June 8th, 2011
The Brave and the Bold #33 (June 2010): J. Michael Straczynski, Cliff Chiang, Trish Mulvihill
‘Brave and the Bold, huh? You got me all misty.’
-Green Arrow, Infinite Crisis
Sometimes you have a bad feeling about a date. Maybe you’ve just had too many ho-hum evenings out, forcing interest in the same-old same-old, going through the motions. Maybe you just can’t work up the enthusiasm: she sounds like a nice enough girl, this Barbara – librarian, cop’s daughter – but not your type. But you go along with it, because it’s more hassle to back out, to be the bad guy and call it off. So you spend an evening with Barbara. A single evening. And something strange happens, halfway through; something magic, something tragic. Something just clicks, and for a brief while you’re absolutely in tune, totally connected, but you both know it can’t last.
You never see her again. You can’t get her out of your head.
I wasn’t expecting to like this comic: it was the kind of date where I’d just as soon be watching TV. But it did something unexpected. It got to me, despite myself, and surprisingly, it’s still haunting me: and now I have to think back to remember why I disliked it in the first place.
The build-up wasn’t good. I read a few reviews before getting hold of the story itself. Ray Tate’s sounded a particular warning. His opening sentence expresses his ‘very….blinding….rage’ at The Brave and the Bold #33. He calls it ‘a stunning display of ignorance and ineptitude.’ He makes the story sound like a horrendously ill-advised retcon, and hates that it makes Batman into ‘a prick’.
‘Now, I know Batman,’ explains Ray Tate. ‘I have read Batman’s adventures since I was about ten. I know this character. I know how he thinks. I know how he feels. I know that he’s not a prick.’
I can sympathise with Ray. If you’ve known and loved a character since childhood, you feel a justified sense of custodianship, not just about the individual but their history and supporting cast. A single story can go back and change continuity, reshaping some events, wiping others out of time and adding a new cast to stories you grew up with. Things you remember are ruled obsolete. They never officially happened that way. It feels like a betrayal, a violation. I feel I know Batman too, and I don’t want to read a story that makes him out to be a prick. It was a bad start.
The Brave and the Bold’s remit, according to its cover, is ‘lost stories of yesterday, today and tomorrow.’ Not imaginary stories. Not dreams, not hoaxes, not elseworlds. So if this story changes continuity, it stays changed. And it does, and it’s a doozy.
Zatanna wakes up from a bad dream. She rounds up Wonder Woman, who is just finishing off a routine counter-terrorism thing, and they both converge on Batgirl, to persuade her she needs a night out.
‘I’d love to, really I would. But it’s been crazy lately. And I should be on patrol…’
‘When was the last time you didn’t go on patrol?’ asks Zatanna.
‘Ummm… give me time,’ Barbara stalls. Long story short, they all go out dancing. And that’s the second reason I wasn’t expecting to like this comic. The title, the cover, the whole concept. It’s called ‘Ladies’ Night’. The cover has our heroines walking arm in arm down a street littered with fallen bad guys. Zatanna’s smugly tipping her own hat with a magic wand.
Boy, these are sassy broads. It’s Charlie’s Angels in the DCU. It’s Sex and Gotham City. It’s Batman Adventures #12, from September 93, with ‘Batgirl’ scrawled over the cover in lipstick.
It’s in the same ballpark as Batman Confidential #18 from June 2008, where Batgirl follows Catwoman into a ‘hedonist society’ and gets naked for some hand-to-hand combat.
It looks set to go the same way as Harley and Ivy #1, from June 2004, where the gals wrestle in the shower.
It’s what you get if you google ‘sexy superheroine fan-art.’
Frankly, it’s a cheesecake factory.
True to form, on the first page, we see Zatanna wandering around in tank top and panties talking to herself, not unlike the recent Power Girl shower scene (Feb 2010), or the egregious Oracle #2 of April 2009, where we’re treated to a close-up detail of Barbara taking her knickers off, or Vicki Vale’s lingerie monologue in Miller’s 2005 All Star Batman and Robin.
And Wonder Woman isn’t a million miles from Miller’s version, either; just as sexy girls obligingly stroll about their apartments in Victoria’s Secret, so tough girls, within this set-up, also strut around in scanty costumes but it’s not sexist because they’re coming out with kick-ass feminist stuff like ‘Looks like your only weapon left is your mouth. Go ahead. Use it. I dare you.’ (That’s Straczynski’s Wonder Woman: Miller’s actually wears a little more as she snarls ‘out of my way, sperm bank.’)
And nice, innocent girls? They just blush and stuff, and do the odd sexy, sassy thing, but in a cute way. ‘You know the drill, boys’, says Barbara to a couple of perps. ‘Assume the position.’
