Comic Book Review: BATWING #1 And BATGIRL #1

Two titles from the Batverse reviewed - are either worth your time?

I am trying to review every single one of the DC New 52 and have realized that reading them isn’t the problem, the problem is my overly verbose reviewing style. That means I’m terribly behind on reviews, and so I am going to try to double some reviews up. With Batwing and Batgirl it makes a certain thematic sense, as they’re both Bat-books.

Batwing is one of those stories that treats Africa like a country. It isn’t enough for Batwing, one of the international Batmen established by Batman during Grant Morrison’s run on the Dark Knight, to patrol the Democratic Republic of Congo - he has to be the guy looking out for Africa. This is the sort of thing that makes me think that Judd Winick will be setting the title in an Africa largely imagined by white people living in America. And that’s too bad, as I imagine there must be some comic writer out there who could bring some veracity to the story (I’m sure it’s possible that Winick, who has been involved in AIDS activism and education, has visited Africa).

But whatever, it’s comics. Most of them are set in made-up cities anyway. How does Batwing #1 work as a comic, and most especially as a New 52 debut issue? The answer is well enough; the fact that David Zamvimbi is a cop in Congo who also works in a semi-subservient position with Batman is established quickly and cleanly. Batwing even has his own Alfred and his own Batcave - it’s a real blaxploitation take on Batman, but the Shaft in Africa/Black Power sort of blaxploitation. There’s the introduction of a long-missed African superhero team, The Kingdom, which is interesting and makes me want to return for future issues. And there’s a shit ton of violence (the New 52 is drenched in blood).

On the down side is the fact that the comic opens on a battle between Batwing and a character called Massacre, then jumps back three weeks - and ends, three weeks in the past, with Massacre ‘killing’ David Zamvimbi. That’s a pretty lame cliffhanger, I have to say. The  book is written well by modern comics standards (ie, not particularly well at all), but again there’s a lack of veracity that troubles. Maybe Winick is reading up on the Dark Continent right now and realizes that having Batwing keep saying he’s protecting Africa is like having Superman say he’s protecting North America.

Batgirl #1 is really, really close to being actually good. Unfortunately it’s completely hindered by the bizarre corporate dictate that Batgirl must now be Barbara Gordon, and that Barbara Gordon must now have her legs back.

Way back in the 1980s Alan Moore had the Joker shoot Barbara Gordon - daughter of Commissioner Gordon and sometime Batgirl - through the spine and cripple her. It was a shocking and controversial decision, but also a strangely fruitful one; it was decided that Gordon would remain crippled (in a universe where dying was merely an inconvenience) and she became Oracle, the high-tech nerve center of the DC Universe, a phone call away from any hero needing insider information and expert analysis. Oracle ended up being a really, really great character.

But now, in the New 52, she’s gone. Batgirl is one of the books that semi-skirts the reboot thing - Barbara Gordon was at one point crippled, and was Oracle, but now her legs are back and she’s out kicking ass in a tight bodysuit. Why she still calls herself Batgirl is a mystery that must remain for now (at one point in the issue someone calls her the much less demeaning Batwoman, and she corrects the civilian), as is how her legs came back.

But making that a mystery sort of works against the book’s drama. This first issue seems to be Batgirl’s first time out patrolling again, and being crippled continues to haunt Barbara - but in a way that remains just vague enough about her recovery to maintain mystery. Was her recovery sudden, or the result of months and months of difficult, painful, will-testing work? It seems like an important, character-defining question - one that remains unanswered. And so the character, essentially, remains undefined.

Gail Simone, writer of the comic, was the writer who did most of the great Oracle work. You can see her doing her best here - moments like Barbara dealing with the still-installed wheelchair ramp in her van, or the way the issue’s villain can defeat her simply by pointing a gun at her belly like the Joker did - but the decision to mobilize Barbara Gordon is a self-defeating one. I don’t fully understand why DC needed Barbara Gordon back in the Batgirl suit, since she’s been out of it since 1988. Think about that. 23 years without being Batgirl, but they think for some reason they gotta have her back.

I’ll give Batgirl another couple of issues; I like the way that Simone lets us in on Barbara’s inner monologue without really contradicting the outer hero, and I hope that some definition of the character happens in the coming months.