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Review: ‘Shadow of The Batgirl’

Shadow of The Batgirl
Writer: Sarah Kuhn
Artist: Nicole Goux
DC Comics; $16.99

When it comes to coming-of-age, there are few pop culture metaphors more potent than that of the superhero origin story, bristling as it is with questions of change, identity and one’s place in the world, while the genre trappings provide an intensity to match that of adolescent emotions. Sarah Kuhn and Nicole Goux’s Shadow of The Batgirl is a pretty perfect example of this, as their graphic novel re-tells the story of Batgirl Cassandra Cain as a focused exploration of a young person’s struggle for self-determination.

It’s also a fun, funny, action-packed superhero melodrama with cool, quirky art giving one of DC Comics’ more compelling 21st century characters a healthy dose of the spotlight that she’s been missing for a long time now. Fans of the character should love it, and likely be surprised at how faithfully it re-tells the original version of the character’s story for a new generation. Other readers will likely be fans of the character before they get too many pages in.

Cassandra Cain was first introduced in 1999 by creators Kelley Puckett and Damion Scott, part of a years-long corrective trend at DC Comics in which the sidekicks who were deemed too unrealistic and too childish in the grimmer and grittier 1980s were gradually returning in new versions. After a brief role in a big epic crossover story line, Cassandra became the new Batgirl, adopting the superhero role that had previously belonged to the librarian-turned-vigilante Barbara Gordon from 1967-1988, when a spinal injury ended her career of running around rooftops (if not her ability to fight crime). She also got her very own Batgirl ongoing series, something Barbara had never earned, which lasted for six years and 73-issues.

Cassandra was different than her predecessor in several ways, and not just her striking, scary, all-black costume full of sharp, pointy angles. Cassandra was Asian, a first for a major character in the Batman comics. She was also illiterate and practically mute, having been raised from birth by a master assassin so that fighting was her only real language. Oh, and she was also a master assassin herself, one of the world’s greatest fighters by the time she was a teenager, and, unlike anyone else Batman worked with, she was an actual killer, having taken a life once when she was very young.

In her series, she struggled to atone for her past killing by saving lives, and Batman and Barbara Gordon, who had by then assumed the role of behind-the-scenes, behind-the-screens vigilante commander Oracle, each played different kinds of surrogate parents to her, while her actual, birth parents would occasionally resurface to menace them all.

Almost 15 years later, that’s also Kuhn and Goux’s basic story, but told quite differently and, remarkably, done so without getting bogged down in all the continuity attendant in monthly comics. Heck, they even manage to tell the story of a brand-new Batgirl without even once mentioning Batman, which is really quite a feat.

Shadow of The Batgirl opens with teenage assassin Cassandra Cain about to finish off an assigned target, but sparing him when she hears him say he has a daughter, “daughter” being one of the few words she really knows. She decides to flee from father David Cain’s group of assassins, finding shelter first at a local noodle shop run by Jackie, a new character (“I really wanted her to have an Asian lady mentor!” Kuhn writes in her introduction) and then at the Gotham Public Library, where the relative quiet is a welcome relief to her overwhelmed senses. It’s there she first hears of former Gotham City champion Batgirl, in stories told by the children’s librarian Barbara Gordon, who seems to know an awful lot about Batgirl.

With nowhere else to go, Cassandra essentially secretly moves into the library, where her ninja skills make her something of a library ghost, or perhaps a mouse (which is how Jackie refers to her), gradually learning to read, learning about the original Batgirl and extremely gradually befriending Jackie, Barbara and a cute teenage boy who works at the library (another new character). She lives off free meals from the noodle shop and dresses in clothes scrounged from the library’s lost and found and Jackie’s loud hand-me-downs.

Cass’ weird street kid chic is one of the many particularly joyful visual running gags of  Shadow of The Batgirl, and it reaches its apotheosis when she is finally inspired to become the hero she was looking for. After an intense two-page, 50-panel sequence in which she designs her costume, which if finally revealed on a full-page splash to consist of a floral-patterned cape, a hoodie with bat-ears awkwardly sewn into it and a mask, looking like nothing so much as a gangly kid playing superhero with what she found around the house.

And play superhero she does, acting as the public library’s very own vigilante, but eventually things get serious when her former fellow assassins begin to close in on her and threaten her new neighborhood and friends, and she is forced to face her father  in a battle that puts her in an ultimate test of who she will ultimately be: A killer, who takes the lives of her enemies as she was trained, or a hero who spares them, as she decided to be.

Goux’s Batgirl looks little like any previous version of the character, and not simply because the floral-printed cape. Like most of DC’s original graphic novels for YA readers and kids, this is drawn in a style far closer to what might be considered a true mainstream comic than what is considered mainstream among super-comics.

Goux has a clean line style of stripped-down character design, and she quite expertly dials the abstraction of the characters’ faces up and down to reflect emotion, with Cassandra’s face sometimes taking on an almost emoji-like simplicity for gags, and bits of manga’s visual vocabulary occasionally apparent.

It might seem strange considering this is a book about a trained assassin escaping a cult-like upbringing and trying to not be that anymore, but it’s actually a really funny book, with much of the humor coming from Cassandra’s extreme awkward-to-the-point-of-alien interactions with others, and her strange reactions to commonplace objects and events.

Though the cover is quite moody—that’s Cassandra’s final Batgirl costume, not her first-draft homemade one, by the way—featuring the cooler colors normally associated with bat-characters, colorist Cris Peter gives Goux’s interior art a more riotous palette more in keeping with its energy. 

In assassin mode, Cassandra wear black and blue and is often in crosshatched shadows, but Gotham City itself is louder and warmer, even her safe space in the library, with lots of pink, orange, purple and pale green. As she opens up, Cassandra gets more colorful, too, spending more time in the more garish spaces than the bluer shadows.

In the pages of DC’s current, monthly comics book series, a younger Barbara Gordon is once again the official Batgirl (and the star of the her own monthly book), while Cassandra has been given a new code name, origin and costume. 

Fans can and will argue over which Batgirl is the better Batgirl, as comic fans are wont to do, and Shadow of The Batgirl should give those who come down on Team Cassandra a pretty powerful bit of evidence to cite. After all, regardless of which Batgirl is the best Batgirl, Shadow of The Batgirl is definitely  one of the better Batgirl comics ever published. 

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J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

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