It’s a girls’ night out, so you know the drill. A black heel and a slender leg slide out of a cab door. Bouncers stare and gape. ‘Frank, check it…ow…’ Girls make guys go gaga. It’s Carrie and her ladies. It’s Cheryl and her girls. It’s a Sugababes soundtrack to a Boots advert for a hen night. It’s Sporty, Ginger and Posh. It’s, as they cutely call each other, B, Z and D.
It’s a nightclub you might imagine if you’d never been to a nightclub, but had seen a lot of Duran Duran videos. It’s a teenage boy’s idea of a classy joint: like the sleazy underworld Hayden Christensen visits in Attack of the Clones. Zatanna even makes an unlikely Star Wars joke as she tricks her way past the bouncers, offering a thousand readers the fantasy that they could seduce her with their Sebulba impression. Wonder Woman, somehow forgetting that she’s been operating in the modern world for decades, reverts to Ancient Greek references: ‘Bacchus himself would be impressed by a display such as this.’ When a dumb guy says the wrong thing, she reaches down… and CRUNCH! Hey, Beavis, she crushed his nuts!
(Comedy reveal: it’s just his iPhone!) Barbara worries cutely about her shoes pinching, and Zatanna lends a hand, the way girls do in adverts. Even the toilets are an idealised vision: soft light, spotless tiles, scented diffusers, plush curtains. To complete the picture, Barbara catches Wonder Woman and Diana in a clinch: ‘Well.’ she exclaims, stalking out of the bathroom with her back straight, eyes wide and cheeks crimson. ‘There’s something you don’t see every day.’ Batman’s mythos has often overlapped with Alice in Wonderland: now Barbara Gordon sounds like its Victorian heroine.
They move on to a karaoke club and belt out ‘Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)’, looking like a commercial for a Girls’ Night In CD compilation.
And that’s the third strike against this story. Comics chronology is, of course, notoriously flexible. Julian Darius notes that the 1969 retelling of Thomas and Martha Wayne’s murder – which must originally have taken place in the 1920s, for Batman to have begun his career in ’39 – depicts Joe Chill as ‘a secret agent of the swinging Sixties, including dramatically windswept hair.’ (Darius, Improving the Foundations, Illinois: Sequart, p.19). Geoff Klock observes that Miller’s Batman ‘is sixty years old in 1980s New York in Dark Knight Returns and twenty-five years old in 1980s New York in Year One.’ (Klock, ‘Frank Miller’s New Batman and the Grotesque’ in Dennis O’Neil (ed.) Batman Unauthorised, Texas: Benbella Books, 2008, p.39). But we know that Barbara Gordon’s career as Batgirl came to a brutal end in Moore and Bolland’s The Killing Joke, published in 1988. Now, while The Killing Joke is in many ways a quintessentially ‘Eighties’ comic – in its balance between sophistication and pretension, for instance, and its expression of gritty darkness through sexualised violence – it is not noticeably or specifically set in the 1980s. Moore even makes a joke of Batman’s slippery chronology when he has Gordon muse of a newspaper image based on the cover of Detective Comics #27, ‘Look at this one. First time they met. Now what year was that?’ What year it was depends on when the story is being told: each new episode has the power to rewrite history. We accept that logic, mostly. It’s part of the game we play with superhero stories; turning a blind eye to occasional absurdities.
But the first iPhone was marketed in June 2007. ‘Single Ladies’ was released in October 2008. Being forced suddenly to swallow the idea that all the events in Barbara Gordon’s life since The Killing Joke – that’s twenty-three years of continuity – occurred in less than three years of ‘real time’ doesn’t feel like play so much as abuse.
Which brings us back to Ray Tate’s point that this story is a ret-con violation. The super-compression of Oracle’s entire career into late 2008-early 2011 is ridiculous, but arguably makes little difference to her character. What Ray objects to is the broader implication, and at this point I can’t help but finally spoil the story. Zatanna’s bad dream was a vision of Barbara being shot by the Joker, and the girls’ night out is her attempt to give Barbara one great evening before her life changes: specifically, one last dance while her legs still work.
The whole idea is objectionable on a number of levels. Ray Tate’s main complaint is that while The Killing Joke’s Batman was largely disconnected from the DC Universe, this prequel confirms that he, and Batgirl, were firmly embedded within it. When The Killing Joke was released, the post-Crisis landscape was short on magic, Zatanna hadn’t yet returned to continuity, and Batman hadn’t served on the Justice League with Wonder Woman. ‘Ladies’ Night’ shows that not only were they all part of the same crime-fighting network, but that the three girls were best buds. ‘Nobody can really relate to what we do but each other, so the three of us going out makes sense,’ Diana explains in one of the comic’s clunkier lines. So Barbara Gordon was friends with an Amazon and a magician before she was shot in the stomach; and yet, even if we accept that some events in the timeline can’t be changed, it’s hard to believe it crossed nobody’s mind to draw on that reserve of supernatural healing power after the shooting took place. This in a universe where Bruce Wayne’s back got better, where Jason Todd returned from the dead and Damian was fitted with a new spine. Zatanna and Diana realise Barbara is about to suffer a traumatic injury that will change her life, and their response is to hook her up with a Morten Harket lookalike for a boogie. (Again, it almost seems right that the nightclub is so retro-80s; in that respect, it does feel pre-Killing Joke). Instead of focusing on how they could, in a universe filled with and fuelled by pseudo-science and magic, repair the injury and restore their friend, they buy Babs a few drinks and cry in the toilets.
