Thursday, June 2, 2011

Forza Alberto! Forza Stephanie! ... Batgirl #21 Reviewed

So, I'm back from my holiday and the 2011 Giro d'Italia - and the pile of comics I'd planned to read during this time away is just as large as it was a week ago! I did read just one comic - the latest issue of Batgirl - and as I finished my review where I wonder what direction some of my favourite characters are heading the DCU looks like it's about to go through a renumbering/reboot/ reimagining/refresh* (*delete as appropriate) that may make my thoughts and wishes redundant.

I'm naturally a conservative person so my first impression is not positive I have to say ... but over time I'm learning to hold back and reserve judgement. I'm not going to say much more until more facts are known but in the meantime I'd refer you to The Batman Universe and Batgirl to Oracle for information about how these changes may/will affect the Bat-books and to Newsarama and CBR and, of course, DC Comics themselves for news about the extended DCU.

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 #21

Seemingly skipping ahead from the previous issue, 'Batgirl: The Lesson - Unchained Melody' opens with Stephanie Brown - aka Batgirl - in a whole heap of trouble.

Buried under a pile of rumble and masonry Steph reminds herself how she finds herself in such a situation: 'adopted' by the well-intentioned Clancy Johnson, who goes by the name The Grey Ghost, she's come face to face with another of the Reapers ... and clearly she's come off worse following their initial encounter.

Wriggling her arms free Steph looks up to see the mysterious 'Harmony' above her closing in to finish the job off. Brushing aside accusations of murder Harmony lets loose with a smash across Steph's face followed by a deafening sound-wave as Steph realises that despite the attacks on her over a period of time, the Reapers are under instruction not to kill her.

As Harmony closes in for another round she's almost immediately stopped in her steps ... "Deet ... Deet ... Deet" ... she realises that Steph has planted a series of explosive charges that take out a row of pillars in the abandoned convent, bringing down the vaulted ceiling onto her head.

With Harmony down - but apparently not out - Steph's comms unit crackles into life: it's The Grey Ghost Clancy Johnson, and he's in need of Steph's help.

Elsewhere, back in Gotham City under a blood red sky a reflective and rather downbeat Wendy Harris - Proxy - looks across the city skyline, the Bat-signal lighting up the sky. Wondering out loud, and to herself, just why she's such an angry young woman, she's taken aback to see her brother - her deceased brother - stood behind her.

On the verge of a breakdown Wendy asks whether Marvin had sacrificed himself to save her and expresses just how much she misses her brother. In this issues first example of 'tough love' Marvin urges Wendy to honour his death by doing something with her own life - something that makes her happy.

With his advice dispensed Marvin's job, for now, appears to be complete.

Back at the abandoned convent Steph has located Grey Ghost and, after splinting his injured leg, helps her 'partner' to his feet. Questioning quite how he knew where she'd be Steph appears to accept Grey Ghosts explanation that he happened to be out looking for his "Violet Avenger" when he heard Harmony on her comms unit arguing about "the plan".

With an unidentified figure looking on Steph dismisses Grey Ghost's comments as she realises that Harmony is once again on the move ... and it doesn't appear that she's now a threat to them. Questioning his motives Steph challenges Grey Ghost to explain whether he's working for the benefit of the city or for himself: questioning that isn't appreciated.

Realising perhaps that this particular partnership isn't working it's Steph's time to dish out some tough love as she warns Grey Ghost that if their paths cross again ... he'd better beware.

Elsewhen, at The Thompkins Clinic, we find Dr Thompkins studying Wendy Harris's x-rays while pointing out to Wendy that while she isn't as badly injured as their friend Barbara Gordon she suspects that it's her ego - as much as her wounds - that is standing in the way of her physical rehabilitation.

Turning her shoulder on her Doctor Wendy explains that she need more than a workout and a pep-talk - what she feels she needs is "peace".

Doctor Thompkins reveals that she knows where Wendy could find that peace.

Back at the abandoned convent and Steph has, unnoticed, crept up behind Harmony who appears to be taking some sort of sample from the remains therein. Amid a flurry of batarangs the two engage once again ... back and forwards fists and feet fly as both woman spill blood until one final blow from Steph secures the victory.

Another time, another place and Barbara Gordon and Wendy - along with brother Marvin - are enjoying a meal at a local diner as Wendy clumsily, reluctantly, finally plucks up the courage to ask Babs for her help, and financial assistance, to help her get away from Gotham to find the peace that she needs ... in Nanda Parbat.

Choking back her coffee Babs challenges Wendy as to whether she really - really - wants to make the dangerous journey to Nanda Parbat: and Wendy is in no doubt that she does indeed.

