Batgirl: Year One (2003)
by Scott Beatty, Chuck Dixon, Marcos Martin, & Alvaro Lopez

Though Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns is heralded as the groundbreaking comic that ushered in the new "serious" era of Batman (which was quickly returned to pure camp by the increasingly shitty film franchise), it was his Batman: Year One that actually made Gotham City a cool place to be again. Year One retold the tale of Bruce Wayne's earliest crimefighting days, when he was still wet under the ears and capable of mistakes. It showed, better than ever before, Batman's human side.

In the 15 or so years since that series, the "Year One" concept has turned (like every successful comic innovation) into more of a marketing conceit than a prospect for breaking new ground. Superhero origin stories are now typically turned out to coincide with a movie opening, or to cash in on a current trend in those rare events when a character suddenly gains cultural caché.

Robin: Year One came out a little while ago, and showed some real inspiration, delving into the boy wonder's early days as a sidekick with unusually appealing art and engaging writing that, for once, didn't at all seem like the usual comic churn. It was nothing short of a reinvention, as Batman: Year One had been, of a classic character, allowing for a fresh appreciation instead of banking on comic world in-jokes for the diehards. As good as it was, though, there was one central problem: Robin sucks, unless you're supergay.

It was the best possible book for a pretty lame character. Now, the same writers bring us Batgirl: Year One, which seems like it would be a cash-in on the Robin series, but actually takes "Year One" to its full potential. They've taken an under-explored character and fleshed her out with incredible imagination, sensitivity, and flair to create possibly the best origin comic ever made.

It helps that Batgirl has less baggage than Batman or Robin, who have both been through so many incarnations that they are inevitably kind of hoary. Batgirl's history has been confused from the beginning, with no writers or artists apparently able to figure out what the hell to do with her. Is she supposed to be funny? Cool? Tragic? Sexy? Annoying?

Batgirl has been all these things, from an irritating superhero wannabe to a "girl power" capitulation whenever DC has felt the need to pander to its marginal female audience. The current Batgirl is a tough-yet-emotional teen martial artist with a dark background, while the original Batgirl, Barbara Gordon, adopted daughter of Commissioner James Gordon, is now Oracle, the wheelchair-bound computer genius who provides Batman and Co. with crucial info upon demand. She was crippled in Batman: The Killing Joke, in one of the most unexpected, horrific, and permanent developments ever to befall a comic character.

Barbara Gordon as Oracle is emblematic of DC's increasingly genuine diversification of its character base. She's beautiful, uberintelligent, and multidimensional in ways that women superheroes have rarely been, much less disabled people in comics. Her popularity (she's part of the Birds of Prey coven) is evidence that once DC allowed her to actually be a full-fledged character (as opposed to the one-note "girl" stereotype she was previously), people saw immediately that this girl was cool.

Year One traces Batgirl's transformation from shy and nerdy computer geek to bold, sassy, and brave self-proclaimed superhero, with some help from more seasoned veterans of the costumed crime-fighting trade (Batman, Robin, Black Canary). She takes on some lower-level villains (the almost-slightly-fearsome Killer Moth) and solves some mysteries with a Nancy Drew panache that is refreshing to see in a Batman-related book.

The art is vibrant, full of movement, brilliantly colored, and most of all, seriously f'n fun. A real pleasure to read, which is rare in the comics world. The writing is simultaneously hip and campy, providing the typically contrived, stock comic-book character development with a flair that allows you to just come along for the ride. It's a stunner of a book, at various points devilishly clever, eye-battingly flirtatious, laugh-out-loud funny, heart-tuggingly emotional, and most of all, grand.

A puppy-love romance with Robin is toyed with as charmingly as can be, fortunately winking a bit so as not to make you think they think it's cool to show teenagers having the hots for each other. It's not cool; it wasn't when you were one of those teens, and it certainly ain't when these arecartoon teens. But it's honest.

The collected paperback edition even includes the amazing cover art from the original comic series. It's a brilliant testament to an underrated character, the portrait of a superheroine in her fledgling prime.

Barbara Gordon today is more of a "survivor" character, living every day the getting-over of the life-altering events that left her in a wheelchair. She's still pretty cool, but admittedly, wheelchair-chic went out with Christopher Reeve. Batgirl: Year One offers up the Barbara Gordon we admire and want to finger.

Review by Monger C. Jurisprudence