Saturday, October 27, 2012

Of the Essence

A mix of greatest hits awaited me on the third Wednesday of October, 2012. Nothing overtly brilliant in the lot, mind you, just standard greatness deserving a bend of the nerdy knee. From Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato is The Flash, entering his second year as one of DC's hotly relaunched New 52 titles.

These caffeinated creators put forensic cop Barry Allen through his paces as the Scarlet Speedster, pitting him against not only the ethically-challenged Rogues (Captain Cold, Weather Wizard, Heat Wave and Glider), but also an army of super-intelligent gorillas. The twist here is that Gorilla Grodd (their super-sized king) doesn't merely want Central City or the world, but access to Barry's source of power, the Speed Force. Cue the classically gonzo multitasking that Geoff Johns tortured Wally West with about ten years ago when he shot The Flash with fresh electricity.

Barry's world, as usual, is a painterly wonderland. Softly-colored backgrounds allow brightly-costumed principles to command our attention (and quicken the narrative) effortlessly. Also, Manapul's layouts here are noticeably more widescreen than in the first story arc. Micro-panels no longer persist (that we might follow Barry's thoughts), and the gorilla army possesses terrifying girth. The final page, revealing Grodd to be prehistorically huge and crackling with energy, is a stunner.

As is the last issue of Marvel's FF, written by Jonathan Hickman and drawn by Nick Dragotta. By FF, we mean the Future Foundation, the big-brained Reed Richard's motley assortment of undisciplined geniuses that includes Alex Power, Dragon Man, Leech, Artie, a few of Mole Man's underlings, and his own two children, Franklin and Valeria. For now, only these last two need concern us, since the appearance of their adult selves from the future is a bulging back o' treats all by itself.

"Intelligence without imagination is pretty much useless," says adult Franklin to his child self. "Creating is harder than knowing." This adaptation of Einstein's words carries the funereal tone of parting wisdom, for the bearded time-traveler is about to exit the present stage, having spent a few years helping young Franklin deal with the emergence of his awesome power. The lad, born of heroes Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman, is a mutant. He can alter reality and has been practicing his abilities in a pocket universe inside his bedroom closet.

Can you tell Hickman's got kids? Reading FF (and companion title Fantastic Four) during his reign of clever, you realize the scripts are odes to parenting. Here, in bittersweet blowout, older Franklin tells the younger that they're going to perform every last adventure they've ever dreamed up (and written on scraps of paper).

Nick Dragotta, an artist of sweeping emotional prowess, offers one bouncing tableau after another, featuring: vegetarian werewolves, space chickens, vampire school teachers, jell-o-knights- all met by the ferociously adventurous Franklin, Franklin and Leech. Then, after the boy is tuckered out and placed in bed, adult Franklin bids his parents farewell. Susan Richards, channeling her fretfully intellectual husband (and Hickman himself), says, "Being a parent, having children... it's a constant war between uncertainty and hope. So you live in fear, and you have these doubts..." Reed, adopting his wife's centered soulfulness, asks, "Did we do a good job, son?" Before fizzling away, he says, "A perfect one. I love you guys." It's hard for us not to as well.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Crowd Pleaser

That might be a slaphappy description of comic artist Alan Davis, one of my all-time favorites, but sometimes it fits. Sometimes, when he himself isn't scripting, snarky elements pockmark his spritely, winsome storytelling. That isn't to say DC's new hardcover volume of his Detective Comics run isn't great. But his work on Captain Britain and Excalibur reveal a wunderkind imagination. Here, in the grimy Gotham of 1986, we get the draft-horse.

Glowingly reprinted, these issues feature writing by Mike W. Barr, who often throws a schizophrenic light on the Caped Crusader. We see wacky uncle Batman from the 1950s, consistently calling Robin "chum" (because nobody wants to say "Boy Decoy" out loud) and fighting for his life on a giant pool table. We see the brutally sadistic Batman, known contemporaneously in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. We also see the teacher-detective, who actively quizzes and castigates Robin to sharpen both his ward (Jason Todd, during this era) and himself.

