Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Batgirl #23 Reviewed

The penultimate instalment of Stephanie Brown's tenure as Batgirl, appropriately entitled "Here Endeth The Lesson", opens outside Gotham Central Police Department as we witness a group of police officers enjoying the evening air, coffee and reminding one another what a unique city Gotham is.

The calm is broken as first one and then a whole group of tech-suited figures demand access to the building. Inside, and this time it's the officers who are armed as they open fire on another, similarly suited, intruder.

As an officer Finch calls for backup the red-suited intruder - apparently known as Miranda - signals a colleague - Jabberwock - who crashes through the ceiling and into action, ripping apart the evidence room doors to reveal Slipstream and Harmony's suits.

Elsewhere in Gotham: Batgirl, Detective Nick Gage and a number of his officers stand over the twisted, lifeless body of The Grey Ghost, Clancy Johnson. In "The Reaper's Lair" emotions are running high as, at first through a whisper, Stephanie tries to explain, without giving too much away, that she had to leave town recently, it wasn't her choice and sometimes she has to just do what she is told.

As Steph's patience breaks she reminds Gage - as well as the officers present - that if he'd been somewhat more forthcoming about his earlier connections to the Reaper cult then Clancy wouldn't be dead now. Asking for some privacy Gage explains that as a younger man he had been recruited by a Reaper chapter when, during a robbery that went wrong, his fiancée was "caught in the middle" of a fire fight.

Turning their attentions back to the dead man before them Gage explains that Clancy had called the police station looking for help - looking for Batgirl. Although they were too late to save Clancy he'd left behind an encoded video-message for his "dearest violet avenger" ... a message that reveals that the Reapers had struck a deal with a "client" - only to find themselves double-crossed.

As the message ends the enormity of the situation strikes Steph - and she's overcome with a tremendous sense of guilt. Rising to Gage's challenge to use that guilt positively the pair are interrupted by the news of the attack downtown on Gotham Central, and the deaths of many, many officers.

Across the city at Blackgate Penitentiary and as fires burn the aforementioned Jabberwock, now accompanied by Figment, have reunited their fellow Reaper Xane Swift - Slipstream - with his speedster suit. Revealing that Miranda had gone in search of their 'colleague' Harmony Jabberwock responds to Swift's rhetorical question 'who do they need to kill to get out of there ...

"Just the one guy ...".

In a helicopter high over Gotham Steph and Gage are heading towards Blackgate. With Batman and Robin dealing with a situation at Arkham and "Not-Oracle" busy on with Birds of Prey business Batgirl will be going in alone - at least until SWAT and SCU arrive at the island.

Amidst wishes of good luck and apologies for earlier raised voices Steph prepares to leap from the aircraft - but not before she tells Gage to give Barbara Gordon a call sometime ...

"Goodbye, sweet Detective".

Back inside Blackgate Penitentiary and the staff of the facility are being intimidated by the Reapers who themselves are unaware that they now have company. Easily breaking free of Batgirl glooperangs they go on the offensive, Steph just managing to evade their attacks.

With the odds very much against her Stephanie needs to understand why the Reapers have targeted Blackgate and, equally, why they won't leave.

Discovering that the riot is just a distraction while they locate and then kill their "client" Batgirl calls in her own 'girl-power' support team - Stargirl, Bombshell, Miss Martian and Sugergirl. As fists and feet fly blows are exchanged until eventually Steph and her team come out on top, victorious.

With the Reapers taken care off Steph realises that in spite of all the violence and vandalism there's just one door in the facility that's firmly closed ... and that must be where the "client" is waiting.

Kicking down the door Steph gets the surprise of her life when she identifies the occupant.


Issue #23 very much felt like the beginning of the end: on the whole beautifully crafted just at times feeling a little rushed, a little 'convenient'. The story itself certainly took a somewhat darker tone - and well it should with the death of Clancy Johnson, Gage's revelations of his past and the foreboding appearance of Cluemaster.

Understandably, but nevertheless regrettably, all of this impacted on the playful banter that's become such a feature of this book - aside from the closing 3 or 4 pages when Steph was joined by her team of girlfriends the dialogue was much 'straighter' than I've become used to.

The death of Clancy Johnson - as far as anyone ever actually dies in comics it seems - really did surprise me: he'd become something of a comedy, even irritating, sidekick for Steph and as such I, naively I'm sure, don't generally anticipate bad things happening to (on the whole) well intentioned people. While I certainly wouldn't say that I wanted him to die it speaks volumes for Bryan Q. Miller's craft and confidence that he did.

Perhaps one of my favourite scenes from this issue was the moment Stephanie couldn't hold her emotions any longer and she turned on Detective Gage, pointing out in no uncertain terms that if he'd been more honest about his past the tragedy could have been avoided. Steph's harsh words really did appear to take the wind out of the Detective.

I have to admit I was a little disappointed with the speed with which Detective Gage's dark past was reintroduced and then almost immediately put to one side. Gage's 'mysterious and shameful' past has been alluded to several times throughout the series and I was looking forward to seeing this particular thread play out. Of course I imply no criticism of Mr Miller for this - as I understand things Stephanie's run as Batgirl had been originally been mapped out across 30 issues and this quite naturally explains why certain elements felt rushed, too convenient and a little, just a little, unsatisfactory.

Running the risk of revealing too much about her own background and identity I found myself smiling through the scenes with Gage and Stephanie where first the officer shocked Steph with his belief that she was a college student and, later in the story, when the pair briefly held hands, calmed the troubles between them and, much to Gage's surprise this time, Steph said he should give Barbara Gordon a call.

"Goodbye, sweet Detective" indeed.

The ongoing story of The Reapers has been, and continues to be, enjoyable and thought provoking. As we began to learn that the group have been operating at the behest of a 'client' I don't mind admitting that I hadn't suspected The Cluemaster - although of course after the reveal he's an obvious and entirely appropriate choice. With a mixture of emotions I'm certainly looking forward to picking up the next issue to see how this story concludes.

As I've said before, I've become a real fan of the artwork of Pere Perez throughout his run on Batgirl. In this issue, again in partnership with colourist Guy Major, the interior artwork was everything I've come to expect and appreciate. In keeping with the overall tone of this issue the art was perhaps a little darker than we've seen before, the page layouts perhaps a little more 'conventional' until ... the arrival of Steph's backup team and then the panels were a riot of colour, the page layouts provocative.

From Dustin Nguyen we were treated to another wonderful 'more than at first meets the eye' cover. At first glance it's Batgirl, poised for action, seemingly being pursued by Harmony. And it is until, on closer inspection, we see that Steph's exit is blocked by a second Reaper and, through the mist and her billowing cape, we can just make out the shadowy figure of a third over her shoulder. Fantastic.

There we have it: as I say, the beginning of the end. Next months concluding issue will be bitter-sweet for sure.

In summary - another hugely enjoyable issue in this most enjoyable series.

Batgirl #23
Written by Bryan Q. Miller, art by Pere Perez, colours by Guy Major, letters by Carlos M. Mangual, cover by Dustin Nguyen
Published by DC Comics, September 2011

Footnote to my review:
Following on from my comment - indeed complaint - regarding the appalling use of a banner advertisement on the cover of Batgirl #22 I have another comment – yes, a complaint - for the editorial/marketing teams concerning layout: advertisements that are intended to look like pages in a Batman comic are not helpful when used in a Batman-family comic: they take the reader, this reader at least, out of the moment, breaking the story momentum that the writer and artists have carefully crafted. To me this shows a lack of respect for the reader, and the creative team.