The new DC 52: Detective Comics and Batgirl

I penned this for the FP blog recently as part of the ongoing DC 52 coverage, where we’ve been lucky enough to have several folks kindly pitching in to help review the massive reboot DC Comics is doing of its main line of superhero comics and characters, effectively re-starting the DC universe (DCU as it is called in comic speak) which makes it open and more accessible to readers who are either not familiar with them already (and the decades of continuity and back history – some characters like Batman date right back to the 1930s, after all) or who used to read them but stopped a while back and aren’t up on recent events, meaning new readers can come in at thr ground floor as the characters are largely restarted.

Detective Comics #1

Tony S Daniel and Ryan Winn

It’s pretty rare these days for me to pick up a weekly or monthly comic – I’ve collected them for years, still have boxes of them, still have a lot of love for them, but these days more often than not I tend to pick up the collected editions further down the line, but with all the DC 52 titles coming out and with all the various guest posts that have joined the regular blog contributors (thanks, guys!) to cover this enormous re-launch, I was too curious not to pick up some, so I thought I’d delve into an area that has always been one of my favourites in the DCU – the world of Gotham city.

Detective Comics #1 starts well for me right from the disturbing cover image of the Joker and broken dolls, a suitably appropriate and creepy bit of art, backed up inside by the first page which is slashed into a sort of triptych giving us a jagged, splintered view of this world, while the Batman’s voice over laments the sheer number of deaths the Joker has been responsible for, and how even if the courts can’t deal with him properly, he can and he will (shades of Miller’s Dark Knight and his grim determination to end the Joker’s murderous spree once and for all). He also seems to hold himself partly responsible for those deaths because he has failed to stop the Joker in time, something reinforced later when he tells Alfred, after the Joker has given him the slip, that any further murders he commits since escaping him means blood on his own hands too.

It’s an extreme form of survivor’s guilt, the child who lived when his parents were brutally slain, sworn to try and defend the innocent, to prevent more deaths, feeling endless guilt because he lived and trying to assuage that irrational guilt by saving others, by feeling the guilt of the criminals he tries to stop if he fails to prevent them from harming others. And that’s spot-on for the Batman, it is a major part of his psyche after all, an important part of what drives him to do what he does.

The brutal, casual, almost randomly sparked violence of the Joker is highlighted early on when a strange visitor to his room, clad in some sort of sinister flesh mask, rubs him the wrong way, despite being an invited guest, and the Joker snaps and turns on him, not merely killing him with a knife but stabbing and slashing him multiple times in a frenzy. But he isn’t just an insane psychopath – as Batman trails then battles him (leading to a great throwaway scene where both are on a train, a little girl looks past the Joker and says that man is scary, mummy, her mother tells her not to stare, the kid says, no, not the clown man, the monster bat man. He is scarier to her than the Joker) the Joker tells him that he is too fixed on dealing with him and can’t see the bigger picture, but it’s alright because that picture is being drawn up for him…

I enjoyed this – a well paced piece of work with good, moody art highlighting the brutal nature of Gotham and the grim determination of the Batman. As he pursues the Joker in a train he sees the Joker release some of his gas and clears the innocent travellers out safely but takes a whiff himself in the process. Even with his head reeling though he won’t quit his pursuit of the Joker:

I hold my breath, but the toxin penetrates my pores. Dizzy in seconds. But I can take it. I’m Batman.

This Batman is still officially a vigilante, with the cops after him as well as the criminals, on the orders of an electioneering Mayor, much to the disgust of Jim Gordon, who is on his side, at least covertly, and who already has the bat-signal lamp on the police HQ roof, so it will be interesting to see how the obvious tensions that sets up work out. My only quibble here is that frankly it doesn’t feel like a relaunch – this is great stuff, don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed it and want more – but it is also very familiar stuff to anyone who’s read Batman over the years, not as different or as fresh as say the version of young Superman in Action Comics. But then I recalled a question Grant Morrison was asked at the Edinburgh Book Festival – one reader asked him why in the various reboots and changes to the DCU over the years the Batman was usually the least altered. Grant thought about it and answered that Batman is one of those characters who was so well put together originally that there really isn’t much to reboot without messing up a well running engine and I suspect that’s the case here. In any case it certainly didn’t affect my enjoyment of this first issue.

