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