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Building a New Batgirl: An Interview with Babs Tarr

Building a New Batgirl: An Interview with Babs Tarr

By Tim Beedle Friday, October 10th, 2014

(Art by Cameron Stewart)

It’s a big week for DC Comics fans. Wednesday saw the release of some high profile new titles, storylines and creative teams, particularly BATGIRL #35, which features a fun change in tone, a new setting and cast of characters, and an updated new look for its heroine that will likely be a popular choice with cosplayers this weekend at New York Comic-Con. If so, it’ll be to the delight of the woman responsible for the art in the series, as Batgirl artist Babs Tarr will be at the show promoting Batgirl and talking comics with other talented female artists and writers on the “Women of DC Entertainment” panel on Saturday.

We recently spoke to Babs about women in comics, why the new Batgirl has gotten such a great response, and whether she ever saw herself drawing super heroes.

I wanted to start by simply asking, did you ever think you’d be drawing Batgirl? Or that you’d be drawing a super hero comic period?

No, never. Not in my wildest dreams. I’d always hoped I’d get cover work. Who doesn’t want that as an illustrator? But I never would’ve dreamed that I would be doing interior art for a comic book, let alone Batgirl for DC Comics. It’s really surreal.

How exactly did this come about?

Cameron actually orchestrated the whole thing. He e-mailed me completely out of the blue, asking if I’d be interested or available to draw a comic for DC Comics. So I wrote him back and told him that of course I would be, but I was upfront with him. I told him that I’d never drawn a comic book page before and that he should probably know that. Also, my style doesn’t look anything like what DC Comics puts out.

I’m like, “Okay, sure. Let me know if DC says yes to me. Good luck with that!” I just didn’t think it was going to happen.

Eventually, I got another e-mail from him saying that it was down to two artists, and that I was one of them. Soon after that I heard from the editor at the time, Katie Kubert, asking if I’d done sequential work and if I’d be interested in it. I told her I hadn’t done any sequential work, but I offered to draw a few test pages for her.

I asked Cameron to look at them before I sent them to her so I knew I wasn’t coming off as a complete noob, even though I totally was. I’m just so new to storytelling in the sequential art form. I sent Katie my Cameron-guided test pages and she loved them, so the next day I got offered the Batgirl title.

So were you a Batgirl fan before you started, or are you relatively new to Barbara’s world?

No, I’d drawn Batgirl before. I drew this nice, finished illustration of her in hopes that it would get some attention from comics people so I could get some freelance cover work that way. But that was about two years ago. Having it all come about now is really crazy.

How much of Barbara’s new look did you contribute? Was that largely Cameron and Brenden, or was that you?

Cameron had been asked to design her costume because originally they were talking to him about doing the whole book himself—the writing and art. He had a base design, and when he found out I was going to be the artist, he sent it to me. It already had the snaps on the cape, the leather jacket and the boots. I just went over it and added some detailing. I redesigned the belt and added the side straps. The jacket was pretty tame, so I ended up adding detailing to the jacket to make it look cooler and sleeker. I added little snaps on her gloves to echo the snaps on her cape, along with one little snap on her neck.

Just little details to make it look cool. I think the three of us combining our strengths on her design made it look really good and become something that everyone seemed to respond really positively to.

Why do you think the response has been so positive? Both to the costume and the new direction in general?

I think the fact that it’s a major character like Batgirl, everyone was just really excited to see it. And I think they could relate to it more. She’s wearing something stylish. You could probably go to the store and put this outfit together yourself. I think the tone of the book really rang true with a lot of people. We’re trying to do something more down to earth so it feels more relatable. I think people just connected to that immediately.

It’s interesting you say that because one of things I realized while reading the first issue is that while nothing’s really changed with Batgirl—she’s still Jim Gordon’s daughter, still has a serial killer for a brother, still is an amazing martial artist who fights crime while wearing a costume—but for the first time, I really can relate to her. She seems like someone I could know and that I could see myself hanging out with. Was that one of the team’s goals?

I think so. The boys are steering the story more than I am, but the reason I signed on was because I really fell in love with the story. Yeah, I definitely think that was a goal. We wanted to make her feel 21. When you’re 21, you’re dealing with all of these other things besides hunting down criminals.

