Batgirl #37: Why Did Everyone Act So Surprised?

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This first appeared in the Newsarama Best Shots column

Batgirl #37
Written by Cameron Stewart and Brendan Fletcher
Art by Babs Tarr, Cameron Stewart and Maris Wicks
Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher
Published by DC Comics
Review by Lilith Wood
‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Batgirl #37 is the new creative team’s third issue and it is in keeping with the two issues that preceded it: Babs Tarr’s artwork is fun and fluid, but writers Cameron Stewart and Brendan Fletcher often feel like they’re straining to show how very modern and youthful Barbara’s new life is. The team seemed to be settling into a more relaxed groove last issue, but have hit a snag with Batgirl #37. This issue shows that this story forgets that innocent fun and reckless ignorance can be two sides of the same coin.

Batgirl #37 starts off excitingly with a lot of bling and color – one set of beautiful women is being mean and wild in a fast car. Another set of beautiful women is being adorable and getting all dressed up to go out. Tarr’s apt cartooning keeps things light and airy, and the whole first half of the book reminds me in a happy way of the Katy Keene comics I read as a little kid in the 1980s – it’s aspirational in that basic way of little kids just wanting to be grown up and be popular, to own pretty things and have fun times. Like Katy Keene with her Broadway dreams and New York modeling career, it was easy to believe back then it was impossible to be sad if you were wearing high heels.

As Batgirl #37 progresses, there is more glitter, more snark, more pretty hairstyles and cute dresses. Fletcher and Stewart stand out in their ability to feather a lot of information into the panels so that you feel like you’re reading twice as many pages, but not in a way that taxes your attention span. They fill a scene at an art gallery with conversation, details, and texts as the characters move about noticing and reacting to the art. Maris Wicks’s bold and sometimes-clashing colors also ratchet the energy up and up and up. When Barbara finally fights her bedazzled impersonator, it might be meant as a commentary on our fame-obsessed consumer culture. But it feels more like a direct appeal to the Katy-Keene-reading me that was about eleven years old and didn’t yet have a fully formed frontal lobe. I’m okay with that. Batgirl gets itself in trouble when it tries to sell itself as being more progressive and more meaningful than it really is. Then things go bad, like at the end of Batgirl #37 when Barbara’s crooked impostor turns out to be a man and everybody laughs at how pitiful he is.

The new Batgirl team set itself up by presenting itself as progressive-leaning, both in interviews and with some of its aesthetic and editorial choices. They gave Barbara a new, non-exploitative crime-fighting costume with flat boots and practical body-coverage. They gave her new, diverse friends, such as a bisexual woman of color who sometimes needs braces to walk, and a sassy girl in hijab. That’s great, but three issues in, it still feels like those types of decisions were breezily checked off a list by the writers. It often feels like the writers are batting around theme-like objects, but not exploring actual themes. We have been told that Barbara uses her brains to fight crime, but we see her getting all dolled up as online bait. We are told some of the characters might have reasons to feel marginalized, but all we see are normal, beautiful, hyper-stylish girls who travel in a pack. When the protagonists seem to sit so pretty, it signals to me that we are supposed to aspire to be them, not identify with them. And what exactly are we aspiring to that we shouldn’t already be able to see through? Meanwhile, the villain is clumsily painted to be a real transgressive weirdo with obvious weirdo ways: a mawkish, sneering, pathetic man who dresses up as a woman.

On Saturday, the creative team publicly apologized for offending people with their treatment of the transvestite villain in Batgirl #37. The “queering the villain” incident wasn’t a mis-step to apologize for and move on from though, it was a symptom. In the context of this book, inviting people to laugh along with the protagonist at a transvestite made sense. Making fun of transvestites and transgender people is still accepted in our culture, and this Batgirl run is mainstream and uncritical. It can be enjoyed for the brightness of Babs Tarr’s work, or treated like a nostalgic pleasure. But if it is smart, it’s smart like advertising. There’s a lot of grown-up talent on this book’s new creative team, but they are only playing at making Batgirl an ode to girl power.

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