Book Club: A Geek Feminist bounces off Batgirl Volume 1: The Darkest Reflection

I’ll be the first to admit that my taste in superheroism runs to the ultra-problematized, not to say outright subversive: I prefer Faith to Buffy, Grant Morrison’s Crazy Jane to Alan Moore’s Silk Spectre, Tony Stark to Bruce Wayne. As I see it, superpowers, like sex, are invariably more or less heavy-handed metaphors for something else. In Buffy and X-Men it’s puberty and burgeoning sexuality. In Doom Patrol, which meant the world to me in my twenties, it’s the marked body, simultaneously mortal and strong.

Superpowers repel me when they are used to single some folks out for special merit at the expense of everyone else. In The Incredibles Dash complains that if everyone is special, no one is. That’s exactly right, kiddo. My deepest political conviction is that everyone is extraordinary and superpowered and jewelled in their most secret inner recesses; everyone; no one is uniquely deserving of special treatment. Business Class is swankier, yes, but you must pay.

Hence my issues. In the Batman canon, superpowers are equated with effectively unlimited money and status. Bruce Wayne’s super secrets are his butler, his vast inheritance and his dungeon full of high-tech toys. As a person who has had to sit through a working lunch listening to a CEO brag about his collection of light aircraft, I find it hard to convey the extent to which this fills me with bored loathing. There’s nothing admirable about being a person like that. At least Tony Stark has shrapnel in his heart, and drinks.

At least it costs him. I’m very fond of that line of Tony’s from The Avengers: “This little circle of light. It’s part of me now, not just armor. It’s a… terrible privilege.” I like that he owns his privilege and its horrors. I like that it’s his way of reaching out to Bruce Banner, whose privileges are equally appalling. I have a lot of privilege that I want to use as a ploughshare, not a sword; the rocket that launched Curiosity to Mars, not an ICBM. Tony’s evolution from arms dealer to clean tech mogul is a useful myth in this way. Bruce Wayne’s Gothic manpain… isn’t.

All of which might explain, at least in part, why the Gail Simone Batgirl left me cold. Canonical Barbara Gordon is problematic in what for me are all the wrong ways. She’s the Police Commissioner’s daughter and the rich dude’s protege. She’s literally the tool of the patriarchy. She uses a wheelchair, yes, and then she’s miraculously healed. I appreciate that Simone lampshades this, most explicitly with her villain Mirror, who embodies the rage of the unlucky towards the lucky.

But Mirror is a villain, and Bruce Wayne, property developer, is a hero, whose acknowledgement of Barbara as Batgirl is the affirmation she needs. All her power is channeled into support for the police, and for capitalism. The arc of the narrative reverts towards the status quo. I am with Doctor Horrible in thinking that the status is not quo.

I’m sorry, but if Donald Trump praised me in any way, I would have to take a long hard look at my life and make some radical changes.

To be clear, I blame Simone for none of this. I think these are structural flaws in the Bat-canon, which tends Ayn Rand-wards and is therefore Not For Me.

I liked Barbara’s roommate, Alysia Yeoh. Alysia tapes Barbara’s cracked ribs and tells her:

If someone’s hurting you, I’m not going to sit by and watch it go on. I am not that person, are we clear?

…and then she makes laksa. I’d rather have read a whole book about her.

What am I missing? Help a Geek Feminist out.

9 thoughts on “Book Club: A Geek Feminist bounces off Batgirl Volume 1: The Darkest Reflection

  1. Kimberly Chapman

    Oh I’m so glad you said it left you cold. I thought I was going to be the only one. Phew.

    I don’t read a lot of comics – not because I don’t want to, because I do. I love superheroes. I’ve got my own novel about people with superpowers. I have, shall we say, an affinity for Wolverine (my husband calls it an obsession, but what does he know, he only buys me all of my Wolvie porn films and okay there was that 3′ version I made out of modelling chocolate that one time and maybe I keep the head in a cabinet in the living room…). I’d love to read Wolverine comics and inhale all of that juicy, angsty backstory. But because of eye issues, I find reading comics very difficult – bordering on painful – because my eye wants to jump all over the page instead of reading coherently.

    This was, therefore, difficult for me to read, but I figured the story must be excellent given that it was recommended here. So I thought there must be something wrong with me when I just couldn’t get into it.

    I really felt like she was kind of an accidental hero, falling into it because she was there in that world anyway. She even comes across that way in her own attitude with the hopeless inevitability of her actions. Your line about her being a “tool of the patriarchy” nails it. Especially because she couldn’t even have her own damned story, could she? It became all about Batman at the end. His fight, his needs, his “don’t worry honey, I’ve got this under control” schtick.

    The tropey absentee mother was also, well, tropey. Meh. Wait, don’t all women bond over muffins and count carbs? Yeah. A diet joke. What-evs. Somehow I’m guessing my precious Wolvie doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about his diet. Jackman: yes. Wolverine: no.

