Wednesday, 5 December 2012

On Batgirl #12, And The Matter Of When A Team-Up Is A Team-Up, And When It Isn't (Part 2 of 2)

In which the blogger, admiring how "Batgirl" #12 was written, attempts to work out something of how a single effect among many was achieved, so that he might perhaps one day use it for himself;
continued from part 1, which can be found here;

Batgirl #12 also quietly and purposefully subverts the still-pervasive template for an unexpected encounter between two largely unfamiliar superheroes. It's a model which remains largely the same today as it was when Stan Lee and his collaborators established it in the earliest days of the Marvel revolution; the heroes must unexpectedly meet, misunderstand each other, fight with one another, reconcile, combine forces against a common enemy, and, at the close, exit with a greater measure of mutual understanding if not respect. The message is a simple one, of course; we’re stronger together than we are alone, and compromise is better than conflict.  And even when such a tale ends without its protagonists learning to like each other, it nearly always carries the suggestion that they’ve benefited from being exposed to each other's strengths and weaknesses. Not only has the mission been accomplished, but each of the crimefighters involved has in some way had their character's enriched. Even in superhero universes where pretty much everyone in a costume has met each other a thousand times before, the sequence of misconception, melee and – slightly less commonly - making-up and modifying is so ubiquitous as to be practically impossible to satirise.

Much of the appeal of the rebooted DCU lies in the opportunity it gives for super-people to meet and brawl once more for what's nominally the first time. Yet it's interesting to note how Gail Simone uses the expectations which accompany a team-up between costumed strangers in order to underline the fact that Kane and Gordon are temporary allies sharing a common foe and little else. For though their mutual mission is to be successfully completed, they’ll remain fundamentally the same as they were when they first met. As we discussed in part one of this piece, it's the job and the way it's undertaken rather than the personalities involved that matters most in Batgirl #12. And so, in order to make this unorthodox point, Simone breaks with the tradition of the team-up once she's presented the two super-heroes coming to blows and then reaching an accommodation. So far, so as to be expected. But from that point in the schema onwards, the model is largely ignored, and the reader who expects a deepening relationship to develop between Kane and Gordon will be forced to wonder why that isn't being shown. Instead of accentuating how two superheroes have either become closer friends or at least more admiring potential allies, Simone emphasises how professional excellence can co-exist with personal disinterest. Once again, the theme is that women and their common endeavours don't have to be in any way defined by anything other than their competence and their achievements. Accordingly, the end of the two's association in Batgirl #13 occurs without the slightest word or gesture passing between them. The victim's been saved, the villains have been shut down, and that's all that matters, for now.


It does makes perfect sense that Kane and Gordon end up seeming neither estranged or newly fond of each other. We already know that Gordon is fiercely concerned about the fate of Rickey, who's been kidnapped and imprisoned by Knightfall. It's not a worry which impinges upon what we see of her dealings with Batwoman, but readers of Batgirl will be aware of how anxious she is to ensure his freedom. Similarly, those who have been following Batwoman will know that Kane's unlikely to spontaneously bond with anyone, and that includes absolute strangers in Bat-costumes. As individuals, both are undoubtedly driven by their own thoughts, feelings and experiences, but as an ad-hoc and soon-to-be-dissolved team, they're focused on nothing but the matter of getting things done. That doesn't, of course, mean that nothing of intimacy or importance has occurred here. To trust a relative stranger to watch one's back during a showdown with super-villains shows a significant degree of trust and respect, no matter how guarded or conditional it might be. Yet Simone's decision to strip away the last few stages of the post-Lee team-up leaves a deliberate sense of incompleteness, and that helps to tell the reader far more about the relationship between Batgirl and Batwoman than a by-the-numbers post-punchup hug or scowl ever could.

