Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Batgirl #20 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 #20

With a flashback to the last university semester 'Batgirl: The Lesson' continues and concludes with the second part of a two-part story-arc entitled, somewhat ambiguously perhaps, 'Tunnel Vision'.

First at Gotham University, then the Theta-Kappa-Gamma house, and finally a fast-food restaurant we witness a young student making his way through his academic life with just about as little effort as possible before, somewhat out of the blue, he receives an email that could just give the student some direction and focus.

Fast-forward to present day and we discover that the young man in question is a member of the mysterious 'Order of the Scythe' - except on this occasion he's not demonstrating much in the way of team work or togetherness.

Angered that he hadn't been told that his speedster suit had an off-switch the student - named Xane - has to be restrained by fellow 'Reapers' as he learns that this feature is standard for the group: aside from anything else it ensures they don't deviate from the groups' plan.

Quite what that plan is none of the Order know - only 'The Client' is aware of the bigger picture.

Meanwhile, over at Firewall, "Batgirl's (excitingly remodeled) base of operations", Stephanie Brown - Batgirl - seems to be struggling with a puzzle while Wendy Harris - Proxy - asks her friend to demonstrate a little focus.

Thanks to 'Batman, Inc's' recent generous investment Steph has a number of new 'toys' to distract her: and she's currently distracted by a high-tech batarang-maker that allows her to manufacture the most elaborate - and unlikely! - array of gadgets.

Positioned in front of a vast bank of computer displays Wendy and Steph mull over what they currently know about Slipstream and the Reapers recent activities - large amounts of money have been 'tagged' with a tracking spray prior to its movement - and bemoan what they don't know - namely where the money is headed once the banks move it.

Later on, at Gotham U, Steph is explaining, without giving everything away!, the situation to her friend and mentor Barbara Gordon. It seems the transfer of large amounts of cash is not that unusual and every few years the banks will transport soon to be defunct notes to an unknown destination - and until they know where, when and how the money is being moved they are forced to play a waiting game.

A little out of the blue Steph laments that she feels things aren't the same since Barbara stepped away from her role as her 'handler' and is reminded by her friend that, be that as it may, that's the way things have to be for now - the Batgirl/Oracle partnership may be a thing of the past but Babs does her best to gee-up Steph and reminds her that she, and she alone, is Batgirl.

Later on we find Steph sitting a "bonus" night class - although she's clearly distracted as it's been fully six hours since she last heard from Proxy. Steph's anxiety and nervousness finally gets the better of her as she shouts out loud at a fellow student - named Swift - who for some unknown reason has been mumbling directions to himself for some while.

As Swift receives a phone message - "You're on" - Steph notices that her fellow student has again been studying a map: a map of Gotham as it happens. As she herself receives a telephone message from Wendy, Steph deduces that she's been sat alongside Slipstream all this while - and now he's got away.

Racing out of class, across the campus grounds, Steph links in with Wendy before arriving at her new, Batman Inc-funded car, named by Steph “The Compact”. It seems that a convoy of trucks transporting the bank notes in heading towards "The Tube" - an emergency tunnel carved deep beneath the city. Engaging "Combat mode" The Compact transforms into an armoured vehicle as it enters the tunnel and Steph - now in Batgirl costume - races towards her destination.

Across the city at Kord Tower, and in line with her earlier comments that she wouldn't be around to help her out of a jam, Barbara passively, pensively, watches events unfold.

Overtaking the convey and screeching to a halt Steph leaps from her vehicle and reassures the armed guards that she's there to help - perhaps, on reflection, not her smartest move as the guards don't take on board her comments and open fire on her. At that moment Slipstream arrives on the scene knocking the guards from their feet with his speedblur before turning back to confront Stephanie.

Goading Slipstream into attacking her Steph skilfully evades his charge with a "swoop!" of her cape and as the pair once again turn to face one another Slipstream's suit starts to malfunction - a victory for Batgirl's combo-batarangs!

Later on, with Slipstream grounded and the Gotham City Police Department on the scene Stephanie - still in her Batgirl guise of course - and Detective Nick Gage - reflect on the days events. Gage comments that Swift doesn't appear in the least bit concerned that he was heading back to Blackgate while Steph responds that their problems aren't behind them as The Reapers are clearly planning something bigger.

Regretting her fellow student's role in recent events Steph wonders aloud just how Swift became involved with the cult in the first place - and is shocked by the response she receives from Gage.

