Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Batgirl #19 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 #19

'Batgirl: The Lesson' continues with the first of a two-part story entitled 'Tunnel Vision'. As the issue opens we find our heroine, Stephanie Brown, sitting at the breakfast table across from her mother, prodding, poking at her morning waffles, recounting her recent academic studies.

"And chaos, my dear mother, is a sticky mistress".

Yet Mrs Brown isn't really paying her daughter much attention as she's distracted by the lead story in the Gotham Gazette that focuses on yet another mysterious bank robbery the night before. Perhaps Steph - as Batgirl - knows more than she's letting on as she announces to her mother that it was time she opened up a savings account.

Across the city at the Gotham Bank and Trust - branch 19 to be precise - GCPD have the crime scene locked-down. Detective Nick Gage is the officer in charge and, realising that a friend is also on the scene, he asks his fellow officers to clear the room.

Turning and glancing up he greets Batgirl - who's hanging from the ceiling - with the news that this is the third such crime this week where the only physical damage appears to be to the building's front door and the door to the vault - and it was only this physical damage - rather than the intruder or intruders - that set off the pressure-censor alarms.

Revealing some photographs taken from the bank's closed circuit television both Batgirl and the detective immediately recognise the image of a “speedblur” from their earlier encounter with the mysterious gang known as The Reapers. Even more surprising than the return of an old foe ... inside the vault Gage reveals that while the 'speedster' may have stolen a couple of thousand dollars they left behind over a million dollars in cash.

So on top of the murder of a former colleagues son - Newton Flitwick - the authorities are now investigating a very unusual robbery. Refusing to reveal just why he's so interested in The Reapers Gage makes his excuses to Batgirl and leaves. Outside the bank a new 'friend' of Batgirl's - known as the Grey Ghost - listens intently to their conversation ...

Later on, at Gotham University, a tired Stephanie accompanies her friend and mentor Barbara Gordon - 'formerly' Oracle - across the campus grounds. With her new base Kord Tower in the distance Babs explains that she hasn't in fact quit being Oracle, it's just that things have changed. She goes on to explain that while she is indeed very busy, revealing that Bruce Wayne has tasked her with building a new internet - something Steph doesn't even pretend to understand - she always has time for her young 'student'.

In which case, retorts Stephanie, if time isn't really an issue shouldn't Barbara spend a little with Wendy Harris - Proxy, Batgirl's new handler - and explain the situation to her? After all, the young girl with the 'complicated' family history already has "abandonment issues" we are all reminded.

Now in class - Intro to Dynamic Systems no less! - it seems Steph's night-time activities have caught up with her as she is sharply woken from a nap by her Professor. Along with Mr Swift, a fellow snoozing student, Steph acknowledges that she's fallen behind with the lecture and offers to share notes with her 'sleeping neighbour' who, somewhat to Steph's puzzlement appears to have a building schematic on his laptop rather than anything to do with the subject at hand.

Later still, over at The Thompkins Clinic Barbara interrupts Wendy Harris during her physical workout, taking her to task for using the fact that she's in a wheelchair to get her out of a jam when gathering information on the university campus. Refusing to take the comments on-board Wendy makes it quite clear she feels differently - Barbara in turn leaving Wendy in no doubt that she considers her behaviour, and her attitude, unacceptable.

Taking Wendy further to task Babs issues something of an ultimatum - 'Firewall', the 'Team Batgirl' base of operations, has been upgraded, there's no doubting the young woman's ability, she just needs to make a decision about what she wants to do with her life ... and commit that decision.

As Babs turns and makes her way to the exit Wendy tries to call her back - but Babs doesn't want to hear it.

That same evening The Grey Ghost - Clancy Johnson - is scanning the Gotham City skyline, searching for his "black and purple angel', his "beautiful bruise". Moments later, Johnson's expensive, night-vision binoculars smash to the floor as Batgirl takes him by surprise and demands to know why he has been tracking her for the past week.

Fearing for the welfare of her somewhat heavy-handed new friend Batgirl suggests to Johnson that he needs help - and I suspect she isn't simply meaning with surveillance. Before they can discuss this any further Batgirl receives an incoming transmission from Proxy: it seems that her earlier confrontation with Babs did indeed force her to consider her future.

Proxy goes on to explain that she's been able to track "someone" who has ran a toll booth and nineteen sets of red traffic lights in a matter of seconds to their ultimate destination. As Batgirl listens on it seems that The Grey Ghost is also listening - electronically - to their conversation before disappearing: much to Batgirl's surprise and frustration.

Across the city we witness a speedblur cross the street, climb the stairs and burst through the doors of another bank. Inside the vault, now at 'regular' speed we catch sight of Slipstream, the super-speedster, who appears to be marking piles of banknotes with a fine, misty spray.

Upon hearing that he isn't alone Slipstream turns to find himself at gunpoint - The Grey Ghost has reappeared! However, before introductions can be made Slipstream sends The Grey Ghost crashing through a window and falling to ground. An instant later the two are reunited in the street and joined by Batgirl, who demands to know her adversary's name.

