Sunday 13 July 2014

Batgirl #33 Review

Title: Batgirl #33
Story: Deadline, Part 2
Characters: Batgirl (Barbara Gordon), Black Canary (Dinah Drake), Huntress (Helena Wayne)
Creators: Gail Simone (writer), Fernando Pasarin (artist)
Publication Date: July 2014
Available In: Print | Digital

Summary: Batgirl #32 saw the protagonist, Barbara Gordon, on the edge of her limits as a superhero after her arch nemesis, Charise Carnes (aka Knightfall), returned to Gotham bigger, badder, and more powerful than ever before. While Charise essentially shares the same goals as Barbara in that she wants to look out for Gotham's best interests, she also has an extreme and ultimately totalitarian idea of justice comparable to that of a dictator. Barbara is especially weary of her persistent use of violence as a way of getting her message across. The final straw for her was the amputating of Ricky Gutierrez' brother's hand to force the former into dropping his lawsuit against Barbara's father, James Gordon, for a shooting incident involving the GCPD. 

Knowing that she has to take things a step further if she is to take down Charise once and for all, Barbara recruits the help of her oldest and closet friend, Dinah Drake-Lance, who operates as Black Canary and the current leader of the Birds of Prey. Barbara fills her in on her case with Knightfall, and Dinah feels that she is embarking on a suicide mission, but agrees to help her out regardless. At the end of this conversation, they gain the support of one more individual, Helena Wayne, who chanced upon their meeting in one of her rare visits to Gotham.

Batgirl #33 picks up with Helena introducing herself to the duo as the Huntress. Before she has the chance to say more about herself or why she's there, Barbara goes full force on her, mistaking her for one of Knightfall's followers on the basis of her costume. Despite being armed with weapons, Helena does not fight back against Barbara, a detail that immediately catches Dinah's attention. Dinah intervenes and breaks up the fight, pointing out to Barbara that the Huntress can't be a member of Team Knightfall because her behaviour isn't consistent with those of the other members. Barbara immediately recognises her error of judgment and offers her handkerchief to Helena who's nose is bleeding. Helena makes it clear to Barbara that there's a limit to how long she's willing to take a beating before she starts fighting back herself, which she duly notes.

While all three are standing together, Helena lets the other two heroines know that she's from 'out of town,' but doesn't specify that she's from an alternate universe, in this case, Earth-2. She also states that Gotham means something to her, but says little else about herself beyond that. With so little information to go on, Barbara is reluctant to let the Huntress join them, but Dinah believes that she is worth recruiting if she's able to take a beating and still stand. Barbara reluctantly agrees, but makes it clear to the Huntress that she will find out who she is if she so much betrays the group along the way. (Good luck with that Barbara!)

Barbara lets the Huntress in on her case with Knightfall, and the Huntress asks if she 'has a bead on one of these exploitable assets' that would help them with this case. Barbara says that she does, but admits that she hates having to use it. On the way back to her flat, Barbara picks up some lemon ginger biscotti for her roommate, Alysia, and thinks about how much her fists hurt from pummelling the Huntress (I guess Earth-2 people have stronger physiologies on Earth-1?). She wakes her roommate to enquire about who set her up to sabotage a building the previous week, but can't say why she needs to know this info. Alysia says she knows why Barbara needs this info, which scares Barbara into believing she knows she's Batgirl. Fortunately for Barbara, Alysia suspects that she is an undercover agent for her father, which Barbara admits is 'sort of true.' Barbara informs Alysia on the gravity of the situation, and Alysia names a man named Michael as the person who tried to get her to plant a bomb in that building the previous week.

At the Three Towers, the Michael in question has a conversation with Charise about a germ attack he warned people about with no avail. Michael rationalises that the reason he joined her is because he too wants what's best for Gotham. Namely, he wants all of the bad people gone or dead. Charise suggests leaving the gas attack as a last resort to give those people a chance to meet her deadline (I'm assuming she means to leave the city), and with that, he departs. She then verifies with Bonebreaker if she called the 'operatives' as requested and confirms that all operatives have been called. 

In the parking garage, Michael is ambushed by Batgirl, Black Canary, and the Huntress. He attacks the trio by throwing acid from his hands (he's metahuman) at them, but Batgirl protects both herself and the Huntress from the attack by using her cape as a shield. The Huntress is weirded out by this since she is not used to having anyone protect her, but nevertheless does what she does best and waits for the right moment to attack. 

While Michael is busy fighting Batgirl (who is mostly dodging his attacks), the Huntress uses this opportunity to smash him into a car and render him unconscious. Batgirl thinks this was a reckless thing for her to do since he could've melted her, but Huntress rationalises she didn't really have a choice since he was 'messing with [her] partner.' (I'm assuming she means Batgirl here cause she's definitely not talking about Power Girl). Black Canary then calls attention to the fact that they have a witness, a blonde-haired woman in a black jacket and a black skirt who looks an awful lot like Zinda Blake, another former Bird of Prey. The blonde-haired woman denies seeing anything since she was only getting to her car. 