This last isn't always done perfectly. In a vague exchange that can be read as adult, for giving the audience just enough, or sloppy, for needing a bit more context, Batman, Catwoman and Commissioner Gordon puzzle out a clue from the Joker. When Robin massages his fist with glee and says, "Let's go," Batman grabs his shoulder, wags a finger, and says, "Never do that again." A question mark pops from the twelve-year-old's head, and readers unfamiliar with this run must assume Jason hasn't yet encountered the grinning madman.

Unfortunately, pandering to Miller's audience is done almost too perfectly. During one scene, Batman asks an information broker named Profile about the Joker's whereabouts. The man's haircut and nail varnish tell us he's gay. When he puts down a narrow, empty wine glass, Batman picks it up. He asks Profile whether or not he's been to prison... while cramming his fingers into the glass. "You'd be real popular up there," he says, "if you catch my drift." The threat works, and Profile reveals a location. One panel later, Batman pops the slim glass with his fingers, grinning maliciously.

Back then, before superheroes in Hollywood catered to families, this kind of thing surely had the maladjusted set rolling in their parents' dens. As an adult reader (who's seen almost everything) seeing it for the first time, I'm scandalized enough to give it two paragraphs. No Batman comic could show such a thing today.

Well, onward and upward. But not by much, yet. Another infamous moment is more of a commentary on the Batman and Robin thought to exist, back in the 40s. After the war, when over-educated adults had nothing better to do than read their own idiocy into children's entertainment, a man named Fred Wertham claimed the Dynamic Duo were lovers. Here, Barr and Davis offer a scene with Robin using a fire-hose on Batman before he enters a blazing car wreck. "Good boy!" says Batman. "Hose me down now! That's it, good and wet..."

I doubt this is innocent. The previous example of tastelessness, coupled with the fact that this editorial team later let readers vote via 800 number whether or not kill Robin, makes it hard to believe the slightest perversion wasn't premeditated (readers did want him dead, by the way, so the Joker beat him to red, green and yellow paste).

My final complaint regards Davis drawing Batman at all. Why use poppy seeds when you need gunpowder? Gotham is too dark a place for Davis' ethereal women, pixie-ish sidekicks and lithesome, David Bowie-style heroes. He also draws aliens and weirdos so well you'd think he shared a room with them (an Excalibur post before the year's over, I promise).

That said, near the end of this volume we get another reprint of the Batman: Year Two storyline, featuring a murderous vigilante called the Reaper. The tale's second half, Full Circle, boasts the subtle, highly-rendered coloring of Tom Ziuko. Davis' longtime inker Mark Farmer chimes in here as well, adding to the cinematic tension that streams from the artist's every panel. It's Davis at his best, so far as Batman goes.

Which makes for some layered reading. Taken as a snapshot of his transition to the gloomy Dark Knight of the 1990s, these issues allow our hero to wonder, "...if [Bruce Wayne] even exists anymore, or if he's anything but another disguise[?]" This question is answered best by other writers, in larger stories. Here, though, you'll see Batman smirking like there's no tomorrow.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Bumps in the Night

Last summer, megawatt directing talent Ridley Scott revisited the claustrophobic nightmare that was Alien in a new film called Prometheus. Set before the events that imbedded Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in pop culture's chest cavity, this film might have revealed, in a definitive, intelligent manner, how the murderous black creature came to be. Instead, the ambient, beautifully-shot Prometheus offered a creation-via-chaos plot that wasn't nearly as smart (or succinct) as it should have been.

But what's in an origin story, anyway? The iconic Hollywood monster, with its shiny black carapace, acidic yellow blood and toothed probe (for opening skulls) can support plenty of inventive narratives that needn't fall back on the melodrama of, "In the beginning-" As many directors do today, Scott and company could have found inspiration in comics. Dark Horse has been publishing first-rate Alien tales since the late 80s, and the series Labyrinth in particular gets my love for being impossibly good- better even than the last two films in the franchise.

