Batgirl #35 and the Place of Comic Books in the History of American Literature

(Author’s Note: Before beginning, I must concede from the outset that you might reasonably wonder what in the world this fanpost is doing here. All I know to state in my own defense is this: Progressive Boink, SB Nation’s first-ever weblog that isn’t primarily sports-centric, has been known to publish postings on comic books and social issues, whereas I am a former SB Nation writer who has been known to share thoughts on comic books, so here we are. If this is not your sort of thing, by all means, feel free to disregard what follows, and please accept my apologies for taking up your time with extraneous matters.)

As anyone who is even slightly more than a casual comic book reader is well aware, Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher, Babs Tarr, and Maris Wicks took over DC’s Batgirl title as of issue #35, making quite a splash with an authentic approach to Barbara Gordon that included a fresh setting, a convincing wardrobe, contemporary themes, and an inaugural cover shot of the costumed hero taking a selfie in front of a mirror. Regrettably, the new creative team quickly stirred up a controversy through its inadvertently insensitive portrayal of a character using insulting stereotypes (although the misstep prompted a productive discussion and was swiftly addressed with a sincere apology). Despite that unfortunate early error, however, the promise implicit in the new Batgirl’s genuineness cannot be gainsaid.

As a middle-aged, married, suburban male with school-aged children, I probably didn’t exactly fall smack-dab in the center of Batgirl’s target demographic. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by all the pre-release hoopla, so I elected to pick up that introductory issue in order to determine the source of all the fuss. This proved somewhat problematic, as stores had trouble keeping the popular debut in stock.

On one of my several fruitless forays to a comic book shop in search of the issue, I was asked by the owner---a guy who looked about my age---whether I had any trouble finding anything. I figured it was worth the shot, so I asked him whether he had Batgirl #35. He did not, although he remarked that he had ordered several extra copies, all of which swiftly sold. He then volunteered that he had read it, so I asked him how it was.

"It was pretty damned hipster," he replied with a sigh, noting that text messages and social media played a prominent part in the story. When I joked that he and I might not be the book’s primary intended audience, he immediately added: "Oh, it was good! It was just pretty damned hipster. I’m definitely going to read the next one, though."

Comic books long have been a maligned medium, but blanket denunciations of the industry miss the mark, and, at their best, comic books qualify as legitimate literature. Certainly, some of the common rules and objectives of fiction writing apply as fully to graphic novels as to prose tales, which may explain why my conversation with the comic store owner reminded me of the insights provided by a seminal work of literary criticism, Alfred Kazin’s On Native Grounds.

Kazin was writing in 1942, immediately following the close of the triumphal period for the American naturalistic novel running between the publications of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie in 1900 and of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath in 1939. (Interestingly enough, the emergence of the indigenously American art form of the superhero comic book coincided almost exactly with the close of the literary phase about which Kazin was writing.)

Kazin identified "the greatest single fact about our modern American literature" as "our writers’ absorption in every last detail of their American world together with their deep and subtle alienation from it." The writers he praised (including Nobel laureates Sinclair Lewis, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and Steinbeck) "were participants in a common experience" who "gave the American novel over to the widest possible democracy of subject and theme" and had a "compelling interest in people, Americans, of all varieties." Journalist and novelist Tom Wolfe echoed Kazin when advocating sending "a battalion, a brigade, of Zolas out into this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, Hog-stomping Baroque country of ours to reclaim it as a literary property" through faithful reporting of the foibles, folkways, and curiosities of which America was made.

What, you may be wondering, has this to do with a comic book about a young woman who dresses up like a bat and fights criminals? As it turns out, quite a lot, actually.

Let’s start with the costume. When the comic’s current creative team undertook to give Batgirl a new look, where did the artists turn for inspiration? Stewart set out to design "the kind of thing that a 21-year old girl would want to wear - both in the comic and in real life." The creator therefore elected "to make it something that could be assembled from real-life items of clothing" and, "[d]iving into street fashion blogs, I took note of several . . . recurring styles and shapes and how they could be adapted into a superhero look." This dedication to naturalism in storytelling led even to giving each character her own fashion style. It was this attention to authenticity that made Batgirl’s new costume a huge hit, in stark contrast to the chilly reception given to a Wonder Woman outfit no warrior princess would likely wear.

The new Batgirl succeeds at a much larger level, however. Kazin’s critiques illuminate the power of literature to help us see the world through others’ eyes and develop empathy for people different from ourselves whose very existence we might otherwise have overlooked. It was true of the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath, who showed us the Okies most Americans had not hitherto known were there, and it can be uniquely true of comic books as a medium.

The potential power of comics to employ allegory and promote acceptance is large; after all, it isn’t much of a stretch to ask readers to be more understanding of their fellow humans when they already have demonstrated their willingness to repose faith in superpowered beings from other worlds. The "widest possible democracy of subject and theme" concerning the "subtle alienation" of "all varieties" of people, indeed.

Yes, it is unfortunate that an early controversy marred the exciting and encouraging arrival of a new creative team at the comic book that previously had introduced the first openly transgender character in mainstream superhero comics, but the boundless possibilities of Batgirl came through loud and clear in my conversation with the comic book store owner; this is a book about people different from me, but it’s good, and it rings true, and, therefore, I will keep reading it to see what I can glean from it. What better compliment could be paid to an American literary work, in whatever form, than that?

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