-loud whether her daughter has taken on a little too much Steph looks on startled as she wonders whether her secret identity has been 'outed' ... only for her mother to question whether she's not studying just a little too hard at the moment.

(Minor) crisis averted!

Later that morning, across Gotham City, Damian Wayne - Robin - stands on top of an apartment building apparently spying on a school crossing guard as he, the guard, escorts a group of young children across the road. Turning once again to his voice-recorder Damian observes what he sees as the sadness, the futility, of the children as they spend their young lives travelling to and fro school.

Moments later Damian breaks off from recording his observations as he sees a young girl fall to the ground and notices that the crossing guard appears very concerned that the girl may be falling behind some sort of schedule.

In an instant the STOP sign clatters to the floor as the guard is 'extracted' from the street, and hauled up the side of the apartment building by a rope tied around his ankles, where he comes face to face with Robin: Batman "isn't available" retorts Damian when the crossing guard thanks his good fortune that he's not faced with Batman.

Challenged to explain precisely why he's so concerned with getting the children to school on time the guard maintains that he's simply doing his job but Damian's having none of it and accuses his prisoner of behaving very suspiciously ... as right on cue we hear a sarcastic voice from out of panel. Batgirl - or 'girl blunder' as Damian snaps back.

Demanding to know why Stephanie has interrupted his investigation Damian is more than a little put-out to learn that Steph has her own mission - a mission from "Batman himself. Batman-Batman" she explains - that involves the crossing guard. Steph goes on to say that there have been a series of kidnappings involving school children and she's been tasked with finding out more and it appears that the man currently hanging by his ankles off the side of the apartment building may be a lookout for the kidnap gang.

Later that morning and Batgirl and Robin have, reluctantly I'm sure, teamed-up. Once again taking up their observation point the pair are following the movements of a school bus as Damian questions why the children would have left school so soon after they had arrived - clearly, Steph explains, he's not familiar with the concept of a "field trip" ... the best part, she explains, of going to school is when you get the chance to leave the classroom and learn something about the outside, real, world: a concept that Damian, perhaps surprisingly, seems to appreciate and understand.

Noticing that the children were filing off the bus and into a museum - Gotham Children's Museum - Steph realises that they need to follow them into the building but that in their Batgirl and Robin identities they'd stand out: not to worry though, she has a plan and it will certainly involve Damian!

Cargo shorts, trainers, a loud baseball cap and even louder t-shirt later a humiliated Damian finds himself
in amongst the children who are having fun in the museum. Stephanie - still dressed as Batgirl - on the other hand has broken into the buildings security office and starts scanning the closed-circuit monitors for anything out of the ordinary.

Waiting for instructions Damian discovers that he's made a friend - a young girl called Nell who we first met, I believe, with her mother aboard the runaway train at the start of The Flood story-arc - who urges him to go with her to play. Doesn't she realise that he doesn't 'play'?

Back in the security office Stephanie spots some unusual activity on one of the upper floors of the museum and draws Damians attention - moments later he uncovers a bound and gagged man dressed in just his underwear who he realises is the children's bus driver ... the gang, it seems, aren't just after one child - they're after them all.

Boarded with children and under the control of the kidnappers the bus hurtles along the expressway. As one of the gang closes-in and threatens Damian's "girlfriend" Nell - she doesn't have a lot of luck with public transport does she? - he gets the fright of his life as a blade pierces the roof of the bus and misses him by inches. On the outside of the bus we see Damian and Steph doing what, in many ways, they do best together - bickering with one another.

As bullets from the inside of the bus pierce the roof, narrowly missing them, Batgirl crashes through the glass windscreen, takes out the driver and disarms the gang members as Robin seizes control of the steering wheel and guides the vehicle - and its passengers - to safety.

Minutes later, as we learn that the city authorities have discovered and released the other kidnapped children, Steph and Damian pause to catch their breath while discussing their 'team work'. Not wanting to praise her young friend too much Steph explains to Damian that he's still got one or two things to learn that might be of help out in the field.

