Gail Simone's Batgirl has been one of those books I really, really want to enjoy, due to my deep, abiding love for her Secret Six, but it hasn't quite seemed to gel. Barbara Gordon is in a tricky spot as a character – when she was Oracle, we'd think wistfully about her days as Batgirl and quietly wished to see them again, and now that she's returned to being Batgirl, we're sort of indignant that she's no longer (and apparently never was) Oracle, which is arguably her much more important role both in-story and out. There's this cognitive dissonance, this thing that doesn't quite feel right, and eight decent issues in, it hadn't managed to really hook me, and I'd felt I was reading it more out of loyalty to Simone than anything else.
Then Batgirl #9 came along and hit me right in the brain, and reminded me why loyalty to Gail Simone always pays off.
It helps that Scott Snyder's Batman is so damn compelling, and his massive "Night of the Owls" conspiracy saga is so damn engrossing. The Court of Owls are the coolest new/old Batvillains to emerge in quite a while, and that's spilling over into this issue of Batgirl. Simone gives us a mysterious origin of her particular Talon, but with the pair of backstories we get here, apparently connected by coincidence, she manages to paint a tragic picture of both sides of the hell that is war.
We open in Japan, November, 1944, and a young girl named Ayumi being honored with the creation of fusen bakudan, aka Fu-Go, aka fire balloons as part of the war effort against the allies. She takes pride in this task, while missing her family. Two years later, we meet a girl named Mary, said to be the best aerialist in Haly's Circus, whose ravaged face is wrapped in bandages and is missing a tongue. Her family is said to have been killed in a fire balloon attack in Oregon. Haly's Circus is where Dick Grayson cut his teeth as well, by the way, and we've seen in earlier issues of Batman that he was a sleeper agent of the Court of Owls and didn't even know it, so it's perhaps no surprise that the Court recruited its Talons from there back in 1946 as well – which is what they do with Mary.
So with that ugly history, when Mary emerges after a bombing in Little Jakarta, Gotham City, as a Talon, and Batgirl's clueless response is "Holy cats," we get an instant sense that Barbara is way out of her league here. However, when Talon Mary gets Babs dead to rights, we learn she's not as ruthless as the rest of her clan when she lets her live. That's also when we realize Simone's back in her Secret Six wheelhouse – morally ambiguous characters with dark pasts, nasty presents and yet some kind of quiet, sick hope for a better future. There's a strong chance we'll see more of Talon Mary in the future – and dare we hope that, deprived her original Secret Six, Simone might grow one of her own organically in the New 52? I dare. Double dog dare, even.
What also works in this issue is how hopelessly hardass The Court of Owls is in its treatment of Barbara's dad, meeting Comissioner Gordon mysteriously on the street and issuing terrifyingly unstoppable threats of their massive night of murdering all of Gotham City's best leaders. Scaring him into inactivity for as long as he can stand it by holding Barbara's life in the balance. Jim Gordon's struggle between duty and fear is quiet but palpable, and the big kick in the gut he gets when duty finally wins out really contributes perfectly to how well the Batwriters are building up The Court of Owls and making them unforgettable.
Talon Mary remains a mystery, though, because it's never quite stated outright who she is. During my first read through, I thought Ayumi and Mary might be the same person, and it would be an impossible irony if somehow Ayumi fell victim to a floating bomb she made herself. Looking more closely at Ardian Syaf's impressive art and Ulises Arreola's colors, they appear to be separate people. Yet this Talon uses fire balloons in her attacks on Gotham, and when she's unmasked, she looks undead as all the Talons are, but her face looks like an ashen version of Ayumi's… maybe, since we never actually see Mary's face beyond her eyes, and this Talon is mute just like Mary. It's hard to tell, and it would be tricky to explain just how Ayumi could be here at all, given the revelation of the last page. But why would Mary use fire balloons if that's what victimized her?
The fact that I'm so invested in who this particular Talon turns out to be speaks well of how Batgirl #9 raises the stakes, and may have finally latched on to my mind. Another stunning development is that even though Barbara is aware of the Talons' regenerative abilities, she gets desperate in defense of her father and tosses Talon into one of her own fire balloons, fully expecting her to be dead, and is surprised when she's not.
Which would mean Batgirl is willing to cross that hard line that Batman always holds. "Can't have a back door, Alfred," Batman says in The Dark Knight Returns. "Might be tempted to use it." It looks like, when the chips are down and she's bleeding out, Barbara Gordon will use that back door.
That… could have repercussions down the line. And I'm on board to find out what they might be.