Written by Jim Woodring, drawn by Kilian Plunkett, Labyrinth delivers on every toothsome requirement for a successful Alien tale: bleak tone, grimly motivated characters, gory comeuppance, and of course, new and well-conceived insights into the creature's biology. It takes place on a space station called the Innominata, where Dr. Paul Church experiments on Aliens and humans alike with chilly remove.

When Church's research partner dies under questionable circumstances, Dr. Anthony Crespi comes aboard to investigate. He finds that Church has set up a system of tunnels in which starved Aliens encounter succulent pigs, flame-throwing soldiers, and unarmed humans who are drugged with "FITR." It's a substance that increases one's sense of invulnerability and mental strength. These men, Church has found, can stand up to a weakened Alien without getting mauled.

But this plot (and its many possibilities) is merely an appetizer for Church's tale of how he first met the Alien. It happened on a terraformed moon, where he and his immediate family stopped to check on a communications device. With an Alien hive nearby (in all its bulbous glory), the skeletal beasties appeared quickly, rounding up the humans and dragging them inside the foul structure. There, Church and his family were poked, prodded and, in the case of a girl named Rebecca, dismembered.

Plunkett draws the Aliens and their bone-laced environment (designed by the surrealist painter H.R. Giger) with riveting exactitude. At his command, the creatures malinger and creep with a presence equal to the big-screen terrors filmed by Ridley Scott and James Cameron. The incredible detail of their biomechanical bodies is never abbreviated.

Woodring writes for Plunkett with visionary daring. We're allowed to see young Paul Church survive among the Aliens for months, becoming more of a scurrying wreck each day. He discovers that the creatures are being poisoned by something. Their spawn, which gestate in and burst from a (barely) living human host, are being born deformed. With bestial cunning, Church traces the problem to a black fungus growing inside the hive.

In the end, however, the Aliens force a crab-like facehugger over Church's mouth. He takes an egg down his throat and becomes host to a tiny monstrosity that'll eventually destroy him in birth. That the Aliens think so little of him to allow his coming and going proves a blessing. The fungus has laid them so low that he walks out of the hive, back to his family's ship. He then uses a robotic operating table to remove the embryo.

Prometheus actually uses that last bit. But I doubt we'll ever see the rest on film. It's far too methodical an abuse of a character, and to do the source justice, an iron-willed director would need to take audiences down past the Ninth Circle. Oh well. Maybe someday movies will be made for a song, and Darren Aronofsky will be taking requests.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Meat Market

Last November, DC restarted their entire line of superhero comics, dragging virtually all characters back to their conceptual infancy (the popular Batman and Green Lantern excepted). The results of the New 52 lineup were mixed, reflecting the tenacity of the artists and writers involved. Career steady-hands produced some of their worst work, while eyes fresh to the spandex circuit left us begging for more. Jeff Lemire, creator of the sublime Vertigo title Sweet Tooth, is from the latter camp. His and artist Travel Foreman's gruesome treatment of Animal Man is a uniquely unnerving read.

Animal Man (Buddy Baker, husband and father of two) can tap into a force called the "morphogenetic field." This allows him to temporarily adopt the skills of nearby animals, like the flight of a bird, or the strength of an elephant. His life in tights dates back to a handful of forgettable adventures starting in the mid 60s. Modern readers, however, know him from Grant Morrison's landmark 1988 relaunch of the hero for DC's adult-oriented Vertigo imprint. The cerebral Scotsman wrote the sometime Justice League member as a vocal vegetarian, an animal rights activist, and a dedicated family man.

Later writers of this run took Animal Man into more darkly challenging territory, which is where Lemire and Foreman grab the reins. Today's version stands for all that Morrisons' did. But we quickly discover that Baker's young daughter Maxine is better connected to his power source than he. After bringing some dead neighborhood pets back to life one night, she speaks of answering their call from the "red place."

