Review – Shadow of the Batgirl: Cassandra Cain’s Time to Shine

Shadow of the Batgirl
Shadow of the Batgirl cover, via DC Comics.

Shadow of the Batgirl – Sarah Kuhn, Writer; Nicole Goux, Artist; Cris Peter, Colorist

Ray – 10/10

Ray:

The short version: Shadow of the Batgirl is fantastic.

The longer version:

Cassandra Cain fans have had a rough go of it ever since her solo series was canceled. She spent an odd time as a villain in the One Year Later status quo, gave her Batgirl identity up to BFF Stephanie Brown, disappeared entirely with the New 52, and while she was rebooted in Rebirth her appearances have been sporadic since (although she currently has a good role in Batman and the Outsiders).

Add in her tiny cameo in Young Justice and her unrecognizable portrayal in the upcoming Birds of Prey film, and fans of the character have been getting antsty.

Well, into the void comes DC’s line of young adult and middle-grade graphic novels to once again say “Anything you can do, I can do better” to give the popular Asian-American disabled heroine the starring role she deserves. By the creative team of Sarah Kuhn and Nicole Goux, Shadow of the Batgirl might be the line’s crowning achievement so far.

Shadow of the Batgirl
Girl of the hour. Via DC Comics.

This book takes Cassandra Cain back to her beginnings, as a street kid who has just broken free from her sadistic assassin father. Raised to have body language as her only communication style and taught to kill from an early age, she’s unable to speak, confused, and knows very little about life outside her father’s cruel training routine.

The early pages immerse us in this, being mostly without dialogue and effectively conveying her confusion as she scrounges to survive. It’s only the kindness of strangers – two strangers in particular – who help bring her out of the darkness. The book also does an excellent job of showing us the moment that triggers her decision to walk away from her father’s lifestyle – it’s a less brutal moment than the one in the original comic.

Fashion fails. Via DC Comics.

Popular YA novelist Sarah Kuhn does a fantastic job with the script, but much of the success of this book goes to artist Nicole Goux, a newcomer to DC. She has one of the most unique styles I’ve ever seen on one of these OGNs, and it’s brilliantly suited. It’s more cartoony than any other books in what was once the DC Ink line, with characters being highly expressive – Cassandra could pass for a Surprised Pikachu at a few times in the books when she encounters something new and unexpected.

But that’s not to say it’s not detailed – quite the opposite. Goux takes something as simple as the Gotham Library and transforms it into a fairytale wonderland full of detail and mystery for a girl who’s discovering this world for the first time. I’m not sure how young Cass is supposed to be in this book, but the art makes her look 14-15 – younger than she’s usually portrayed, and a good choice given that this is a classic coming of age story.

Welcome to Gotham Library. Via DC Comics.

Cass’ journey into discovering her identity is primarily guided by two characters. The first is an original character – Jackie, an eccentric Asian-American old woman who runs a noodle shop and has a backstory with surprising similarities to Cass. This is a woman who never had kids of her own and would probably be the first to tell you she’s not the maternal type, but takes to mentoring Cass like a duck to water. She was described by Kuhn as an “Auntie”, and that fits perfectly. She’s everyone’s eccentric aunt and she’s a delight to read. Her presence takes Cass past those earliest rough moments, and while Cass can’t use words effectively yet, there are some really sweet scenes that give away how close the bond between them is getting.

The other major player is Barbara Gordon, here the wheelchair-using children’s librarian at the Gotham Library, the cavernous building that Cass chooses to make her home. It’s worth noting that it seems like this is set in a world without Batman – Batgirl is the only hero referenced, and she disappeared several years back. It’s easy to forget that in the Puckett run that defined the character, Barbara was Cass’ main mentor and parental figure, not Bruce. It’s great to see that dynamic revived here, although this is a younger and less prickly Babs. Her relationship with Cass is a little fraught because the energetic Babs wants to know so much about this mysterious girl, and Cass is guarding her secrets closely. This Babs is a fascinating character, but I suspect we’ll get a much more in-depth look at Oracle in The Oracle Code by Marieke Nijkamp in coming months.

Shadow of the Batgirl
New friends. Via DC Comics.

The other major player is Erik, a young blasian athlete under pressure from his ambitious dad, who has a secret love for reading and writing and finds a refuge in the library. He’s a nice character, distinctly un-stereotypical and I think having a character around Cass’ age for her to bond with added another essential element as she figures out who she is. I did think the decision to jump right into a romance between the two of them was a little forced, but I suppose that’s the tropes of the genre. I would have liked to see them develop a deep friendship that would be hinted to be becoming something more, but having them leap into kissing seems odd given that Cass’ experience with that is minimal at best. It was done very well for what it was, but it’s the only segment of the book I didn’t connect with fully, only due to the pacing of the development.

Speaking of pacing, this is another book in the DC OGN line that definitely feels like a first chapter in a larger story. If this book is about Cass’ journey to self-discovery and her evolution into Batgirl, her adventure is just starting. David Cain does appear, but the book really isn’t about him and their face-off is fairly brief towards the end. Her mother is hinted at, but that’s a major dangling plot thread for a volume two that is richly deserved. Cassandra’s development of speech is maybe a bit fast-forwarded, but the book does a good job of explaining where the deficits come from and how she starts to overcome them (without a magical assist).

The depictions of her martial arts prowess (and how they interact with the regular world in unexpected ways) are visually stunning. It’s one of the best graphic novels I’ve read in a long time, and the best story Cassandra Cain fans have received in over a decade. Dare I hope the sequel will introduce Stephanie Brown?

To find reviews of all the DC issues, visit DC This Week.

Disclaimer: GeekDad received this comic for review purposes.

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