Most writers of superhero comics - with their preference for perpetually dialling up the angst and turmoil up to eleven and beyond - like to suggest that everyone feels intensely about everyone they meet. Yet the fact is that most of us don't have any great reason to experience anything too immediately intense about most of the people we encounter. As such, a fictional world in which everyone constantly radiates emotion at the highest possible pitch is one that drowns out any subtlety of feeling in the mawkishness of it all. In Simone's stories, there's a far greater range of feeling than is typical in the super-book, and part of that is due to the fact that her character's more intense peaks of feeling don't all blur into a constant blare of sentimental loudness. As such, the idea that Kane and Gordon really don't feel so strongly about each other at all is both innovative and intriguing. When was the last time that such a point was made, and made without a single word having to be said, thought or narrated? I, for one, would love to see more of two characters who just don't mean that much to each. There's friction and frustration and confusion of a less commonplace kind to be found there, and an echo of the real world that's rarely found in a superhero comic.

The heart sinks at the idea of a lesser writer having Gordon nervously attempting to amuse the taciturn Kane, or at the prospect of the latter being shown sizing up the attractiveness of the former.  An almost tearful Batgirl waving gratefully goodbye at a woman she's already begun to regard as a soulmate and a comrade? Or, a restrained and yet sincerely impressed Batwoman struggling to repress her fondness and hiding it badly behind a mild putdown and a speedy departure? Such would've proven almost irresistible for some creators, and the relationship between two remarkable and dissimilar women would've become both immediately cliched and almost entirely uninteresting.

Part of what makes Batgirl such a consistently fascinating read is the way in which Simone both embraces and informs so many of the New 52’s most typical storytelling norms. In doing so, her scripts quite clearly buy into the ominous and angsty noir/horror framework of the Bat-books as a whole, while also adding more personal qualities of emotion, ethicacy and narrative rigour. In doing so, she's not subverting DC's current preference for the hyper-kinetic and the spectacular so much as she's ingenuously showing that depth and sensationalism needn't be considered incompatible qualities. Though hardly alone in doing so, few of even the best of her colleagues' books are similarly infused with equivalent measures of exactness, feeling and principle. It's in this broader context that Simone's decision to play with the traditions of team-ups while presenting Batgirl and Batwoman as superheroes and nothing else deserves to be considered. Though just two examples taken from a broad range of strategies, they illustrate how innovative and through a writer has to be when they're working to underpin the relentless fireworks of it all with something of greater substance. To succeed in doing so while never once leaving the New 52 devotee feeling that their due portion of Sturm und Drang's been diluted with less gripping fare is no little success.

Not action or meaning then, but both, and all at the same time too.



  1. Fascinating review Colin. Thank you for putting the spotlight on this comic, I think I will need to be checking out the trades.

    1. Hello there:- Thank you for saying so. I hope you enjoy the comics when you pick them up :)

  2. Excellent analysis, Colin. Sometimes it's difficult for me to pinpoint what it is that is so refreshing and skilled about Gail's writing, and you really explored it very well in these two articles. It helps that Batwoman (thanks to Rucka and Williams III) and Batgirl (thanks, again, to Simone) are such clearly defined and three-dimensional characters to start, so that their pairing has a great foundation for them to build on.

    Again, thanks for the terrific analysis.

    1. Hello Michael:- Thank you :)

      You're absolutely right to say that both Kane and Gordon are well-established as characters. And I very much appreciated the fact that Batgirl #12 worked to strengthen the characters we already knew rather than introducing some strange touchy-feely, team-up friendly versions. But then - as I'm sure's true for you - I never expected anything less from GS.

  3. Hey Colin! Still have't read this post, but I'm going to. I just wanted to comment with some relevant, unfortunate news:

    1. Hello Nikolai:- It is indeed sad news, isn't it? DC's ability to shot itself - and the people who are working for - in the foot - saddens even more than it amazes. And it's pretty astonishing ....

      Oh, dear. Well, that's my last regular DC book gone. Sadly the New 52 has played out pretty much as I expected when I saw the storytelling in the first week of books and heard the stories of how creators had been treated in the run-up to them. At the time, I was accused of being cynical. Sadly, I think not.