The three women escort the unconscious Michael outside, and Batgirl tells Zinda the blond-haired woman to leave the premises as soon as possible. By the time Michael wakes up, he is found hanging off of a beam near the edge of a tall skyscraper with his hands tied up with rope. Batgirl warns him against using his special power or he'll fall to his death. At Charise's flat, Bonebreaker informs her that Michael has been captured by Batgirl and her two partners. She orders a squad to find him. 

Back at the skyscraper, Batgirl tries to appeal to Michael's good side by acknowledging the real reason he's working with Charise and tries to get him to spill the details of Charise's plan in order to save Gotham. He says that he can't, and before the women have a chance to make more enquiries, Charise's squad finds them on the rooftop. The three women attack the squad but are surprised to see that the squad isn't firing at them. They instead fire at Michael, whom Batgirl does manage to catch before falling to his death. After the Huntress and Black Canary finish taking down the rest of the squad, they assist Batgirl in lifting him up back to safety. 

It is by this point that Michael specifies the details of Charise's plan, namely that the criminals at Cherry Hill have a deadline to leave Gotham City, or they die at midnight. He asks the three heroines to leave while they still can, but Batgirl has a better plan. If Charise has an entire army of mercs coming to Gotham, she'll recruit everyone she can to take them on. She calls favours from various people, including Detective McKenna, Katharsis (Charise's former comrade), Obscura (a former college friend of Barbara's), and lastly Batman. The issue ends with all of these individuals listening to Barbara's plan and preparing for the second phase of her counterattack against Knightfall's army. (Admittedly, if I were the Huntress, I'd recruit Power Girl at this point, but that's just me).

Review: Wow. So many exciting things happen in this story, I literally do not know where to begin. So let's start with the main gem of this piece, which is the team-up between Batgirl, Black Canary, and the Huntress. For fans of the post-Crisis continuity, this is very much an homage to the original Birds of Prey team, which Gail Simone also wrote. The fact that she does write all three characters in roughly the same way she did post-Crisis especially helps to bring the idea home. While reuniting the original team members for the first time in the New 52 is in itself a selling point for this story arc, it is admittedly not a reunion between the same characters. As such, it is a reunion that's met with both familiarity and surrealism.

To start with, in the post-Crisis continuity, Barbara Gordon operated as Oracle and functioned as the leader of the Birds of Prey with Black Canary and the Huntress as her core operatives. While Barbara still puts on the leadership hat in this team-up (which is still reminiscent of the post-Crisis Barbara), she's also functioning in a very different role than before. Instead of functioning as 'mission control' who directs the heroes into action, she herself is part of the action and works alongside the other two heroines on equal footing. The leader-subordinate relationship is largely absent here. 

Additionally, the Black Canary and Huntress that are appearing in the New 52 are not the same characters as the post-Crisis versions. In the post-Crisis universe, the Black Canary that functioned as Barbara's operative in the team was Dinah Laurel Lance, the daughter or the original Black Canary, Dinah Drake. In the New 52, the Black Canary leading the team is Dinah Drake, who has since been deaged and repurposed to function in a role that was once fulfilled by her daughter. This also means she is no longer acknowledged as an Earth-2 Justice Society character, something she was originally. Under these circumstances, we are essentially getting two characters for the price of one. On the one hand, the close friendship between Barbara and Black Canary from the post-Crisis continuity is preserved in the New 52, and both women play off of each other the same way as before. But on the other hand, Barbara is now best friends with her best friend's mum. (Surreal, I know).

We also see a similar case with the Huntress, who in the New 52 did regain her original status as the Earth-2 Helena Wayne, but in the post-Crisis universe was rebooted as Helena Bertinelli. When you factor in that a new Helena Bertinelli was recently created for the New 52 universe, and you have a considerably bigger mess than the one you have with Black Canary. In this case, a Huntress is functioning as the original third Bird of the team, while the character who did function in that role is now functioning as DC's answer to Marvel's Black Widow. At best, Helena Wayne is loosely connected to the Birds of Prey via the television show of the same name, and where she (ironically) made the Huntress a canon member of the team years before the inclusion of Helena Bertinelli to the team in the mainstream comics. But even then, Wayne's inclusion in this Birds of Prey reunion is still pretty surreal, and even moreso with the existence of a new Helena Bertinelli in the New 52. 

While this team-up has the aesthetic of the Classic Birds of Prey team, I actually feel this team-up is more reminiscent of the pre-Crisis team-up between the Huntress, Batgirl, and Batwoman, which I also reviewed here. In terms of story structure, I do feel there is more parallelism between that pre-Crisis story and the one being told by Gail Simone in the year 2014. Just like in the pre-Crisis story, Helena Wayne is once again the 'out-of-this-world' visitor who's first meeting with Barbara Gordon isn't off to a great start. In the pre-Crisis story, Helena fell victim to Barbara's snarky remarks and ridicule in their first meeting. In this story she falls victim to Barbara's fists in their first meeting. (More on that in a bit). 

