TITLE: Shadow of the Batgirl
AUTHOR: Sarah Kuhn
ARTISTS: Nicole Goux, Cris Peter (Colorist), Janice Chiang w/Saida Temofonte (Letterers)
PUBLISHER: DC Graphic Novels For Young Adults
RELEASED: January 29, 2020
By Rob Siebert
There’s always been something special about the Cassandra Cain character. A certain X-factor that I can’t quite put my finger on. Perhaps it’s her unique origin story. Or the fact that she initially couldn’t communicate the same way everyone else did. Maybe it’s the diversity element. In the late ’90s, she was a young Asian girl among Batman’s other apprentices, who were primarily white males with dark hair. Perhaps it’s all that and more.
In any event, Cass may not be the most popular Batgirl there’s ever been. But she has a special connection with her fans. Thus, I was pleased to see her get the YA graphic novel treatment.
I enjoyed Shadow of the Batgirl. It’s a fresh and modern look at Cassandra Cain, and I’d argue the young-adult lens is perfect fit for her. But the book has some blaring flaws that I can’t seem to get past.
Cass’ origin is essentially unchanged. She’s the daughter of world-famous assassin David Cain, who trained her since birth to become a living weapon. Her regimen was so all-encompassing that she never learned to speak. Her language was combat. But when she runs away from that life to start anew in Gotham City, she must discover for herself who Cassandra Cain really is. But she won’t do it alone. She’ll have help from a few new friends. One of whom, a librarian named Barbara Gordon, knows quite a bit about the legendary Batgirl…
The Barbara Gordon stuff goes exactly where you think it’s going to go. Actually, Shadow of the Batgirl as a whole goes where you think it’s going to go. Which isn’t a bad thing. It hits all the right notes for a story about a young hero trying to find herself.
What’s more, Nicole Goux’s art is a tremendous fit for Cass. I don’t know if I’d call it “edgy,” as the promo copy on the back of the book does. But there’s an obvious Eastern influence to her work which fits the character like a glove. Personally, I found Goux’s art to be better suited to the dramatic and the dynamic. Her action sequences have a hard-hitting feel to them. Naturally, that’s an awesome quality to have if you’re working on Cass. Generally speaking, if Cass was fighting or moody, Goux was at home. Colorist Cris Peter also deserves a lot of credit for complimenting Goux’s work so well. His palette is a few shades darker than standard, and a little bit deeper. When Cass is in the dark, the result is delightfully moody.
While Cass’ supporting cast could easily have consisted of just Barbara, perhaps making for a more intimate feel between mentor and student, Sarah Kuhn fleshes out our supporting cast. Case in point, noodle shop owner and resident wise old sage Jackie Fujikawa Yoneyama. She’s got a nice Mr. Miyagi feel to her, offering wisdom, guidance, and even discipline to our young heroine. Like a surrogate parent, or the book’s answer to Alfred. Generally speaking, I enjoyed Jackie’s scenes a lot.
I was less fond of Erik, our love interest. There’s nothing wrong with him, per se. He just doesn’t do much to stand out. I’ll give Kuhn credit for making him sensitive and even a bit vulnerable, in contrast to Cass’ remarkable physical prowess. But other than that, he’s really only there to be pined over.
While very much enjoyable, for my money Shadow of the Batgirl has one major problem, one minor problem, and also misses a big opportunity
The minor problem involves Cass’ Batgirl costume. Not the thrown-together one we see her wear for a good portion of the book (shown at left). Rather, it’s the one she ends up with at the end. The one that’s supposed to be her officially-endorsed costume. Granted there’s a makeshift quality to that one as well, as Cass makes it herself. But the book lacks that all important awe-inspiring moment where she takes the legacy and the grandeur of Batgirl on her shoulders. Come to think of it, Cass’ original Batgirl costume wasn’t much to write home about either.
The major issue, at least in my mind, is almost funny. But it annoyed me and left me scratching my head for the first half of the book. When she first comes to Gotham, Cass creates a home for herself at the library. It’s there that Barbara is teaching a young writers class. The subject of which, at least while Cass happens to be watching, is Batgirl. We hear Babs say things like, “There’s nothing boring about Batgirl – she’s a hero!” and call her “Gotham City’s beloved daughter.”
In Shadow, Barbara is in her wheelchair but has yet to become the information broker to superheroes known as Oracle. The book doesn’t tell us what put her in the chair, but it seems like she’s still grieving. Thus, I could understand her using this writing class to work through some of her feelings about not being Batgirl anymore. The problem is the book never refers to it as such. So when we find out Babs’ secret, it feels very strange. Even egotistical. Certainly not behavior befitting either a hero or mentor.
Sadly, the book’s worst offense is that it doesn’t capitalize on what really made Cassandra Cain special in the first place. She wasn’t just unique amongst the Batman family. She was different than any other superhero you’d ever seen because she lacked conventional communication skills. Cass could barely speak, so she’d have to find other ways to express herself.
So many teens and young adults struggle to accept qualities that make them different, stand out, and in certain cases a little bit freakish. They see them as liabilities rather than potential strengths. While a dramatic example, Cassandra Cain certainly falls into that freakish category. I don’t think the book should have centered around her communication issues. But instead of giving her a standard YA love interest, why not use those pages to show her facing those challenges? It’s certainly not something you’d see in any other book. (At right is a small example from Cass’ original Batgirl run in 2000.)
Instead, Shadow opts for a more conventional route. Which is a shame, as Goux and colorist Cris Peteri certainly have the artistic chops to handle the increased emphasis on visuals rather than dialogue.
I definitely recommend Shadow of the Batgirl, especially for those who aren’t familiar with Cassandra Cain. It’s good book. In fact, I believe if it could have been a great book, had the raw materials been used a little bit differently…
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