Monday, 14 January 2013

On Gail Simone's Batgirl: "Fight A Monster, Become A Monster" (Part 3)

Continued from part 1 & 2:


Perhaps we should see it as a triumph of corporate branding. For at first glance, Batgirl doesn't just seem to be a typical New 52 book. It's also recognisably part and parcel of DC Comic's family of uber-bleak and getting-ever-bleaker Batman titles. More desolate tales of psychopaths propelling fiendishly pointy objects into the bodies of nobly beleaguered vigilantes. More fourth-generation Jim Lee-clone artwork, carefully rendered and occasionally exquisite, but always referencing comic books far more than real life. More fatiguing, protracted, pseudo-noir crossovers set in a sunless, insubstantial, cod-ominous Gotham City, a timid lad’s wet dream of frontier life and cowboy justice legitimised by reactionary paranoia. The casual browser might be easily deceived, and it's easy to see why Gail Simone's work on Batgirl might not always stand out as the genuinely radical project that it is.

The scenes of body-horror have certainly been coming faster and faster in recent months. To lift them out of context and parade them one after another would certainly suggest a one-note, Werthamite-bating exploitation title. The barbarous amputation of a ne'er-do-well's left leg below the knee, the stabbing of Batgirl through her side, the Joker's slicing off of Barbara Gordan's mother's ring finger: every second issue, it seems, now contains a more-or-less innocent victim who's trapped, terrified and faced with the loss of a limb or two if not their life. When last month's Engagement ended with the Joker planning to re-enact Boxing Helena with Batgirl in the title role, even the book's avowed fans might have sighed and wondered why desensitisation hadn't yet kicked in, as it has elsewhere in so much of the New 52.

The structure of Barbara Gordan's family life seems to similarly express DC's apparent obsession with the most implausible excesses of inescapable angsty soap. It's obviously not enough that Batgirl is still recovering from the traumatic consequences of  having been shot and crippled by the Joker some three years ago. Because here comes Batgirl's long-lost and sadly disturbed mother, re-appearing after having walked out without explanation on her husband and children a decade or so before. Even that isn't trusted to sufficiantly ratchet up the melodrama. For it turns out that Mrs Gordan's then pre-pubescent son James Jr had insisted upon her departure, having murdered the family cat and promised to do the same for his sister if his mother didn't swiftly disappear. And then, to stiffen this brew to the cusp of turgidity, we're presented with Sarah's abandoned and stoically heart-broken husband, who's been worn to a weary-shouldered, haddock-moustached husk by the combination of loss and his responsibilities as Gotham's Police Commissioner. It's a closed system of barely repressed suffering, unavoidable horror and apparently irreparable relationships, and it works not only to hype up the histrionics, but to also exclude pretty much anything of mundane reality. As apparently removed from everyday life as it can be without toppling into the most obvious of self-mocking farces, Batgirl can appear to represent the frenzied New 52 obsession with excluding the commonplace while accentuating the mind-numbingly generic.

But Gail Simone's triumph with her scripts for Batgirl - and it is a triumph - is rooted in her ability to embrace the storytelling norms of the New 52 while putting them to her own purposes. So much of DC's product emphasises the appalling acts of its antagonists so as to justify the supposedly necessary, virtuous and hyper-violent responses of its super-heroes. In refusing to pay too much attention to the causes of criminal behaviour while hyping up the depravity of their wrongdoers, DC all too often suggests that both human rights and the law actively stand in the way of social order. All that can protect the innocent, it seems, are the profoundly tarnished if not actively appalling super-people with their carte blanche approach to saving the world. Indeed, such is the incompetence and helplessness of society in their books, that DC can even appear to be arguing that rights and laws will always stand between the vulnerable and justice. In this model, fighting monsters doesn't bring with it the risk of becoming a monster in return, so much as the obligation to embrace the apparently socially productive aspects of monsterdom.

Yet to see the DCU through Batgirl's eyes is to no longer have to choose between buying into the company's pulpishly out-there world-view and hanging on to a less reactionary set of ethics. For in Batgirl, the New 52's random, vicious, ceaseless terrors become a  representation of the challenges which face Barbara Gordan as she struggles to re-engage with the world after years of suffering. For the DCU has indeed proven to be a fundamentally traumatic and at times overwhelmingly meaningless place to Batgirl. Its extremes serve as the crucible in which Gail Simone can discuss the choices which haunt Barbara Gordan as she strives to come to terms with risk and uncertainty, decency and necessity. Faced with the likes of The Joker and The Mirror, Batgirl is constantly compelled to review the kind of human being that she would want to be. Can she succeed in serving the greater good without abandoning her humanistic principles, or will all that bleakness reduce her to the status of one more Manichean avenger? In essence, Simone's Batgirl is an investigation of the justifications offered up to explain why the rule of law and common decency alike should be pushed aside in order to protect the huddled masses from a thousand possible criminal ills.

