Monday, February 14, 2011

Batgirl #18 Reviewed

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

Batgirl #18

Our story - entitled Chalk (heart) Outline - opens amid the rooftops and alleyways of Gotham City: it's Valentine's Night and Stephanie Brown, in Batgirl guise, is enjoying being out in the night air taking a few minutes for herself, eyes closed, breathing in the evening air, the evening peace and quiet only broken by ... a scream ... "Blood!!!".

Making her way to the scene of the commotion Steph discovers a group of young women in a state of panic, shock and fear. Crouching over a lifeless, torn male figure she demands to know what caused the man's death, and is more than a little puzzled by the women's response that the man was set upon by "a who that looked like a what!"

Tracking bloodied footprints from the scene Steph finds herself face to face with a most curious fellow - in her own words the young man before her looks like "a blue-skinned pilgrim" and he's holding what appears to be a human heart in his hands.

Taking exception to her description of him as a pilgrim the youngster turns and with a flamboyant sweep of his arm introduces himself as Klarion, a Witch-boy and, demonstrating his capabilities, shrinks and encapsulates Steph in a glowing globe, little bigger than a football!

Stomping away from the alleyway, as Steph tries to come to terms with what's happened to her, it's clear that Klarion is terribly upset. Barely able to hold back his tears the young boy sobs to himself that he'll never find "him" again, "he's" out of control, doesn't know what "he's" doing.

Overlooking her own situation for a moment Steph consoles Klarion that, in her opinion, if his "boyfriend" is stealing hearts - literally - then trying to get him back should be the last thing on Klarion's mind. To Steph's frustration, her use of the word "boyfriend" immediately cheers Klarion up and through his own raucous laughter he explains that the "he" he has been referring to is his cat!

Pleading to be released and un-shrunk Steph proposes a team-up to track down the animal - a proposal that clearly meets with Klarion's approval as, with another similarly flamboyant gesture, he releases Steph and marches off with a broad grin on his face.

Having explained his relationship with his feline friend - it was a "painstakingly long conversation" we're told - Steph's more than a little puzzled by what Klarion means when he says he had to use a spell to prevent a "coupling". Explaining further it seems that the cat had met a 'friend' and Klarion had (over) reacted in a moment of panic.

"So you denied your best friend love, and now he's out stealing hearts?" Steph wonders aloud.

At that moment the pair hear another scream and immediately realise it has to have something to do with the cat. Racing to a pavement café they discover people cowering for their own safety, and as the pair place themselves between the frightened diners and the cat they are equally alarmed to discover that the kitty - named Teekl we learn - is now more than six foot tall, with bloodied claws, razor-sharp teeth and glowing eyes!

As Steph does her best to hold off an attack from the hissing Teekl, Klarion appears more concerned for the welfare of his pet than his new 'partner'. Refusing to use magic on his "familiar" Steph realises that Klarion is not going to be a great deal of help and therefore takes things into her own hands and unleashes a volley of taser batarangs on the creature.

With the "were-cat" down and out - for a while at least - Klarion realises that, as much as he doesn't want to, he needs to act, and with that he passes a spell that places Teekl in a globe of his own.

Overcome with sorrow that he's "doomed" his best friend Klarion brushes aside Steph's advice and encouraging words in explaining that the cat himself, and only the cat himself, must now break the spell by finding a heart. "A mate" clarifies Steph "It's natural". But where will they find such a mate?

Klarion knows where ...

"One teleportation spell later" the pair - now both dressed in 'pilgrim'-like clothing find themselves in Klarion's home town of Limbo Town. It appears that the journey hasn't agreed with Steph as, unable to resist any longer, she is violently sick - not an uncommon reaction to teleportation she learns.

Overlooking Steph's light-hearted enquiries Klarion explains that it's not simply a matter of buying another "familiar" as the pair realise that they are attracting rather a lot of attention ... and for a change it's not the blue-skinned boy that everyone is looking at.

Explaining that as a "non-witch" Stephanie is in more than a little danger the pair agree to complete their task as quickly as they can. Spying a young girl playing with a cat they form a plan: Steph will distract the girl while Klarion gets the cat.

