Kelley Puckett jolts Gotham with his mysterious new superhero -- a fearsome, black-winged teenage devil-sprite.
Photo: Mark Estes
By Taylor Antrim
The two batgirls are having trouble connecting. Barbara Gordon used to wear the Batgirl costume back when she fought crime alongside Batman and Robin; then she got shot in the spine by the Joker. Paralyzed from the waist down, confined to a wheelchair, this Batgirl became a different superhero: Oracle, the baddest computer hacker in the DCU (that's the DC Universe to those who know). Now there's a new Batgirl, a moody, broody, nameless 17-year-old who has never been taught to read or write and is only now learning to speak. She's a hell of a fighter, though. Raised and trained in China by the ruthless assassin David Cain, who kept her captive until the age of 8, she fled a life of evil to Gotham City, where Batman took her under his wing. The new Batgirl and Oracle live together. And they're not quite clicking.
"She's brave, yes," confides Oracle on the phone to a friend. "An incredible fighter. She'd take a bullet for a complete stranger without blinking. But as a person? I just . . . I don't know. I hate to say it, but it's hard to care about her without . . . I just wish I knew what was going on in her head. That's all."
Look out. There's Batgirl, standing behind Oracle; she has heard every word. This is not helping.
You really can't blame Oracle. The man who created the new Batgirl last year, who wrote this very scene from Batgirl #4, can't figure her out either. "To this day, I have trouble knowing what I want to do with her," says Kelley Puckett. He writes the monthly Batgirl series--the sixth most popular of DC Comics' 90 or so titles--and his silent protagonist has been giving him some difficulty advancing the story line.
"See, this kind of storytelling is synecdoche, it's fetishistic--you take the simple thing and it stands for the complex thing," says Puckett, '90. "But the problem is, I don't have a one-line description of who Batgirl is. Which is really saying the character's not well-defined in my head."
Batgirl is certainly enigmatic. On the page, she's fearsome, a black-winged teenage devil-sprite. She breaks ribs, cracks jaws and catches bullets. She's an icon, a superhero, and as such she fits into a familiar context. "Absolute good versus absolute evil, every action has a consequence--that's what all superhero comic books are about," Puckett says. Of course, contemporary comics have moved past the brightly colored adventures of the '60s classics; superheroes like Batman and Wolverine (of The X-Men) have become forbidding figures wrestling with their own shadowy pasts, full of conflicting motives and real human emotions.
But the new kid is a psychological black box. As she pummels her way through a series of gangsters and thieves, she's battling for self-definition. She's fierce and headstrong, a crime fighter with a dark childhood, the hovering question mark in Kelley Puckett's workday. You could say they're having trouble connecting, too.
All this batgirl has ever done is fight. A similar singularity defines Puckett: he's a comic-book writer, and that's the only job he's ever had. He got the idea in his junior year at Stanford when he wandered into a comic-book shop in Palo Alto. He'd read comics in junior high but not since. He picked up a series called Miracleman, written by Alan Moore (whom Puckett now considers "the greatest living comic-book writer"), and it knocked him flat.
"The idea of taking the silliest, oldest, clichéd superhero comic book and taking this approach to it that enabled you to address decidedly non-silly issues of power, control, destiny, fate, society versus the individual, etc.--it totally blew me away," he recalls. "I thought, 'If I could write something that good, that would be something worth doing.'"
A few weeks before graduation, he called the DC Comics headquarters in New York looking for a job. The head Batman editor, Denny O'Neil, had just lost an assistant, so he agreed to interview Puckett. The day after commencement, Puckett piled his belongings into his Volkswagen convertible and drove across the country to New York. He got the job.
At DC, O'Neil taught him scriptwriting technique. Puckett left the in-house position after a year and returned to the Bay Area to freelance for the company. Ten years later, he's still at it. Month after month, Puckett cranks out the 22-page Batgirl scripts (see box at left). These describe each panel in detail for his penciller, Damion Scott, in Philadelphia. Scott then draws the images and sends them back to Puckett to fine-tune the dialogue. Lettering, inking and coloring come later, the work of other specialists.
Puckett says he's a slow worker, a guy who delays and delays, then writes feverishly at deadline. He never enjoyed the creative writing classes he took as an English major at Stanford, and writing continues to be an arduous task. "I'm not one of those people who would write if nobody paid them, as some kind of personal psychotherapy," he says. "I don't even enjoy the process. I only enjoy it when it's over and it's good--and then it's great. Getting there is pure torture."
Puckett is decidedly unromantic about his craft and keeps a salty remove from what he calls "a very inbred comic-book world." You wouldn't find him at a comic-book convention. His Victorian home in San Francisco's Castro district--which he shares with his wife, corporate attorney and Stanford classmate Helen Surh, '90; their 18-month-old daughter, Samantha; and a Welsh corgi named Banter--bears little mark of Gotham. He doesn't correspond with fans. His welcome mat reads "Go Away."
