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First Look: Talking Batgirls with Becky Cloonan and Michael W. Conrad
By Alex Jaffe
Friday, November 12th, 2021
Calling all Batgirl fans—and this time, we really do mean ALL Batgirl fans—what you are about to see is not a test. Not a drill. No dream, or imaginary story. This interview contains an actual, honest-to-bats preview of the first issue of the series we’ve all been dreaming about: Batgirls. Yes, that’s Batgirls with an S. This December, we’re finally going deep on that good, good Babs and Cass and Steph content we’ve always wanted. As you bask in these pages brain-blowingly illustrated by the great Jorge Corona along with cover artists InHyuk Lee, Rian Gonzales and Dan Hipp, allow your eyes to drift to the words surrounding them. We lit up the Bat Signal for a talk with series writers Becky Cloonan and Michael W. Conrad to discuss the intended direction for our favorite girls, the crusade for disability representation, and of course, which Will Ferrell movie was most inspirational to the book’s tone.
The concept of an all-Batgirls series seems like an obvious homerun. It’s something that a lot of fans have been asking about for years now. Why is now finally the time for Batgirls?
Becky Cloonan: You know, I’ve heard it said once that you can’t rush a miracle. I think sometimes things take time to happen. We were very happy to be asked.
Michael W. Conrad: I think publishers and editors are used to hearing people say, “Oh, I’d love to see a series of something,” and then it’ll happen…and people don’t show up for it. So, I think it’s getting harder now for fans to say, “Hey, I’d really like this thing,” and then to actually see it happen in a reasonable amount of time. But I do think the principal actors within Batgirls have shown that they have a pretty strong fan base. And putting them together and watching them interact with each other has been really exciting for readers, and certainly for us.
This is one of those things that absolutely seems like a passion project for everybody involved. How did you both first fall in love with Babs and Steph and Cass?
MWC: Years ago, as a reader. Just picking up various Gotham books, I would be excited any time they’d show up. My relationship with the characters is just like any reader out there, you know? I would always be excited when they were featured in a storyline, or when they would have their own books. As far as being able to interact with the characters on a creative level, I think it really colored the way I went back and re-read everything. It made me further define what I loved about each of these characters independently, and what I loved about when they were together. So yeah, it’s kind of been like a changing and evolving relationship with my fandom with them.
There were things about them that I liked a lot as a reader that I realized as a creator, those things already exist, so it might be time to focus on other elements of the character. Or to take a little thing that I loved that maybe wasn’t the first thing I would think about with regard to a character and try to pull that a little bit so that we could experience different elements of these characters. Make them more dynamic, make them more real, without forgetting, you know, the obvious big, incredible things that these characters are capable of doing that I fell in love with them for initially.
BC: That’s really good.
MWC: Did I just give away your answer?
BC: No, no! I was going to say my first interaction with Batgirl as a fan was through Batman: The Animated Series. I think that was before I read any Batman comics. That was like my first foray into Gotham as a kid, because that came out when I was still pretty young. With the comics, it was probably Gail Simone’s run that got me hooked on the character. It’s so different when you’re writing something rather than reading and being a fan of something. Like you discover who these characters are, in a way. It’s like having a friend, and then all of a sudden, you’re roommates with them. You discover more about a person when you’re more intimately connected like that.
The relationship between Cass and Steph seems like it’s really the heart of the book. But it’s not really a dynamic that has been explored much since Cassandra’s own 2000s Batgirl series. How has that dynamic changed in the last twenty years? How did Cass and Steph become so close?
MWC: Some of that is going to be revealed as we share our story and our version of these characters. One thing that we came into this book with was we wanted to show healthy relationships. We wanted there to be real dynamics there. We wanted there to be some tension and drama, but in reality, in my relationships with the people that I love and care about, I don’t ever punch them, ever. That would never be a thing that I would think to do! So, we wanted to do that. We wanted to show a happy relationship.
One of the points that I always make is the movie Step Brothers. I always thought that the best parts in Step Brothers were when the two main characters were getting along, rather than when they were fighting. The fight scenes were neat and fun, but I felt like that movie had its funniest moments when they were getting along. So, we wanted to do a story about people getting along within the confines of superherodom. Where, yes, there’s going to be a lot of punching and kicking, but we’re going to try to direct it the right way. And furthermore, it’s about female characters, and I think there’s something to be said for female characters on a page getting along rather than being catty and weird with each other. Not necessarily groundbreaking stuff by any means in regards to showing healthy female relationships, but I think comics have room to grow in that department.
BC: It’s definitely a comic about friendship. And we’re going to explore all of their relationships. That’s one of the things we want to focus on in the book.
Apart from their friendship, I’d like to talk specifically about Stephanie. Because other than her own 2009 Batgirl series, Stephanie has largely been defined in juxtaposition to the people around her, whether that’s Tim Drake, or her father Cluemaster, or even Cass herself. How do you see yourselves exploring Steph here as a character in her own right?
BC: It’s great when you get to write a character who is very well defined, but with Steph, there’s still so much to do with her and so much story to tell. It’s so much fun to think where we’re going to put her in the future and the things she’s going to learn. I love having a character with that much potential. Not to say that they don’t all have potential, but they’re all so developed. I feel like Stephanie…it’s a lot of fun to think about her.
MWC: I think it’s easy to compare her and look in contrast. It’s easy to say, “Cass is probably a better fighter.” Or, you know, “Babs is probably better at doing detective-type things.” And part of the reason we can say these things is because these are central motifs of these characters. With Steph, there’s room to be really dynamic with her. We know we love her. We know that she’s pretty darn good at many things. But we’ve got a real opportunity here with this series to show that these are the things that Steph does best. These are her singular, central motifs. And these are the things that, moving forward, everyone around her will be measured against.
