Monday, February 27, 2012
(Now just imagine if the Joker said that when he opened the door and capped Barbara in the spine.)
Joking and memetic-mutating aside, Batgirl has gone from being a technically competent comic with a disgusting ableist message, to an amateurishly written and sappy mess (albeit with good art by Adrian Syaf) with a disgusting ableist message. Issues 5 and 6 involve Barbara teaming up with Batman to fight a new villainess, Gretel, who gained mind control powers after a traumatic brain injury by a mobster she was investigating. It also has a script that bends over backwards trying to convince the audience that Batgirl is great and we should all love her as much as Gail Simone does. To wit;
1.) Bruce Wayne spends the first half of this arc hypnotized, and bumbles around like a puppet until Barbara breaks the spell by bringing up how his parents are dead. Batman, the most insanely prepared man in the DC Universe or any other (right down to literally creating his own backup personality in case of mind control of mental breakdown), is overridden like an amateur. I could accept this were it not so obvious that it was done to make Barbara look better by comparison, as the one who keeps her wits and saves Bruce's ass.
2.) Bruce Wayne hugs her afterwards, and whispers, " You were always meant to be Batgirl". This is an endorsement on par with the line in The Rise of Arsenal and its tie-ins, "was he not up for the task of being Red Arrow"? A sidekick's name, a weaker spin-off of an established hero, means nothing. Furthermore, it shows that Bruce, a man who's extremely guarded about his personal life and who he lets into his crime fighting circle, is perfectly fine with Barbara going into the battlefield physically and mentally unprepared after her apparent recovery. And that he doesn't particularly mind if Barbara's spinal chip gives out in the middle of a fight. Because she's more useful to him as Batgirl than Oracle, for reasons that don't exist!
3.) Barbara's narrative captions blanket the pages, with her beating us over the head with how great it is that she be Batgirl and help people. This is standard for modern superhero comics, the kind of "emo noir" that conceals perfectly good artwork behind boxes full of navel-gazing. But it's especially galling when Barbara talks about how she was never a partner to Batman, and was her own crime fighter. Who apparently took all of Batman's moves and gadgets for her great individual identity, but that doesn't really matter.
4.) Gretel is the second case in a row where the main villain of a new Batgirl story is a heavy-handed parallel to Barbara's own trauma. In the previous case, it was Mirror, who survived an accident that killed his family, and became devoted to killing everyone else who'd experienced miracles. In this case, it's a woman who was nearly killed by criminals, and is now a lethal vigilante. Batgirl makes sure we don't miss the parallels for a second, making this analogy about as subtle as a House episode where the patient's problem somehow connects to House's leg/addiction/misanthropy (re: EVERY FUCKING EPISODE). And, of course, Barbara has to be all weepy about it, telling the cops to treat Gretel well when they ship her off to Arkham.
It's also worth noting that Gretel still has clear evidence of her trauma-- her multicolored wigs disguise her bald head, which has a bullet scar where hair would've been. Further confirming that heroic characters don't have deformities, only bad guys! I can't wait to see Barbara fight a villain who's in a wheelchair, then give a speech about how she feels their pain!
In the end, what bothers me most about Batgirl is that it represents the character as "the good cripple". She was physically and mentally scarred, but she put the former behind her with a magic cure, and she's working on 'overcoming' the latter. Disability, to Barbara, was just a transitory state so she could look stronger once she emerged from it. And when she emerges, she emerges as a character who doesn't rock the boat or say anything controversial. She's just become another face in the Bat-crowd, only distinguishable by the Pollyanna-type bullshit about second chances and miracles that flows from her mouth.
Saturday, February 4, 2012
There are a hundred and one reasons why DC shouldn't go forward with Before Watchmen, the controversial series of prequels to the superhero genre's Citizen Kane. I've heard plenty of discussion about the continuing disrespect towards the original creators, the fact that few if any creators could measure up to the originals, the fact that there's no more story to tell with the characters, etc. However, one thing about which I haven't heard much discussion is the series' timeline.
