All the writers of the "New 52" comics have been dealing with the challenge of rewriting history within the framework of the universe's new five-year timeline.
For Gail Simone, who's writing the new Batgirl title, that challenge is even greater as she deals with the sensitive subject of Barbara Gordon's seemingly miraculous cure.
Since Batgirl relaunched in September, the book has been slowly revealing evidence about how Barbara's recovery took place. While DC fans saw the transformation from a wheelchair-bound Oracle to the healed Batgirl happened suddenly in September, Simone's story has implied that Batgirl #1 takes place a whole year since her cure.
December's Batgirl #4 revealed that Barbara was a paraplegic for three years, but underwent surgery at a South African clinic after she heard about it from her father, Jim Gordon. That surgery appears to have happened a year ago, and now she's dealing with survivor's guilt because she has been cured when so many others have not.
In the meantime, Batgirl is also rounding out Barbara's DCnU world, including a mysterious roommate, a relaunched relationship with the Bat-family, and the big surprise last month — her mother.Batgirl #5, pg. 1 Barbara also has several new villains to face in coming issue, including someone called Knightfall, who Simone has described in the past of the heroine's arch-villain, but will not talk about in detail yet (despite our prodding).
Batgirl will also be participating in May's Batman event, "The Night of the Owls," which spins out of the pages of Batman and touches several other Bat-family comics.
This week's Batgirl #5 is sure to reveal more about what's coming, and solicitations for March indicate Barbara will be confronted even more directly by the attack that disabled her in The Killing Joke. Newsarama talked with Simone to find out more.
Newsarama: Gail, it's clear from the way you're writing this series that you're keeping new readers in mind. You're even taking time to explain the story situations within each issue. Will we continue to see that type of effort — and why is that important to you in this comic in particular?
Simone: Truthfully, part of it is basic stagecraft, hopefully. One positive aspect of the relaunch is that it's making people reconsider some habits that we had just come to accept from comics over the years — primarily the idea that every story would be in a collection at one point, so there wasn't the same need to present individual issues as enjoyable on their own. I admire the Marvel "What Went Before" pages; we're trying to do something like that, but in story, as painlessly as possible.Batgirl #5, pg. 2 We want to be welcoming. There are already enough obstacles to new readers to make it very daunting. Let's welcome people taking that leap. It's not just new comics readers, it's new superhero readers, new bat-family readers, new DC readers, new Barbara Gordon readers. There are a lot of new eyes on these books.
Nrama: The tone and word choice in Barbara's dialogue (and even her internal monologue) reminds me a lot of the young college-age girls I know, yet she's also got that unique Barbara intellect behind it. Have you started hanging around groups of young women to pick up their lingo, tweaking it for Babs?
Simone: I've been spending a lot of time around college kids right now, which sounds creepy when you put it like that. And there's definitely a freedom to the language. There's tremendous intelligence, but there's also a bit less guardedness than in previous generations — these are the first generations that actually grew up acclimated to Internet social networking. Our language is evolving. Steph did the young people voice perfectly, Barbara is a little more inward still.
Nrama: Barbara still seems very uncertain about a lot of things, from her relationships to her superhero activities. As we go into the fifth issue, what's her state of mind right now?
Simone: A bit wobbly. On the one hand, she's absolutely Barbara Gordon, one of the smartest and toughest women in comics. But this is also catching her at her most unsure of herself, even more so than after the events of the Killing Joke. This is a major life change, and her body and memory have a way of surprising her at the wrong moments. She's young; she's learning what she has to do to assert herself again. She's learning to overcome. She didn't become the Barbara we saw in the pre-relaunch stories overnight.Batgirl #5, pg. 3 It's trauma, she's recovering from the delayed effects of a catastrophic event, something she'd always been able to compartmentalize before. One thing the book is truly about, is that the after-effects of something like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) or other trauma-related syndromes, can strike even very smart, very intellectually tough people, even soldiers and cops. We have seen very little about this in superhero comics, really. People return from the dead, people are tortured, the world is threatened, and the next day, it's as if it was all forgotten.
Many trauma survivors don't have that option. My favorite superhero stories are always about survival. Kicking people in the head is great, but heroism holds to a much higher standard.
Nrama: In the preview we saw for this week's issue, Barbara states that she has felt like a ghost. And we saw in her recent nightmare that her unconscious mind separated Batgirl and Barbara. How does she feel about her identity right now?
Simone: Conflicted. One the one hand, she feels she deserves the title. On the other, she knows she's not yet at peak operating speed. It's going to be very interesting to see her regain her place.
Nrama: We found out in the last issue that she was told by her father about a clinic in South Africa, where she went through a neural implant surgery. Will we learn more about that soon?
