In DC’s pantheon of near-omnipotent gods, cosmic titans and kevlar strongmen, no character has made a bigger impact in 2015 than Barbara Gordon, a 21-year-old computer wiz with an epic amount of sass. Revamped in last October’s Batgirl #35, Babs displays an accessibility and perseverance meticulously honed to Generation Y’s growing female comic readership. Writers Cameron Stewart (who also contributed pencil breakdowns), Brenden Fletcher, artist Babs Tarr and colorist Maris Wicks use the feverish backdrop of social media celebrity, urban hipster culture and real-world cyber villainy for an experience that’s at once breathlessly fun and thoughtfully relevant. As Fletcher states, “We’re creating this to speak to people right now.”
As is often the case with socially pioneering works, Batgirl became the center of a number of issues examining gender and sexuality in comics. Stewart and Tarr’s costume was lauded for its fashion-forward functionality that didn’t rely on common curve-exploiting designs. With slightly more friction, the topics of transgender identity came to the fore, as well as a controversial variant cover that the creators declined as it contradicted the title’s spirit of empowerment. With the first five issues recently collected in the “Batgirl of Burnside” trade paperback and issue 41 debuting tomorrow (promising a showdown between Babs and her father, the new Batman), Paste sat down with the trio of creators to discuss their innovative approach and what they have in store for Batgirl’s next adventures.
Paste: Rereading “Batgirl of Burnside,” the one aspect of the book that felt most remarkable was how much of it was based in the real world, whereas I tend to think of DC as more mythological and classic escapist comic book fiction. When you initially came together, what were the changes you wanted to make in Babs from her previous incarnation?
Cameron Stewart: When it was first offered to me, the book had been dark and grim for the last couple years. I wanted to bring it more into the present day. I wanted to contemporize it and make it more light, fun and relevant to more of a young female audience. One of the things that we were talking about with that was bringing social media into the fore, because that’s something that’s very relevant to young people’s lives and young women.
When we were plotting the arc, we had this idea of having the story’s backbone being Batgirl’s becoming an Instagram celebrity, and following Internet fame and how it blows up really fast and has a backlash. Those kinds of things gave us a template for how we could come up with villains for the story. And we wanted to derive those villains, again, drawing from Internet youth culture. And that’s why that first villain is the worst aspects of the Internet, personified. I think this is a lot more relevant to young people than a guy in a mask robbing a bank. We’re vague about it in the book, but it’s basically a revenge, blackmail guy on the Internet, which is sadly a very relevant concern for young women. We thought putting those kinds of things in it, rather than typical supervillains would make it a bit unique and more relatable to the audience.
Batgirl #41 Interior Art by Babs Tarr
Paste: The entire story of [revenge porn tycoon] Hunter Moore is just ridiculous. It’s as riveting as any fiction. We also see analogues of Justin Bieber, and even the entire issue of artificial intelligence follows these warning statements from Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates as they’re making these thought leadership pieces about how AI could end humanity in a couple of generations. How did you curate and pull from headlines to incorporate these elements into the comic?
Brenden Fletcher: Well, the artificial intelligence is the overarching plot. So that was something that came early on. The actual villains of the issues—the one-and-done villains—were all sort of a statement we were trying to make about some aspect of Barbara or her life. In the case of Hunter Moore or in the case of Justin Bieber, these are personalities and situations that Cameron and I were well aware of. So they were good go-tos for us. We didn’t need to do much original research to paint this almost supervillain version of the characters into the Batgirl book. But we certainly felt that they were relevant to the statements we were trying to make about Barbara Gordon and her world.
Paste: How is Batgirl’s Rogue’s Gallery going to evolve from here? Are you going to mirroring more real-world issues or are you going to dive more into her mythology?
Stewart: In order to establish the status quo, we had to sequester Batgirl from the rest of the bat family and the rest of the DC universe. Because we were doing such a radical thing with the tone and we needed to separate her, and that necessitated coming up with new villains. But now that we have that story arc out of the way, we’ve reconciled the tone shift. Now we’re able to bring her back and integrate her more into the DCU, which is what a lot of fans wanted to see. Rather than come up with a lot of new villains, we’re going to reintroduce some older villains who are making their [DC You] debut now. We’re still trying to approach them with our same signature flavor.
Batgirl #42 Cover Art by Cameron Stewart
Paste: That’s great. And we know, from the cover, that she’s going to meet her Dad. One of my favorite panels is when she off-handedly mentions her brother, James, to Officer Powell. Is there a chance we’ll see him coming up at all?