Elsewhere, the issue closes back at the Reaper base with confirmation that Swift's capture and incarceration are indeed part of a much bigger plan ... and the introduction of a menacing new adversary for Batgirl called, ironically, Harmony.

This issue had everything I've come to expect from Batgirl - a fun, engaging storyline; enjoyable, charming dialogue, fantastic interior art; a bold, eye-catching cover with amazing colours throughout and yet in several respects this felt like a different type of issue: not better than usual, certainly not worse ... definitely different.

For me, the book has a somewhat darker tone than I've grown used to - as the story progressed I developed a real sense of foreboding, as if all wasn't quite as it at first seemed, culminating in Steph and Gage's rooftop heart-to-heart that something much bigger than a robbery was around the corner, coupled with the Detective's cryptic confession.

Having created and developed a credible opponent for Batgirl in Slipstream I was just a little surprised how easily Steph finally captured her opponent - and I'm certainly not a fan of long, drawn-out fights. That said this all too brief scene was wonderfully written and left me with a genuine sense of joy as Steph delivered an immediate return on Batman Inc's investment in her.

Once again the exchanges between Stephanie and Barbara Gordon were really quite touching and I found myself thinking just how their own relationship has developed over the past 18 months or so - at times almost parent and child and never less than sisterly. That Bryan Q. Miller writes a superb Stephanie Brown/Batgirl cannot be disputed - credit should also be given for the voice he has nurtured for Barbara.

Aside from the ease of Slipstream's capture I know that some will suggest that the convenience of young Xane Swift being Steph's classmate was just a little too ... well, convenient. Not me: while the baddie being known to the hero is not an original plot device - see any number of episodes of Buffy, Charmed or Scooby Doo! - I appreciated Swift's subtle introduction to our story and that his involvement was allowed to grow slowly over a couple of issues.

The somewhat darker tone I sensed with this issue was supported, I felt, by a shortage of the hugely enjoyable 'one-liners' that the series has garnered a reputation for. That said, there was still enough fantastically flippant dialogue to satisfy me: "... the most bad-assingest not-tortilla press batarang-maker ...", "And then you did a touchdown dance?" and my favourite when Steph stopped the convoy - "Don't worry! I'm Batgirl!".

Some of the closing pages of this issue are amongst the finest in the series as a whole I'd say. I'm referring to Batgirl and Detective Gage's rooftop liaison: fantastic collaborative storytelling. The story simultaneously seems to take a breath and yet race away - just what is the "something bigger" and just what was Gage referring to with his revelation to Steph? I felt these pages in particular where quite beautifully drawn by Ramon Bachs - again, simple panel composition allowing the reader to focus on the emotions of the central characters - and very sensitively coloured by Guy Major.

Mr Bachs seems an artist who is ideally suited to the Batgirl title: to my eyes he has an ability to capture a character's personality perfectly: be it Steph's youthful exuberance mixed with at times over-confidence, Barbara's strength and caring, even the reluctance and sadness of a new character such as Swift/Slipstream.

There are subtleties to his work that I don't always, on first viewing pick-up on - for instance, on first read I felt that one or two of the panels set in Barbara's office tended to be just a little flat, lacking in life or movement. It was only on second read that I realised that I suspect that's how they were meant to be seen - almost as if Barbara's words were hanging in the air, with time, momentarily, standing still.

Likewise, the portrayal, on the final page, of the mysterious 'Harmony' seemed just a little comedic - in a similar way that Steph's Ricochet looked a little comedic when I first saw it - until I reminded myself that 'she' - like Ricochet - is entirely in keeping with the overall tone of the series.

Aside from the 'roof-top' pages I particularly enjoyed how the tunnel heist scenes were drawn - clean, clear and uncluttered by unnecessary background interference yet they appeared full of movement and chaos.

Speaking of movement and chaos - top marks to Dustin Nguyen for delivering another bold, beautiful, eye-catching cover: The Compact on its roof, wheels spinning wildly; Slipstream sliding beneath the vehicle, seemingly in total control of his situation; Batgirl, upside down, eyes half closed and yet with a smile (or maybe a grimace!) on her face: all fantastically coloured and complemented by the title Batgirl symbol.

In summary, for me a different type of issue this month for sure and every bit as enjoyable and satisfying as ever. As with the series as a whole this is an example of sequential storytelling at its finest.

Batgirl #20
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, June 2011