Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Batgirl author Hope Larson talks about the changing face of Burnside, Gotham City's Brooklyn, where tech incubators and housing affordability are bigger threats than even the Penguin and Harley Quinn.
In Batgirl: Son of Penguin, Gotham City’s favorite daughter must confront a new threat to the neighborhood: change. Ethan Cobblepot, the son of the notorious Bat-villain, the Penguin, has arrived in Burnside, the hip, transitional Gotham neighborhood where Barbara Gordon (a.k.a. Batgirl) lives. Cobblepot Jr. represents a force even more sinister than his waddling father’s collection of lethal umbrellas: He’s a major tech mogul, a disruptor to put Elon Musk to shame. The tech incubator that he launches in Burnside could transform life for the worse in Gordon’s neighborhood, which is growing less affordable by the minute. Cobblepot would be a major irritation in her world—if he weren’t kind of cute?
Son of Penguin is one of the best storylines so far in Hope Larson’s run on Batgirl, a comic that looks beyond the Bat Cave to find a more familiar, lived-in world within Gotham City. Larson, an Eisner Award–winning comic-book writer and New York Times best-selling graphic novelist, has won over readers of gritty Bat books and charming indies alike through her vibrant world building.
CityLab caught up with Larson after SXSW, where she spoke at the brand new Cities summit about graphic novels and designing utopias and dystopias in fiction. The author talks about exploring gentrification in Batgirl’s world, realizing her own version of A Wrinkle in Time, and capturing the frustration of waiting for someone to text you back in her new graphic novel, All Summer Long.
Tell me please about Burnside, the neighborhood in Gotham City where Batgirl lives. How is it different from Gotham? How is it different from Williamsburg?
Burnside is basically the Brooklyn of Gotham City. It’s across the harbor. It’s basically the younger, hipper Gotham, where the stakes are not quite so high. The fate of the world is hanging in the balance a bit less. The stories in this world are focused a bit more on Barbara Gordon’s personal life than they would be if it were a Batman book.
To kick off your story arc, you took Batgirl out of Burnside for a series of adventures. What happened while she was gone?
It was actually my editor’s suggestion to send her on this backpacking trip. It was a really good idea, in my opinion, to do a palette cleanser arc between Beyond Burnside—which was the arc before mine, and very Burnside focused—and the rest of my run.
One of the things that changed in her absence is that she had founded this company, Gordon Clean Energy, as Barbara Gordon, before leaving. She left it in the care of her two friends, Alexia and Frankie. They’ve been running this company in her absence. When she returns, she is seeing the side effects of opening a huge tech and energy company in a cool hipster neighborhood. It’s basically a lot of gentrification happening. Her favorite coffee shop closed. I wasn’t allowed to kill anybody, but I could kill the coffee shop. That was going to be my move that says I mean business.
In one sequence, Barbara Gordon meets up with some friends at a club that’s shaped like an enormous fishbowl. She overhears people complaining about unsightly homeless people. It’s a scene you can easily picture happening in, say, San Francisco. What does this conflict mean to Batgirl?
She is a traditional superhero, out there fighting in the streets for good. She’s basically up against newcomers who want to influence a lot of change in Burnside, but they do it at a remove. The issues that you’re mentioning, with the homeless population—somebody has created an app for that. If you see indigent people on the street, you can use this app to get them “help.” And you never have to be there. You can just push a button, and that’s it.
And the way you’re saying it, this solution is horrifying?
I find it horrifying. In that story, it turns out that a supervillain is scooping up these folks on the streets and experimenting on them. Because there’s no oversight.
Batgirl’s got the traditional rogues’ gallery, with punch-’em-up bad guys like Clayface or Harley Quinn. But her main enemies might actually be tech and gentrification. Can you tell me about how these threads came together in Son of the Penguin?
Where I was coming from as a writer, on this arc: I’m a person who has basically only lived in gentrifying neighborhoods in her adult life. I was drawing from things I was seeing in my day-to-day life in Highland Park in Los Angeles. And before that, in Silver Lake. Now I live back in my home town of Asheville, North Carolina. Even here I’m living in a gentrifying neighborhood. As someone in her 30s, who is still up and coming a little bit, at least financially, these are the places I can afford to live. I’m always having to grapple with the idea that I am an affluent white person moving into a neighborhood that might be a Latino neighborhood, for example. I’m part of that wave of folks who are coming in and changing things. It’s not a great feeling all the time to know that I am part of that system.
