Issue #3 of Batgirl didn’t enchant me as much as #2 did, I won’t lie, but it’s giving me the perfect chance to write about one of my favorite subjects. I firmly believe that one of the richest aspects of mainstream comics is the incredibly strange construction that is the DC Universe.* We’ve talked about reboots and retconning before, but the universe is really the concept that forces writers to resort to these strategems. At its simplest, the DC Universe where all the stories from DC comics happen. Unpacked a little, it means that everything in all the DC stories is happening concurrently in the same world. This has created an incredibly complicated, but incredibly rich mythology that, I think, creates many more opportunities than it does restrictions.
In Batgirl, this makes it necessary for Gail Simone to define this new Barbara Gordon’s relationships with her world and the rest of the Bat-family. Though there seems to be no sign of Barbara’s past as an information professional, Simone carefully lets us know what her new relationship with this universe is through flashbacks and new character interactions.
And you don’t just get this richness though the intense interactions that characters with long history like Batgirl and Nightwing have. In the previous issue, she crashes into a cab and the driver yells at her to go to Metropolis (where Superman lives and works) and fight “Larry Luthor” (assumedly Lex Luthor, Superman’s nemesis.) Sure, it’s geeky, but I chuckled.
So much of any medium consists of artists inventing things by themselves, in a vacuum. If they do get the chance to build off of preexisting work, they’re usually stuck in the narrow confines of a franchise, and not much can be done. Mainstream comics constantly mines its own past and present to create these little crossovers that go a long way to creating a round, full-feeling world.
I nearly always love suggesting The Sandman as an introductory comic, not just because it’s good and accessible, or even because it was the comic that started me on my love of comics, but because I think it’s a great introduction to the concept of the DC Universe and the fantastically layered stories it makes possible. Even though it’s generally held up as one of the great early non-superhero comics, in Hy Bender’s The Sandman Companion, Neil Gaiman identifies the constraints of that superhero universe as one of the prime generative aspects:
A major defining factor was my wanting him to be part of the DC Universe. Because if someone as powerful as the Sandman was running all the dreams in the world, a natural question would be “Why haven’t we heard about him by now?”
The answer I came up with was “He’s been locked away.” …And so on; each plot point just seemed to naturally lead to the next one. p.235
In a very real way, the superhero story in this issue of Batgirl is happening in the same world where The Sandman took place. As a matter of fact, Batman hilariously shows up in one of the last issues of The Sandman, along with Clark Kent and the Martian Manhunter:
Having a continuous universe, as odd as it may be, makes it possible for a writer like Neil Gaiman to have a crack at Clark Kent, if just for a minute. It also creates a continuous chain of references that a reader can follow, all the way from the quiet, literary Sandman to the fast-paced adventure of Batgirl — that’s exactly what I did.
*The Marvel Universe is no less cool, and most of the same arguments apply to it. If you’d like to learn more about its history and mythology, I suggest Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’ Marvels.