Still, he can describe one of his favorite comics of all time with perfect recall (Frank Miller's 1987 Batman: The Dark Knight Returns). He regards certain pencillers, including Scott, as "geniuses." And despite the difficulty of writing, he says he loves the medium and its particular challenges in a way he has never loved producing prose. "With prose writing," says Puckett, "you're not thinking visually. You're telling the story with the prose, and the vagaries of language create your effect. Whereas with comics, you've got to tell the story in images. If you're telling the story with dialogue, you're not making comics."
So runs Puckett's philosophy, and his comics are eerily silent, action-filled page-turners. "Most comic books will have at least three times as much dialogue as mine," he says. "But if you have a lot of text on top of an image, you can't process everything at the same time. If you put a three- or four-word sentence in a dialogue balloon, and that's all the text that's in front of the image, you can kind of take it all in at once. It feels instantaneous."
Which helps explain why his Batgirl speaks so little. And, of course, her language deficit is one reason she's been hard to get to know. Another is that she's only been around the DC Universe for a short time. In a genre where protagonists and story lines persist for generations, Puckett's brainchild is still an infant, conceived on corporate demand less than two years ago.
Puckett bumped up against the old Batgirl in the early '90s when he began writing a series of monthly "one-shots" called Batman Adventures (since renamed Gotham Adventures). These single-issue stories stood separately from the plot lines of the main Batman books. They showed the classic Batman world, the one preserved in the cartoon tv series for kids--Batman versus Joker, that kind of thing. Under pressure from readers and editors, Puckett began including the Barbara Gordon Batgirl--who had been around the DC Universe for years--as a sidekick like Robin. But he never liked doing it. "I always hated the [original] character," he recalls. "Because the basic idea is that this girl with no training other than a few judo lessons at the local ymca could put on a costume and do the exact thing that Batman does every night without getting her head blown off. Which obviously doesn't reflect too well on Batman."
Still, the girl was popular, and in 1998 the editors at DC called on Puckett to create an up-to-date replacement who would star in her own series for adults. Puckett took the opportunity to fix the problem he'd had with the old-school Batgirl. He imagined a complex backstory for his new heroine, drawing on his own experience in martial arts. (He's a black belt in Tae Kwon Do.) Batgirl's assassin-trainer raised her in a bunker in China and deprived her of speech, teaching her to read body language as others would a sentence. By age 7 she'd become a martial arts prodigy, picking up on postural nuances to anticipate her opponents' moves. Batgirl couldn't speak, but she was near-invincible in a fight.
Cue the controversy. Early on, there were a few fans who welcomed a much-needed girl-hero in a male-dominated comic world but who wondered why she had to be mute. Others were simply ill-prepared for a brand-new adolescent badass. Hard-core comic fans take their superheroes very seriously and do not like powerful upstart newcomers. "I basically shoehorned this character into the Bat-mythos," says Puckett. "People were immediately like, 'How could she be Batgirl when a month ago I'd never heard of her?'" The parvenue was a silent, inscrutable do-gooder, dispatching baddies from the day she arrived on the scene.
More than a year later, protests still flare on the Internet. At the DC Comics website message boards, Azrael0626 recently complained, "Bottom line is that she isn't the best and needs a lot more training in the Cave before she should be fighting crime." SnapperL agreed: "ALL she knows how to do is fight and NOTHING else. That'll only get you so far in a city filled with psychopaths and criminal masterminds."
Puckett pays attention to the attention, but he knows these hard-core fans are particular and peculiar. "A lot of these guys have a role-playing-game mentality," he says. "They keep their own little official list of who can beat up who. It's really as bad as you think. I've just introduced this 17-year-old girl and said, 'She can beat up everybody, and I don't give a shit what you think.'" He smiles. "People still get really upset about it."
Puckett has just finished the script for Batgirl #19, which will reach comic shops in August. He thinks it's his best yet, another step toward licking that who-is-Batgirl problem. She's slowly learning to speak, and some secrets from her past are coming to light.
Another person who's beginning to speak is toddler Samantha Puckett. She's standing in her parents' living room pointing at me, shaking her head, uttering sounds firmly in the negative. "Nahh. Nahh," she says. There's distrust all over her face. Am I a bad guy or a good guy? Samantha hasn't figured me out yet.
I ask Puckett if being a new father has influenced the way he's written Batgirl. He shrugs. "I don't know. Batgirl's 'father,' the guy who raised her and trained her as an assassin--he's the character I find easiest to write. I guess I'm channeling anxieties about being a horrible father and screwing up my own daughter."
No chance. A stay-at-home dad, Puckett clearly dotes on Samantha. Still, she could be a little baby Batgirl. Silent and fearsome, feet spread as if anticipating a fight, she continues to frown and shake her head at me. Could she kick my butt? Sure looks that way.
Taylor Antrim, '96, is a Bay Area freelance writer.
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