Borrowing Cowls: Frankie Charles and the Batgirl Legacy

This post originally appeared on Panels, which is now Book Riot Comics

Written by Brenden Fletcher and Cameron Stewart, Art by Babs Tarr

Written by Brenden Fletcher and Cameron Stewart, Art by Babs Tarr

I admit, I like a lot about the Batgirl of Burnside run of the Batgirl book (written by Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher with lineart by Babs Tarr) and one of the big reasons for that is the character of Frankie Charles. Introduced in issue 35, she was Barbara’s friend while she was going to physical therapy after the shooting and is now Babs’ roommate in Burnside. Frankie is a bisexual black woman with muscular dystrophy — from this year’s Secret Origin issue (which is included in the first volume trade paperback, if you’re still catching up), we know that her condition is expected to get worse, but for now Frankie mostly uses braces when needing to stand and walk for long periods of time.

She’s also a coder and after learning about Barbara’s secret identity (while also helping Babs save hundreds of lives), Frankie decides she can be Batgirl’s partner. There’s been more than a little talk among fans and reviewers that Frankie is the Burnside team’s way of bringing the Oracle identity to the N52. Personally, I find the idea of the new Oracle as a queer woman of color with a disability not related to sexual assault to be amazing and just generally Frankie is a great character. It’s a win win.

A lot of the first Burnside arc was about Barbara finding balance and Frankie becoming her partner is a crucial part of that.That being said, she’s not enthusiastic about Frankie taking on hero work. Oh, clearly Babs is extremely grateful to have a partner and confidante again — the entire first Burnside arc is essentially how Barbara works best when she has a support system who understands both her civilian and superhero life. Even in the few issues since Frankie found out about her secret identity, it’s clear that Barbara works better with her friend as her partner. However, the three issues of this new arc has seen Frankie take more chances going into the field; that worries Babs.

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Written by Brenden Fletcher and Cameron Stewart, Art by Babs Tarr

Frankie is firm with Barbara that she knows her own limitations and she will do everything she can to help. They butt heads about this more than once, culminating in #43 last month when Babs specifically says, “No more investigations! You are not a superhero! I was fine with you giving tech support from home, but you can not go out on your own! That is my job, okay?”

Barbara’s concerns about the danger aren’t totally without merit. Since Frankie became her partner, they’ve dealt with Joker zombies in the Batgirl Endgame one-shot, murderous video game bros in the DCYou sneak peek, Livewire wreaking havoc in town and now tiger attacks. On top of that, Barbara learned that the Gotham Police Department is starting to target vigilantes. She wants to protect her friend from getting too deep and I think she’d be telling Frankie this even if she didn’t have a serious chronic illness. But considering Barbara’s own origin, Frankie is right to immediately question why she gets to decide who is and isn’t a hero. And it’s especially frustrating to her when Babs is running around town trying to do everything herself and not listening to her own partner about this thread in the case that needs investigating.

So what does Frankie do? She sees Barbara’s cowl just sitting there and gets the bright idea to borrow it, make her own Batgirl-ish costume, and track down Qadir for help with a project. The issue ends before we can find out what the project is, but we know it’s something that will help Babs and it’s something that needs Qadir’s expertise with tech.

Written by Brenden Fletcher and Cameron Stewart, Art by Babs Tarr

Written by Brenden Fletcher and Cameron Stewart, Art by Babs Tarr

This page (beautifully inked by Juan Castro) is actually absolutely adorable. Between her awesome Bat look, the “They don’t just give these fancy cowls out to anyone” line, and her general cool confidence as we see Frankie totally go the “fake it ‘til you make it” route of superheroining that basically all of the Batgirls have had to go through.

Make no mistake, this is a direct parallel to Barbara’s start as Batgirl, both in the N52 and the earlier canon. In the 1987 Secret Origin story, Batman is patronizing to her, assumes she is in over her head from the start — Barbara puts him in his place, saying “Don’t talk down to me, Batman! You have no idea what I can or can’t do!” The retelling of this origin in 2003’s Batgirl Year One begins with Jim refusing to let her application to the police force go through because it’s too dangerous. She ends up dressing up as Batman (mostly to tick off her dad at a Halloween party) and finds that borrowing that symbolism gives her the opportunity to be the hero she wants to be. And just recently in Batgirl #42 we got to see Jim do this to her again, this time specifically in the current canon.

Written by Brenden Fletcher and Cameron Stewart, Art by Babs Tarr

Written by Brenden Fletcher and Cameron Stewart, Art by Babs Tarr

That’s the core of the Batgirl mythos – a young woman is told that it’s too dangerous to be a hero, so she borrows someone else’s mask to craft her own identity. It’s a story of defiance and it’s one that resonates with so many young women. Steph and Cass’ individual runs as Batgirl have similar themes because this is part of what Batgirl is. Frankie’s choices in this issue are in the very spirit of the Batgirl mantle, rising above the assumptions made about you as a young woman who knows her own merit.

I’m not sure what Frankie asked Qadir to help her build. I’m not sure what will get Barbara to see the similarities between her start as a hero and Frankie’s. I don’t know if Frankie will officially take on the Oracle title or craft a new one for herself. Only time and the next few issues will tell exactly where Fletcher and Stewart are going with her arc. But I’m just so pleased with issue 43 and how, no matter what, Frankie Charles is solidified as part of the Batgirl legacy.

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