So in a way Batgirl’s conflict is the conflict you’re experiencing.
Yes, exactly, but writ large.
I want to know what else about urban life Barbara Gordon experiences. Does Batgirl have to deal with street harassment?
I may have written a little bit of that. I can’t remember. The cool thing about Barbara Gordon is that if somebody messes with her, she can deal with it. It’s not like she needs to smile and walk away and hope that she doesn’t get followed.
Gordon has an eidetic memory, which manifests in these vivid, three-dimensional crime scenes. Does writing these scenes out change the way you think about space or look at the built environment?
I’m always thinking about space when I’m writing comics, because it’s kind of like film-making, you have to be thinking in three dimensions. That’s actually the skill that took me a really long time to develop and feel comfortable with, having this spatial awareness of fictional environments and building them in your brain so you can move characters around inside them and manipulate them.
I guess you could say that Batgirl’s eidetic memory is kind of like that, but to the nth degree. She can mentally transport herself back to any place that she’s ever been and walk around it in three dimensions and reexamine details that maybe she didn’t notice at the time—but they’re all just locked in her brain. Which is a pretty amazing skill to have. It also ties into her history of being a librarian. She’s a human computer, a human catalog.
That’s right—so why does Barbara Gordon need a library science degree?
We wanted to bring that back to her character. She’s historically always been a librarian. This character goes back to the early ‘60s. One of the things that is so cool about librarians is that they’re really involved in their communities. It’s not just that you’re dealing with books and research. You’re also helping out folks who may not have any other resource for computers, how to deal with stuff like taxes, small-business stuff. Libraries are really a community resource. I wanted her to be thinking about other ways she could be helping to build up her community, other than being just a crime fighter.
Speaking of thinking like a film-maker, you wrote A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel, an illustrated adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s book. How does your depiction align with or depart from Ava DuVernay’s film adaptation?
It’s totally different. This book came out in 2012. We thought there was going to be a movie coming out in 2012. The graphic novel was supposed to coincide with that release. The movie ended up going back into turnaround. It wasn’t for a while that Ava DuVernay got attached to it. It’s pretty cool, because I got to do my little version in isolation, and she got to do her totally different version. Which I think is pretty fascinating. There are a lot of cool smart choices in there that maybe I appreciate more than other people do because I’m so familiar with the source material at this point. It was pretty brave to update the movie, set it in Los Angeles, ground it in the real world of right now as opposed to ‘62, when the book came out. My version was totally faithful to the adaptation. All of the dialog is in there. I didn’t take any liberties, I didn’t make any big changes. Ava actually does go in and make a lot of changes and I totally respect that. It’s such a weird book. It’s hard to structure for a movie. I think they did a pretty good job.
What’s the story with your latest project, All Summer Long?
It’s coming out in May. It’s the first of three graphic novels. The next two will be sequels, but stand-alones. It’s set in Los Angeles right now, contemporary. It’s about Bina, who is an aspiring musician, and her best friend, Austin. The two of them are 13 about to go into 8th grade. For the first time, they’re drifting apart, and their friendship is strained. Bina is trying to understand what’s going on and how she can reconnect with her best friend.
I’m reading it right now, and I’m at the part where Bina winds up breaking into Austin’s house. Inside she runs into Austin’s mean older sister, Charlie, who Bina idolizes. Charlie just got doored on her bicycle, and she seems pretty irritated about it, and then Bina surprises her, but Charlie is uncharacteristically cool to Bina. It’s a whole thing, so, of course, Bina texts Austin everything. And he won’t text her back. Why do they never text back?
I can’t tell you why not because that’s one of the central bits of the book! I don’t want to spoil it. It’s one of the hardest, most brutal things as a kid, or anyone, really. You’re reaching out to someone and they’re just ignoring you. It’s the worst.
Is that where this story stays? Is there action coming, or is this a smaller scale, human story?
It’s a very grounded, slice-of-life story. It’s been a lot of fun to work on something like that because I have been writing Batgirl and bigger action-packed things for a couple of years. It’s a nice break to slow it down, just focus on the day-to-day. The feelings these kids are having are very big, but their problems maybe look small on the outside.
Finally, and I’m sorry, this question is from a Facebook parlor game: What were your first five jobs?
I was a cashier at a pet-supply store, then a video clerk, back when that was a job one could have. After that, I made the jump to comics. I did some lettering and illustration as well, to pay the bills, before the graphic novel thing took off.