Baker, out of bed and shirtless, need not question Maxine for long. A map to the Red has tattooed itself across his face and chest. Later, flying cross-country with her, he realizes, "I never really questioned the source of my power... I always liked to call it the Life Web. I thought of it as an abstract thing... an unseen energy connecting all living things that I was somehow accessing."

The Red is a place alright, and it's a macabre domain ruled by Foreman. The first issue gives us a whiff of the comic's true tone, when Baker dreams of three grotesque animal totems that claim to be Maxine's real fathers. They're gargantuan in size and comprised of the awkwardly-jutting limbs, gnashing insect faces, and random tentacles that make watching most 80s horror films such a blast.

In fact, when these three creatures later don human "suits" to better stalk Baker's son and wife, Foreman's art feels inspired by John Carpenter's 1982 monument to grisly excess, The Thing. The artist (who's drawn Iron Fist and Birds of Prey, but hasn't yet experienced breakout stardom) serves us tottering sacks of flesh that slip in and out of believability as actual people. And that's while they're hunting. Foreman's freak flag enters the stratosphere when his creatures finally meet Animal Man's family. As Ellen Baker answers the door, she's greeted by a tower of inverted organs. The chase begins.

But what of the Red and Animal Man himself? Surely the rest of the comic is presented in a manner casual readers can latch onto? That would be a steaming goblet of, "Nope." When he and Maxine find the source of their power, it's a big bare tree, floating where only they can see it. Its roots throb and bleed at the touch before whisking the pair into a Dali-esque dimension of dripping meat and unraveling bone.

Adorably, Maxine is at home in the Red. She guides her confused and terrified father to its heart, where past Animal Men live. They are gorgeously weird totemic figures, built of bulging bison horns and lion mane cloaks. They explain the villainous creatures in saying, "Something is wrong... there is a sickness invading the Red... a rot."

The rot, oddly enough, has a real-life counterpart that's noticeable in the first volume of Animal Man. Some pages (especially those inked by Jeff Huet) offer crisp views of Foreman's frequently scratchy line-work. Other pages, mainly those featuring rough, surreal penciling, went to print with smears on them. In any other comic, allowing the Bristol board's imperfections to reach readers would be sacrilege. Here, though, it works. It helps a character easily written off as Grant Morrison's leftovers go down like Filet Mignon.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Darkness Risen

About two years have elapsed since Marvel's last sales-goosing relaunch of Avengers and X-Men titles. As of this second week in October, 2012, the House of Ideas is at it again. The uneven "Heroic Age" gives way to "Marvel NOW!" and we benefit with the thrilling Uncanny Avengers, a clever mash-up of the two super-teams.

Actually, it's more than clever. More than a fanboy's McNugget-scented ravings during a full moon. This merger is deftly organic. It's the result of mutant Scott Summers' dark possession by the Phoenix, a nearly unstoppable cosmic force. Under its destructive influence, Summers killed the beloved Charles Xavier, peace advocate and father figure to mutants everywhere. In this first new title of many (rolling out in the next few months), creators Rick Remender and John Cassaday let the healing begin.

Remender is a brilliantly ballsy choice to write such a high-profile title. His pulpy sci-fi motifs, best seen in Fear Agent, Franken-Castle and Uncanny X-Force, are a sinister pirouette away from Marvel's courtship of mainstream readers via the bored-but-still-typing Brian Bendis. This is evinced on the first page of Uncanny Avengers, as we see the hands of a mystery villain replace a man's brain with machinery. "Evolution is no whisper humming in the background," says the baddie, "It is the true substance of our every motive."

