Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Batgirl #4 (July 2000)

Cass doesn't get turned into a kid or
shrunken; this cover is symbolic.
Batgirl #4 (July 2000)
Plot: Scott Peterson, Kelley Puckett
Script:  Kelley Puckett
Pencils: Damion Scott
Inks: Robert Campanella
Colors:  Jason Wright

You have to feel for Alfred.  The long-suffering butler to the Wayne family, he's had the responsibility of working for a guy who's internalized so much hurt he no longer has a clue how to act like a human being.  Moral nuances are beyond him.  To absolutist Batman, even a small child bears absolute responsibility for his or her actions, with little or no chance for forgiveness or redemption.

So when Batman receives a snuff video starring little Cass Cain as a throat-ripping killer-- despite her adorable pigtails and dress-- Alfred does what he's probably done a million times in the past.  He handles Batman's feelings with kid gloves and tries to pilot the broken man's emotions along the proper course, no doubt inwardly sighing at his tragic lot in life.  When he tells Batman he knows children and the girl in the video has no idea what she's about to do, you know he's not just referencing his knowledge of Cass, but also the increasingly insufferable mesomorphic toddler he works for, the bratty man-child he's been raising for thirty-something years.

And while Batman falls to pieces like a heartbroken schoolboy, Barbara Gordon tells Nightwing she just can't seem to bond with the new Batgirl.  Something to do with their inability to communicate beyond a few gestures.  Batgirl does her thing, which in this issue means fighting a trio of gunmen to protect a doughy goof of a man who rewards her with the magical gift of understanding language.  When an imposing costumed weirdo comes to claim the man, Batgirl throws herself into battle, only to realize she's lost her gift of reading her opponents' next move.  This turns her from an unbeatable force into merely a pretty good martial artist.  And this time, her opponent is more than pretty good herself.

Too soon.  This issue is thematically solid, with the Barbara-Nightwing conversation foreshadowing Batgirl's mental transformation, but we're still so early in her story it seems a bit soon to introduce an element that undoes Batgirl quite this much.  Really, they could have spun out Barbara's frustration for at least a year and let us get to know the silent Batgirl, to garner sympathy for her as she struggles to understand words.  While this new development would set up what's arguably the most memorable storyline of the Puckett era, it feels rushed.  It perhaps hints at some difficulty the creative team is having coming to terms with the full implications of their creation-- a character whose silence is this profound could easily become a vacuum at the center of every story.  Barbara's complaints of alienation could very well echo their own, and those of some readers.

But Cass hasn't been a vacuum, at least not through the first three issues.  It's just a matter of trusting the character, of unfurling her story at a slightly slower pace, with more of those little moments like Cass knocking on her own head to demonstrate hard-headednesss when Barbara reminds her she's recently had a concussion.  When Cass suddenly develops a language-based thought process, she's thrilled.  This is some strong characterization-- they've given her a personality that comes through despite the silence-- and I wish they'd done more with it.

And that Batman-Alfred scene again.  Contrasted to Barbara, who just wants to get to know the Cass inside the Batgirl costume, Batman's so intent on molding the girl into a weapon he can use he's nearly lost what little mind he has left, and his wild mood swing when Alfred suggests the video might be faked only reinforces the notion he's more than a little unhinged where Batgirl is concerned.  The story relies on some sci-fi techno-magic at this point, but it sets up further developments when Batman's attempt to prove Alfred's theory-- which, judging by his facial expressions, even Alfred seems dubious about, as if he's just humoring a lunatic-- comes up inconclusive.  So it's off to Macau to investigate, because that's what Batman does best besides freak out.

Again, this sets up some dramatic confrontations in upcoming issues, but it seems a little early in the story to drive a wedge between Batman and Batgirl.  They're only just starting to learn to work together and their story needs more room to breathe.

But Batgirl is primarily an action-based book, with Batgirl disarming a trio of black-suited gunmen out of a Quentin Tarantino casting call and rocks them not-so-gently to sleep before their pistols even hit the rooftop.  The book comes so close to grasping at greatness in these moments it becomes a little frustrating when they settle for the merely good.  Peterson and Puckett rely too heavily on superhero story conventions to set up this sequence-- Batgirl just happens to be swinging by at the right time.  Yes, she's drawn by some gunshots, which are pretty noisy, but it seems mighty convenient or coincidental that out of all the possible crimes happening in Gotham City that night, the one she happens upon involves a psychic who can help her understand language while complicating her narrative arc.  There has to be a better way to involve him in her story.

And you know what?  Now that we're on this topic-- it strikes me as odd these Bat-people zip around Gotham on ropes like this in the first place.  It seems even a top-flight athlete like Batgirl would be too busy trying to spot places to shoot her next grappling hook to spend much time scanning for crime.  Wouldn't it be more efficient to stake out high-crime areas and just wait?  Or divide the city into some kind of grid, with overlapping patrol zones for each crime fighter and equip them with some kind of broadly-sweeping electronic eyes and ears rather than have them swooping along on ropes and ziplines?  For all his brilliance in detective work, it seems Batman hasn't really thought through this whole "war on crime" thing, and he's gathered a small army of helpers only to waste them with inefficiencies and poor command and control.  And then he expects them to be beyond perfect and stop crimes they're not even present for.

Anyway, my lack of willing suspension of disbelief aside, I love that Scott doesn't try to draw pretty people; he tries to draw interesting ones.  These aren't the idealized heroic figures of a John Buscema (as much as I love those as well), nor are they the traced-from-a-supermodel work of some of Scott's photorealistic contemporaries.  The man who gives Cass her psychic makeover is a doughy schlub and the final villain is a menacing, androgynous, dreadlocked figure in a garish outfit.  Scott's Cass is as scrawnily muscular as ever, with a bulbous head when masked and huge, expressive eyes-- even if they're blacked in.  He pulls a neat full-page trick when the psychic reconfigures Cass's brain, rendering her thought process symbolically as a grouping of martial arts poses transforming into the word "talk."  I don't think I've ever seen anyone attempt to illustrate actual thought, and it's a simple and effective visual.

I only wish when Cass and the psychic engage in their mental conversation the colorist had chosen something more contrasting for their panels.  Cass's is a blue gradient and the psychic's is a purple one but they're not so different from each other or the background noise that you're instantly aware of which one goes to which character.  I know thought balloons are passe, but perhaps something more creative using those could have worked, especially considering how creatively Scott carried off Cass's sudden change.

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