Pipeline

Tue, July 7th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

PIPELINE RETRO: BATGIRL (2000)

The "Batgirl" series came out of the glorious Chuck Dixon-era Batman family of titles, though she debuted during "No Man's Land." Tonally and thematically, the series fit in snugly with "Birds of Prey," "Nightwing," and "Robin" at a time when Chuck Dixon was writing them all. Writers Kelley Puckett (with Scott Peterson co-writing the first six issues) took a lot of stylistic cues from Dixon to an extreme in the series during his three year tenure. It should be no surprise that the fill-in writer for "Batgirl" was Dixon, who handled a few issues in those first three years.

This Batgirl is Cassandra Cain, a teenager raised from birth by an assassin to become the ultimate assassin. He robbed her of all forms of communication. At the beginning of the series, she can't speak or read. But being "robbed" of those senses meant that her language became body language. She could read opponents -- and, in Cassandra Cain's world, everyone was an opponent. Now, she's in Gotham City under Batman's wing, confined to fighting only the non-meta (i.e. non super powered) crime in the city. She's never seen a superpowered fighter before, so sticking with bad guys with guns and knives is a smart move.

The origin is a bit extreme and the "power" she wields might be a stretch, but it's a neat idea, I think. And the creators handle it amazingly well. They never forget her limitations, nor how they've formed her into the ultimate fighting machine.

The issues are generally done-in-one stories with small pieces of characterization that carry on in the background from issue to issue. They're very careful to build a progression of her character from the start -- using a very forced deus ex machina to develop her speech center and a very emotional story to encourage her to learn to read. It's a plot device you don't mind, just for the way it helps open up the series.

Batgirl doesn't always win. Yes, she always beats the bad guy through brute force, but never more than she needs to disable him in a fight. This is Batman's second rule, after not fighting superpowered beings. The problem is, as the writers show us, that the violence isn't the be-all and end-all of Gotham's problems. Some things she can't fight, and some things she might be able to end, but not fix. The first year is a brutal time to Cassandra. She suffers some heart-wrenching wins, believe it or not, which add a believability to the series, in the way that a 10:00 p.m. hospital drama might. You do all you can, but it's not always enough. All you can do is your best, right? Learn your lessons, do better. Stop the bad guy from doing it again.

While Batman is her mentor at this point, her partner in crime fighting in Barbara Gordon, a.k.a. Oracle, a.k.a. the original Batgirl. The two have a sisterly relationship in some ways -- they have shared experiences, small squabbles, and an authority figure in Batman that they're just as likely to disagree with as to heed. Barbara helps Cassandra learn more about herself and humanity, as a whole, teaching her basic concepts that you'd expect a teenager to have heard about by now, but that Cassandra was robbed of through her upbringing.

It's the storytelling style that I'm afraid might rub people the wrong way, looking back at this series. These are some very streamlined scripts. Imagine Dixon's fast-paced action-oriented scripts on speed. Some issues are so slight that I read them in two or three minutes. Fights go on for pages with no dialogue. Flashbacks take up an entire page to show us an event we just flashed back on an issue or two ago. A two or three sentence conversation might fill a whole page. It's reminiscent of manga, in some ways, except it's being presented in 22 page installments, which makes things move almost too fast.

Once you accept it as a storytelling style, though, there's a lot to like. First of all, things are never boring. Second, there's something nice about an unpretentious story that doesn't wallow in misery or drudgery. It shows us that through its action, and the decisions leading up to it. The title dares you to hang on for the ride, and then goes from 0 to 60 miles per hour in two pages. "Batgirl" knows it's a comic book, and not a movie script. It provides lots of bold visuals, not talking heads scenes. (OK, so there's one issue that's all a conversation between Batman and Oracle, but it's intercut with Batgirl in the training room, fighting away.) Yet it still delivers an emotional punch in most issues. Often, that punch is the most memorable of all of them in the issue.