What, challenges Damian, could she possibly have to teach him ...

The theme of "The Lesson" continues in this latest issue of Batgirl and I really enjoyed and appreciated that, this time, it was largely Stephanie Brown doing the teaching.

I've written previously about just how much I enjoy the Stephanie Brown/Damian Wayne dynamic - it's fun, funny, cute, touching and always very, very enjoyable. In fact, the duo are so good together one of the great challenges that series writer Bryan Q. Miller must surely face is not overusing them and therefore spoiling the impact of their volatile relationship: thankfully after 17 top-notch issues I don't think there's the slightest risk of that happening - this book is in very good hands.

Prior to picking up the first issue of this current run of Batgirl I'd only a cursory history with Stephanie Brown in her roles as Spoiler and as Robin and as such have so enjoyed learning about and getting to know the latest Batgirl as she, in turn, as learnt about and gotten to know herself. Therefore, for me, Mr Miller is currently writing the definitive Stephanie Brown - her voice, her actions, her emotions ... they all feel so right.

This issue is no exception and, indeed, enforces those feelings. From the moment Steph interrupted Damian on the fire-escape I knew we were in for a good ride but, that said, I don't think I expected the storyline to play out quite as it did. I loved how, by the end of the book, it was Stephanie that was helping Damian understand what it meant to be carefree, to have fun ... to be a child.

Occasionally only when things are farthest away from us can we possibly really see them clearly and I absolutely loved the moment in the museum when Steph, following Damian through the security cameras, realised for the first time that Damian, this 10-year old boy, didn't know how to be a 10-year old boy: to play, to go on a school field trip, to have fun for the sake of having fun. Culminating in the final couple of pages I think this on the face of it small acknowledgement has been one of the highlights of the series so far for me.

As I've already intimated, some of the dialogue in this issue was an absolute treat - "Think, Batgirl -- what would Oracle do", "Batman-Batman ... Not to devalue the other Batman-Batman", "I'm thinking of stabbing you" - the list is endless and I defy anyone not to read this book with a smile on their face. As well as the charming and humorous we're also treated to some very touching dialogue, nonemoreso that when Damian, grasping for a pseudonym to give to Nell, says his name is "Bruce".

While I understand that all of the Bat-books this month have adopted similar formats for their covers I'm not a big fan of this sparse design. Dustin Nguyen's Batgirl illustration is absolutely beautiful - again the sense of fun and enjoyment on Stephanie's face is abundantly clear, the rich, warm colours combine to give her real depth and yet with the stark white background and the empty yellow Bat symbol this cover just didn't satisfy me: the more I've found myself looking at it the more I've felt aware of the empty space.

I was somewhat surprised to see Pere Perez on art duties for this issue - I'd quite forgotten that back in October of last year he'd been solicited to work on this issue - and again, I'm on record saying just how much I enjoy his and colourist Guy Major's work. To my eye Perez draws a younger, slightly less graceful (my way of saying 'clumsy'!) Batgirl than others while, curiously, his Stephanie Brown appears more self-confident, maybe even a little wiser, than we've so far seen throughout this series and I'm enjoying seeing these different sides of her personality. Mr Perez draws a great - albeit brief - chase/fight sequence towards the close of the issue - there was a tremendous sense of movement, speed and chaos in each panel which was captured through some detailed illustration and imaginative page layouts which were complemented by Guy Major's magnificent colouring.

In summary this was a fantastic told-in-one story with character development that I think we'll remember for some time to come. A wonderful collaborative production.

Little boys are, we are reminded, made from "Frogs, Snails & Puppy-Dog Tails" and many of us could easily be charged with ignoring that Damian Wayne is still a little boy. Not Batgirl. Not Stephanie Brown.

Batgirl #17
Written by Bryan Q. Miller, art by Pere Perez, colours by Guy Major, letters by Travis Lanham, cover by Dustin Nguyen
Published by DC Comics, March 2011