I think it’s fun to see super heroes be normal humans and have to deal with everyday things along with suiting up and fighting crime. I think the boys are definitely trying to incorporate that and infuse some real youth culture. Everyone is using cell phones, they’re on Tumblr, Instagram and Facebook, they use dating apps… Those are things everyone is dealing with and you don’t ever see them in comics. That’s something really different about ours, and I think it’s going to feel very relatable, especially to young girls.

Another of the things that stood out to me in your first issue was the way it pushes the boundaries of traditional sequential art. You have that great double page spread where Barbara’s reliving the events of that party from the night before. Whose idea was that, and is that approach deliberate?

That was 100% Cameron. He’s doing the layouts and he had this whole vision of how Batgirl was going to do battle in this book. She’s really relying heavily on her detective skills. He wanted to do this thing he’s been calling “DV” or “Detective Vision,” where the scene turns blue and we sort of go inside her mind’s eye as she moves through and remembers things. She remembers things perfectly.

(Art by Babs Tarr)

Changing the subject a bit, you’re on the “Women of DC Entertainment” panel at New York Comic-Con. With new talent like you, Marguerite Bennett, Meredith Finch and Genevieve Valentine coming to the forefront at DC, plus many other talented women getting jobs across the aisle, there are more women than ever writing and drawing mainstream comics. Do you feel like we’re reaching a new high point in the industry?

Yeah, definitely. I’m new to this world, but I do know there’s a real lack of female talent even from when I was a little girl and I was interested in drawing. When you’re an artist, what’s cooler than comics? But I remember going into a store and asking for a comic I would like and the clerks not really knowing what to give me that would interest me.

I think it’s nice to have more women in comics because I feel like they’re going to create more books with a greater level of diversity, which means there will be more things for readers like me to immerse ourselves in and enjoy. So I think in that one aspect we’ve turned a corner.

As an artist, do you feel that until recently there wasn’t room for a great deal of stylization in mainstream comics?

I don’t know. I’m so new to the world. I know they wanted me on this book because the tone of my illustrations matched the tone they were going for. But I definitely think it’s helpful to have a female artist drawing female characters because there are things that we know as women that guys would just never notice. Like in Batgirl #35 in the first panel , I drew her nightstand and you can see it has bobby pins on it. A guy would almost never think to draw that. I’m trying to make the fashion and the environments that the girls are in trendy and cool in a way that might not occur to male artists. Each girl has their own style and favorite colors. They all wear their hair differently.

I feel like in the past, women represented in comics were all wearing the generic comic book heels, skirt and jacket. It’s always the default thing. It takes a lot of time to get invested in fashion, and I can understand why that’s sort of daunting for guys to have to come up with. But I feel that books like this call for it, and you’re going to notice if it’s not there. I think that’s one of the cool things that will come with more female artists drawing books like this. We can take it to the next level of authenticity.

(Art by Babs Tarr)

What advice would you give other female artists out there?

Never put out stuff that you think you should be making. Put out stuff that you love. Stuff that you’re passionate about. People are going to respond to that honesty, and you’ll start getting jobs related to stuff that you love. I draw a lot of tough, strong, sexy ladies and I try to put these cool clothes on them. I love that stuff and it’s just coming back to me tenfold right now. So I think my advice would be to just follow your heart and create the work you want to, and always strive to make it better. Work hard and good things will come. You’re not going to not get any results by working hard. Something’s going to happen. So don’t give up.

Finally, you’re drawing Batgirl. Are there any other DC super heroes that you’d love to get a chance to draw?

I think Black Canary would be someone else I’d love to draw or maybe Wonder Woman. Probably more Black Canary because she’s edgier.

You’ve drawn her a little bit. She’s in the first issue.

Yeah, she’s in our issue and she’s actually my favorite one to draw because she has this snarl. She’s really sort of angry in this comic. She’s mad at Babs and all her crap. All her stuff got set on fire, so she’s making this stinkface the whole time and I really love drawing it for some reason. Plus, she’s kind of got this rocker style which is very close to my own style.

I just kind of love this idea of a female super hero who has sort of more scandalous outfit. I mean, she had a choice when she was making her costume and she went with fishnets and this black leotard and leather jacket. You kind of have to love that.

Look for Babs, as well as Marguerite Bennett (Earth 2: Worlds End), Becky Cloonan (Gotham Academy), Amanda Conner (Harley Quinn), Meredith Finch (Wonder Woman), Caitlin Kittredge (Coffin Hill) and Gail Simone (Secret Six) on NYCC’s “Women of DC Entertainment” panel on Saturday, October 11, 2014, 6:15 p.m. (Room 1A06).