  2. Tansy Rayner Roberts

    I enjoy Simone’s writing a lot and while this isn’t my favourite of her series (it’s not as audacious as Secret Six or Birds of Prey or even her Wonder Woman), I enjoy her writing of this Batgirl.

    But some of the choices made in bringing THIS Batgirl back in late 2011 are problematic. Not just the whole issue where Barbara Gordon was a fascinating female character in a wheelchair during her Oracle years (most of the 90’s and 00’s) and has now been miraculously healed, but also in the way that her history has disappeared so she can be a college-age kid again, with barely any experience under her belt, after being one of the more interesting DC Comics mentor characters for the last 20 years.

    I say ‘again’ but actually when Batgirl was first launched in the 1970’s, she was already a professional librarian with a PhD. After a few years (well, comics years) of fighting crime, something she began on a whim but became quite dedicated to, she grew frustrated with the limitations of the criminal law system (which has to symbolise the patriarchy, right?) she hung up her superhero costume in order to become a CONGRESSWOMAN. After the whole election etc. she moved to Washington and occasionally fought crime as Batgirl as well as working to build laws she believed in. It was kind of awesome, and my favourite part is that Dick Grayson, the first Robin, joined her as an intern/assistant for a while. She stole Batman’s sidekick!

    After the first big reboot (Crisis) of the 80’s she barely figured in the Batverse because the creative/management at the time didn’t like her. She was written out, then shot in the spine to further her father’s character arc, and only came back as the amazing (and professionally educated again) Oracle in the 90’s because a few writers conspired to let her have another life in comics.

    So… yes. I’d rather have Gail Simone writing this Batgirl than anyone else, but I’d much rather have her be writing the older, more battered and infinitely more awesome grown up Barbara Gordon as Oracle than she used to write. I miss that character a lot.

    1. yatima

      Awesome grown up Barbara Gordon sounds amazeballs. There’s just not enough depictions of middle aged and older women out there, which is why I crush so hard on Helen Mirren and Judi Dench (and boycotted Skyfall because bleah.)

      Thanks very much to you and to talkswithwind, below, for thumbnail histories of the character; that context helps explain a lot.

  3. talkswithwind

    You are not alone in finding a lot of problematic stuff in the bat-history. In the outrage over what the New 52 did to Barbara Gordon, DC hiring Gail Simone to write the new book was about the only thing that kept a lot of my friends from outright shunning the title. And yeah, she had a lot of problems to work away from.

    She also didn’t shy away from underlining some of the problems, either. Take the last storyline, the 338 one. Gail quite deliberately drew attention to the problems of the Rich Philanthropist trope as they affect modern audiences in the form of the “Occupy Gotham” signs held by the protesters. And yet, they’re protesting Bruce Wayne. That’s a privilege that’s getting examined, just not in the center spotlight.

    Alysia is a character I can totally see Gail having a plan for. It hasn’t happened yet as of the latest Batgirl comics, but it could still be there. I have hope.

    The Barbara in this series is very different from the Barbara from Gail’s Birds of Prey run. Old-Barbara had a certainty of character, she knew damned well who she was. New-Barbara is still coming to grips with herself. and we’re watching that progress as each issue comes out. This first Volume has a Barbara who is hard-checked by past trauma, is working past survivor guilt, and is still rebuilding her confidence in her kick-butt abilities after a year on the bench. A bench she never expected to get off of.

    This I believe is where the feminist message starts to come in to play, in the focus on Barbara rather than her surroundings. She’s done a lot of “broken people making good on what they got” characters in the past, and this Barbara is another one. This Barbara is demonstrating the message that trauma doesn’t have to keep you on the sidelines forever, you can get up and keep being effective. That is a message that is relateable to many readers.

  4. Mercury

    I’ve only read one issue of Gail Simone’s Batgirl, and I’ve seen her show up in a couple issues of Nightwing, but most of the Batman and related comics I’ve read are pre-New 52. I’m guessing a lot of the stuff you’re having problems with are issues not just with Batman canon (which does have a lot of largely unexamined privilege) but with editorial mandate related to the reboot, in which the majority of characters were de-aged and stripped of a lot of their experience.

    Personally, my favorite Batgirl comics are the entirety of Stephanie Brown’s run (only the third volume, Batgirl: The Lesson, is still in print, but you can get all the issues digitally on Comixology) and Babs’ origin miniseries, Batgirl: Year One (also out of print except in digital, but it’s coming back this summer as Batgirl/Robin: Year One).

  5. Bruce Byfield

    I usually don’t read super hero comics, but Gail Simone’s Batgirl strikes me as more character-driven than most of the genre. Instead of a “tool of the patriarchy,” perhaps she can be seen as someone driven by her personal loyalties? She doesn’t support gentrification in the abstract; she supports a particular project because Bruce Wayne is doing it. Similarly, she forgives Nightwing, the former Robin, for being a rich kid because of his personal qualities, not because she identifies wth rich kids in general. That’s probably as far as you can go in making the background of the Bat stories palatable.

