After waiting for what felt like an eternity, DC finally got the memo (they had the memo actually, I think they just chose to ignore it) and started to produce more all-ages and YA material in 2019. While in many regards it feels a little too late considering how DC and AT&T are currently imploding, it does feel like a sweet victory because it also brought about the return of a more familiar iteration of Oracle. With that comes the much needed return of more disability representation, which the core DC universe has been especially lacking with the slap to the face treatment of Barbara Gordon in the New 52 relaunch.
A lot of these YA books from DC are self-contained and completely separate from any core continuity. In my mind that's a bit of a 50/50 positive and negative split; negative because I believe that the core continuity would benefit from these books to improve the entire lineup, but positive because it allows for so much freedom to create something that's not bogged down by linewide editorial demands. That freedom allows this book to be a perfectly executed stand-alone piece, requiring little to no knowledge of who Barbara or James Gordon are while allowing new readers to find a gateway into DC comics.
Being a standalone entity, there is no Batman and there is no Joker, instead re-framing Barbara's injury from a completely different context to omit any heavy handed interconnected pathos. By doing so they allow for the focus to be more on the element of Barbara's struggle with her injury, her working through all the emotions and social complexities, and finally to insure the reader that this is a story about Barbara Gordon and not one about Batman, the Joker, or even Oracle as an identity.
Recovering from her injury, Barbara is sent to the Arkham Center for Independence for physical and mental rehabilitation. Frustrated, disconnected, and feeling isolated as her best friend ghosted on her after the incident, she struggles with connecting to the other patients and dealing with the trauma of her incident. During all of this she develops a sense of unease about the disappearance of another patient's brother, who the administrator Dr Maxwell claims never came to the center and was in fact deceased. As Barbara slowly pulls together the pieces of her identity and her life, she's also putting together the puzzle of Arkham Center.
And yes, it does beat you over the head with the puzzle metaphors, but it works.
Marieke Nijkamp's scripting and pacing did a great job of balancing the character elements along with the mystery plot. As Barbara becomes more and more suspicious of her current situation, she also starts to connect with a younger patient named Jena who shares fairytale like ghost stories that inform and shape the backstory.
I absolutely loved Manuel Preitano's artwork. At times reminiscent of Cliff Chiang, it's clean, versatile, and packed with emotional energy. Each story told by Jena has its own tone and style offering up a range of engaging design work and flourishes, while elements in Barbara's reality fluctuate between claustrophobic spaces and brighter and more open compositions as she begins to connect to new friends.
Barbara is finely developed, and her hesitancy to accept help or friendship towards the start of the story is finely examined along with her gradual acceptance of other people back into her life. Nijkamp's passion for representing disabled individuals and their lives shines throughout the book, offering a look into various emotional struggles and trauma in a way that's informative as well as inclusive.
It's the kind of book that I didn't think DC was capable of producing since 2011, so that also just goes to show you there's always room to hope.