“Fundamental Comics,” a monthly editorial series that introduces readers to comics, graphic novels, and manga that have been impactful to the sequential art medium and the comic book industry on a foundational level. Each month, a new essay will examine a familiar or less-known title through an in-depth analysis, exploring the history of the title, significant themes, and context for the title’s popularity since it was first released.
Shadow of the Batgirl
Writer: Sarah Kuhn
Artist: Nicole Goux
Colorist: Cris Peter
Letterer: Janice Chiang and Saida Temofonte
Publisher: DC Comics
Publication Date: 2020
No. of Issues: Graphic Novel
Introduction: From Assassin to Hero
Cassandra Cain is a complex character who must discover who she really is after being long taught that she’s nothing more than a weapon. In the hands of her father, she’s deadly. Away from his grasp, readers learn that this teenager is able to use her skills in other ways. Even more humanely, Cassandra Cain represents a world of unseen superheroes who want to do good, while also seeking to find those who only want to protect and love her.
Struggling with the grips of her new reality and away from killing people, Cassandra seeks out Batgirl in the hopes of bringing down the ultimate of all villains. One of the many questions along this beautiful story is whether she will be able to choose a path that does not lead to death and destruction.
Shadow of the Batgirl jumps into the main character’s life, right in the middle of a “hit.” Writer Sarah Kuhn exceptionally crafts an introduction that immediately highlights Cain’s deadly skills, while also giving us something completely unexpected: sympathy. The agony being felt by this character is hauntingly genuine.
Artist Nicole Goux creates a sense of shock and desperation in Cain’s expressions that further amplify this need to run away from her current life. The value of being an assassin is stripped away, and Cassandra Cain becomes a blank slate, uncertain of anything in her life. So, like a true detective, she starts to put pieces together to discover what kind of person she truly is. Is she a villain, or is it possible for her to be something else?
Kuhn places a few reliable characters in Cain’s corner to provide the emotional and caring support that should come with having loved ones by our sides: Jacqueline “Jackie” Fujikawa Yoneyama and Barbara Gordon. The positive influences from these two characters help Cassandra Cain to identify what’s right and wrong, and where she fits within that balance of finding her fatherly villain and taking him down.
Along this trying journey of self-discovery, Shadow of the Batgirl represents a different image of Gotham City. It’s filled with a blend of vibrant colors provided by Cris Peter and a sincerity mixed with vulnerability from its characters that makes this story captivating and fun to read. Cassandra Cain is an Asian superhero, and her representation has already had an impact on its writer. Kuhn noted, “Cassandra Cain was one of the first Asian girl heroes I saw who actually got to be the hero…I fell in love with Cassandra Cain, and she helped me see that a superhero could look like me” (graphic novel introduction).
The characters within this story demonstrate an astounding capacity to learn and empathize with each other’s plights. On top of a phenomenal story of good versus evil, Cassandra learns who she is deep down, despite being told something else her entire life. Her journey through Gotham City is unlike any other, and it’s a path that’s worth revisiting as she learns to depend on others while also standing up for herself – a message that’s clearly relevant to everyone at some point in their lives.
Reception Upon Release
The likes of Kirkus, Soda and Telepaths, AV Club, and the New York Times bestselling author of Monstress Marjorie Liu rave about Shadow of the Batgirl. According to Kirkus, “Without a shadow of a doubt, readers will enjoy this hero’s backstory.”
Soda and Telepahts noted that “Cassandra’s story resonates so strongly, because there are tons of kids who don’t feel seen by the people around them…an enchanting coming-of-age story that will inspire readers to find their voices and be seen.”
Additionally, the AV Club remarked, “Watching two young women making part of their journeys together is a wonderful and rare thing in comics, and Shadow of the Batgirl is truly special for featuring it.”
Admiration of this story is also shared by writer Marjorie Liu (Monstress): “The superhero book I’ve always wanted and needed–heartwarming, vibrantly alive, a loving portrayal of Cassandra Cain that will leave readers hungry for more.”
Shadow of the Batgirl depicts a capable and lonely teenager who has to endure a traumatic upbringing to push forward in life. Cassandra’s deadly fighting skills have kept her safe, but she soon questions her safety if she leaves the world of being an assassin. More so, she learns to subdue instead of kill, while also wanting to protect those she holds closest to her heart.
Sarah Kuhn writes amazing characters with perfect dialogue. Supporting characters share important messages that emphasize the simplicity of dealing with internal suffering: “It’s okay to not be okay.” From letterers Janice Chiang and Saida Temofonte, various colored and shaped text boxes perfectly capture tone in conversations, while boldly written sound effects amplify action or humorous scenes.
Artist Nicole Goux creates Cassandra Cain in a way that makes it believable and unavoidable to think of her being drawn any other way. There’s a truly sincere quality to facial expressions and movements, whether from walking, jumping floor to floor in the library, or fighting tactics – this is Batgirl. Colorist Peter gives readers a great assortment of colors, wonderfully leaning into blue, pink, and purple hues.
Along with beautiful colors, the overall design of this graphic novel allows for this story to flow smoothly. Most pages are filled with multiple panels, sometimes overlapping, and these comic panels are variously shaped while placement changes from one page to the next. This design adds to a story that’s already easy to read, making it an entertainingly quick read.
Cassandra must traverse inner demons that tell her she’s worthless, while battling nightmares that further antagonize those feelings of not being good enough. In a world of social media and intense scrutiny about every single action, this battle of self-worth and finding one’s place in the world is very relatable today. The notion that we are only as good as what someone else thinks of us is damaging and might not be something we can see beyond without help.
Shadow of the Batgirl is that help. It’s a positive message of finding and holding onto friendships and learning to forgive and understand that people have a voice within themselves to change who they are. It’s a transformative story of growth beyond an amoral upbringing that left lasting scars that can’t be seen on the surface.
In the real world where identity and finding a place of belonging is a natural part of growing up, this graphic novel is the absolute perfect reason to believe in superheroes. While we always hope that #StoriesMatter in some way, Shadow of the Batgirl excels at this by giving us a story that connects with readers by sending the message that we are not alone in this world. We can depend on others in a way that might seem scary at first, but, in the end, opening up might very well keep our hearts and spirits alive.
Other Points of Interest
Shadow of the Batgirl has made Nerdist’s “Best Comics of 2020,” stating, “Goux and Kuhn are a killer team who made something that feels completely inventive, yet utterly familiar as a Bat-story. Just a total smash. We want more.”
Shadow of the Batgirl has also made Bookriot’s “16 of the Best New Comics in 2020 for a Joy Boost,” while landing on Buzzfeed’s “20 Graphic Novels and Nonfiction That YA Readers Will Love.”
A sneak preview of Shadow of the Batgirl is currently available on ComiXology.