Batgirl #1

Written by Gail Simone, pencils by Adrian Syaf, inks by Vicente Cifuentes, Adam Hughes cover

Barbara Gordon, my boyhood Batgirl, back in her cape and fighting crime after years in a wheelchair? Yeah, I had to pick up this part of the rebooted Gotham corner of the DCU too. I remember Barbara before her Oracle/Birds of Prey days, I remember when Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s hideously creepy Joker shot her, quite deliberately aiming the bullet to her spine to leave her crippled but not dead in The Killing Joke. And I am delighted to see her literally back on her feet again, although wondering how she managed it.

Her miracle recovery isn’t explained in this first issue, so I presume we’ll find out as this new universe slowly reveals itself, but her vicious crippling by the Joker is a part of this new DCU history. In fact it plays an important role, the awful memory constantly tugging at Barbara’s mind as she forces herself to move past it, to refuse to stay living with her father despite acknowledging how much the thought of staying there with him where she feels loved and safe (especially as she still suffers traumatic nightmares of that Joker incident), is so tempting, but she knows she has so reclaim her life and so moves out into a shared apartment (luckily her new room-mate works nights!).

The issues starts nicely with a good red herring, as we see a caped figure approaching an old man in his garden. We see this suited figure only from behind and at first the inference is that it is Batgirl or another caped hero, until we find out that this is a new figure, Mirror, and he has an agenda, perhaps some form of brutal, extreme justice? At least that’s what it seemed to me – his first victim seems an innocent old man pruning his roses, but Mirror confronts him demanding to know how it is he is the only one to survive a ship sinking in mysterious circumstances.

Barbara herself is very well handled, as you’d expect from Gail Simone who knows her so well, deftly balancing her reclaiming her personal life as Barbara and her crime-fighting return as Batgirl. She’s as determined in her own way as Batman – she may be using her legs again, but we know Barbara is strong and determined, even being crippled never stopped her fighting the good fight after all. But she is more human than Bruce Wayne in some ways – determined, yes, but she has doubts and she is fighting them as surely as she fights the criminals she is stalking:

I’m not Barbara Gordon. I have to keep remembering that. Tonight I’m not Barbara. Tonight I’m not the police commissioner’s daughter. Tonight I’m the only one who pored over the details of the confidential police reports when her dad wasn’t looking. I’m the one who recognised the vintage costumes you wear.

Tonight?

Tonight I’m Batgirl.”

She has anticipated a group of burglers/serial murderers The Brisby Killers and tracked them to the location of their next planned crime. As a couple are held by the criminals they are taunted, being shown a scrapbook of their previous crimes and what they did to those unfortunate families they encountered before. It’s very nasty stuff, slightly leavened by some gallows humour as the husband protests they don’t even live in Brisby. We’re not geographically constrained, the lead criminal explains, that’s just a media label. And then the window shatters as Batgirl smashes through taking out one of the gang instantly. Yes, that is almost a cliché of a scene, but it fits nicely here and there is something satisfying about our heroine smashing into the scene just in time to protect the innocent.

But all is not well here – we have hints Barbara is still adjusting to being back on her feet, she acknowledges luck as well as her training aided her in this fight, and she’s still not entirely sure she’s really back to her top game, but there is a nice aside where she comments that she has some serious upper body strength, a hint to the arm and shoulder muscles she developed pushing her own wheelchair about previously. But that crippling is still there in her memories and dreams, as I said, and she’s right to be worried about the effect it may have on her, because at some point that hideous memory is going to have a very direct consequence for Batgirl…

Good, strong opening, with Barbara an engrossing combination of the determined, strong hero and the flawed, doubting human being trying to overcome the past and her own fears. And the backstory of how she recovered the use of her legs and how she will deal with the trauma of memories of the Joker’s attack is going to be an intriguing one, I think. More, please.