This grisliness, clearly not for everyone, leads immediately to Wolverine standing before a portrait of Charles Xavier. We're reminded here why it is every writer's privilege to work with Cassaday. His gift for subtle facial expression hammers home the comic's funereal tone, and Wolverine remembers Xavier's faith in him. "I know what they've done to you, and the animal they created. The Wolverine. But I can see the deeper places in a man's soul-"

Writers worthy of scripting Cassaday's painstaking draftsmanship are few. Joss Whedon, The Anointed One, did so with clipped elegance in Astonishing X-Men. Before that, Warren Ellis directed the artist to probe the world's infinite weirdness in Planetary. Here, Cassaday imbues Remender's heavyweight imagination (typically enlivened by less grounded artists) with ferocious gravity. Scott Summers, former X-Men leader Cyclops, has been imprisoned in a ruby quartz room that negates his ability to blast beams from his eyes. He also wears shackles and gadgetry on his head to reinforce that he's hated and feared above all other mutants. When his brother Alex visits, they argue coolly. "I spent my entire life fighting for Professor X's dream, Alex. I learned better." His brother answers, "You didn't learn anything. You forgot everything Charles taught you. And then you killed him."

Later, Captain America and Thor approach Alex (also known as the mutant hero Havok) and ask him to join a new team that will show the public humans and mutants cooperating for a better future. He initially refuses. Then a mutant terrorist named Avalanche attacks, sporting a scar around his head that hints at a connection to the lunatic on page one. The battle is a gritty, finely choreographed scene, worthy of Cassaday's prior accomplishments (though he does rely comfortably on scanned-in office buildings). The scene blends into the Scarlet Witch's voice-over, but with Havok on the cover (along with Wolverine), we'll assume he takes Cap's offer.

Back at Xavier's Westchester grave-site, Rogue and the Scarlet Witch snipe at each other until a fresh quintet of monstrosities attack, the Goat-Faced Girl and the Insect among them. Their aim is merely to distract, however, and while I won't give away the brazenly grotesque ending, I will say that the Red Skull's not going down easy. His new power stems not from an artifact, but an augmentation. Next issue, he'll be a hotly revving hybrid, much like Uncanny Avengers itself.

Sunday, October 7, 2012


In May of 2006, publishing titan DC took a major gamble. They began a year-long weekly series called 52 that required the combined drive of its best talents (Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, Keith Giffen and Joe Bennett among them), and did not include Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman. The series instead featured a hundred-strong cast, with characters rotating in and out of the spotlight as various plots rose, fell and converged. Thrillingly, each week became a different kind of payoff, and my friends and I peppered each other with, "THIS is how I want to read all my comics."

One week passed, and you got a fresh dose. And not just an imbalanced sliver that was either all talk or all action- every issue of 52 had juice, cleverness and momentum. It was the experimental opposite of how best-selling comics had been produced for most of the decade. Taste-makers like Brian Bendis wrote for the eventual trade paperback collection, decompressing many stories to death and subverting basic conventions such as talking while fighting.

Well, my circle of readers wasn't unique. Fan response turned 52 into a cash cow to be milked, cloned, and eventually stolen by those rapscallions at Marvel. In 2007, Amazing Spider-Man became a thrice-monthly showcase of sparkling renovation. Gone was the malicious darkness of the super-human civil war, pitting every hero with a brain against the fascist Iron Man. Peter Parker, wall-crawler extraordinaire, had woken to a Brand New Day.

ASM 546-548 is the first (and possibly best) jolt, delivered by writer Dan Slott and artist Steve McNiven. The freewheeling tone they establish tightly updates the Stan Lee approach of using the entire stove-top to simmer three subplots while a main story cooks (which Slott mastered during his heartfelt run on She-Hulk). But "Brand New Day" opens by reaffirming that Parker is as Parker does; he's a barely employed nerd, unmarried and under Aunt May's roof, with a jolly complaint on every breath. As McNiven's air-brushed art shows Peter kissing a club-rat on the first page, our hero says, "I mean, you start the story here and it totally gives you the wrong impression. This is not my life. I mean, it is, but..."