Another way this story parallels that earlier pre-Crisis one is that Batgirl and Black Canary are already familiar with each other, whereas the Huntress is very much the outsider who happens to meet and team-up with these two women on the same day with no indication of a long-term relationship being established. The same was true of the pre-Crisis meeting of Batgirl and Batwoman with the Huntress, and even moreso since the latter returned to her native world of Earth-2 shortly after, something that happened this week as well (in Worlds' Finest #25). Even the way the three heroines worked together with perfect coordination in Simone's story resembled the one between the three Bat ladies in the pre-Crisis story.

On the front of Simone's narrative itself, it is actually a pretty compelling story, and I do have to admit, Charise is a pretty interesting villain. In contrast with some of the other villains Batgirl has faced (most of which have been pretty forgettable), Charise toes the line between someone who does what she does as a consequence of a traumatic life, and someone who is outright villainous. On the one hand, it's easy to understand her motives and the reasons behind them, but at the same, I cannot sympathise with her extremism, which I think is the point. She's someone that I do understand, but ultimately someone I don't side with, especially by this point in the story where she has raised her bar. I also like that all three heroines are actually depicted as being heroic, which is a bit unheard of in the New 52, a universe that has largely offered a cynical take on classic heroes.  

There are some aspects of the story that are hard to follow, namely the specific details of Charise's latest operation if you haven't been reading Batgirl prior to issue #32 like myself. The last I read of Batgirl was the James Gordon Jr storyline, which ended with Barbara kicking her brother off of a bridge, presumably killing him. Exactly what happened between that story and this one, I have no idea. But fortunately Simone does make it clear that Charise does intend to kill people whom she considers evil and en masse, which is what has Batgirl all riled up. Exactly how that plan is going to pan out for Charise, I guess we'll find out next issue.

We now get to the part most people reading this blog are probably interested in: how does Gail Simone handle Helena Wayne? Well, it's a bit of a mixed bag in my opinion, but overall, I do feel she has a good handle on the character. On some pages, Gail's Helena Wayne is presented in ways that are reminiscent of the pre-Crisis version of the character, and on others, a bit more like the character we're currently getting in the New 52. One thing Gail definitely has right about Helena Wayne is her voice. If there is one character trait that is immediately recognisable with Helena Wayne's Huntress, it is the fact that she is very sharp in her use of language, she's blunt and straight to the point, and even has a wicked sense of humour. Regardless if she's hanging out with her friends, or beating criminals unconscious, she always has a snarky remark to make, and that's something that Gail does bring back to the character. 

Another thing Gail does get right about Helena Wayne is the fact that she is pretty stealthy and does attack when people least expect it. The first part was most notable in the way she introduced herself to Barbara and Dinah, who didn't detect her presence. The second part was notable in the scene where the Huntress catches Bleak Michael off guard during his fight with Batgirl, and smashes him into a car to render him unconscious. The last part was actually pretty reminiscent of Joey Cavalieri's Helena Wayne who was less subtle than the original Paul Levitz interpretation, and was particularly known to be rough on criminals, sometimes even merciless depending on how angry she was. Her jumping out of nowhere and kicking someone down with everything she's got was not unheard of with Cavalieri's interpretation, and the fact that she was not beyond taking things a step further if needed be was also evident in Simone's interpretation.

I would say the major thing Gail got wrong about Helena Wayne in this story was the execution of her 'not fighting back' policy, which ironically is the same thing Helena's own creator, Paul Levitz, got wrong with her in the New 52 (see the Huntress vs Damian fight). While it is very much in character for Helena to not fight other superheroes (whom she considers allies), she also doesn't take a beating from anyone, regardless of who it is. Aside from the fact that she's Batman's daughter and would be prepared (in most cases) for any situation, she's also a bit arrogant. If she sees someone coming at her with all that they have, her first impulse is to have that person down on the ground before they even have the chance to land the first punch (See this review for details). Now obviously, within the context of this story, Barbara would've just gotten back up and attack again. But my point here is Helena does defend herself when people attack her. Even if it's just dodging attacks until she finds a way to incapacitate them, the fact is, she doesn't allow herself to get hit. At best, Simone does establish that Helena is not an easy person to take down in writing, but the execution of that idea doesn't come through in the art by Fernando Pasarin who shows her getting genuinely pummelled.

As a whole, this story arc is, in my opinion, an enjoyable read. Some readers may find the villain and tone of the story a bit too dark for their liking, and may find some details hard to follow if you haven't been reading Batgirl prior to issue #32. But overall, the story is pretty self-contained. There are some nice gems for fans of the post-Crisis Birds of Prey who want to see a reunion of sorts between the original members, even if these aren't the same characters as the post-Crisis versions. There are also some nice gems for pre-Crisis fans as well who want to see three awesome Gotham ladies working together as a team, and being genuinely heroic in their pursuit. Lastly, this issue is worth checking out if you're a fan of Helena Wayne, and would like to see a different interpretation of the character from the one we've been getting in Worlds' Finest


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