Speaking of Cass and Steph’s previous individual Batgirl runs, can we expect to run into any friends or enemies from their first Batgirl tenures here? And what about new faces?
MWC: I say yes to both of those. For us as fans, there are definitely faces that we want to see again. Also, I see what people are saying and sometimes it feels good when people say, “Oh, I’d love to see this character again,” when we’ve already got pages in the can with this character.
As far as new characters, we can’t get away from new characters. That’s part of what’s neat and dynamic about Gotham is the endless potential of there being new, strange characters showing up.
BC: We’re coming in right off the heels of “Fear State”. So, it’s really cool to take what they’ve done there—the whole Magistrate stuff, and Simon Saint—and really dig into characters that have come out of this very contemporary Gotham. But also, of course we want to use the classics. There’s room for all of it.
MWC: And maybe some characters that some people have forgotten about! Some characters that have shown up in past Batgirl comics that really meant stuff to us. I so want to spoil it, but…there are characters who are really going to delight people when they show up on the pages.
There’s a sense to all three of these Batgirls that each of them adopted the Bat symbol on their own accord, not waiting for Batman’s permission or endorsement. How is the mantle of Batgirl different from Batman, or even Robin?
MWC: Batman’s the person who came up with this bizarre idea. And naturally, he’s taken on Robin and it’s kind of a thing that just continues to bloom. And as it blooms, there are off-shoots of the same family tree. So where the original Robin may be like the son, we’re now getting into territory where, if we have our druthers, we’ll be getting into like the weird second cousins and stuff. There are Batgirls that are very connected to Batman, and then there are ones that aren’t so connected to him.
BC: Yeah, they’re also like a sisterhood, you know? There is that element to it, I think, that they’re doing it on their own. It connects them, all these characters. They’ve all been characters other than Batgirl. They’ve had other identities. But at the same time, you’re always going to be Batgirl first. You might be a Spoiler, but you’re also going to be a Batgirl. And the same with Oracle. Oracle is also such a big part of Babs’s identity, but she’s also Batgirl. I think it’s not the sort of thing that you shrug off. You become one, and then you just are one.
Let’s get serious. It’s time to talk about Barbara Gordon. Before The New 52, Oracle was widely known as an icon for disability representation. Ten years after the Flashpoint reboot, which made her an active Batgirl again, many fans still miss that representation. How do you plan to address Barbara’s relationship with mobility and disability in Batgirls?
BC: We are addressing it, I think, pretty head-on. Right now, Barbara has a chip in her back that allows her to walk again. But in our book, she has off days. She’s got bad days. So, we’ll see her using a cane. She does use a wheelchair occasionally. She’s got days when she’s just spending some time under her desk rearranging all the cables, you know? And I think anyone would want to spend the rest of the day sitting down. So, I think it’s just natural. We don’t make a huge deal of it because it’s such a big part of her character and her history. It’s not like we want to beat readers over the head with this idea. But at the same time, we want to show that it’s still part of her character. She is still disabled, even if she doesn’t always look like it all the time. She can walk around, but it’s still a part of her.
MWC: And we love that she’s become an icon for this community. It’s a community that we really want to serve. We’re going to do so to our greatest ability, without necessarily creating a different character entirely in our book. We can’t have her running and jumping through, I don’t know, ventilation shafts of whatever in one book, and then in our book have her be a representation of someone with different mobility skills. It’s just a continuity issue.
That said, I’ve got a past in working with people who have mobility challenges. And, like Becky said, it doesn’t always present in a way that becomes central to a character, and it shouldn’t be. It should be that the central thing going on here is this awesome character and her great personality, and then if we can also show her physical norm is different from maybe your physical norm, then great. And if it’s something that people can identify with and feel empowered by, we would love that.
BC: Yeah, and that’s what we’re really here to do. When we first got asked to work on Batgirls, one of the things we pushed for was, “Hey, we want to show Babs in a chair again, but she’s just going to have some days where she needs to use it, you know?” It’s such an integral part of her.
And that’s true to life, too. There are so many people who use wheelchairs, and use canes, but they don’t necessarily need them all of the time. And I think it’s really going to help to show that.
BC: Exactly. And I know people who, it’s frustrating for them because they have mobility issues, but not all the time.
MWC: And we don’t want to make it feel like, “Oh, here’s like a half-assed representation of something.” Or, “Here’s an afterthought of what this particular modality can look like.” It’s really coming from the most genuine place that we have. It’s coming from a place of fandom of the character, her various iterations, and also of our great love for the fact that people have seen something there that looks like them. That feels like their life on a comic book page. We want to maintain that. We want to strengthen that moving forward.
BC: We don’t want to think that we’ve taken something away from people. We’re here to make people feel good, and we want to make a book that makes people feel good. And that’s a big part of it.
As long as we’re here celebrating Batgirls, I want to bring up someone we sometimes forget. There’s one person to use the Batgirl name before Barbara…a girl by the name of Betty Kane. You got any respect for the OG?
MWC: The book’s called Batgirls, you know? It’s just called Batgirls. Which means the door is there. And when I see a door, I’m a curious person, I’m going to open that door and see what comes through. So, I suspect, um…we aren’t going spoil anything. But the book’s called Batgirls.
BC: There’s also characters out there who could possibly be a Batgirl and not have been one yet. So, we’ve got ideas. We’ve got plans. This right now is the very start of things. And if people like it, and it goes well, which I hope people do and I hope it does, you’ll see there’s a lot more.