Rejecting the lazy-headed, mean-hearted convention of the criminal as loathsome Other who deserves nothing but at best the sharp end of society's vengeance, Simone suggests that there's no such thing as the Other at all. Even when Barbara Gordan is faced with the Joker, it's her own perceptions of his threat combined with the memory of the harm he's caused that's shown shattering her values and twisting her behaviour. Yet even as she acting out what appears to be an identi-kit performance of heroic vengeancesitis, Batgirl's also shown struggling with her awareness that the Joker isn't actually responsible for his own behaviour. As Simone has her express in Batgirl #15, "It's the Joker. He'll kill anyone. He can't be anyone else." To shot him through his own spine and render him paraplegic in his turn, as she sets out to do, may be something which will prevent him harming others in the future. But it's telling that Batgirl also knows that what she's intending to do is a despicable act. For before she mentions the lives that crippling the Joker might save, she also notes how it would be "Worth the guilt. Worth the jail, the disgrace." to wound him as he did her. Yet if so brutally harming the Joker was the only possible ethical and practical option, then what "guilt" and "disgrace" would there be? In that, there's a clear distinction being made between all that Batgirl's trauma is pushing her to do, and the almost-drowned out content of her convictions.

Each of Batgirl's opponents so far have either found their knowledge and beliefs overwhelmed by the experience of living in an essentially meaningless universe, or they've lacked the ability to frame their decisions rationally and/or empathetically in the first place. In discussing how they came to be the people they are, Simone has been challenging head-on the superbook's ever-growing association with the knee-jerk politics of hatred and retribution. There's everything from determinism to free will and all points in-between being referenced here. From the psychopathy of James Gordan Jr to the insanity of The Mirror, from Gretal's inability to function emotionally to the knowingly callous choices of the Brisby Killers and Danny's capacity to respond to kindness despite his own criminal choices, Simone makes it clear that she believes there's no one cause of crime, and therefore no one single way to somehow deal with it. Yet as with criminals, so with those who choose to regard them as the Other. Even the title character's apparently irresistible and entirely understandable urge towards vengeance when faced with the Joker is something which the writer both sympathises with and yet refuses to present as a virtuous given. If it's possible to empathise with the criminally insane, it appears, then it's also possible to do so with those who'd prefer to see a substantial number of lawbreakers suffer Biblically for their crimes. Polemics from any perspective on the debate in popular culture are rarely as nuanced or compassionate as this. As such, "Fight a monster, become a monster" has been the central - if hardly the sole - theme of the New 52 Batgirl since its very first issue.

To be continued


  1. Thank you for the great blog. It along with other blogs and podcasts have really helped me grow as a reader of comics. This growth has certainly been a mixed blessing because it is hard to realize that something you loved as a child is not a great as you remember it.

    And you really do spend to much time thinking about comics.

    1. Hello Schlep dela Roque:- Thank you for the kind words.

      I'm sorry that something of the medium which you loved as a nipper seems diminished. I guess it happens to everyone. But on the up side, anything from the past which seems to still retain its quality becomes all the more precious. It's survived changing times and opinions and that can be a cheering experience.

      I spend less time thinking about comics than it might appear :) But yes, still probably too much ...

  2. Well said Colin. It's great to see that Simone is able to carve out space for her (evidently decent) values in the hyper-masculine and reactionary world of the New 52, though it's sad that her work should have to come as a rare relief from DC's identikit emotional range.

    Marvel's comics often suffer from similar problems and I think it's rather telling that the most critically acclaimed, if not always commercially successful, of both Marvel and DC's comics are the ones which absent themselves from the cliched routine (or at least explore it in an unfamiliar way).

    Fraction & Aja’s ‘Hawkeye’ has been nothing less than a revelation (and his fun-tastic new ‘FF’ with the Allreds is showing a lot of promise too), Mieville’s ‘Dial H’ feels refreshingly unpredictable at times and has an anarchic playfulness to it which I admire, while the likes of Gillen’s ‘Journey into Mystery’ run demonstrated that a super-book is more than capable of speaking to larger issues and themes in our real world. Also worthy of note is the Morrison/Burnham ‘Batman Inc’ if only for the judicious use of humour, which is near-revolutionary in the context of the other Bat-books (and who’d have thought there was some comedy to be found in the life of a man who fights crime by dressing in a giant rubber bat costume?).

