Batgirl #3: The DC Universe

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.

Batgirl #2: Retconning

“Retcon” is a portmanteau of the words “Retroactive continuity,” and if we’re going to be honest, one of the most important concepts in superhero comics. The basic idea is that you can rewrite the past in order to make the story you want to tell possible.

This idea matters a lot more in serial fiction than it does in stand-alone works. Neil Gaiman has a great line in The Sandman Companion to the effect of “In a novel, if you get to the end and realize you need a gun in the desk drawer, you can go back and put one in. In comics, you have to put a lot of guns in a lot of drawers to make sure you can finish a story.” No matter how many trap doors a writer puts into a series, though, when things need to be massively changed, they take to retconning. All it usually takes, as in Batgirl, is a concise retelling, generally through a flashback, of the new history, and then that’s the new truth.

Any superhero’s history is rife with retconning and reboots, which tend to make them insanely and hilariously complicated. (For a great take on this, check out Comics, Everybody! a web-comic series that condenses decades of retconning into one hilarious strip at Comics Alliance.) Retconning is one of the things –along with improbable cleavage and silly powers– that can give superhero stories a bad name. It’s hard to argue with this kind of storytelling device, though, when you consider that many of these stories have been running continuously for forty-plus years; if writers didn’t have these trapdoors, the stories simply couldn’t continue, and nothing new could ever happen.

Reading Batgirl #2 and getting a better look at Mirror, the current villain, is fascinating while thinking about the idea of timelines in comics and the principle of retconning. Mirror, it is revealed, was the sole survivor of a horrific car accident that killed his entire family. Guilt- and grief-stricken, he’s become a religious zealot and is killing people in Gotham who made narrow escapes or “should” have died previously.

On its surface, as several reviewers complained after the first issue, it’s kind of a bizarre and opaque motivation for a villain. Right after this reboot and retcon, though, I think it’s an extremely piquant way to get at the importance of a changeable past and improbable odds in this genre. A force for probability and logical consequence is one of the most deadly things possible to a superhero; their entire premise depends on odds being thwarted and downright miraculous events being commonplace. A character that normalizes history wouldn’t just threaten Barbara Gordon, this Batgirl in this series, it’s a threat to the entire suspension of disbelief that lets comics as a whole work.

Gail Simone has gotten some criticism for this reboot so far, but the more I think about it, the more impressed I am with the depth of her work. I can’t wait to see where this goes.

 

 

Batgirl #1: Reboot

I’ve got Batgirl #2 sitting on my desk right now, CALLING OUT TO ME, so this post is overdue. While we’re still on the first issue, there’s an important question to be answered: What’s a reboot, anyway?

In simplest terms, to reboot a series is to discard the story so far and start again. To think of it in computer terms, when you reboot your laptop, whatever you’re currently doing is gone, but the programs and everything are still there. In a fiction reboot, whatever story is currently going on is gone, but the basic idea of the world and characters will still be there. Otherwise the creators would just start a brand new series, not bother with rebooting an existing one. In other media, like television, that tends to mean a new start from the ground up (what we librarians might call a phoenix edition), like the popular recent reboot of Battlestar Galactica. In this case, as in so many others, comics tend to be more squirrelly.

Batman on film.

What’s the point of a reboot? A reboot is a useful device, if you’re a writer or publisher. They’re often used to restart a complex story in a simpler way to attract new readers. If a story has been going on for a long time, there’s often a huge amount of back story that can make it impossible for someone to jump in, a phenomenon referred to as continuity lock-out. Superhero comics are infamous for this kind of thing, but it’s common in most long-running stories from Lost to the Harry Potter movies. If characters are supposed to continue indefinitely, things are going to have to be simplified at some point, or eventually no one will know what’s going on.
Reboots are also attractive because they let the writers or publishers make drastic changes without explaining them. The new Batman movies rebooted his film continuity, letting Christopher Nolan create an entirely different, darker and edgier world than the campy Joel Schumacher version of the 90’s. His Batman can have a different personality, different associates, a different rogues’ gallery, and a different origin than the original, while staying the same character and not requiring any explanation beyond the normal exposition.

Barbara Gordon as Oracle.What’s up with this reboot? This reboot, that we’re concerned with when we look at Batgirl, is an unusual one. The entire DC Comics Universe rebooted, which consists of multiple interlocking titles (we’ll talk more about the concept of a comics universe later), but they didn’t all set back to zero, and they didn’t all reboot equally. They’re calling the reboot event “The New 52″, but it’s newer for some titles than for others. Titles like Green Lantern Corps didn’t change at all, while others were barely recognizable. Batgirl is somewhere in between. What the writer, Gail Simone, appears to have actually done is get rid of everything that’s happened to the character, Barbara Gordon, since 1988 and reset it to there. Wikipedia is a great resource for comics history, because of its dedicated fanbase, and they have a comprehensive history of Barbara Gordon, our Batgirl, as a character. The basic information you need is that she used to be Batgirl, was shot and paralyzed by the Joker, and became Oracle, the information broker for the DC Universe, while other characters acted as Batgirl. According to the reboot, that was all only temporary, and she’s now back to being Batgirl full time.

What’s the point of this reboot? If you’ve been familiar with superhero comics for a while, you’ll probably cynically say that the entire point of the DC reboot was to get attention. And that’s a very valid point. The industry, many of us would argue, has become dependent on flashy substance-free big events to try and convince people to buy comics because of their cataclysmic importance, rather than their quality. That’s definitely a valid criticism here, and it’s worth noting that every big event is definitely not worth collecting, even if you’re a library that collects superhero comics. When they’re done well, however, they can be great introductions to the complex history and world of superhero comics. It remains to be seen, as we’re just two issues in to most of the new titles, whether any of these will be any good or worth collecting. Next time, look forward to an explanation of “Retconning,” and an explanation of weird comic book time-lines, as well as big Marvel and DC Event comics that ARE worth getting.

Batgirl #1: Where to Start?

Yvonne Craig as Batgirl in the 60's TV show

One of the ongoing features I’m going to be working on here at the LCL is a tour through mainstream superhero comics organized around our very own Barbara Gordon: Mild mannered librarian by day, vigilante by night.

The Batgirl comic book title was just rebooted, meaning that its numbering was set back to #1 and the story has been started fresh. However, this being comics, it could never be that simple.

It turns out, some things in the Batgirl story have changed, many haven’t, timelines have been rearranged or compressed, and we can’t be sure yet what’s going on. This is a classic problem as a comics fan, not to mention a new reader coming to the medium, because the industry is full of strange artistic and publishing conventions and terms that don’t exist anywhere else.

Barbara Gordon both as a librarian and the vigilante Batgirl. In this series, we’ll take you through those, to explain how mainstream superhero comics work as a system, and how you can make sense of them, both as a reader and as a librarian trying to build a collection. In later posts, I’ll cover what this reboot actually is, how they’ve happened before, what the relationships between characters and their superhero personas are, and much, much more. Also, if you just want to find out what happens, I’ll also be doing a review of each new issue of Batgirl as they come out.

Next up: What’s up with this reboot?