I came across this graphic novel (originally published serially from Feb – Oct 2003) tangentially. I was reading up on Lauren Montgomery, who is really the first animation director I’ve followed since Bruce Timm (and, to no ones surprise, they were frequent collaborators recently) and I found out that before she left Warner Premiere she was advocating for a Batgirl Year One movie to be made. Intrigued, I decided to check the comic out.
I’m only somewhat aware of Batman Year One, which is a seminal story by Frank Miller (and which was recently adapted by Warner Premiere) but I’ve never read it. I know that it heavily influenced later works and especially the Batman Begins movie by Christopher Nolan. From what I’ve seen, it’s a very down to earth, gritty take on Batman’s first, sidekick-less days. It establishes those powerful crime bosses that Batman first tackles, it shows how he comes up with his costume and his gadgets, it shows his beginning relationship with Gordon.
In many ways, it exposes Batman’s psyche, to explain exactly how much of Bruce Wayne’s life has been done before the monolithic gravestone of his parent’s death. This is a recurring theme in the Batman world, where tragedy spurs one on to greatness and they bolster themselves on the reminder of that loss where others might falter. It’s a great story of overcoming personal tragedy with boundless determination. The Robins all ended up this way. Many other DC heroes end up this way. In fact, people have commented that the DC universe is arguably a much more optimistic universe than Marvel because of the prevalence of characters who rise above human failures to inspire greatness. Oracle, the character that Barbara Gordon would become, also rose from personal tragedy to find greatness.
But not Batgirl, and in fact, never Batgirl. That’s important, and it’s a little shocking that she doesn’t get much more attention. The Batgirl legacy, from Barbara Gordon, to Helena Bertinelli, to Cassandra Cain, to Stephanie Brown, has always been one of pursuit of a higher ideal for the sake of that ideal. Gordon looked up to Batman and yearned for a way to use her talents for good. Bertinelli, during her very brief time as Batgirl during Cataclysm dons the costume because Batman is absent and she recognizes that the presence of a Bat-personality helps deter crime. Cain does have a troubled history, but she takes on the costume because she wants to help the people who helped her, and Batman grants her the opportunity. Finally Brown, the last Batgirl before the reboot, just reading her first issue makes it clear that she’s there because she loves it, because she wants to make a difference where others can’t.
There is something rose colored about Batgirl, and strangely, without anyone drawing attention to it, it has persisted for many years. Batgirl Year One brings that into slightly sharper focus and I think it does a great job.
The comic begins with Barbara trying to become a hero because of how much Batman has made a difference in her father’s life. She seeks out the JSA but is rebuffed and eventually decides she doesn’t need someone’s approval to become a hero and goes off on her own. The parallels between Bruce Wayne’s start and Barbara’s start are close, but with the key difference being motive. Batman is about vengeance for a crime that cannot be fixed. But Batgirl is about the joy of achievement, to know that you have a skill and it can be used successfully. It’s a huge difference, and it’s so much more positive a tone than Batman’s grim declarations.
Batgirl: Year One proceeds along well, with good writing and art that is pleasing to the eye. There are a few oddities with the jumping back and forth in time that bothered me, leaving me confused with no perceived advantage to the state. A linear telling could easily have been just as effective. But overall, it’s enjoyable, interactions are well crafted, dialog flows well, and ultimately becomes easily to recommend. Anyone who might want a more positive look on the war on crime should take a look. It’s worth the effort.