Ray Tate is incensed about what this implies for Batman; that he’s a prick because he didn’t call up Wonder Woman and Zatanna after The Killing Joke, now it’s been established that they all knew each other well. But worse is what it implies for Barbara: she’s confirmed as a tragic figure, a Very Special Episode sob-story, a noble sufferer. She has no agency herself in this episode. As Batgirl, she’s a dumb patsy who doesn’t ever realise what’s going on, a blissfully ignorant victim of other people’s plans; the guy who dances with her has been magically commanded by Zatanna. As Oracle, at the end of the story, she’s sad and stoic, remembering the time when ‘I was beautiful. I was dancing’, with the implication that she’s now stunted and reduced, that she gave up her beauty when she lost the strength in her legs; and even this memory was something gifted by her generous big sisters, something she should be grateful to other people for.
And yet, this comic got to me. Cliff Chiang and colorist Trish Mulvihill deserve a lot of the credit: when the story’s a problem, the art saves it. The moment where the three girls step out of the cab has its commercial cliché undermined by the fact that Babs looks incredibly uncomfortable: Diana towers like Angelina Jolie at a premiere, Zatanna basks in her own confidence, but Barbara squints, flushes, half-crouches, clutches her clutch bag in front of her for flimsy defence, as if she’d really rather be anywhere else, and doesn’t usually wear anything as short as that pink outfit. It looks like a copy of a Hervé Léger bandage dress; maybe she picked it up at Macy’s to go with the shoes.
The sense of Barbara as quite different from her companions is nicely, subtly developed in the writing, too: on one level, they both share a tragic irony by knowing something she doesn’t, but on another, they’re part of magical royalty, the daughters of a supernatural dynasty, while she’s a cop’s kid in a costume. She feels a little out of her league, not just in the club but with these two demi-goddesses; Batman can stand up to Kal-El partly because his wealth is itself a superpower, but Barbara, we remember, is just a librarian. She doesn’t fly an invisible plane or even live in a mansion with a butler. She spends her evenings with her old man, making him cocoa while waiting for Colleen from across the street to pick her up for yoga. In a rare moment of stubbornness, she refuses to let Zatanna adjust her shoes, which are too tight: ‘I don’t want them changed. My dad saw me looking at these shoes in a magazine, and he knew they were a lot more than I could afford. So he got them for me for my birthday. They’re my favourites.’ Every time the strap digs into her heel, she thinks of Jim.
While she’s competent and snappy as Batgirl, we get the sense that Barbara, in civvies, really isn’t that sure of herself. Sure, Zatanna gets the hunk to ask her to dance, but Barbara’s face as she glances up from her shoe to the backlit guy is a perfect picture: Chiang captures a sense of wide-eyed wonder, and Mulvihill bathes the frame in rose and violet, a pink gel on the nightclub light making the whole place blush. She doesn’t really need the guy; she just needs an excuse to dance.
And when she dances, with Diana and Zatanna cheering her on in the background, she forgets herself entirely; she’s a flame, a wave, the shape of joy.
It’s this part of the story that really works; that works its way inside you and jabs your heart. Not the story of Batgirl before The Killing Joke, with all the continuity fudges and fixes that implies, but a simpler story of Barbara, who thought she was nothing special but went out anyway with two girls she was kind of awed by, and lost herself in the music, and let herself go, and had a great time and pigged out on pancakes and fries in a late night diner and acted silly for once in her librarian’s life, and felt like someone different. ‘I haven’t had a night out like this since… well, ever,’ she confesses, slouching in the booth with her hair falling over her eyes, and her eyes half-closed.
Forget about Batgirl, and whether she could have been fixed, and whether she’s going to come back in another ret-con and reboot. Forget about Batgirl, because Barbara did, just for an evening. This is the story of a perfect day: the kind Lou Reed was talking about. ‘You made me forget myself… I thought I was someone else, someone good.’ This is the kind of brief glory Bowie described, where we can all be ‘Heroes’ just for one day, ‘and you… you will be queen.’ Just for one perfect day. Just for one evening. The surprisingly shy and uncertain Barbara Gordon forgot herself, and was brave, and bold, and beautiful.
Will Brooker is the author of Batman Unmasked. His next book, Hunting the Dark Knight, will be published in 2012.