It’s a a sad state of affairs when you have a begin a very positive review for a trade collection with the warning, “By the way, this comic was cancelled!” It gets even sadder when you have to add, “Not only was this comic cancelled, the whole DCU was rebooted and they’re pretty much pretending this never happened!” And when you really ought to add a third and final disclaimer–“It really helps to have read Batgirl: Batgirl Rising and Batgirl: The Flood, even though they aren’t as good as this collection, and also to know something about Stephanie Brown’s rather complicated character history”–it’s hard not to wonder whether reviewing the book in question is something of an exercise in futility.
Welcome to my review of Batgirl: The Lesson, folks. Many disclaimers apply.
[Warning: some mild plot spoilers after the jump.]
Written by Bryan Q. Miller and drawn primarily by Dustin Nguyen and Pere Pérez, Batgirl: The Lesson collects the final ten issues (Batgirl #15-24) of Stephanie Brown’s stint as Batgirl. With the help of the rest of Team Batgirl (Barbara Gordon as Oracle, Wendy Harris as Protocol) and the resources of Batman Incorporated, Steph continues to be a college student by day and a crimefighter by night. And when her investigation of the mysterious Order of the Scythe on the campus of Gotham U takes an unexpectedly personal turn, Steph find herself in a battle for her life.
Batgirl: The Lesson is more enjoyable if you’ve read the first half of Miller’s run on Batgirl. It’s a very strong series conclusion. Yes, it’s a bit rushed here and there–it’s hard not to wish that Miller had been given more time to explore some of the ideas we see here–but overall it provides a sense of closure that you rarely get from the end of superhero story arc. This may be a case of the DC reboot being both a curse and blessing. Batgirl: The Lesson only became a series ending because of the reboot, but it manages to be a satisfying (if bittersweet) one. And you’ll appreciate that more if you understand, say, who Nell is or the history between Steph and her mother.
Though the Stephanie Brown Batgirl series as a whole is relatively accessible to casual comics readers, there are still many aspects of it that are going to resonate more with readers with some familiarity with old DC continuity. Stephanie is a character with a lot of backstory, and that’s frequently alluded to in this collection. For example, this collection opens with the funniest three-page summary of fifty years of Batman history ever, but you might not appreciate how funny it is if you don’t know who Spoiler is and why she is emitting hearts at Tim Drake’s Robin. And a key surprise in Batgirl: The Lesson hinges on some of that backstory, as a character from Stephanie’s past suddenly shows up in her present.
Miller’s work reaches the next level in Batgirl: The Lesson because he focuses on Stephanie Brown, Batgirl, the character, rather than Stephanie Brown, Batgirl, the premise. The first half of Miller’s run on Batgirl isn’t bad reading, but it’s not his best work. While Miller does a lot of good setup for things that happen in Batgirl: The Lesson, there’s just a little too much emphasis on the fact that, golly gee whiz, a cute college coed is a crimefighting vigilante! (Don’t believe me? The phrase “playing dress-up” is used.) In this volume, that problem goes away. Instead you get the sort of writing that can convert a casual reader into a fan of the character. I didn’t really have an opinion one way or another on Stephanie Brown as Batgirl before reading Miller’s run–I just picked it up because I was on a Bat-family-comics kick–but Miller made me a fan by showing Stephanie at her most resilient and irrepressible. Stephanie has an essential joie de vivre that contrasts nicely with some of the the gloomier members of the Bat-family (some of whom make entertaining appearances within these pages). At the same time, there’s never the sense that Stephanie is just playing around. Her adventures may not be as grand or world-changing as those of, say, the Justice League, but she’s also not a mere dabbler.
Dustin Nguyen and Pere Pérez are the primary artists in Batgirl: The Lesson, and their art styles are a great match for the character and the story. Both capture Stephanie’s energy and sense of fun, and neither defaults to the oversexualized art that is so depressingly common in superhero comics. (Ramon Bachs also contributed art on a couple issues. It’s not terrible, but it definitely isn’t as polished. Bachs also has a tendency to draw women with bee-stung lips that give them a default pout.) Nguyen’s work is especially stunning in a very funny standalone Valentine’s story within this volume in which Stephanie hangs out with Klarion, the witch-boy; there’s a gorgeous and amusing four-page sequence that he painted in his distinctive style. Pérez’s work shines in the final issue. There’s a long dream sequence during which we see what Stephanie experienced while under the influence of a drug called the Mercy–it’s also a glimpse of the adventures Miller didn’t get to write, since the series was cancelled. Pérez also hits all the right character notes with his art in a final rooftop scene with Stephanie and her mentor, Barbara Gordon.
While I can’t recommend Batgirl: The Lesson as a starting place for readers, it’s definitely a volume not to be missed if you’re a fan of either Stephanie Brown or Batgirl as a character. Though there are plenty of comics coming out of DC’s new 52 that I very much, the Miller/Nguyen/Perez Batgirl, with Stephanie under the cowl, is one that I continue to miss a great deal.