[GUEST POST] Abhinav Jain Reviews “Batgirl Vol. 2: Knightfall Descends” from DC Comics’ New 52

Previously, I reviewed Gail Simone’s first volume for the rebooted Batgirl series, The Darkest Reflection, which is a part of DC’s New 52 initiative. In the review, I mentioned my appreciation of Gail Simone’s writing, and how the series was off to a great start, and how I was looking forward to the next volume, which we now know is called Knightfall Descends.

The question at such a point, of course, is whether the second volume can match the first volume, and whether it can exceed expectations.

The answer for me was yes. In Knightfall Descends Gail Simone introduces more villains into the mix and gives the reader a better understanding of Batgirl/Barbara Gordon’s new world, and how she fits into everything.

There are four distinct stories in this volume, which collects the special #0 issue, as well as #7-13 of the ongoing series.

The special Zero issue is one of the best such issues I’ve read from the New 52 setting, the others being Duane Swierczynski’s Birds of Prey #0, James Robinson’s Earth 2 #0, and Justin Jordan’s Team 7 #0. In this particular tale, we get to see how Barbara Gordon became Batgirl, how she met Batman, and what her motivations were for becoming a crime-fighter. Gail portrays Barbara as a super-smart kid who is interested in mysteries and has a penchant for anything related to the Dark Knight. The fact that her father, Commissioner Jim Gordon, is also a hero in his right and has had dealings with him, are a great bonus on top of everything. Pretending that she needs to write a paper for her college criminology course and needs some inside procedural info, she convinces her dad to let her tour the precinct. However, things never work out as intended and soon she is battling for her life, and ends up wearing a “Batman” suit that the SWAT team put together for the purposes of instructing all officers on just who and what Batman is.

What I loved was the angle that Gail Simone took with the character. There is quite a bit of hero worship involved, but I see it as “active and positive” hero worship; the kind that benefits, rather than devolves into an unhealthy obsession. The meeting between Batman and Batgirl is quite charged with anticipation, and a little fear as well since Barbara was impersonating the big guy. The smart and cocky Barbara from The Darkest Reflection is back here, but is also marked with a certain naivet√© since she’s still “young” and inexperienced. And ultimately, that’s the kind of treatment I wanted for a character who is one of the smartest and most intelligent heroes in the DC universe, almost a match for the Dark Knight himself, who is often called the Greatest Detective in the world.

Ed Benes has the pencilling & inking duties for this issue, and he shares the art credit with colourist Ulises Arreola and letterer Dave Sharpe. Together, they’ve contributed to making the issue visually stand-out, and the style matches pretty closely with what can be found in the previous 12 issues of the series. The last page of the issue is definitely the high-point of the issue, because of how the artists have interpreted Gail’s intentions for that page, and the characters who feature in it. Perhaps this can be a clue for you to figure out who one of these characters could be:

“But that’s the thing. The terrible truth. *knock, knock, knock*. Sometimes, the darkness finds you.”

Then we have a 2-issue arc, #7 and #8, in which Barbara/Batgirl both have to confront one of the most emotional moments of their past, in a very unexpected way. The main element of the arc is, of course, Batgirl’s continuing struggle against letting her past be the past and move on. But this is also a story about acceptance and family.

As we saw towards the end of Darkest Reflection, Barbara’s mother returns to Gotham after nine years, having unexpectedly left the Gordon family and Barbara is conflicted about her feelings for her mother. Things are at the point where her own performance as Batgirl is suffering and so she goes to Dinah Lance (a.k.a. Black Canary) for some help. The heart-to-heart between the two women is quite touching but is exceptional in that there is no coddling or sappy emotional dialogue. Black Canary’s lesson is that Barbara should accept what she has, and appreciate it, because there are people out there who do not have the luxuries she does, having recovered from a crippling injury and finding out that her mother is alive and back. This is a very relevant topic even in real life because a lot of the time we take things for granted and don’t appreciate what we have.