    In fact, looking back over what I just wrote, it seems as though the common factor between all of those ‘refreshing’ cape comics is the inclusion of humour. It’s strange that a genre like this which is so evidently absurd and often colloquially referred to as “funny books” has, in far too much of its output, stopped be funny. You can also add “charm”, “broad appeal” and “relevance to the world beyond its glossy pages” to the list of qualities that are absent from many corporate cape comics. A bizarre business really - especially when one considers the creative talent and effort which is surely at work for these two publishing giants.

    Of course the usual caveat for any reference to the broader online comics-critical community should apply: we're not all in agreement and if anything the continued existence of the likes of 'Fury of Firestorm' (who buys this? WHO?) or 'Legion of Superheroes' when the likes of 'I, Vampire' and 'Hellblazer' are getting cancelled shows that online fans are - for better or worse - a vocal minority in the grander scheme of the American comics market.

    1. Hello Ed:- Thank you. I'm aware that I'm banging a limited series of drums here, but it strikes me - for what little that's worth - that the super-book has become a terribly conservative form. Always a sub-genre that flirted dangerously with the myths of the vigilante-hero, it seems to have disconnected with any broader social agenda since the mid-Eighties to an ever-greater degree. Hardly ever radical, it's now rarely even Liberal in anything other than the broad and unconvincing manner. As such, the examples you mention become more and more important for anyone who doesn't believe in reactionary politics. When Dial H For Hero features a discussion of racial stereotypes in comics, or Uncanny X-Men delivers a well-reasoned slap at Neoliberal attitudes to social justice, it's well-worth appluading. Not because the superhero book should only support a liberal or radical agenda, but because it shouldn't - wittingly or not - predominantly present the opposite.

      Of course, humour is a deadly ingredient in the po-faced reactionary comic book. The hero has to be so noble, society and its victim so woefully vulnerable, the villains so terrible, that adding anything of distance, of irony, in the narrative, reveals the whole conceit to be both pernicious and ridiculous. The whole myth of the uber-bloke is so ridiculous; on the one hand, powerful enough to defeat everyone, on the other vulnerable enough to deserve - it seems - our pity. Charm doesn't belong in the grim'n'gritty comic book because charm indicates that there's the possibility of something other than a violent showdown.

      And of course, I'm reducing my arguments towards absurdity to make the point, but as you say and if nothing else, such thick, silly-serious grim-porn comics only sell to a tiny niche. Most people - even most comics readers - just don't want to buy into such piffle.

      Who buys most of the N52 books? The same limited pool of bloke-fans, mostly. And they don't need 45 examples of crap books a month in addition to 7 comics that might have greater value. DC's chain of command seems convinced that they do, and that if they just SHOCK IT UP the books will sell. But why, when - despite the hype - there's so little difference on the stands. It was always going to be so. Only an idiot, or perhaps somebody who wanted to buy into a simple world-view which empowered their decision-making, could believe that the N52 was going to work in this form.

    2. I always saw the New 52 as a chance for DC to pull out the usual gimmicks (such as new # 1s for every title, etc.), and nothing else.

    3. Ed Allen: those are great examples, I've just read FF 1 & 2 and I'm very impressed with it.

    4. Hi Arion:- I've always found Ed to be a gentleman of excellent taste.

    5. Thank you both!

      Arion: if you enjoy the Allreds' work in FF then you should check out their creator-owned Madman comics (now in trade via Image) or the X-Statix Omnibus (written by Peter Milligan) which I'm about halfway through and utterly captivated by. Some of the pages in FF #2 are the most accomplished Allred art I've ever seen though - I can't wait for #3.

      I was suckered in by the New 52, as I never read DC in the monthly format before and saw it as an ideal jumping on point. As it turned out, I found a lot of DC's output to be - shall we say - alienating. There's undoubtedly some virtuous comics in the mix but, as you say, taking as a whole the New52 seems like an alarmingly reactionary body of work.

      Colin: You make a great point about how humour and charm would effectively disarm these N52 comics. As you say, the po-faced uber-bloke achieves the improbable by being even more ridiculous than his lighter-hearted counterparts.

      The question of ideology in superhero comics is a tricky one, especially if your personal inclinations are towards the left of the political spectrum. The individualistic vigilante is always associated with reactionary elements, yet Superman's original incarnation (the template for all that followed) was something of a social-justice minded vigilante, so I'd argue it doesn't have to be reactionary. I suppose it really comes down to how the hero is positioned in the context of his/her world and how the people around him/her are portrayed.

