“Beyond Burnside Part 1”
Writer: Hope Larson
Artist: Rafael Albuquerque
Colorist: Dave McCaig
As I noted in my thoughts on Batgirl and the Birds of Prey Rebirth #1 last week, Batgirl is one of the characters who was most impacted by the New 52 continuity shift five years ago, and writers spent most of the New 52 trying to find stories to tell with her. It proved to be surprisingly difficult to do since Oracle was such a large part of her history that just no longer existed, and a fair amount of character growth that she had experienced in the 90s and early 2000s disappeared along with it. It was only near the end when she took the path traveled previously by her ex-boyfriend Nightwing and departed Gotham for the city of Burnside, which turned out to be an excellent creative decision. She developed an identity separate from Batman, and her (lack of) history as Oracle, and some darn fine stories came out of that.
However, with the passing of the New 52 it is apparently time for Babs to move on yet again in search of new adventures. Oracle is part of her history again, although that aspect will be explored in more depth in Batgirl and the Birds of Prey, and thus Burnside is no longer entirely necessary. Certainly DC could have stretched it out a bit further and gotten more good stories out of it, but Rebirth is about new beginnings so off to Asia Batgirl goes, and a new creative team comes along for the journey.
The beginning of this new travel story takes place in Japan with Barbara hunting for a masked vigilante named “Fruit Bat” from the late 30s and 40s who fought crime, presumably because most of the men were off at war. She isn’t a particularly hard person to find since she unmasked herself in the 80s and her current location is just a Google search away. As it turns out she still has her moves intact, despite being over 100 years old, and takes down an unnamed villain who looks to be about 20 without any problems. That is pretty impressive given that this villain was holding her own against Batgirl. As a result Babs asks to be mentored by her, but she is instead directed to be taught elsewhere.
The parts with Fruit Bat are the strong sections of the book, and they kept it entertaining for the most part. However, the majority of the book is given over to Babs reuniting with an old Chinese friend named Kai, who ends up being her roommate at the hostel she is staying at. There is certainly a large amount of coincidence involved with her randomly running into a Chinese boy she knows while in Japan, and, even though it is clearly indicated by the end of the issue that there is more going on with Kai than it at first seems, it is hard to get past that. Their actual interactions are fine, and it is nice to see they don’t seem to be going down the path of “budding romance”, but it feels like there is more focus put on them than there should be at this point. Unlike some other books I have been following so far this one is on a monthly schedule, so taking a slower storytelling approach may work against it in the long run. We will have to wait and see how it pans out, though.
For both better and worse this book feels like a bit of a throwback to the 90s. It is clearly a loving throwback and tends to capture the more positive qualities of the time, but there is an over-reliance on coincidence and things happening without much explanation. I do have to admit that I am happy to see thought bubbles making a return, although they are only used sparingly and in places where they make sense. It seems to be such a silly thing to miss in comics, but I always felt they were better at giving insight into characters’ motivations and desires than the caption boxes that have dominated the past decade or so. On the flipside, this book has taken one of my least favorite tics — having characters say things that make our hero believe one of their major secrets has been discovered, only to reveal they were talking about something else entirely — and sprinkled it through the book a few times. I hope that one fades away again, and quickly.
A major strength for this book is the characters in it. I still stand by my earlier thought that it focuses a bit too much on Kai in the early phases, but even with that in mind it is easy to see that most of that is in service to building his story up. In addition to Kai we get Fruit Bat, who only has a few lines but is highly entertaining regardless, her son (I think), who reveals himself to be an ungrateful jerk in just a few quick panels, and the mysterious villain Batgirl and Fruit Bat fight. The latter is the least developed — we don’t even know her name — but we get enough of her to at least get started.
Another strong point for the book is the art from Rafael Albuquerque and Dave McCaig, who seem to be going for a simple, but expressive style. Character expressions, in particular, are worthy of note and the action is easy to follow. There is a distressing lack of backgrounds throughout the book and that does have to count against it. To be honest, though, if that is the price for getting some great character pieces than I will accept that, but it would definitely benefit from some more background detail (and, no, filling the background with random dots doesn’t count).
On the whole I rather enjoyed this book, and I quite like Hope Larson’s take on Batgirl at the moment. The strong points of the book outweigh the weaker parts, but there are still things I’ll be keeping an eye on as this series moves forward. This was not exactly the book I was expecting when I picked it up this week, but it has turned out okay so far.