Whenever a famous or beloved comic book heroine is announced to be destined for a reboot, the reception is generally the same. If the title’s a success, there’s disappointment. If it’s struggling, there’s hope for a return to form. But in almost every case, everyone’s watching to comment on two things: whether the heroine(s) embodies or comments on the most modern form of feminism – and whether it’s women who are doing the recreating. Is that how it should be? Probably not. But it’s a widely (if quietly) believed opinion that female superheroes, villains, and other characters are in the best hands possible if there’s a woman attached to them.
It’s not just in comic books, of course:both Marvel Studios and DC Films instinctively sought out female directors for their female-led superhero solo movies, too. And on the comic book page, the ever-rising-in-popularity Batgirl series spinning out of the company’s “Rebirth” event is being entrusted to writer Hope Larson and artist Rafael Albuquerque. But before that, Barbara Gordon has already made her debut in the pages of “Batgirl and the Birds of Prey: Rebirth” #1. And again, the trio of fist-fighting females on the page are being guided by a trio behind it: writers Julie and Shawna Benson and artist Claire Roe.
The first issue was a top-form debut, introducing backstories or compelling teases for its stars Batgirl, Black Canary and Huntress while pitting them against a mysterious villain (distorting Barbara’s own ‘Oracle’ legacy). What the issue lacked is just as interesting: mainly, the full-page, skin-filled splash images intended to frame the heroines as lethal with their fists and figures. Sure, one of them does rely on shorts and fishnet stockings for her costume, but the fact is neither the Bensons’ writing nor Roe’s style lends itself to such an approach.
We got the opportunity to talk to the Bensons about that very fact during San Diego Comic-Con 2016, and being handed the reins to not one, but three DC characters with long and extensive histories to honor. But it’s Batgirl in the name, and it’s Batgirl whose costume DC recently saw reinvented: not only more realistic in material, but… dimensions, as well.
Putting time into the story, characters, and style instead of pin-up artwork seems to be the overall goal, and when we asked, the Bensons confirmed that the creators and editors had agreed on multiple stereotypes they had no interest in proliferating:
Shawna Benson: We like women who are sexy without being sexualized, because that’s most women.
Julie Benson: Yeah, and I think the other thing we really didn’t want to do was have a bunch of catty girlfights. That was the one note, and our editors agree: The one thing we don’t want to do is have a bunch of bitchy fights. They’re going to have disagreements – they’re going to respect each other, though. They just might go about things a different way.
It’s possible that some readers may point to the “Rebirth” cover by artist Yanick Paquette as a contradiction, since it clearly shows Batgirl and Huntress engaged in a heated standoff (included above). But in the context of the actual story, the conflict between the three stars is anything but trivial or emotion-driven. For Barbara, the arrival of this new ‘Oracle’ is chipping away at the identity she made out of the worst trauma of her life – an identity she formed alongside Black Canary.
For Huntress, that legacy takes a backseat to her own quest for revenge, having lost her entire family to a mob hit. But even in the case of Helena Bertinelli (introduced as an Italian/African-America woman in the New 52) the Bensons made sure to steer clear of tropes established by writers of all mediums (and all genders):
Shawna Benson: It is a challenge, because there are certain tropes that have been perpetuated in comics, by women and male writers. It’s difficult to pull out of those traps. Like ‘angry black woman’ is something that could easily be hung on Helena, but that’s not something we want to do, and that’s not who she is at all. She’s very focused, she’s very serious, she wants to right a wrong. That doesn’t make her angry, that makes her just… focused. It’s a completely different thing, but it could come off the wrong way. So that’s where we need to do the balancing act of how do we portray this character in a way that avoids falling into that trap of the trope, and yet we’re getting across the person that we want to get across. She does have some anger, I mean… her parents were killed in front of her as a child!
Julie Benson: That’s gonna mess you up a little.
The extra thought and energy put into doing justice to these women – these characters, really – has seemed to pay off already. But the writers promise that the best writing and artwork is still coming, as the three leads find some compromise. The Bensons’ comments seem to suggest that the three will realize they’re better together than apart – or at the very least, the things over which they butt heads will be actual conflicts, not ‘catfights.’ If that’s true, everybody wins.
Batgirl and the Birds of Prey: Rebirth #1 is available now.