Fletcher: No we’re not going to be addressing James Jr.’s current status at the moment.
Paste: Is it possible to stay topical and relevant without dating the material in a few years? Is that a sacrifice that can be avoided through any techniques or strategies?
Fletcher: There might be a way to, but I think it’s impossible to avoid that if you’re trying to set something that’s in a modern place. The tools that we use currently change so quickly, and I think that’s all right. You can still have a superhero comic that stands the test of time with some lingering aspects of the past. And in fact, they’re kind of charming when you look back. I always think of the ’78 Donner Superman movie where everyone’s got bell-bottoms. That stuff stands the test of time despite the fact that you can see when it was made. The story’s so solid, the characterization is so solid, the action is great. There’s so much there. I think that’s what my hope is for this. We’re creating it for now. We’re creating this to speak to people right now. But hopefully the story and the characters are compelling enough to be interesting to people 20 or 30 years from now.
Paste: Babs (Tarr), looking at your material, it’s evident you have a background in fashion. What was your approach to creating the looks and stylization of Batgirl? Also looking back, it was only a year ago when we saw this costume making waves for being more functional and fun, as well as less sexual. I’d love to hear about your general approach.
Babs Tarr: I remember when the boys were describing what the characters’ personalities were, and I think with people you can look at how they present themselves and you can get a read on them. I think characters’ clothes are so important to their personalities. It adds an air of realness to the story when their outsides match their insides. I have a Pinterest board for each girl. Babs is kind of a tomboy—she’s not a fashionista. She doesn’t have time to be, but she has cute stuff that’s really comfy. That’s her MO.
And then her friend Frankie, a new character we introduce, she’s more sassy, fun and bright. Her clothes reflect that, and Dinah has more of a rocker vibe. She has a leather jacket and fishnets. But she’s older than the girls, so I gave her a mature rocker vibe. The Burnside hipsters…I have a folder that’s just really interesting-looking hipsters to populate the bars and that crowd scene. Even Burnside has its own look. It’s not Gotham. It’s like Brooklyn. The buildings are a little shorter, and there are more coffee shops and bike shops. It’s less gothic and more modern.
So we tried to worldbuild. I know as a reader, and person who’s aware of that stuff when I’m reading a comic and there’s a weird outfit, it takes me out of the story. It’s distracting, so I tried to create a world where you wouldn’t trip over that thing.
For the costumes, Cameron had this great base design of her: he had the boots and the straps and the leather jacket, but the leather jacket didn’t really have any detail on it. I saw it as a blank canvas and said, ‘I’m going to make that super cool.’ I added these cool lines in it and pitched up her belt to be something I had never seen before. I gave her some earrings because her little ears sticking out screamed that she needed some hardware there. I know if I leave the house and don’t have earrings on, I feel naked. I gave her some earrings and put her hair down. I like drawing hair. That’s how we came to the new costume, and how well it was received was beyond my wildest dreams. It’s cool.
Batgirl #44 Cover by Babs Tarr
Paste: The world building was interesting, because on one hand Burnside feels like Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but there’s also a Oakland/San Francisco feel going on too. How did you visualize Burnside?
Stewart: We’re obviously trying to make that Williamsburg, hipster borough of the city, but none of us was living there. We were all living in different cities; Brenden was in Montreal, I was in Berlin and Babs was in San Francisco.
Fletcher: It was our feelings from having been in Williamsburg. It’s kind of a mish-mash of all those places.
Batgirl has been an arbiter of many social issues going back to last October. There’s a transgender discussion with Dagger Type as well as Rafael Albuquerque’s variant cover. I’m sure you couldn’t have predicted the outcome of the conversations that arose from these issues, but has being an arbiter of these topics effected the way you write the title? Are you rethinking these issues as you go forward with Batgirl?
Fletcher: I think the main focus for us has been representing the characters super well, and bringing a sense of fun to the title, and building a title that speaks to an audience that was underserved. Those are the things forefront in my mind and I think in Cameron’s mind when we were putting together the book. There are sometimes bumps in the road and we have to contend with things, and maybe rethink things. It’s great that there’s an ongoing discussion going on with our fanbase, but our primary goal is always just to create a fun, inspiring book. And we hope that we’ve done that with our first volume of Batgirl. We know that the second volume’s going to be super fun, because we’ve gotten most of Barbara’s issues sorted out in Volume One. So Volume Two is very much about her being the best Batgirl that she can possible be.