I’ve been looking forward to Batgirl #35, and the creative team of Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher, and especially Babs Tarr on art did not disappoint. Tarr’s art is refreshing and unique with some of the best character facial expressions I’ve seen in a long time. The story line made a welcome turn from the grim violence of most recent Gotham stories to deal with a real threat faced by many young women today- with a villain who embodies the worst of online misogyny. In doing so, the story felt simultaneously brighter and more realistic in a very positive way.
As we saw in the preview, the story starts with Barbara moving to a new neighborhood for grad school, and (now controversially) partying a bit too much with new friends. Now, this is the part I liked the least, mainly because it didn’t quite feel like Babs. But here’s the thing. After reading the issue, I don’t think this is going to be part of her normal behavior. Her laptop being stolen at that party sets up a personal crisis and a huge material loss for both her and for Dinah. It’s important to the plot line, but in context, I think Stewart and Fletcher are writing it as a lapse in judgement with real consequences.
Soon Batgirl is on the trail of “Riot Black,” an obscene internet blackmailer and club owner who also has some advanced tech supplementing his photographic memory. This sets up a way for Barbara’s intellect, memory, and tech skills to shine in this issue, starting with this page early in the story:
This is such a practical way to use her perfect memory that I wondered why we haven’t seen it before. (If it seems familiar, you might be picturing a certain London street scene from Sherlock. An unexpected and very cool reference to how the writers are playing up Barbara’s brains here.)
After catching one of Riot Black’s thieves via both mobile app and her fighting skills, the newly costumed Babs confronts the skevy guy first with physical force:
Then with her true strength, completely outwitting him with smart thinking and masterful computer skills:
…tricking him into downloading a worm to activate malware she had put on his thug’s phone earlier, effectively destroying his blackmail files. (Those who have missed seeing Barbara’s technological abilities in recent years will find a lot to like here!)
After reading the issue several times, I tried to identify why I enjoyed it so much. Parts of it felt like an update of the versions of Batgirl we saw both in BTAS and in Year One. Much of it made me imagine what Veronica Mars as a costumed superhero would be like- all awesome things. Then I looked down at my tablet’s home screen and saw what had just downloaded- the latest issue of Vanity Fair with Jennifer Lawrence on the cover, talking about the crime of the release of her nude photos online.
Then it hit me: This is the world young women live in today.
Like the residents of Gotham’s Burnside, many of Batgirl’s readers also live personal lives online and deal with the threats to their dignity and security that come with it- including the real life versions of Riot Black who run websites of revenge porn. Seeing a superheroine take down the same type of criminal who victimizes real young women sends a powerful message:
The concerns of young women are serious and worth the attention of superhero stories.
I hope this emphasis continues in the series. Because as media watchers know, fiction affects how we view real people and real problems. And to a generation of fangirls searching for positive media representations of themselves, a youthful take on a beloved character who deals with their issues while still being scary smart and badass means more than dozens of dark fantasy stories ever could.