  6. OldEarthAccretionist

    It’s probably partially because of my long history with the character of Barbara Gordon but I actually read her completely differently than you do. In that while you are seeing her as a tool of Batman one of the reasons I have loved her in her various incarnations over the years is that she is one of the very few people in the bat universe who routinely stands up to Batman, isn’t afraid to tell him when he is being terrible to people, and is completely uncowed by his “authority”. I almost see her (as Oracle) as Bruce’s one friend in that she isn’t afraid to speak her mind to him and he confides in her but doesn’t fall into the mentor, or inspiration, or love interest, or ward vein that most of the other bat family characters end up in. I love that she became Batgirl (as Year One version), not to emulate Bruce but as an ill-conceived costume choice at a party as a way to bother her father after he tells her she can’t go into police work and that she becomes a hero, not by design, but because the party is attacked and she fights back. I love that her strongest suit is her mind and memory and research abilities but that she stands up to any and all physical challenges at the same time (even when she is oracle she is regularly seen to be completely physically capable). When Batman tells her to get out of the business before she gets hurt and not to use the bat “brand” she pretty much decides that he can’t tell her not to do it because he has just as much authority to fight crime as she does (i.e. none really)

    …. and I absolutely loved her as Oracle… The fact that she was shot in the way she was, was absolutely an example of women in refrigerators but the fact that she came back not in the manner of other comic heroes, as if it never happened, but living with the consequences of that and still kicking more ass than ever before and through the use of intellect, savvy and information (and yes, her previous connection to Bruce for resources) rather than directly applied force achieved more than most individual heroes manage to do during their careers.

    That being said I was extremely sad to hear that the reboot was erasing her tenure as Oracle but relieved to find out that Gail was going to continue writing Barbara. I feel that criticising the fact that this story arc happens to be part of the bigger Batman story (which is absolutely something that is true and problematic as a first story for the reboot) as a criticism of the character is that the linked together story arc is deinitely something that was decided at the higher level. And I absolutely love how Gail handled it throughout the story arc… I actually think that Batgirl’s individualism/independence just gets stronger throughout the arc up to the climax where I was literally stunned by the conclusion of the Batgirl’s portion of that arc. (I was a little unsure at the beginning of the run… probably because it was such a reset to a “finding her feet”, pardon the wording, Barbara where I was so acclimatised to the very established, mature Barbara)

    That being said, I have no idea if I would love it as much if I hadn’t already been living with Barbara for so long. Because as much as this is a new version of Barbara there is so much the other versions of her that keep peaking through that I know that my memory of the previous arcs in her story colours my reading of her in this arc.

    I also can’t imagine anyone better to take Barbara through this reboot than Gail and I am very much looking forward to watching Barbara come into her own in this version under the pen of Gail, who wrote my favourite runs ever of Birds of Prey (I only hope that Barbara will also get as awesome a friendship as she and Black Canary shared because the “humanness” of the Birds of Prey group was one of the best parts of it).

  7. OldEarthAccretionist

    Just in case I was far too glowing in the above review and didn’t make it clear, I do want to add that the Bat universe (as much as I enjoy it) definitely has a lot of problematic portions that have waxed and waned over the years depending on the writers, editors, etc. Some writers pay more attention to the extremely privileged position of Bruce while others take it far more for granted. Some focus more on criminality of the rich while some focus more on criminality in general. And there are definitely some problematic themes throughout… particularly as Batman is generally 100% sure he is correct all the time.

    But one of the reasons I love Barbara is that in this backdrop I have always seen her has separate from Batman, formidable in her own right, and someone who generally seems to be fighting for a change to the status quo and motivated primarily as protector rather than as a “dark avenger”. In fact, that is one of the things that I think all of the batgirls have been going for them. They aren’t in this to punish but to protect people (and I really do think that as much as he is against killing, Bruce often seems to resort to punishment over protection)

    Also in response to Mercury: I KNOW, RIGHT? my favourite Batgirl run is also still Stephanie Brown… the Oracle – Stephanie relationship and banter was legendary. I was really, really sad to see it come to such an early end. (this write up pretty much epitomizes what I love about Stephanie so I will say no more, for now:

  8. Bruce Byfield

    I got curious, so I read a few more issues. It looks like the gentrification sub-plot is being set up for an examination of the more problematic parts of the Batman mythos. A story is being developed in which a developer who is interacting with the community on re-development is a villain, and a story arc in which Batgirl comes to sympathize with a car-jacker whose gang she beats up. She starts telling herself that being a super hero “can’t just be about protecting rich people and things” — although, as far as I’ve read, no answers are suggested as to what else the role might be about. Nor can she provide any reason for supporting Bruce Wayne’s gentrification before her own respect for him.

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