THE ART OF DAMION SCOTT

For many, the big draw of the series would be artist Damion Scott. His work is bold and fluid and kinetic and stylized. Rounded faces, flowing capes, rubbery legs in mid-air kicking at an opponent, while gangs of goons fire guns in the air. . . It's just as influenced by manga storytelling as the scripting, I think. Decompression, indeed. Eat it up.

Scott's art starts with some influences by the likes of Joe Quesada. Take a look at some of the faces on display, and you'll see definite signs of Quesada's style in there. Given how different an artist he is, that always struck me as a little funny.

The storytelling is rough at the beginning, too. I admit that some action scenes lost me. After they ended, I'd go back to see how they happened and still couldn't find the visual cues to match the dialogue's explanations. The script covers the gaps, but it always sticks out when it needs to, like that.

After six issues or so, though, you see things start to even out and more of a personal style develop. Elements of graphic design enter the picture. Every issue has Batgirl going kung fu over a group of thugs. You need to do something to keep from getting bored of that as an artist, I'd imagine. Scott added designed background elements and some forced perspective shots.

It's a lot of fun to watch an artist's work mature over the span of a few issues. And in the three years' of "Batgirl" that Damion Scott was the regular artist, there's a lot of maturity and depth on display. I don't know that you would have seen it so much at the time, month-by-month, but it shows on a quick reading. It also shows you the power of the inker, as Klaus Janson's ink job on issue #30 looks wildly different from Wade Van Grawbadger's on the following two, though they were done from "breakdowns" and not full pencils. Still, it produces a wildly different result to the same artists' work. Robert Campanella was the regular inker, though his line became thinner as the series wore on.

But if you're a fan of forced-perspective, ultra-dramatic angles, and characters that look cool even when they're standing still and wrapped up in their capes, there'll be something for you to like here. Scott takes chances, providing a type of art in this series that nobody would even try to duplicate.

AS WE NEARED THE END

In some ways, it's amazing the book made as much forward progress as it did. It was interrupted for "Officer Down," "The Death of Batman," "Bruce Wayne: Murderer?," "Bruce Wayne: Fugitive," and even "Joker's Last Laugh." (It also took part in that month DC did where all covers incorporated their title into the art, a la "The Spirit.") Thankfully, it was given almost a full year before that nonsense began, so the momentum was locked in. And two of those three crossover issues did more than just move along the crossover's stories; they actually forwarded Batgirl's story along. You could have told the "Joker's Laugh Laugh" tie-in story without that crossover all together by changing one or two relatively minor elements.

Puckett and Scott left the title after issue #37. There was no fond farewell text page to mark the occasion, just another great issue with a twist ending to clarify something out of Batgirl's past. I learned recently that Batgirl's mother's identity was revealed at the end of the series, and it made me groan out loud. Even if that was the plan from the start, I think it's a bad, bad idea.

The next issue was a filler issue written by Andersen Gabrych with art by Jeff Parker, featuring the Spoiler, recently kicked out of the Batcave. The regular team was gone for a month and one of the nicest parts of the series -- Batgirl's friendship with Stephanie Brown -- was quickly dismantled. Shame. Parker's art seems very cartoony for title, even after Scott's work, but it also carries on some visual tricks from Scott's tool box. While I said nobody would dare to duplicate it, Parker did a good job transitioning the title away from Scott's style.

After Puckett, Peterson, and Scott left the title, one-time indy comic wunderkind Dylan Horrocks took over the writing reigns. He lasted a year, and kindled a Batgirl/Superboy relationship. Rick Leonardi eventually came on the title for a short run, at a time when the Bat Editorial Office was busy shuffling him around from book to book. It was ridiculous, but he was the regular artist on "Birds of Prey," "Nightwing," and "Batgirl" all in the span of a year or so, even repeating stories with minor changes in elements at one point.

By the time I stopped collecting the series in the mid-50s, another Bat-family crossover featured the art of Sean Phillips.

The series would continue until issue #73, when they ended this series with a storyline that pains me just to read a description of. Actually, just about everything I've read up on Batgirl since the end of the Puckett/Scott run pains me. The funny thing is, they went through years tearing her character down just to attempt resetting her to where she came from again. It'd be maddening if it weren't all so predictable.

