Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Back in October of 2014, the brilliant creative team of Brenden Fletcher, Cameron Stewart, and Babs Tarr debuted a new kind of Batgirl. The cover of their first issue together, Batgirl #35, was an image of Batgirl posing for a mirror selfie. This team was making a statement. Their Batgirl was not going to be anything like the brooding, grimdark Batman from whom she takes inspiration. Without throwing away her past, Fletcher, Stewart, and Tarr redefined Batgirl and the woman under the cowl, Barbara Gordon, into an icon for our generation. Over their seventeen issue run together, which concluded last week with Batgirl #50, these writers and artists crafted an adventure that felt colorful, energetic, positive, and young.
“Get on Hooq if you’re looking to date guys your own age,” a fellow grad-student tells Barbara in one issue, referring to a Tinder-like app. Another issue opens with a litany of “Blastfeed News” headlines, a clear allusion to Buzzfeed. At one point, Barbara creates a profile for Batgirl on what is meant to be Instagram. Barbara even begins a startup tech company. Batgirl captures the feeling of being a twenty-something right now. The creative team filled Batgirl with these modern touchstones to ground it in the here-and-now. Rather than feeling like a condescending inclusion to market towards young people or channeling the intentionally ironic and self-conscious feeling I get when I say things like “I just can’t,” Batgirl genuinely embraces millennial culture in its myriad forms. It doesn’t apologize for who it’s meant for or created by. It feels reassuring to see this upbeat representation of our culture.
By endeavoring to redefine Batgirl for a new era, this series also ended up addressing Barbara’s legacy in subtle ways. As recently as the arc directly preceding Fletcher, Stewart, and Tarr taking over, Batgirl resembled Batman’s grim, violence-in-the-middle-of-the-night kind of super heroism. To further distinguish Batgirl from Batman and her old life, the creative team went into a colorful new visual direction. Batgirl herself designs a new uniform. Gone are the curve-accentuating black duds, in favor of a purple outfit that looks far more practical (and less sexual) than her old one. She also leaves Gotham City at the beginning of the run. Barbara relocates to a borough of Gotham known as Burnside, which was crafted by the artists and colorists to feel like the DC Universe’s version of Brooklyn.
Barbara doesn’t leave her past behind without questioning it herself or having others confront her about it. In Issue #38, Black Canary/Dinah, friend and fellow hero to Batgirl/Barbara, questions her in a dimly lit alley, intentionally calling to mind the previous, darker setting. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? You’re like a completely different person,” Dinah asks. “People like me. I’ve finally got a bunch of friends and a real life. I’m sick of feeling miserable all the time,” Barbara responds. I agree. I’m sick of overly dark and self-serious fiction. Batman and Superman can punch the man-angst out of each other all the live long day. Batgirl isn’t having any of it.
Batgirl will punch bad guys in the face, but she’ll also help her friend figure out how to fix a bug in her app’s code, or help another friend get ready for her wedding, or tell her father that he needs to grow his mustache back. This Batgirl series knows how to tell a hopeful superhero adventure, one that always brightened my day after I’d read it.
A huge component of what makes Batgirl so uplifting is its focus on Barbara’s friendships with the women in her life, many of whom are also heroes. Batgirl presents a world where women are crime-fighters, but also programmers, grad students, villains, secret agents, environmental activists, rock stars, petty criminals, and more. There is an entire issue dedicated to one woman’s wedding to her girlfriend (oh, and this queer couple gets a happy ending *glares at The 100*). The amount of flowers, bubbles, and pink on almost every page in that issue works wonderfully to bring out the happy, dream-like state the women are feeling. In both the stories and the artwork, Batgirl embraces so many different facets of being a woman.
Batgirl may be a super-hero comic, but it isn’t afraid to play with genre and give its killer cast of women fun stories to run around in. One of the most exciting issues in this run is Issue #47, where Batgirl teams up with fellow heroes Spoiler, Bluebird, and Operator. Together, they break into the police station and steal information from their computers. The issue plays out like the best kind of heist film: Batgirl and Spoiler disguise themselves as cops and Bluebird goes underground to disable power to the building while Operator coordinates the mission and hacks the computer systems from a coffee shop. The narrative bounces back and forth until, of course, the plan falls apart. The issue has a breathtaking pulse to it, as the four women scramble to stay one step ahead of the police.
Speaking of Operator, she is undoubtedly the breakout character of this series. Operator is the hero alter-ego of Frankie, who starts out as Barbara’s roommate. Frankie learns of Barbara’s Batgirl identity and slowly inserts herself more and more into Barbara’s hero work. Frankie is a programmer and uses her technical prowess to invent a device that allows her to interact and control machines with her mind.
She is also disabled, and her journey to hero resembles Barbara’s prior journey to become Oracle before she resumed the mantle of Batgirl. Frankie’s journey isn’t played out as inspiration porn either. Her disability is simply a facet of her, rarely commented upon directly, but influencing the subtext of her and Barbara’s relationship. Frankie and Barbara’s friendship and eventual partnership has been the emotional rock of the series. As Barbara’s mission slowly takes its toll on her, Frankie steps up as both the friend and hero she needs.
On multiple occasions Batgirl brilliantly subverts the damsel-in-distress trope where, instead of Barbara’s father or boyfriend saving her, Frankie swoops in and brings Barbara to safety. Fletcher, Stewart, and Tarr are clearly aware of the huge gender disparity in comics and the way female heroes are so often portrayed as sexual objects for the presumed male reader. With their run on Batgirl, they have crafted a story and a group of characters that act as a celebration of women and a wonderful subversion of the sexist tropes that still plague too many comics.
Every panel of Batgirl jumps off the page thanks to Babs Tarr’s expressive artwork and the vibrant colorings frequently done by either Maris Wicks or Serge Lapointe. From the campus of Burnside College, to industrial districts, coffee shops, and historical neighborhoods, these artists have adapted with boundless style wherever Batgirl’s missions have taken her. Tarr also brings out Barbara’s different moods and emotional states with vivid detail, perhaps my favorite of which is exhausted.
Cameron Stewart and Babs Tarr took their bow with Batgirl #50 last week, an explosive, double-sized issue. Brenden Fletcher is staying on as writer, and I have full faith the quality of the writing will continue unabated, but the last seventeen issues will be remembered as Fletcher, Stewart, and Tarr’s definitive run together. While reading Batgirl there were so many moments where I thought to myself “This. This is why I read comics.” Brenden Fletcher, Cameron Stewart, and Babs Tarr packed so much brilliance into their year and a half run. Barbara grew from the new kid on the block to the leader of a team of heroes. Her growth is perhaps best depicted in the the cover for issue #50. Just like their first issue together, Batgirl is posing for a mirror selfie, but now she is with her friends and allies she has made. This series has cemented her as the Batgirl of Burnside and the hero we deserve.
Fletcher, Stewart, and Tarr’s Batgirl, starting with issue #35 through issue #50, can be bought digitally through either the Comixology or DC Comics app or website. They can also be bought in print through TFAW.com. Issues #35 – #40 and #41 – #45 can also be bought in collected editions (trade paperbacks).