First of all, I’d like to give a round of applause to the cleverness of putting an artist named Bengal on a comic book featuring a tiger themed villain and extended fight sequences of Batgirl against tigers. Batgirl #44 begins immediately after last issue when the new villain Velvet Tiger kidnapped Jo, the fiancee of Barbara Gordon’s friend Alysia and also framed her friend/gadget provider Qadir for murder. The plot of this issue involving the rescue of Jo, several showdowns with Velvet Tiger, and almost a half dozen supporting characters is packed to the brim by writers Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher. However, the sheer expressiveness of Bengal’s art and Serge Lapointe’s colors along with a nice dose of adorable in the several romantic scenes keep the issue afloat and entertaining.
One of the big things that stands out in Bengal’s art is the large range of expression he gives characters’ faces, especially Batgirl, which is a quite a feat because her face is mostly obscured by mask and cowl. However, her smirks, grins, and fierce battle faces drive the plot of Batgirl #44 as she bounces from character to character and location to location propelled by her desire to save her friend’s wedding. And Bengal gets creative once the battles start as he uses twisting and turning panels paired with blurry lines and reaction shots to show the frantic nature of Batgirl’s fights with Velvet Tiger, who happens to be a tech genius beneath the insanity and gaudy fur coat. The reaction shots add some personality and emotion to the fights like when Batgirl’s teeth are chattering as she shoots a blow dart at a tiger coming right at her, or the friendly wink and thumbs up she gives to Alysia when she rescues Jo herself.
Batgirl #44 has tons and tons of characters, which is partially a testament to Stewart, Fletcher, and series artist Babs Tarr making Burnside a vibrant world of its own while still interacting with the larger Batman universe. (Barbara and Luke have a relevant exchange about Luke not becoming Batwing again because the new Batman has been hunting down vigilantes.) This also makes it easy to create villains organically because Velvet Tiger is actually the ex-girlfriend of Barbara’s thesis advisor Jeremy DeGroot and still has control over his life. Her motivation is psychopathy, but this gets lost under some technobabble from Stewart and Fletcher that is a little much to process even if it does establish the cyber-centric world of Barbara and her supporting cast, who can basically all code or do more.
The best moments in Batgirl #44 come from Batgirl inspiring and empowering her friends to do heroic things. There is Alysia Yeoh, who uses her own technological know-how as an activist, to find out where Jo is all by herself. Bengal shows her bravery in an establishing panel that contrasts the gated The Shining meets the house from the upcoming Guillermo del Toro film Crimson Peak hideout of Velvet Tiger with Alysia’s Smart Car. Lapointe also uses some of Gotham Academy‘s Gothic aesthetic in his palette with a color composition of shadows and a chink of light instead of his usual purple and yellows for this book.
There is also Frankie, who barely appears in this issue, but takes a huge step towards becoming Batgirl in her own right by stealthily getting Qadir cleared of the crimes Velvet Tiger framed him for and saving Batgirl from becoming a woman’s heart wrapped in a tiger’s hide with a talking motorcycle. This climactic moment gets the royal treatment from Bengal as he draws a full page spread of a big-ass motorcycle knocking Velvet Tiger upside the head in a thrilling page turn reveal. Stewart and Fletcher play a drugged by Velvet Tiger’s weapons Batgirl’s surprised reaction for some audience surrogate humor while Bengal shows her vulnerability as she struggles to mount the bike. She doesn’t show up in the flesh until the cliffhanger ending, but Frankie Charles is the true hero of Batgirl #44 and can play the roles of Oracle and Batgirl like a pro.
The romance between Luke Fox and Batgirl may seem a little rushed even though they spent some time together last issue investigating a mystery and may have had a conversation or two in Batman Eternal, but Bengal’s flirty facial expression and some sparkling dialogue from Fletcher and Stewart helps make it more believable. Some awkward (A chronometer is mentioned and then left hanging during the fight between Batgirl and Velvet Tiger.) techno-exposition aside, Batgirl #44 is a showcase for Bengal’s skill with faces and panel composition, gives Frankie and Alysia some character defining moments, and continues to masterfully meld cyber thrills with relationship drama.