Shadow of the Batgirl by Sarah Kuhn

DC is putting out a series of stand-alone graphic novels for teens that also appeals to adults. So far, the series has a lot of diverse representation among authors, artists, and characters so even though I’m not a huge DC reader I am ALL OVER these books. One of the first books, Sarah Kuhn’s Shadow of the Batgirl, has given us a new version of the Cassandra Cain story (Cassandra was one of the Batgirls in comics history) that includes a library, romance, childhood trauma, friendship, food, and a focus on mentorship between women. So, obviously, I liked it.

I didn’t know anything about the character before starting the book, and that’s fine because this is a re-booted origin story. Cassandra Cain is raised to be an assassin from childhood. Her father teaches her to fight and kill but not to read or speak. When Cassandra experiences a moment of empathy for one of her victims she flees into Gotham City and hides in the library, thus fulfilling my primary dream, which is second only to my dream of running away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art like the kids in The Mysterious Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. But I digress.

Gotham Library is AMAZING

Anyway, Cassandra gets food from the owner of a noodle restaurant, Jacqueline Fujikawa Yoneyama. Jackie is a woman of advanced years who is still able to fight off robbers with aplomb. Cassandra teaches herself to read and learns about the world by eavesdropping on Storytime, led by Barbara Gordon, at the library. Eventually Jackie and Barbara, who already know each other, become mentors to Cassandra – teaching her to have relationships with people and helping her sort through her trauma and her values. Barbara’s stories about Batgirl inspire Cassandra to follow in Batgirl’s footsteps as a hero instead of following her father’s instructions to be a villain.

Cassandra has a really lovely romance with Erik, a jock who is also a talented artist and writer. Erik starts a romance and poetry book club. Like all fans, he has no chill and it’s truly beautiful to watch him rave about romance novels. Be still, my heart. I loved this character and I loved the delicate, kind, deeply empathetic relationship he has with Cassandra. He defies a lot of expectations and stereotypes and supports Cassandra while also having his own character arc.

Barbara watches Cassandra and Erik and ships it
Barbara ships it.

This story has a good mix of humor and angst, with lovely art and a lot of movement – not just in the sense of action, but in how the panels are designed and arranged and how the art stays dynamic even when it depicts two people sitting down and talking. The only problem I have with it is that there’s too much great stuff crammed into a small space. I wanted this to be longer. I wanted the characters to have more breathing time, and I want to know what happens next. I teetered between and A grade and a B+ grade for this book, not to mention SQUEE because Cassandra LIVES IN A LIBRARY. But if I’m being honest, I have to admit that the book feels like the first chapter in a larger story, not a fully complete book in its own right.

If you have a thing for found family and for bonds between women, not to mention positive representation of wheelchair use (Barbara) and the elderly (Jackie) look no further. Also prepare to be hungry because they eat a lot in this comic. I appreciated the fact that “Asian” isn’t lumped into one category. Jackie is Japanese American, Cassandra’s mother is Chinese and father is Caucasian, and Erik describes himself as “Blasian American” (he is Black and Asian, although he doesn’t get more specific). I LOVED that Erik, a guy, is the romance novel fan and that Cassandra uses romance novels to understand human emotions. I just wanted more and more and more of this story and these affirming, exciting characters.

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