What Slott does best is think through to the end of every idea, with the flair of a novelist, and someone who loves the character they're writing. As Peter searches for a steady job, we get humor from one interview with, "It's like you left your camera on a ledge and walked away or something." Then we get the daring exactitude of a creator hellbent on challenging himself and his readers; someone says: "I remember you. Peter Parker, the child prodigy from Midtown High. First place in the regional science fair four years running... And then what? Not a single paper published. No real work in the field. So Peter, I have to ask. What have you been doing all this time?

Cue splash page of Spider-Man's rogues gallery, heavy on the animal totems and green jumpsuits. At the time, it seemed no more than a clever way to mention Spidey's wacky life. As of today's continuity however, Slott has Peter inventing gadgets full-time at Horizon Labs, which could have been the case years ago had any editor or writer bothered to conceive such a thing.

Back to five and a half years ago. Many more instances of, "Yes, this is actually happening in a Spider-Man comic," occur, until you realize Slott probably has a list of them. A two-bit hood robs people wearing a Spider-Man mask, including Peter and his new {ahem} friend Carlie Cooper. Peter loses his wallet and a web-shooter to the guy, but his day is nothing compared to Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson's. A forceful buyout of the newspaper is underway, and when Peter confronts the old skinflint about a paycheck, he says, "Here I am! Wolves at the door! And this good-for-nothing vulture comes to pick at me... You're an ungrateful little shit!"

Peter's response that his Spider-Man photos made the Bugle more than just urban tumbleweeds cuts Jameson's last nerve. The stogie-chomper has a heart attack screaming our hero's name. While he recovers in the hospital, his wife Marla sells their shares of the paper, allowing the dweeby Dexter Bennett to step in as owner. Spider-Man, meanwhile, deals with a sharp new villain named Mr. Negative (who's also Martin Li, owner of the homeless shelter where Aunt May volunteers, and McNiven draws as actor Chow Yun Fat).

Slott's deftness in cushioning Peter's world with a huge supporting cast so quickly is remarkable. Harry Osborn, son of industrialist Norman (The Green Goblin), is here, with his new Beyonce-esque girlfriend Lily. Carlie Cooper seems to be Peter's dream girl, except that she's a forensic cop. Betty Brant and Joe Robertson also appear, and the latter has this incredible line, after Dexter Bennett rattles off a sandwich order, shoving the cash into the man's pocket: "I am the editor-in-chief here [at the Bugle], and for your own personal well being, I'm going to pretend these last two minutes didn't happen."

Everything about this initial jump into Spidey's "Brand New Day" dazzles. The ticklish downside is that to clean the slate and make it happen, Marvel used the character Mephisto to magically annul Peter's decades-long marriage to college sweetheart Mary Jane. That intensely controversial story is its own post, but I agree with the logic behind it. Peter is less fun as a married man who must first think of his wife in every situation. The 90s saw every bedraggled permutation of that arrangement, which culminated in the epically tedious "Clone Saga", full of secret babies and undead exes.

Also, Slott is a tough bastard to follow. Like 52, ASM was more of a grand communal effort than any one comic. Multiple creative teams rotated in, bringing their own subplots, dream girls and minty-fresh villains. This made it, for two years, incredibly addictive but seriously uneven. Slott can write moon-sized circles around the likes of Zeb Wells and Marc Guggenheim, and their efforts, stood next to his, are frustratingly dull. All things that rise, however, converge. Big Time. Slott's Amazing Spider-Man, for several years now under just his guidance, has been miraculous. It comes out two or three times a month, and every time it bites, I feel like a winner.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Life and Times

Many of Batman's best tales are looks backward, Year One and The Long Halloween among them. The Dark Knight Returns, a full-throttle glimpse forward, is equally compelling, because it gives us a Bruce Wayne in transition. We love seeing our hero turning psychological corners and battling for ever higher stakes. Creators also love Batman's tortured past for the many points at which anyone else would toss in the cowl. Their pens sing to write and draw a character for whom no challenge is too much.