Later on, on the Gotham University grounds, Stephanie and 'Professor' Gordon - Barbara of course - are taking stock of their situation. Having taken care of Harmony - student Tracey Graham - and Slipstream - Xane Swift - there are 3 more Reapers somewhere across the campus ... and as we all know they are in need of a large amount of money. Reminding herself that rather than grave robbing Harmony was 'harvesting' DNA from the remains of a nun who herself had an ability to "remove maladies from the accursed" Steph suggests to Babs that they get Wendy working on monitoring campus communications for more information.

Ah yes, "About Proxy ..."

As this instalment of the story closes we witness Grey Ghost handing over his weapon and striking a deal with a very, very, surprising partner ...

First things first, let's look at Dustin Nguyen's striking, eye-catching, colourful cover. Taking the form of a stained-glass window - complete with stone surround with ornate decoration - I thought this was an inspired composition.

Stephanie looks almost regal posed as she is in a familiar crouched position, her "violet"-accented cape billowing out behind her; her long golden hair wrapping itself around the cowl of her costume; staff in hand; carefully surveying her environs.

Looking beyond Stephanie onto the window itself - a riot of colour; a visual kaleidoscope of symmetrical panes of glass with, at its centre, The Grey Ghost: the figure of Clancy Johnson looking as sombre and faded as the surrounding sunburst and flower garland look warm and inviting.

Quite simply, beautiful.

Contrary to the billing on the cover this issue saw Mr Nguyen - as always wonderfully complemented by Derek Fridolfs inks and Guy Major's colours - returning to interior artwork duties. I know I've said this before, probably several times in fact, but haven't we been fortunate with the wonderful artists that have worked on this title?

Credit must go to 'the powers that be' (presumably the editorial team) for ensuring that when the books 'main' artist - be it Lee Garbett or Dustin Nguyen - have for whatever reason not worked on an issue or issues their replacements - Pere Perez and Ramon Bachs spring readily to mind - have done a fantastic job and the book hasn't suffered.

What is there to say about Nguyen's artwork that I haven't said before - with their invariably simple, even plain, backgrounds his panels serve as a springboard as the characters almost leap off the page. A sense of movement is, I'm told, notoriously difficult to capture in a comic book panel and yet, for me, that's very much one of Nguyen's strengths.

From a visual point of view a couple of my favourite pages from this issue don't feature Batgirl/Stephanie Brown and feature Wendy Harris and her brother Marvin. For me these pages stand out from the [beautiful] others largely because of the rich, warm colouring of Guy Major that accentuates Nguyen and Derek Fridolfs wonderful pencils and inks.

Having experimented with one or two different looks over time I think the creative team may have found the definitive Wendy Harris. Here she appears as an older younger woman, perhaps in her early to mid twenties and, in contrast to her sharp features, there appeared at a times a warmth in her appearance, no doubt aided by the warm dark red colouring.

A close second favourite scene featured Stephanie and Babs at the university campus - again the talented art team delivered two or three fresh, eye-popping pages that were in complete contrast to the earlier deliberately darker tones of the preceding pages.

As I started reading this story I had a sense that I'd in fact missed an issue - we left issue #20 with the introduction of the mysterious Harmony and by the first page of issue #21 Batgirl and Harmony had said their hellos, introduced themselves and spent some time getting to know each other. Now, I for one would have liked to have actually seen this happen - I think it would have given us plenty of 'yikes!' moments - although I accept that with the limitation of just 20 story pages ("drawing the line at $2.99") something has to give.

In terms of story and character progression the two stand out themes for me in this issue were Steph and Clancy's ongoing fractured relationship alongside Wendy's potentially life-changing decision to get away from all that she knows and travel.

Aside from wondering exactly what the consequences of Clancy's betrayal might be I enjoyed, if that's the right word, seeing Steph finally lose her patience and warn him that he needs to leave her alone. The look on both Steph and Clancy's faces during their exchange was priceless: "tough love" indeed.

The Wendy Harris 'journey' story interests me I must say. She's a character that's been largely on the periphery of Team Batgirl and I suspect I've not been alone in assuming that at some point everything in her life would fall into place as she became the new 'Oracle' ... and maybe it will but for now she's off on her very dangerous journey to Nanda Parbat for a "system reboot".

Aside from anything else I find myself wondering just how this story might play into the pages of our monthly Batgirl fix or whether it'll be told in a spin-off series (I hope the former).

There we have it, another enjoyable issue of Batgirl.

Batgirl #21
Written by Bryan Q. Miller, pencils by Dustin Nguyen, inks by Derek Fridolfs, colours by Guy Major, letters by Carlos M. Mangual, cover by Dustin Nguyen
Published by DC Comics, July 2011