Introductions taken care of Batgirl springs into action ... only to discover that Slipstream is just too quick to respond to her movements. Just as quickly Batgirl learns that her opponents suit offers him ample protection to pretty much anything she can fire or throw at him - and that she, in turn, has no response when Slipstream activates his speedsuit ... and sweeps her off her feet, knocking her to the ground.

Back on her feet Batgirl is taken aback when The Grey Ghost speaks to and name-checks Proxy ... leaving Steph wondering just how Clancy knows so much. As Slipstream circles back around the pair are once again sent flying before receiving a chilling threat - "Time to die, Batgirl".

Seconds later, with Batgirl and The Grey Ghost at his mercy, Slipstream lets out an agonising cry as he receives what appears to be an electronic shock ... "Override activated" ... "Not yet, Slipstream. Not yet".

As Slipstream Leaves the scene as quickly as he arrived Batgirl and The Grey Ghost look on incredulously and wonder just what happened - and who came to their rescue. It wasn't Proxy, it wasn't The Grey Ghost. It certainly wasn't Batgirl.

Soon after we find Steph in a lift, on her way down to see Proxy - who warns her to expect a "bit of a ... shock". During their earlier encounter Steph had managed to lift the spray canister that Slipstream had been using at the bank and Proxy explained that thanks to the new equipment that Bruce bought them she'd been able to analyse it.

New equipment?

Welcome to the new, and vastly improved, Firewall, high-tech home of Team Batgirl.

Fantastic storytelling, great dialogue and eye-catching artwork - qualities I've come to expect from this series and this issue meets, and arguably exceeds, the usual high standards. After a couple of very enjoyable standalone issues I was pleased that our story returned to the ongoing 'speedster' puzzle and by the end of issue, as is so often the case with Batgirl, I found myself desperate for the next instalment.

Ramon Bachs was a very welcome addition to the creative team I must say - I've long since been an admirer of his work, most recently his run on Red Robin. The quality of art on the Batgirl book has been one of the stand out features of the series and, as each new artist has portrayed their own unique take on the rich cast of characters I've appreciated just how sensitive and respectful to their predecessor's interpretations they have been.

Mr Bach draws a Stephanie Brown that I could instantly recognise and yet one with some slightly different characteristics than I've come to expect. As Batgirl she appears a strong, confident young woman and yet as a student she gives the impression of being just a little out of her depth, as if she's struggling to keep up.

Likewise the visual portrayal of Barbara Gordon suggested a softer, dare I say less bossy, maybe even more vulnerable woman than I've come to know. I'm not sure how long Mr Bach's will be with the Batgirl creative team but I'm going to enjoy his work I know.

As I do every month I'd like to highlight Guy Major's colouring throughout the issue - as expressive, subtle and yet rousing as ever: I think it's high time Mr Major's name was featured on the front of this title. Speaking of which, I wonder why Ramon Bach doesn't get a credit on the cover?

After those couple of months of largely standalone tales it's credit to Bryan Q. Miller's storytelling I think just how effortlessly we picked up with the current ongoing thread - the mysterious "Order of the Scythe" and the first proper introduction of Slipstream.

If there was one highlight in this issue for me it would be the deliciously rich dialogue: there were so many great one liners and any number of memorable exchanges between characters. The tone of the issue was set on the first page with Steph's line about "chaos" - charming and funny in equal measure, through the clumsy back-and-forth between Detective Gage and his fellow detective and then the awkward exchange between Gage and Batgirl to The Grey Ghost's old-fashioned, melodramatic language - which provided us with a couple of wonderful moments during which Batgirl went from being described as an "angel" to a "bruise" in a matter of seconds!

Having previously said that 'student Stephanie' had the look and feel of someone at times a little out of her depth I certainly appreciated that it was she that was able to point out to Barbara that, with so much going on in the world of Oracle, it would probably be a good idea to spend some time with Wendy and let her know that despite all the changes some things were just the same.

I also enjoyed how, it appeared to me, Barbara didn't really appreciate the advice - but she certainly acted upon it. The short scene between Babs and Wendy was fantastically played out I thought - from pretty much her first introduction Wendy has come across as a difficult, troubled, 'hard' character and I enjoyed watching Babs trying to break through that tough veneer as much as I enjoyed the reaction from Wendy when it seemed that she had done.

As an addition to Batgirl's gallery of rogue's I must say I'm enjoying the introduction of Slipstream alongside the aforementioned Order of the Scythe and I think we'll be seeing a little more of Steph's fellow sleeping student "Mr Swift" - a nice touch I thought - in the months to come.

With another eye-catching cover from Dustin Nguyen - once again the final, printed image appearing far more striking to me that the unlettered solicitation preview - this was another fantastic issue.

With a thought-provoking and engaging ongoing storyline that is starting to take shape, complimented with a cast of characters as rich and varied as any book can offer at the moment I'd suggest, Team Batgirl is unbeatable.

Batgirl #19
Written by Bryan Q. Miller, art by Ramon Bachs, colours by Guy Major, letters by Dave Sharpe, cover by Dustin Nguyen
Published by DC Comics, May 2011