      I've mentioned Madman before in our discussions here (and probably will again) but I think it's (again) relevant as something to contrast with New 52 world view. Allred's world is full of grotesque beings, mad scientists, evil organisation and occasionally a corrupted government agency yet it still asserts the fundamental goodness in people and as the plots progress sometimes even Madman's bitterest rivals become humanised, while all-too-many modern super-books effectively infer that we are contemptible beings. It's apolitical without being aloof and lightly philosophical without resorting to preaching.

      I suppose, as yourself and Figsarello touched on below, the key to the Big Two making better comics is to have more deeply personal creative processes and inspiration going into the comics. Diversity of content, form, themes, concepts and ideological inferences is - as it always was - essential to the health of the English-speaking-world's monthly comics medium.

    6. Hello Ed:- Actually, when I wrote that point about humour in my reply to you, I found myself ready as if by instinct to explain the point. And then I thought, aw, it's Ed, he'll get it. And of course you did. In an ultra-grim world, any humour which isn't cod-noirish or teenage-quip-tastic will inevitably show the work for the bloke-fan piffle it is.

      I've always thought that the superhero at its best was a humanist matter. It's something which I've argued at length here before - I know, I know - so I won't repeat myself, I promise. But I do think that what the made the superhero at its height - in the 40s and 60s - was a liberal attitude which worked with the machismo to emphasise society's worth as well as that of the individual. As time has past, society has become more and more of a corrupt, incompetent oppressor-or-hostage, and the super-book's become all the more reactionary as a result.

      You've sold me on taking another look at Madman. You really have. I do wish that I could find a fantastically cheap copy of the massive omnibus. One for about £2.25 would be just within my range.

      The problem with diversity and the individual creator which would create it is that it would eat into the power, wealth, status and self-regard of the editor class which is currently in charge of so much of the super-book. The best editors enable their writers to express themselves rather than fulfil a corporate dictat. I doubt anyone at DC has the freedom to do that anymore to the degree that gave birth to the company's golden ages. Some at Marvel do the job wonderfully. At the moment, that's helping to keep the super-book alive.

  3. Hello Colin:

    Typically terrific work.

    I love DC Comics like a favorite Uncle, but they have an uncanny ability to deduce the cultural moment and produce content that is exactly a 25 years out of date. There was, in fact, a moment when crime in U.S. was terrible, inner cities were nearly uninhabitable and things seemed to be on track to getting worse forever. That moment was 1987. By the early 90s, those long-term trends had abruptly reversed and crime has gotten to be less of a factor in American life ever since. You can see that reflected in the gradual humanizing of criminals in pop culture through TV shows, like THE WIRE, BREAKING BAD and TERRIERS. You can also see it in the mainstreaming of Hip Hop where it is totally acceptable for Jay-Z to allude to his past as a drug dealer in a conventional anthem like "Empire State of Mind".

    Not coincidentally, 1987 was toward the end of the most recent creative peak of DC Comics. Miller and Moore had produced their masterworks. Karen Berger's editorial style was forming into the Vertigo brand. The glory had not fully worm off the Wolfman/Perez TEEN TITANS, or the Levitz/Giffen LoSH. Ostrander's SUICIDE SQUAD, the second volume of THE FLASH and the rest of the third way talent that was arriving at DC was shiny and new. It was the most creative period DC Comics had enjoyed since the Silver Age. It is a natural moment of nostalgia for all of us who love the brand.

    Still, it is a long time in the past. Gail Simone is one of a tiny handful of people currently associated with DC Comics that seems to be living in the present century.

  4. Hello Dean:- Thank you for your kind and generous words.

    "Gail Simone is one of a tiny handful of people currently associated with DC Comics that seems to be living in the present century."

    Absolutely. Most super-books say nothing at all about the present day. They're as disengaged as an early Silver Age comic, and yet without the excuse of the 50's witchhunts or an audience almost entirely made up of children.

    I'd also agree entirely with your contention that 1987 was close to an end of DC's last golden period. There's been clusters of good and even excellent books since - I'd put Secret Six in the same high company as Suicide Aquad, for example - but there's been no moment when a substantial number of the company's book were at the very less entertaining and intriguing. That's almost a quarter century ago! No wonder folks were keen to buy into the New 52. DC has been under-achieving for a long time.

    Perhaps I might add a few other top '87 DC books, just for the nostalgia of it all. Veitsch's Swamp Thing, Delano and Ridgways Hellblazer - not Vertigo yet! - the first few Byrne Superman issues, the Baron Flash, Secret Origins, Legends, Justice League International, Batman: Year One ... It's hard to remember how far ahead of Marvel DC was in the last half of the 80s.