Nrama: Are you basing this South African clinic and the surgery on real world medicine?
Simone; Yes, some of the best real world work in the field of mobility rehabilitation is coming from South Africa. People have been talking about this as if it's some sort of mystical thing like returning from the dead, but there are treatments and surgeries that can restore mobility in some cases. Barbara's spine was not severed. That makes her a candidate.
Nrama: Jim Gordon was described as being troubled when he told Barbara about the clinic. Why?
Simone: The issue of restorative treatment is a greatly more complicated one than many people realize. It's not always as simple as, "This treatment may be effective, let's go try it!" There are risks in any surgery or treatment, and not all are purely physical. There's some resistance among PWD (persons with disability) to the idea of "beating" a spinal injury for a number of reasons. It's a process, and furthermore, it's a process that not everyone has access to, or is a candidate for. And each individual handles it differently emotionally.Batgirl #5, pg. 4 Jim being the father he is, and the man he is, he doesn't want Barbara to think she's "broken," or that she needs "fixing." She isn't and she doesn't. So, it's a delicate topic to approach for him. And the risk of failure is high — does he want to put her through that, for uncertain results?
Nrama: You've said before that you want the space to explain how Barbara regained her mobility. Are you comfortable with the space you're being given by editorial? Is there a certain issue or series of issues that will specifically explore it?
Simone: I said when I agreed to do the book that it would have to be a process. Barbara being out of the chair doesn't suddenly paint her world in rainbows. She still suffered a horrendous home invasion. Recovery from massive trauma doesn't happen by page three of book one, not if we're being honest. Editorial has had no problem with that at all. They've been great about letting us show a different side to Barbara's heroism.
Nrama: Nightwing and Batgirl appeared in each other’s comics in November. Having read those issues, are we to understand that the relationship between Barbara Gordon and Richard Grayson has been nothing but flirtation in this revamped universe? Can you describe their relationship for us?
Simone: It's earlier on in their relationship. Like a lot of things in the relaunch, we are seeing it as earlier, without quite so much history. But anyone who knows me will tell you I am a hopeless Babs/Richard 'shipper. I will say that we're not done showing them together. Also, quick shout out to Kyle's Nightwing: I am really enjoying that book, and he was a grand collaborator on our little team-up.
Nrama: What was it like working with Kyle Higgins?
Simone: He was a doll. Working with people like Kyle and Scott Snyder really helps all the books work together more smoothly. The bat-writers as a bunch are absolutely lovely.Batgirl #5, pg. 5 I used to love the little, gentle crossovers between two books. The idea that these characters would just meet sometimes, without making a huge mini-series out of it. I think that's really lovely, one of the key perks of a shared universe.
Nrama: Can you explain all the attention given to Barbara's hair by Nightwing, and the lock she handed to him?
Simone: History shows the guy likes his redheads. Barbara was raised as a reader...the lock of hair is her romantic streak showing through, in the classical sense of the word.
Nrama: And is it just me, or did you avoid using the name "Dick" in that issue?
Simone: I was actually asked to avoid that nickname, because it's routinely been a giggle producer for younger readers for many years. But I guess they decided it wasn't a big deal, and now it's Dick all the time. Oh, my God, what a straight line.
Nrama: You mentioned working with Kyle. Are you continuing to work closely with other Batman writers as you explore Gotham City? And if so, what's that been like, and where will we see that collaboration?
Simone: Yes, absolutely. Seriously, wait until you read this "Night of The Owls" thing we're doing. It's my favorite issue of Batgirl yet, and the brilliant Scott Snyder was the show runner. It's just an amazing piece of Gotham mythology.I enjoy crossovers, as a reader and as a writer. I love fitting those pieces together. When readers complain about them, I think they're complaining about the lousy ones, the inorganic ones, the crossovers that don't reveal anything, that just tick off a checklist of crap events that every crossover seems to have.
This is different. We were all so ridiculously excited to read what Scott had come up with, we couldn't wait to sign on. First big crossover of the relaunched 52, and it's emotional and really jolting. I love it.
Nrama: Babs' roommate, Alysia, was about to tell her a big secret in the last issue — and Barbara bailed on her! Will we find out more about Alysia soon, and does she get some plot attention?
Simone: She gets some major plot attention very soon, and we won't hold off on her "secret" forever, I promise. It's fun. She has a ton of people who love her and some who absolutely hate her guts. She'll get her chance to strut very soon, starting in issue #8.
Nrama: We got a big surprise at the end of issue #4. Barbara's mother being alive in this continuity certainly puts a new twist in her story. What can you tell us about what the relationship means to Barbara now, and what it will mean going forward?
Simone: I can tell you only that this is huge. It redefines Barbara's life, but that's not nearly the end of it. This is going to ripple outward.