With her usual, almost unique, combination of flair and awkwardness Steph finds to her surprise that she's challenged to a duel by the girl. As the conditions of such a duel are defined for her Steph realises that time is not on their side - and uses her fist to end the discussion.

With the cat captured Klarion joyously announces that the "coupling has begun" as Steph realises that they may have outstayed their 'welcome' in Limbo Town ... time for another teleportation spell!

Returning the story to Gotham City, Gotham University to be precise, 'love' is in the air as students enjoy a Valentine's Fayre in the university grounds. Looking on, Klarion describes the "surface world" as a strange place with the students behaviour - particularly the kissing - as both fascinating and perverse and very similar to "coupling".

Bumping into some of her fellow students, including her friend Francisco, Stephanie turns down an invitation to join them for the evening as Klarion fends off unkind comments from Jordanna regarding his 'unusual' appearance. To be fair, Klarion had described Jordanna and her girlfriends as "a wandering pack of harlots" so he had asked for it!

Sensing that his temper was getting the better of him, and fearing for Jordanna's safety, Steph grabs hold of her "boyfriend" Klarion and kisses him on the lips ... long enough for Jordanna and her group to make their excuses and leave them to it.

Rubbing their lips clean after their 'encounter' - Klarion explaining that Steph tastes of Christmas and he hates Christmas! - the new friends treat themselves to a box of candy while watching the other students make fools of themselves.

Stephanie Brown and Klarion the Witch-boy lived happily ever after?

Let me get straight to the point - this was a fantastic read. Each time I've now read the issue - 3 or 4 times now - I've found I've had a huge smile on my face. The dialogue, theme, narration and tone of the story were each a delight.

For my tastes, the art in this issue is as good as any we've seen throughout the 18-month or so life of this book and, in my opinion, is some of the most enjoyable, possibly *the* most enjoyable, that I've seen from Dustin Nguyen. I particularly appreciated the mixture of styles within his interior art - the beautifully painted opening and closing panels, the expressive and detailed pencilled pages - wonderfully inked by Derek Fridolfs and sensitively coloured by Guy Major - and my own favourite, the otherwise grey pages set in Limbo Town that featured just a few highlights of colour: gold flashes representing teleportation, the pink glow of Klarion's globe, Stephanie's sandy skin tone and straw-yellow hair.

Mr Nguyen's cover is, similarly, delightful. Each time I look at it I find something new to appreciate: the distress on Batgirl's face as she pounds her hands on the inside of the globe, her billowing cape that turns into a forest of tree branches as it wraps around the inside of the sphere and the falling 'leaves' that on closer inspection are heart shaped. Again, the colouring on the cover is a joy - fantastically warm for this late-winter publication.

It's often said that pets and their owners become more alike over time and this could certainly be said of Klarion and Teekl as depicted on the cover - through their deep, piercing eyes and their emotionless mouths they do certainly appear to be mirroring one-another!

Once again, Bryan Q. Miller has crafted a wonderful story - enlightening, enjoyable, compelling, at times touching, always fun - during which I learnt a great deal about Klarion and his world, neither of which I previously knew much about.

Through her actions in this story, and her kindness towards her new friend, I was reminded just why I like Stephanie Brown so much: her bravery, sense of humour, kindness, resolve ...

As always, the dialogue throughout the issue was an absolute delight - some of Steph's one-liners had my permanent smile breaking out into a laugh: "Do you specialise in irony-magic, or ...", "Sure, let's worry about the cat", "Accio fist" and my personal favourite "Cheese it, buckles". I had no idea what it meant but it felt right at the time and it made me laugh!

Throughout the 18 issues in this series so far I've come to appreciate Mr Miller's predilection for the occasional 'done in one' story such as I enjoyed with this issue: in my opinion this technique very much complements the pacing of the over-arching story. It's suggested, on the closing page of this issue, that we'll be returning to the 'regular' ongoing story in the next issue and I for one very much enjoyed this interlude that had the feel of one of the very best 'holiday specials'.

The story of when Batgirl met Klarion the Witch-boy. Heart-warming.

Batgirl #18
Written by Bryan Q. Miller, pencils by Dustin Nguyen, inks by Derek Fridolfs, colours by Guy Major, painted sequence by Dustin Nguyen, letters by John J. Hill, cover by Dustin Nguyen
Published by DC Comics, April 2011