It all goes towards making Barbara and Batgirl characters with a very strong human side to them. Batman is always the solid rock, the one who takes things head-on and pushes through to a victory. As his former sidekick and a hero on her own, Batgirl presents a side to the Bat-family that is not often seen. Her tragedy has left her scarred and struggling with the consequences, repercussions and fallouts of that tragedy — all of which Simone uses to get across the concept that Barbara and Batgirl are just as human as any one of us. Kudos.

That bit of a sidebar aside, the two-story arc focuses on a new villain in town, Grotesque, who is going around robbing and killing all over Gotham. Initially, I was rather put off that Grotesque was a bogeyman character of sorts and that he wasn’t used to his full potential. His character was rather flat, and he himself doesn’t add much to the arc at all. However, after giving it quite a bit of thought, I realised that he was just the vehicle for Simone to bring out the “true” villain in the arc, the one man who connects Batgirl’s present with Barbara’s past, the tragedy that left her paralysed and wheel-chair bound for years. I still think that Simone could have and should have made more of Grotesque himself, but to be honest, that’s really the only negative thing about the arc.

Pencilling duties for these two issues are split between Ardian Syaf and Alithia Martinez, with Vicente Cifuentes joining them for the #8 issue. Once again, the art is one of the best things about this series. Both Vicente and Ardian are exception artists, and their work is damn good here as well. Vicente also teams up with Alithia and Ulises Arreola for colour/ink duties for these two issues. Together, with the pencils, if I have any negative comment about these two issues, it is that Barbara and Barbara, Sr. both look almost exactly the same, with very minor differences. It is only the dialogue that helps tell who is whom here, but otherwise, the panels with both of them involved are very confusing visually. In the panels with Jim Gordon and Barbara, Sr. it is the former who appears to have had some odd facial designs. Instead of a long-ish and broad face, Gordon looks like he just has a short broad face, almost fat. That was awkward. Otherwise, great job on the art!

Issue #9 is the “Night of the Owls” crossover issue, tying in with the events of the main Batman series in which Scott Snyder introduced a brand-new villainous organisation that has been part of Gotham’s history for several decades. While I’ve enjoyed these crossover issues in other series, like Kyle Higgins’ Nightwing and Duane Swierczynski’s Birds of Prey, I can’t say the same here. The reason is that while in other series the issues were very self-contained for the main part, such is not the case in Batgirl. The issue ends rather abruptly, and pretty much necessitates that the reader go back to the main Batman series to read the corresponding issues.

The issue ties together some nice World War II-era Japanese attack strategies with Gotham’s past, and it is great to see all that come together. Although I confess that I am a bit jaded with the Court of Owls’ recruitment policies by now, and that I did not enjoy that particular relationship here. It seemed a bit forced. Nevertheless, Gail Simone still manages to tell a great story and also manages to put Batgirl in truly mortal danger for the first time in the series. And Jim Gordon as well, as far as this series is concerned, since in Batman, Gordon gets quite a bit of a harsh treatment from Joker. Most of the villains in Batgirl so far have been somewhat tame, minus Mirror, so it was nice to see Batgirl go up against a character who can well and truly kill her, instead of just toying with her.

The art team (Syaf, Cifuentes, Arreola, and Sharpe) continues the great form that it has been enjoying so far, and they turn out another great issue for the series. Despite being in love with the gothic splendour that Greg Capullo has been showing off in the Batman title, it does grate a bit now and then, which is why seeing the bright and colourful take from Cifuentes and Arreola is so welcome here. Their approach directly matches up with Simone’s take on Batgirl; a subtle connection is handled extremely well.

There is a Batgirl Annual issue that ties in with the events in this issue that matches Batgirl with Catwoman — I think is definitely one of the stand-out issues of the series. It is not part of this hardcover collection, so I will get to that some point in the future. But if you like this one-issue here, then I would definitely recommend getting that as well.

