Tying in with all the Batman titles, Death of the Family sees the return of The Joker to the Batfamily’s lives and the resulting psychological damage the character inflicts on them. Scott Snyder’s arc in the main Batman title is a superb achievement and a wonderful piece of story telling that relies on suspenseful set-pieces, brilliant dialogue and shocking bouts of violence.
With every character related to Batman tying in with this arc, I was very much looking forward to seeing how Gail Simone would handle Babs’ part in this story, given the history of the character with the clown prince of crime and the results are not disappointing. In fact, given that history, one could even say that of all the tie-ins regarding this story arc, it’s Batgirl’s that is the most potent and powerful.
Brilliantly Simone doesn’t abandon any of the other story strands that she has been developing over the past two volumes just to tie in Batgirl to the latest Batman “epic”, but instead opts to keep them going whilst the Joker arc takes hold, with key involvement from James Gordon Jr, who must surely rank as one of the most intense and quietly terrifying villains to appear in a comic book in a very long time. I mean, this guy ain’t some deformed clown faced maniac, he looks all too innocent and human with his red hair and glasses.
Before we get to the Death of the Family arc, we get a lovely piece of fun fluff involving Catwoman and Strix, the Talon from Batgirl’s fight during Night of the Owls, in the shape of issue #0, The Blood That Moves Us. Well, I say fluff, it’s still pretty damn violent and intense, but sees Simone having a great deal of fun with three brilliant female characters and brings to an end some of the dangling plot strings from the Owls story arc.
Published as issue #0, and put as the first chapter of this collected volume, it comes as a surprise and a slight confusion to have this first since Knightfall Descends ended on a cliffhanger, but once one gets to the resolution of the cliffhanger, one finds themselves almost wishing to go back to the more fun dynamics of Batgirl and Catwoman trading witty barbs and teaming up to take on Talons, because once we get to the crux of Death of the Family, dark and more dark is the order of the day.
The Joker is not a fun villain. He’s a great villain, but make no mistakes about it, for his purple suit, clown face and colourful exterior, this is a character who is deeply disturbing, vile and horrible and one of the things that Death of the Family does, especially in regards to Simone and Scott Snyder’s writing, is to make the character a horrible persona of horror and crime. Every panel and every sequence with this character finds the reader always on edge. You don’t want to look at him, you don’t want to experience the horror going on, but yet you cannot for one moment look away.
The changes made to The Joker for The New 52 were some of the most brilliantly dark and imaginative changes made to a character during the 2011 reboot of the DC Universe. Taking a character that has always had a disturbing streak to him and making him someone who rips his own face off and then proceeds to wear that face turned The Joker into a full on horror character, the stuff of nightmares.
Now, I don’t want to talk to much about Scott Snyder’s work on this arc. After all, this is a Batgirl review and I also want to talk about Snyder’s work on Batman at a later date. As it is, a pivotal Snyder scripted chapter from his Batman run is included here primarily because it brings the arc to an end, and is superb, dealing with the Batman/Joker relationship with a deadly, forceful power, culminating in an emotionally exhausting climax and ending on a very downbeat note.
Batgirl’s role in this story arc, leading up to this resolution, is equally fantastic and may actually be even better than the one-on-one Batman/Joker stuff. Simone’s writing places great emphasis on the importance of The Joker on Babs’ life, he was after all the man responsible for putting her into a wheelchair and there is a real sense that Simone’s run has been slowly building up to this encounter. As is the case, the darkness is very apparent, the violence is shocking and some of it is doled out to those closest to Barbara, with her mother in particular suffering at The Joker’s hands during one of the volume’s most disturbing set pieces.
There is a real charge of tension running through the first half of this volume that is, quite frankly, brilliant. From the level of action, to the dialogue, to James Jr hanging around at the edges of the story, the story itself culminating in the shocking final chapter, all the while the “relationship” between our heroine and The Joker going into increasingly darker places. Simone’s handling of this cataclysmic coming together of these two characters ventures into dark and twisted territory, an onslaught of emotional and physical violence that goes ever darker when Snyder plays the trump card that is his final chapter in the story.
Interestingly this volume, on top of representing Batgirl’s part in one of the best story arcs from DC during this time, also represents a time of trouble that was going on behind the page as, temporarily, Gail Simone was absent from the title, meaning that three issues in this volume are actually written by Ray Fawkes. This was due to “creative differences”.
Now, when writers leave a title and a new one comes in, the change can be noticed instantly, especially when reading in a collection such as this. Thankfully the change isn’t too drastic or overt. Fawkes, instead of opting to go in a different direction, actually continues the James Gordon Jr story strand, meaning that when Simone came back a few issues down the line, the story arc she had been building up to was still there waiting for her.
Fawkes’ writing is a little different, but it isn’t too jarring a change. He still has Simone’s ability to go dark and shocking with bursts of action and violence that goes well with the character interaction and development. When Simone comes back for the final issue in this collection, not much has changed for her, and in fact, even though the Death of the Family arc is the main focus here (it is after all its title), the final issue, A Blade From The Shadows, is another undoubted highlight in this collection, bringing the James Jr arc to a blisteringly intense conclusion, but one which promises further trouble in the fourth volume.
Throughout all the darkness, however, there is one very important piece of light that comes through; Alysia Yeoh. The first transgender character in a mainstream comic book, the moment she and Barbara lay everything out in the table and reconcile after the crap that has gone on throughout, culminating in Alysia coming out to Barbara is wonderful, subtle and in no way sensationalist or, more importantly, crassly handled. In fact it’s a rather beautiful moment that not only cements the friendship between the two characters, but gives hope to what no doubt will be further darker adventures for Babs and her alter ego.