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Sunday, January 1, 2012

Batgirl, The Most Repulsive Comic of 2011

At the end of 2011, the new Batgirl has completed its first arc, and while it's not too bad from a craft standpoint, the implications are so disgusting that it was easily the worst comic I read all year. That includes plenty of comics that WERE bad from a craft standpoint, and even more comics that had a decent level of craft but were based on profoundly stupid concepts. But none of these comics had as revolting a message behind them, and even if they did, their negative implications were immediately seized upon by the audience. The new Batgirl is vile, but a positive commercial and critical reception enable its vileness.

Again, the issue here isn't with the art or writing, at least no more so than any other comic. Adrian Syaf's art is exceptional, and he at least makes the book nice to look at. And Gail Simone's script is decently constructed, if not nearly as good as her work on Birds of Prey or Secret Six. But she's based the book around one of the worst representations of disability I've seen in recent years. This is a comic that deals explicitly with the fact that the character of Barbara Gordon was the rare character who was both a semiotic victory and a memorable, complex entity on her own-- then pisses all over it.

I've already mentioned the bullshit conceit behind this book, that Barbara Gordon can walk again and is using that opportunity to be Batgirl. Now that we're a full four-issue story arc into this comic, we learn how Barbara was cured; she went to a special clinic in South Africa, to receive an experimental surgery. There's the chance that her condition could deteriorate, especially with intense physical strain (the kind that comes part and parcel with crime-fighting), but she's doing it anyway. In Barbara's mind, she's received a miracle, and she has to use her second chance to help people.

It's a strong religious metaphor without the courage to attach itself to a specific religion. But worse, it's a miracle cure that reinforces the notion that Barbara was broken because she couldn't walk. It doesn't matter that it's from the fringes of real-world science instead of DC Universe Phlebotnium, it's still an awful plot device. Barbara can walk again, so she's using this chance to become the exact same person she was before being put in the wheelchair. Her time as Oracle is completely glossed over, with the only bit of past continuity explicitly referenced being when she was shot by the Joker.

Worse yet, the book has the gall to try to treat disability with respect. Barbara scoffs at how Alysia* talks about the loss of mobility as a pitiful fate, and talks about what the chair "lets you do". It's referenced that the word "cure" was a dirty word in the Gordon household, with her father having brought up the clinic with veiled language (so as not to offend Barbara's proud identity). But this means absolutely nothing because Barbara still took the cure, and still enjoys not only her life as an able-bodied person, but as a pinnacle of athletic skill.

Some might argue that it's Barbara's choice to take this cure, and to live the kind of life she wants without accepting limitations. Except Barbara doesn't have much respect for her own life, for the following reasons;

1.) Subjecting herself to an experimental and possible life-threatening surgery in order to walk again, as though the risk of being dead was worth the reward of being able to walk.

2.) Becoming a crimefighter despite being badly out of practice and physically/psychologically unfit for the task. Throwing herself onto the battlefield in situations that could (and, in fact, did) cost civilians their lives due to her incompetence.

3.) Refusing help from her ex-boyfriend and fellow Bat-sidekick Dick Grayson, brushing him off as an over-protective man and going off to fight the villain herself. (This isn't a feminist issue, it's an issue of someone close Barbara not wanting her to get herself killed out of stupid pride).

4.) Being yet another member of the Bat-Family, now in a role that hundreds of crimefighters do better (thanks to Batman, Incorporated). Grant Morrison's notion of Oracle as a cyber-crimefighting digital Batgirl was silly and rooted in very dated conceptions of the internet, but it at least gave Barbara a unique role suited to her skill-set. Here she's just one of the Bat-Grunts, albeit without the ability to handle her emotional baggage.

In short, the message of the new Batgirl is that being disabled limits what you can do, being "normal" is an ideal for which you should readily throw away your life, and disability is just a pit-stop on the able-bodied hero's journey. To this, I use the words of a still-active disabled character, played by an extremely talented actor with a disability (Peter Dinklage);

" [as a cripple] I beg to differ. Death is so terribly final, while life is full of possibilities. "-- Tyrion Lannister, George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones

*the Ethnic Best Friend, because DC's books still have to belong to the white characters; so long, Cassandra Cain!

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