    It was a good year, or rather a good few years. Yet by 1989, the bloom was off the rose.

    And of course, the bloom coming off the rose coincided with the Big Two - and then Image - adopting certain surface aspects of Watchmen and TDK as the default setting for bloke-books. The N52 may often be ghosts of the first wave of Image books, but behind them are the big ghouls of WM and TDKR. Of course, the politics of the books by Miller and Moore ran contrary to each other, and yet surface aspects of them both seemed to have been particularly attractive to facile and often simply thick-headed creators.

    But as you say, the criminal landscape is a very different thing today. Having today watched the documentary "The House I Live In" on the subject of the disastrous 'War On Drugs', it seems a matter of desperate importance that something other than one-dimensinal thinking is applied to the West's social problems. Of course, admitting that social problems have a series of causes and aren't solvable through violent, inhumane means takes us right back to Batgirl, and your point about its writer living in the current century :)

  5. Wonderful stuff Colin. You've been praising Simone's Batgirl for a while now, but this is the post that has finally convinced me to seek it out.

    I too, get fed up with all the scratchy slashing and stabbing that goes on in the Nu52, but you make it sound as if Simone is subtly critiquing teh new status quo, whilst presenting a story that has all the surface qualities of that approach. That's very clever, if so.

    If I do get into the run, I'm not looking forward to the major derailment of her being replaced for a several issues. I've already read her comments elsewhere that she wasn't able to follow through on various threads she was setting up. She'll have to do some very clever scripting to ensure that derailament doesn't come across too obviously in the finished comics.

    I am so looking forward to the warts and all book about the New 52 when it is written in a decade or two. Whatever is going on there? It seems that several announced teams on new books, including Constantine, were replaced even before issue 1!

    1. Hello Figserello:- Thank you :) I hope you enjoy Batgirl. I think it carries the sense of a critique of some of the New 52, but only because Ms Simone is working hard to deliver everything that the editorial line demands while using it to discuss ethical issues in a smart, warm-hearted way. Simply fulfilling the brief - as fine professionals must surely aspire to - while adding all that other STUFF does inevitably suggest that things are lacking in some other areas of the line. By the same token, it can at first be tough - or at least it was for me - to get past the New 52-ness of it all. But with time, the nature of the project became all the more appealling, and particularly in the way that it was neither one kind of book or its opposite, but both at the same time. As you say, VERY clever.

      I'm not looking forward to the break in the run. It was ill-judged no matter how fine the fill-ins are. What we need are more and not less deeply personal comics, and anything that breaks that sense of a personal connection to a creator rather than to a company is to be regreted.

      I don't think that that warts and all book is ever going to appear in the form that either of us would want. I may be wrong, and I'll be happy to proven so, but I've heard mention of clauses in contracts which prevent creators discussing their experiences while signed to the corporation. Whether that includes everyone - or indeed anyone, given my ability to get the wrong end of the stick :) - is something I don't know.

      But between the possibility of those contract clauses and the certainty that DC now regards speaking out against the company line as a reason not to offer work to the sinners involved, I'd say a great deal will remain more obscure than we might prefer.

  6. Armchair psychologist time:

    If the super-hero comic is not dark and serious and epic, it feels unimportant to a certain segment of the audience. If there is humor, that means super-heroes can be laughed at, and all those people who think they're stupid and laughed at that type of reader will be right. Intense violence and sexual content = adult.
    I feel bad for those readers, I really do, but I don't want them to be the only ones Big 2 comics target. They don't have to be for me (right now I read a few series in trade and Daredevil in sigles, so my dollars are an insubstantial loss anyway)but I'd love to see them go in a different direction.

    - Mike Loughlin

    1. Hello Mike;- I've always prefered my comics not to be a shelter from the world, but the provider of ways to make sense of it. I luckily never went through the period where I wanted comics to make me feel important through presenting pseudo-adult material to my pseudo-adult self. I was quite happy with their being outsider material, and always distrusted material which attempted to be trying to describe an attitude rather than first telling a story. That went as much for some of Heavy Metal and even Warren's excesses as it did for everyday superhero books, and it still does,

      But as you imply, such product - and such readers - seem to be quite central to the publishing schedules of a great many American publishers to a greater or lesser degree. And as you also suggest, it's a shame that so many of our choices are limited to this narrow range.

      A shame really. I'm sure that lots of us would like to hand over more of our money, but we're investing it elsewhere. And the more we do, the less likely we are to return in the bope that things are improving.

      How odd it is. There are so many bright folks in comics. And yet, there seems to be a significant number of controlling idiots holding various key positions too. Thank gawd for the folks who still get the good stuff into the shops ....