Finally, we have the 4-issue arc with the main villain of the collection: Knightfall. This is the issue that really brings home Batgirl’s “soft” approach to villains, especially the small-time crooks. This arc sees Batgirl teaming up with Detective McKenna and Batwoman, characters about whom I know very little, especially in the case of the latter, who I didn’t even know existed until I got back into comics last year. Haven’t read any of her issues as yet, but I’m looking forward to doing it sometime later this year.

Anyways, back to the story. There is a new group (again) of villains in Gotham: The Disgraced, led by a mysterious figure known only as Knightfall. That name tripped me up at first, since it is also the name of one of the most famous arcs in the Bat-verse, one in which Bane, one of Batman’s rogues gallery, breaks the Dark Knight’s back (this is referenced in the third and final Batman movie by Christopher Nolan). It was…weird, but once I got past that hiccup, I really liked the arc. Knightfall’s agenda is to make Gotham safe not by turning in criminals to the police, but to kill them instead, to make them suffer as they make others suffer. And it does not matter whether the criminal is a bank robber or a street thug, they all get the same punishment in the end: a violent death. This all obviously flies against what Batgirl believes in, and what Batman himself believes in. They are not killers; they don’t want to kill criminals. Knightfall attempts to bring Batgirl into the fold, but it all goes south, which is when Detective McKenna and Batwoman step in.

Overall, in terms of the writing, this 4-issue arc is the darkest in the series as yet. Batgirl has to go up against some really insane baddies and her morality and beliefs are challenged to a level that we haven’t seen in the 9 issues until now (the zero issue is essentially the thirteenth in the series, by publication date). I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from this arc, from the issue blurbs on DC’s website, and I was pleasantly surprised with my reading experience. Gail Simone is on top form here, and it is quite obvious that she has finally hit her stride with the series, and that she is now very comfortable with the New 52 incarnation of Batgirl/Barbara Gordon. Her writing is natural, the dialogues are almost always on point, and there is never a slump in the narrative, even when there is no actual physical action going on. That’s not to say however that the arc lacks any action; in fact, there is a lot of it going around since Knightfall’s team includes three super-powered sidekicks.

Where Simone truly shines here is in showing how just how crazy and insane Knightfall, and Knightfall’s alter ego, truly is. In the interest of revenge and curing the city of ills, Knightfall has taken some harsh steps, and Simone never flinches from showing off the full effect of these actions.

This is where the art team steps in to support Simone’s near-excellent script. There are a host of changes in the art team over the course of the 4 issues. Alithia Martinez, Ardian Syaf, and Ed Benes take turns for the interior art, with Syaf handling the middle 2 issues. There are some subtle changes in the art styles for the arc when the penciller changes, but nothing too big. It is in fact a great thing that despite it all, the art for the arc is strongly consistent. Nothing radical. The same goes for the inks and colours, although I found Ed Benes’ inks (complimented by Cifuentes’ colours) for #13 to have a bit of a departure from the rest of the arc, especially in the first pages.

As I’ve already said however, Batgirl still remains one of the best-drawn, best-coloured, and best-inked series for New 52, maintaining an overall consistency that began all the way in the first issue of the book.

The final issue of the collection, #13, ends on a big bang as Gail Simone ties the series superbly into the upcoming “Death of the Family” crossover, in which Joker returns to Gotham for another big caper against Batman. There is one particular panel that echoes The Killing Joke, the big event in the climax of which Barbara Gordon was paralysed and reduced to going everywhere in a wheelchair. That was a downright spooky panel.

Having read quite a few issues of the crossover across multiple series at the time of writing this review, I can say with confidence that the Bat-family team has taken things to a whole new level, making these books some of the best that have come out from DC, in my experience.

Overall, as far as Knightfall Descends is concerned, this is another excellent addition to the Batgirl title and the DC universe, so get it and read it with my highest recommendation. I’m well and truly a fan of Batgirl, thanks to Gail Simone, and I’m enjoying every minute of reading this great series from her, and her art team, who have all done some exemplary work here.

RATING:

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