Watchmen not only debuted in the 1980s, but was entirely about the 1980's. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons created an alternate timeline leading to an alternate 1985. The plot is set against a Cold War gone hot, with the Russians poised to nuke America. The characters' origins are rooted in the Great Depression for the first generation, and the Vietnam era for the second. Rorscach's hero is Harry Truman, for God's sakes.
Most of the most successful comic book characters are from eras long past, and even further into the past than Watchmen. But those characters weren't given backstories as rooted to history, and they benefitted from regular updates and revamps (such as moving Iron Man's origin story to the war du jour, or modifying Captain America's history to make him a man out of time). Since we aren't getting an Ultimate Watchmen, we're instead getting more stories set in the deep past, exploring characters whose conclusions are foregone against a backdrop unfamiliar to a modern audience.
This is not an indictment of historical fiction or even of prequels, but rather an indictment of the bean counters at DC for bringing this wretched project to light. They've courted a lot of hate from fans, and for what? Prequels exploring the historical minutae of a twenty-five-year-old story that really doesn't need it? Even if Watchmen is a classic known to people who don't regularly read comics, classic is inherently dated. And unless Before Watchmen includes some miraculously innovative take on the material that already exists**, it's going to be an inherently limited and superfluous exercise with little profit beyond the short-term.
* (Image Found On Internet)
** (Grant Morrison's Multiversity would have been this, because Morrison's talent as well as his outspoken distaste for Watchmen made him one of a handful of creators who could actually make something of this doomed idea.)
Friday, February 3, 2012
I am always looking for stories that move me to tears, even though I'm bitter enough that it rarely happens. Still, there have been works across multiple mediums that were powerful, tragic, and heartwarming enough to trigger the waterworks. For me this is particularly true for comics, where I teared up at the ending to Preacher, the World's Most Wanted arc of Matt Fraction's Invincible Iron Man run with Tony Stark's Algernon-style degeneration, the heartwarming final issue of Planetary, and now, Pipe Dope.
A recently concluded blog-comic by Jon D. Witmer, Pipe Dope is a formally innovative and emotionally profound memoir about the author's father. The comic's conclusion, like all biographies, is forgone, as David Witmer tragically died from lung cancer when his son was still a teenager. What is not forgone is the way Jon Witmer memorializes his father, with a serial comic that takes full advantage of the medium to show us just what David meant to him.
The strip is formatted as a blog, with each entry featuring a Far Side-style single panel. Each entry encapsulates a key moment in David Witmer's life, and its impact on Jon. The content is as varied as the man himself; some strips show us David's own childhood, and the lengths he took to court Jon's mother. Others show Jon's childhood memories of David, the lessons David taught him from the practical (where the title comes from) to the bizarrely profound (the axiom, "never kiss a girl who smokes"). The little mannerisms and routines of David's life are captured, as well as the struggles (particularly the haunting images of David's chemotherapy, such as a head-first view of a CT Scan machine). Most interesting, however, is the AAF-- characters who best encapsulate the influence and importance of comics upon this particular narrative.
The AAF, or Animal Air Force, are the adventures of David's stuffed animals, which were passed down to and continued by Jon. Characters like Genroo the stuffed dog and Blue Peep the stuffed chick were sent on wacky imaginary escapades that portended the future of both Witmers, all the while bickering in broken English a la characters from Pogo. The AAF went on epic air and sea missions that inspired David's later career in the Navy, showing how play, fiction, and imagination helped a child formulate a great path as an adult. They later resurfaced in young Jon's life, their stories told from one Witmer to another, and even gave a surprisingly moving wake to the departed David. The actual AAF stuffed animals were on Jon's desk during the creation of the comic, as a reminder of the shared legacy between father and son.
Stuffed animal adventures may seem like a silly way to interconnect a narrative about a man dying of cancer, but the trappings are less important than what they symbolized for both men, and how they formed a permanent and inspiring legacy. Pipe Dope is a superbly written and drawn example of the form, and one of the most moving comics I've yet read. Do yourself a favor and read it Here.