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.

No comments:

Post a Comment