Batgirl #50 came out this month, marking the end of the stellar Babs Tarr/Brenden Fletcher/Cameron Stewart run. This is the run that brought us to Burnside, that introduced us to Frankie Charles (who, no matter what DC says, will always be Oracle to me), and whose new look for one of Gotham’s iconic heroes brought so many new female readers to comics.
As much as I wish the trio had gotten to stay on this book for longer, I’ll follow the Burnside creative team to all their future projects and personally cannot wait for their recently announced Image collaboration Motor Crush, set to come out this December.
Looking back on this stellar run, my focus goes to what I feel is the core of the three trades’ worth of story – and why that last cover is so special.
A lot of the talk around the first Burnside arc was that it was about Barbara getting caught up in social media – that she gets so focused on being the area’s cool new hero and she loses herself. Personally, I found that interpretation to be a bit misleading and even harsh towards our protagonist. After all, that summary of #35-40 makes her out to be someone who shirks her responsibilities as a heroine, which simply doesn’t happen in the arc. If anything, she’s saving even more people on a one-on-one level in Burnside than she did in the main part of Gotham. Social media (and yes, even taking selfies with her fans) isn’t the problem.
Barbara’s problem in that first arc, as I see it, is her lack of a support system. She started a brand new chapter in her life in a new area of town, she’s trying her best to balance school and being Batgirl and meeting new people and maybe even going on dates, but has no one to give her emotional support in the ways she needs it. After all, the only person in Burnside who knows she’s both Barbara Gordon and Batgirl is Dinah … and they’re not on good speaking terms.
A part of Barbara as a character is that she’s incredibly driven and when she believes in something, she puts everything into it. That’s part of what makes her an amazing hero (and can be seen both in this canon and in her role as Oracle in the old canon), but it also means that she is incredibly stubborn, even headstrong. When she gets too focused on the mission at hand, especially when she doesn’t have that support system in place giving her a frame of reference, things go badly.
That’s what happens in #38, when she goes after local reality star Jordan Barberi for his reckless street racing. She hears things about Barberi from friends, but those friends don’t know she’s Batgirl. Without the support from friends who know she’s Batgirl (who could give her actual advice on what she’s planning to do to stop this guy), Barbara keeps on those mental blinders on to everything but her mission of the night. Her choices that issue have consequences, and having no one to talk to about her Batgirl mistakes makes the next issue that much harder for Babs as things fall apart around her.
This sense of single-mindedness to the point of self-destruction is especially clear in Batgirl’s Secret Origins issue (which was released in between Batgirl #39 and 40). A flashback to the time right after Barbara’s injury, we see the beginning of her friendship with Frankie and also the beginning of her putting together the algorithm that was just revealed in #39 to be the antagonist making Barbara’s life hell. The second half of the origin issue highlights how singularly focused Barbara becomes on a goal, even one that’s a bad idea. She’s bitter and frustrated and is turning inward more and more, culminating in her starting to create the algorithm that would cause her so many problems later on. Frankie recognizes that Babs is in a bad headspace (and that her new project looks dangerous) and tries to get through to her friend, but Frankie still only knows some of the context of what Babs is doing.
It goes back to a lack of comprehensive support in Barbara’s life, a situation partially of her own doing whether she realizes it or not. So it’s no surprise that the reason the day’s saved in issue #40 is in large part thanks to Barbara finally reconciling with Dinah and Frankie learning that her roommate is Batgirl. Both of her friends rise to the occasion and work with her to take down the algorithm’s drones … and the algorithm itself. It’s also no surprise when the epilogue of #40, with Frankie and Dinah by her side, shows Barbara the most relaxed and happy she’s been since moving to Burnside.
It was in Batgirl #40 that the book opened up to me. Suddenly, Barbara finally had that support system again. Yes, Dinah was on the road, but she still showed up to help Babs out along the way (including showing up to play Alysia’s wedding). Over the course of the last year of comics, we also got to see Barbara herself reach out to younger women — specifically, Steph as Spoiler and the duo of Maps and Olive in the Batgirl Annual #3. Other creative teams had Babs mentoring younger heroes, too; Babs makes an appearance in We Are Robin #4 to lend a hand to Riko and she teams back up with the whole street-level Robin crew and gives all of them encouragement in Batman and Robin Eternal. And don’t forget Barbara throwing herself into the bridesmaid role for Alysia. A good chunk of the 2nd arc has her giving her old roommate the emotional support she needed to get through the wedding plans and being there for the happiest day of Alysia’s life (and also helping Alysia save Jo from man-eating tigers because Gotham City, everyone!).
But more than anyone, it’s Frankie that changes everything for Barbara in issues 40-50. She is Barbara’s conscience, her sounding board, and the person who snaps her out of her own head. Like the best kinds of friends do, Frankie stood her ground and challenged Barbara’s preconceived notions throughout the arc after the algorithm. Ultimately, it’s Frankie who boldly dives into Barbara’s subconscious to rescue her mind when a memory tampering villain attacks.
By the time Barbara has realized who has been messing with her brain, she’s standing in front of a ragtag group of ladies in the form of Frankie, Dinah, Steph, and Harper Row. They’re ready to help, and she knows she can’t stop the villain (and his own group of her former bad guys) on her own. There’s no pride lost when Barbara asks her friends for help saving Burnside, and they are happy to oblige.
Issue #50 (which features this big team-up between the heroines) has a cover that couldn’t be more fitting. Babs Tarr recreated Cameron Stewart’s original #35 selfie cover, replacing the various girls around Barbara with the heroines who stand by her in issue 50. In #35’s cover, Barbara looks like she’s having fun, carefree to be sure, but more posey, with various strangers around her doing their make-up in the restroom mirror — back in #35, Babs was trying to fit in among strangers and get her new life started in a very different part of the city, so the cover reflects that.
Issue 50’s cover changes all that. Babs isn’t posing next to strangers. She’s taking a picture with her friends. With her peers. Barbara Gordon looks at the camera dead on as if to say “Yeah, this is my crew.” The confidence is just radiating off of her as she stands among her fellow heroines. Look how far the Batgirl of Burnside has come. I can’t think of a better cover to end the Fletcher/Stewart/Tarr run with.
But come to an end it has. After two issues with Fletcher as the sole writer (using #51 and 52 as an epilogue of sorts before Rebirth) writer Hope Larson will be taking the book in a new direction with Barbara taking a trip overseas (although she has noted on Twitter that she has plans for both Frankie and Alysia). Still, I don’t see Barbara’s new chapter taking away from what I’ve gotten to enjoy over the last year and a half. Anyone picking up the three trades of this Batgirl run can expect the story of a woman learning to trust her friends and becoming a better hero along the way — a story with a wonderful, smile-worthy ending.