10 July 2014

Gail Simone's Run on "Batgirl" Ending

The news broke on MTV.com this morning: Starting with issue #35, Batgirl is getting a new creative team...which in turn means that issue #34, shipping in August, will be the final issue penned by Gail Simone and illustrated by artists Jonathan Glapion (pencils) and Fernando Pasarin (inks). DCComics.com's page dedicated to the book shows Batgirl: Futures End #1 ships in September, written by Simone. The art on that book is by Javier Garren. Futures End is set five years into the future, where things have gone apparently pretty wrong. I can't tell from the solicitation if this is a one-shot coda to Simone's run on the book or a spin-off.

It was three years ago that DC launched The New 52. I hadn't looked at monthlies in an entire decade by that point, save a brief flirtation with Superman/Batman that lasted all of about four months. It was the prospect of a Barbara Gordon-as-Batgirl book that most interested me. By the time I took to reading Batman comics a quarter century ago, Babs had already been paralyzed by The Joker in Batman: The Killing Joke. I instantly loved the character, though, and I always felt cheated that my generation didn't get to have Barbara in action as Batgirl.

We did later get Barbara-as-Batgirl in Batman: The Animated Series, which was spectacular, and in Batman & Robin, which wasn't, but it wasn't the same as having her in that persona in a mainstream, in-continuity book. I respected what they did with her as Oracle, but it too wasn't the same. Of course, at that time, I was healthy so I didn't have then the deep appreciation I have now for what Oracle represented and means to a whole lot of readers.

Though I hadn't read anything in comics for ten years, I did keep tabs on things from afar. I had heard a lot about Gail Simone's work. Her reputation was for a balance of heart, humor, and above all, respect for people. The immediate fan reaction was divided over whether or not Barbara should revert to being healthy and active as Batgirl, or if she should remain paralyzed as Oracle, but it was unanimous that Simone should be the one entrusted with such a sensitive project. I felt confident going into issue #1. I was instantly sold.

The very first Batman comic book I ever bought was Detective Comics #603, written by Alan Grant. I would read a whole lot more of his Bat-work over the years, including the first three years of Batman: Shadow of the Bat. (Grant continued writing after Zero Hour, but I stopped reading. I was just fatigued as a reader by then.) Grant's take on Batman is the one that defines the character for me. His Batman is about social justice; of a man with all the privilege in the world whose life experience has led him to use that privilege in service of others. Grant's Batman is one who cares about people. His Batman saw the "undesirables" in Gotham City as human beings who deserved a champion.

In one of the first few issues of Simone's Batgirl, Babs encounters Ricky while apprehending him as part of an inept group of robbers. When a ruthless vigilante mutilates Ricky in the name of "justice", Barbara comes to his defense. It's a scathing rejection of the anti-hero fetish that has run roughshod over our nobler values, not just in comic books but sadly in our politics and society at large. It was then that I understood the devout following that Simone has earned over the years. Everything that clicked for me in Alan Grant's Batman stories was alive and well in hers. In a single word: Compassion.

I also quickly discovered that Gail Simone has a nightmarish imagination and seems to delight in conflating these values of compassion with some truly disturbing plots. Anyone who thinks that believing in things like empathy precludes going in some dark places needs look no further than her storytelling. I'm reminded of a comment Johnny Cash made during his At Madison Square album. The Man in Black was telling a story of playing shows for troops in Vietnam and trying to cheer them up in the infirmary. When asked whether that visit made him a hawk, Cash answered, "No, that don't make me a hawk. But it does make me a dove with claws, though." A dove with claws. That's probably the most concise distillation I've ever heard for what I value in a hero - real or fictitious.

Anyway, so I've read the MTV.com interview with the incoming creative team. Their plan is a near-total reboot of the book. Barbara will leave the working-class area where she's been and move on up to the East Side. The book is going to showcase "flirt, fun, and fashion". It's intended to be lighthearted, easy reading. The part of me that has been digging Jeff Parker's Batman '66 believes we need more lighthearted comics and sees a lot of potential for Barbara Gordon as Batgirl to be the epicenter for such a book.

And yet...

Even rarer than lighthearted comics these days are ones that espouse the "dove with claws" values that Simone has fought for on the page through Barbara, as well as in real life. If you want to see what a real dove with claws looks like, just pop on over to her Tumblr blog or Twitter feed. Or read any of the zillion interviews she's given.* She gives voice to people who are all too often marginalized and outright erased. She writes these stories this way because she cares about human beings. That's why Batgirl works. She's sensitive to what Oracle means for an entire generation of readers.

I wish the new creative team the best of luck. I mean that. These characters are bigger than any creator or creative team. They're transient. I get all that, and I made my peace with that back in my youth. But I fear that it's going to be awfully hard for Barbara Gordon to continue to engage and represent the "undesirables" of Gotham City if she moves into an insular posh end of town where, by design, those people can't go and aren't welcome. We're told that Barbara's trans roommate, radical activist Alysia Yeoh, will continue to exist in the book - but that she's staying where she is and now the Gotham River will be between the two friends. That feels an awful lot like the new team's way of saying, "We just don't want to deal with all that stuff".

And that's why it's so important that for three years, Gail Simone did.

Batgirl #34 - Gail Simone's Final Issue(?)
*Speaking of interviews with Gail Simone, I conducted one with her at C2E2, along with half a dozen other folks in the business, for a piece on the convergence of comics and Hollywood, from the side of comics. Right after I got home from that show I fell down the rabbit hole of depression again and those recordings and notes have collected dust, but I promise: I really am going to finish the piece now that I'm back in a healthier place!

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