For 2003's Batgirl: Year One, the full chorus is in session. Writers Scott Beatty and Chuck Dixon deliver a sprightly narrative, weighted here and there by the gravitas born of associating with Gotham's Caped Crusader. Artist Marcos Martin's cleanly busy panels, framed around a slim, determined teen hero, recall Steve Ditko's Amazing Spider-Man from the mid 60s. Candy-coated night, and the occasional neon sky, are the masterful touches of colorist Javier Rodriguez. All told, this team's spotlighting of Batgirl's origin is better than any other imaginable.

Batman, already partnered with the precocious Robin, doesn't want to imagine her at all. Her leap from masquerade attendee to crime-fighter strikes him as dangerously callow. That her father is Detective Jim Gordon doesn't help. The two men, battling social ills on different sides of the law, have only just reached an understanding. But young Barbara, too short for FBI field work and Gotham police training, refuses to be excluded. At sixteen, she's taken computer classes, pre-law and jujitsu.

Her homemade costume is a flamboyant homage. She trounces the flighty Killer Moth and his goons as they rob the GCPD Masquerade Ball. When the Dynamic Duo confront her outside (where Killer Moth escapes), Batman asks, "And what are you supposed to be?"

Later, after Barbara splurges on mace, a taser, and professional hiking equipment, the question becomes, "Why?" Batman and Robin watch her jump from a Gotham highrise. They cut her rope, sparing her two dislocated shoulders. Knock-out gas allows for a trip to the Bat-Cave, where, when pressed, Barbara can't give her looming idol a good reason for joining his cause. "This isn't a game," says Batman, as if she guarded his porch, a la Fight Club. "Time to go home, little girl."

In essence, what feels like a teenage romp is actually one of the most hopeful Batman stories. The fact of his existence inspires Barbara, pure and simple. She doesn't need to see her parents killed or know grueling poverty, like the various Robins. Her agile mind is an engine, and the crime is that it idles, awaiting adulthood to serve the city she and her father love. If only Batman could see Barbara as an asset, not a liability, her growing pains might ease.

A man named Garfield Lynns helps Batgirl with that problem. As a pyrotechnic expert, he works on films, sometimes using too much fuel and roasting actors alive. That rampant flames dance for him like exotic women ranks him closer in craziness to the villains Batman and Robin routinely face. When Killer Moth ends up drawn to Lynns, he introduces him to the criminal underworld as Firefly. Almost as quickly, he realizes his mistake. Outside a burning nightclub, Killer Moth says, "Too much... just supposed to scare them." Firefly replies, "Trust me. They're scared."

As this charred carnage hits Gotham, emotional back-drafts push Batgirl toward a precipice. First, Robin kisses her during a thrilling, Batman-free evening that takes them through the subway on motorcycles. Then, at home, she enters to find that her father has tossed her room in his suspicion that she's a vigilante. Our girl's mojo isn't long in returning, however. She outsmarts Killer Moth and Firefly as their helicopter drags her (on a zip-line) through the city's glass canyons. One of my favorite panels, in any Bat-comic, shows her running horizontally along the windows of a skyscraper. When she hooks the copter to a tower, it crashes on a roof, and she goes through a skylight into a pool.

A final test awaits in the Bat-Cave. Barbara faces dummies of every major rogue in Batman's gallery, including Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy and Clayface. They fire projectiles at her, and she dispatches them swiftly. When a Joker dummy pops up, as pasty and menacing as the original, Batgirl thinks, "If this is my future, I'm not afraid of it." Some readers might pass these panels, knowing nothing of the tragedy that waits in Barbara's future. Other readers are familiar with Oracle, the redheaded, wheelchair-bound computer whiz indispensable to Batman. "There is what could be," says our heroine in farewell, "and there is the life I lead right now." A beautiful song to sleep to.