When we look back at pop culture in the early 21st century, there is little doubt we will think of it as the golden age of female heroines. Figuring out exactly who started the trend will be up for debate — some will argue Buffy the Vampire Slayer, others will point to Hermione Granger of Hogwarts fame — but right here, right now, there is no question that the swashbuckling young hero that captivates readers and viewers is a woman just as often as it is a man.
From The Hunger Games' Katniss Everdeen to Divergent's Tris Prior and The 100's Clarke Griffin, strong, fearless heroines are just as apt as their male counterparts to risk life and limb to protect the innocent and punish the guilty. In fact, the point could easily be made that our YA heroines in particular are more courageous than the average male comic book hero considering the absolutely brutal dystopian worlds in which these ladies live. After all, when someone dies in The Hunger Games, they stay dead; when someone dies in, oh, let's say Captain America, they inevitably come back to life. (Hello, Bucky.)
Oddly enough, this female-centric era is just starting to take hold in the world of comic books. Wonder Woman has always been in the upper echelon of characters, the X-women have been kicking ass and taking names since the late 1970s, and Catwoman has had her own title since the 1990s, but comics have generally been a boys club. Things have changed. Thor is now a woman, and Spider-Gwen and Silk, two Spidey off-shoots, are breakout comic stars. Meanwhile, Supergirl is set to make her TV debut, and Wonder Woman is finally going to shine on the big screen.
More specially, enter Batgirl as written by Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher and drawn by Mt. Pleasant's own Babs Tarr. Starting last October, this trio have taken Barbara Gordon and given her a Veronica Mars makeover. The result: they've breathed new life into the one-time Bat Family B-lister. Under Stewart, Fletcher, and Tarr's helm, each issue of Batgirl is crackling with witty dialogue, plenty of action, hipster satire, and an ample dose of real-world woes — social media stalkers, erased hard drives, college papers, drunken hook ups, hangovers!!!
Tarr for one is glad that DC Comics has opted for a more carefree approach. "Instead of hunting down murderous psycho killers, she's solving crimes. They're quick and quirky and fun, and it's more upbeat like old-school comics were," Tarr says. "She's also a lot like Spider-Man, where she's dealing with real life and having to balance being a superhero on top of it, and the trials and tribulations that come with it."
A fan of manga heroines like Sailor Moon, Tarr and her whimsical Japanese-inspired style were an ideal fit for Batgirl's new direction. "When they saw that my art style was these young, badass ladies who are also fashionable, it just fit the tone of the new comic," she says.
The first step in accomplishing that: Getting 21-year-old Barbara Gordon out of Gotham City and into the Brooklyn-esque borough of Burnside, where coffee shops and consignment stores reign and hipsters and cyclists dwell.
And the new, more female-friendly approach appears to be working, not just with Batgirl, but across all of comic-dom. "They are seeing what's selling and what people are responding to and the new crowd. People are appreciating more diversity," Tarr says. "Fifty percent of the fans are girls and not white dudes, and they're finally starting to cater to that audience."
But while this incarnation of Batgirl is decidedly more whimsical than the titles of her Bat Family compatriots — Batman, Nightwing (a.k.a. Dick Grayson, Robin No. 1), Catwoman, and Robin (R.I.P. Damian Wayne, Boy Wonder 4) — Tarr and company haven't ignored the most traumatic episode of Barbara Gordon's life, being raped, shot, and ultimately paralyzed by The Joker in Alan Moore's seminal graphic novel, The Killing Joke. "It's such a big part of her history. It's part of the canon," Tarr says. "We have referenced it in the comic, like very lightly. She still has her wheelchair." Tarr notes that even in the previous run of Batgirl, a physically healed Gordon was still dealing with PTSD.
Interestingly, Tarr was not aware of much of Batgirl's history, as well as much of comic history, prior to joining Stewart and Fletcher. Although she was drawn to sequential art, she was ultimately turned off by the trappings of comics. "I didn't like them because, one, I didn't feel like there was a lot that appealed to me," Tarr says. "I went in the shop and told them, 'Do you have a romance or some funny, girlie story, and the guy didn't know what to do with me." Instead she gravitated to the manga books featuring magic-wielding girls and lots of romance. She says, "The girls are always wearing cute things, and I want to wear what they are wearing."
And that manga sensibility found its way into her art, whether she's drawing Princess Pea and Mario in an amorous embrace, a roller-skating Marie Antoinette (a piece she did for the Lowcountry Highrollers), or the Sailor Moon crew on motorcycles. The latter drawing ultimately led Stewart and Fletcher to write a Batgirl storyline featuring two manga-inspired female bikers.
But when it comes right down to it, Tarr connects with Batgirl in a fundamental way. "On the whole, I was her, well, not the superhero part, but I can relate to all of her everyday parts — you're in school and you're trying to figure out dating and you're trying to balance school and your social life and all of the stresses on top of trying to figure out who you are as a young person," Tarr says.
Tarr is also a scheduled speaker at this week's Dig South fest. She, along with a host of other women, will be participating in the talk titled "Women in Creative Industries: What's Gender Got to Do with It?"