Nrama: We also saw a reference to her brother. Are there plans for Barbara to see him?
Simone: James, Jr. is a fascinating character. Can you imagine having those particular two children, what that might be like for James, Sr. and Barbara's mom? One child who is a complete overachieving world-beater, and then one who is as damaged as James, Jr. is?
He's out there, somewhere. And he has some odd ideas about family.
Nrama: Barbara's family tree has been a bit complicated in the past continuity. Is it being simplified? Will we find out more about it — in a clear way — soon?
Simone: Yes, in the next couple of issues, in fact.
Nrama: The next couple issues feature Batman, and it sounds like he's not happy with Barbara's choice to return to crimefighting. What can we expect from their confrontation, and what's motivating his reaction?
Simone: We talked about this a little in Batgirl #3. They're concerned. They're a bit over-protective. But Barbara being Barbara, she doesn't care, she'll make her way.
It's love, it's not condescension. They love her and they worry a bit. With Batman, worrying means acting grim and cranky.
Nrama: There have been many echoes of The Killing Joke in this comic so far, including the use of the funhouse mirrors in the first story arc's final battle. And it looks like issue #7 will explore that event even more. Why is this event continuing to be a prominent part of Barbara's story?
Simone: Most likely because it was the detour of her life, pre-relaunch. It happened at a really lousy time for female characters in comics, where their primary value was as shock elements for revenge fantasies. There was a feeling of expendability to the female characters, a real sense that no female was reading these books anyway, so who cares what we do to these characters?
And it stuck. Because the great Kim Yale and John Ostrander felt it was a misuse of a great character, it stuck in the life of Barbara Gordon. It became almost a second origin for her. But I really feel the redemption of that story came after...the story itself treats Barbara as a prop. People can disagree with me, but there's just no effort in it to treat her as a human being.
So, it's interesting to revisit her most notorious story and show that yes, she WAS a human being, and not simply a victim in someone else's story. Because so little of her is in the story beyond that home invasion aspect, it's almost completely untold from her point of view.
Nrama: Will this Barbara ever have to confront the Joker face-to-face?
Simone: I thought Tony Bedard did a lovely confrontation between them in Birds of Prey, I really enjoyed that. But yeah, a Batgirl/Joker confrontation, that's going to be very interesting.
Nrama: Much of Barbara's internal struggle with survivors’ guilt was reflected in the last villain, Mirror. Will we continue to see villains who confront specific aspects of Barbara's recovery?
Simone: I don't want to strike that gong too often, as it's ear-rattlingly loud, but there are definitely some resonant aspects with her first two new villains.
Nrama: Let's talk about them. What can you tell us about this "man-hating female assassin" Gretel and the threat she represents?
Simone; Just that it's fun to have such a hopelessly impolitic villain in the book, she loves her work a little too much.
Nrama: You've mentioned before that readers will be introduced to an "unbearable snob known as Grotesque." Anything else you can tell us about that villain and why the name fits?
Simone: He's sort of like James Bond without any redeeming qualities whatsoever. A lot of fun to write, but I don't want to give away anymore. And coming up is the baddest Batgirl villain yet: Knightfall. I can't wait.
Nrama: How has it been working with your series artist Ardian Syaf, and what does he bring to the comic?
Simone: Love, love, love that guy. We worked together on one issue of Birds of Prey, and it didn't quite mesh for a lot of odd reasons. Then we got to meet and have dinner in a beautiful rooftop rotating restaurant in Singapore and he was just the dearest man, a deeply soulful and kind individual. He hadn't really been to a con before, this was all new to him, and he was so soft-spoken and surprised by everything. Then he showed me his recent pages, and they were just explosive. It was such a contrast, between the work and the man.He's done an absolutely lovely job. He draws a graceful, balletic Batgirl, without the embarrassing cheese that can be so distracting. I have nothing against cheesecake per se, but it has to work, it has to make sense and fit the character. Batgirl isn't that book...it's more of an aesthetic, and he's fantastic at it. He drew a scene in a cemetery that just took my breath away. The best part of doing the book is getting new pages from Ardian. I hope he stays on the book for ages.
Nrama: Anything else you want to tell fans about what's coming up in Batgirl?
Simone: Well, there's an unexpected date, some new neighbors of interest, including one who wants to be Batgirl, new villains, the return of an old one, the answers to the Oracle question, the back-story about her return to mobility, Batman, Bruce Wayne, Arkham, mom, a really unfortunate date, a BOP friend, pirates, a JLA guest star, the worst family reunion ever, muffins, the secret of her martial arts training, the answer to what really happened immediately after she was shot in the Killing Joke. And we're just getting warmed up.
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