One other footnote: With issue #41, a new cover artist whose only cover credits to that point were on a year-old upstart Vertigo title began providing striking covers for the series. That would be James Jean. I can't imagine how the process works in his mind to go from "Fables" to "Batgirl" and back every month. He lasted a year and a half like that, though.

I have some more to say about "Batgirl" covers, but I'll save that for next week.

Four trades collect the first two years of the "Batgirl" series at the time, all of which I believe are out of print today. I can't quite explain all the logic in them, though, as volume 3 ("Death Wish") collects issues #17 - 20 and #22, #23, #25, and "Batgirl Secret Files and Origins" #1, while Volume 4 ("Fist of Fury") has issues #15, #16, #26 - 28.

Even with the crossovers, I think the first three years of this series are worthy of reprinting. They have great art, strong characters, and a unique storytelling style that you don't see dared in today's $3.99 comic world.

In "The Great Purge of 2009" that I'm currently locked into, these "Batgirl" comics are staying with me. I think they'd be a great sample for me to try with LibraryBinding.com. I imagine they're fairy easy to find on the convention circuit in a back issue bin somewhere. Give these comics a shot, particularly at a low cover price.

ANNOUNCING: PIPELINE PODCAST MOBILE

We have happy podcasting news this week! I found a way to simplify and streamline the workflow needed to make these podcasts. As it turns out, the Audio Memo recording app on the iPhone is good enough for podcast-quality sound. No, it isn't up to the highest quality I could achieve with my compressor and mixer and condenser mic at my home set-up, but it's also much easier to set up and run: push a button, talk into the phone, and sync it up to the computer.

It does mean that the average podcast will be shorter. The weekly Tuesday look at the week's books won't go past ten minutes, most likely, and won't include the rundown of "everything else" coming out that week past the Top Ten.

But it does mean I'll be recording and publishing more often. For those times when news breaks and the column is still a week away, I can just fire up the iPhone and record my thoughts. For those random ideas that aren't big enough for the column, I now have the podcast. We'll see what comes of it in the weeks ahead, but I did publish three podcasts last week.

And, just yesterday (10 minutes, 3.5 MB), I published my thoughts on Boom!'s pickup of the Disney Duck license.

Let's take a look at the Top Ten list for books that shipped on July 1, 2009:

  • 10. Buffy the Vampire Slayer #26

  • 9. Writing for Comics and Graphic Novels with Peter David (Revised)

  • 8. Irredeemable #4

  • 7. Muppet Show #4

  • 6. Chew #2

  • 5. Batman and Robin #2

  • 4. Marvel Divas #1

  • 3. Justice League: Cry for Justice #1

  • 2. Savage Dragon #150

  • 1. Captain America: Reborn #1

And, of course, you can download and listen to the podcast (7 minutes, 2.4 MB) today.

The first podcast of last week (3 minutes, 1.1 MB) was the announcement of this new format, and the third podcast (10 minutes, 3.7 MB) dealt with some of the books I've been reading lately, thinking about which ones might make the column, and which ones wouldn't. ("Batgirl" was included in that list, of course.)

Stay tuned for more!

Next week: Listen to last week's podcast and you'll see some of the options for next week. On the other hand, there's a whole week between now and then. Who knows what might happen?

My photoblog, AugieShoots.com is still going daily, and we're pretty much at the halfway mark for the year. Only six more months of pictures to take!

The Various and Sundry blog is also alive and well. I ran down some of my favorite iPhone apps there last week.

My Twitter stream (@augiedb) is like my public e-mail box. I check it daily, looking for responses and new conversational threads. Heck, you're more likely to hear back from me if you ask me something on Twitter than my own e-mail box.

And there might still be a new blog on the horizon yet. . . Seriously. It's in the works.

Don't forget to check out my Google Reader Shared Items this week. It's the best of my daily feed reading, some with commentary!

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

Really, are you still reading this? I'm cutting-and-pasting now.

More than 800 columns -- more than eleven years' worth -- are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically.

TAGS:  pipeline, batgirl, damion scott, kelley puckett, chuck dixon

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