The character of Barbara Gordon has one of the most emotionally pained story arcs in all of comics, probably down to it being one that was deeply intense and personality changing. The girl who was a Bat was at the heart of one of the most controversial stories in all of comics (reviewed right here on Comic Flashback), and whilst debate rages as to whether or not The Killing Joke was ever intended to be included as part of the canon and continuity of DC Comics history, as well as to the appropriateness of its content, it ended up becoming a part of the Batfamily’s on-going storylines, and Barbara Gordon’s paralysis became part of her journey, one that would see her becoming Oracle.
The fact that a character with a paralysis ended up becoming a large part of the Batman family was very important and a major positive step in character development, so it was with a touch of controversy that Barbara’s paralysis was not carried into the New 52 relaunch and the character was once again Batgirl. However, the past is not totally forgotten and Gail Simone’s genius touch was to make The Joker’s attack and impact of his shooting and paralysing of her part of Barbara’s backstory and psychological make-up.
Having regained the use of her legs and now back on her feet, The Darkest Reflection (collecting issues one to six of Simone’s run) sees Barbara attempting to find her way in life again, through returning to her life of fighting crime, whilst a new serial killer is on the loose by the name of The Mirror who is killing people who have survived great trauma, a modus-operandi spurned on by a terrible event from his own past.
With lovely humorous touches, a truly engaging heroine, gorgeous artwork from Adrian Syef and some wonderful twists and turns throughout, the first volume of Simone’s work on Batgirl is magnificent. It seldom puts a foot wrong and is engaging in every way. Whilst deciding to take one of the few disabled characters in a comic book universe and remove it could be a controversial one, or even seen as something of a cop-out, Simone amazingly doesn’t ignore it completely, instead opting to make Barbara’s recovery part of her ongoing tribulations.
There is a lovely touch of angst to go with the character in many of the pages here. It’s not simply a case of Barbara finding that she can walk again and then simply going back out to fight crime. This is a character who is walking the lines of post-traumatic stress disorder, survival guilt and fear, but deals with all these things with charm and a killer sense of humour to go with believable levels of angst.
Simone’s rendering of Barbara is one of the most nuanced and beautifully constructed piece of character development I’ve ever had the pleasure to read in a comic. The voice of Barbara, her thoughts and feelings, are dotted throughout, and never feels like a distraction. The voice of the character is perfectly found by Simone who runs with the character’s charming levels of humour and angst and it makes her one of the most relatable characters out there. She isn’t grandiose like Wonder Woman, Batman or Superman, nor is she as confidant as Black Canary or Catwoman, she’s just a girl trying to find her place in the world and having to do so with a caped crusading alter ego.
In other hands this could all get maudlin and way too angst-ridden, but Simone keeps The Darkest Reflection assuredly light and fun. That isn’t to say it isn’t afraid to deal with the more emotionally draining aspects that Barbara is experiencing, but it does in a way that it never feels as if the reading experience is dragging you down. It’s handled in an assured, engaging way. There is humour to be had, but the darkness is there, along with touches of brutal violence that genuinely shocks without ever being gratuitous or exploitative.
The first six issues are mostly preoccupied with Barbara’s battles with Mirror, whose psycho-drama is fuelled by his inability to have saved his family, one of the many times that Simone isn’t afraid to take her story into darker, disturbing territory, which she does without betraying the other, lighter aspects of the story. That she pulls this off is the sign of a great talent, but we don’t need to be reminded about how good she is, plus I feel like I should point out that she is also an expert on Arrow.
Mirror’s handling of his own trauma is to kill others who have also survived great trauma and yet successfully managed to continue on with their lives, a list of people that also includes Barbara. This all culminates with a shocking sequence in the third issue when Barbara’s attempts to save one of Mirror’s victims from a potential train bombing plan also includes a second victim on another train, one that Batgirl fails to prevent. It’s a truly shocking moment that makes you gasp.
Adrian Syef’s art is beautiful throughout, every panel stands out beautifully whilst the colours from Ulises Arreola are stunning, especially Barbara’s hair. Now, I’m not Donnie Pfaster or anything, I’m not all about kidnapping Dana Scully and asking if her hair is normal or dry, or getting angry if it turns out red heads are wearing wigs, but the way in which Barbara’s red hair hangs from her cowl is strangely stunning to look at, and the tones of the red compliments the black and yellow of her costume amazingly, whilst Syef isn’t afraid to draw our heroine in various poses of near iconic splendour.
One of the other things I love about The Darkest Reflection is how it waits until the final issue to bring in Bruce Wayne, and even when he’s there, seldom appears in costume. I always feel it’s important for members of the Bat family to stand alone in their stories, even if they are operating in Gotham City where the greatest comic book character of them all lives, but sometimes the needs must and Bruce Wayne appears, but this isn’t just about throwing in a “Batman” appearance, it plays a large role in Barbara’s journey and allows Simone to throw in an extra twist when it comes to Batgirl’s battle with Gretel, who can bend minds to her will.
Everything about this first volume deals with the themes of reflection, as suggested by its title, either it being Mirror with his coat of mirrors (a fantastic image), or Gretel, who is a kind of darker equivalent to Barbara herself. Whilst all of this is going on, with all the thrills and beautifully illustrated action one would want from a Batgirl title, Simone isn’t afraid to throw in smaller things to ground her tale. From Barbara’s relationships with her dad (you may know him, of course, he is the police commissioner) to Dick Grayson, complete with flashbacks that I wanted to continue forever because there’s a part of me that loves superhero romances, to the re-appearance of Barbara’s mum, also called Barbara. Whilst the latter could become a soap opera, it is in fact every bit as great to read as the action and suspense elements and allows, once again, Simone to make her heroine relatable, real and flawed. The character’s reaction to her mum’s reappearance after years of having abandoned her family feels very real.
All good things come to an end, but there are another four volumes of Batgirl by Gail Simone to come, and I for one cannot wait to see where we go next.