THE ORACLE CODE (2020) review

The Oracle Code (DC Comics)

The Oracle Code is available from March 10 where all good books are sold!

Synopsis

The #1 New York Times bestselling author Marieke Nijkamp and artist Manuel Preitano unveil a graphic novel that explores the dark corridors of Barbara Gordon’s first mystery: herself.
After a gunshot leaves her paralyzed below the waist, Barbara Gordon must undergo physical and mental rehabilitation at Arkham Center for Independence. She must adapt to a new normal, but she cannot shake the feeling that something is dangerously amiss. Strange sounds escape at night while patients start to go missing.
Is this suspicion simply a result of her trauma? Or does Barbara actually hear voices coming from the center’s labyrinthine hallways? It’s up to Barbara to put the pieces together to solve the mysteries behind the walls.
In The Oracle Code, universal truths cannot be escaped, and Barbara Gordon must battle the phantoms of her past before they consume her future.

Review

DC Comics is currently riding a wave of creativity with its line of books for kids and young adults. For the uninitiated, the publisher works with authors and artists outside of the comics mainstream to craft new and interesting stand-alone stories featuring many of the DC Universe’s huge cast of characters.

This latest entry in the series, written by bestselling author Marieke Nijkamp, is aimed squarely at the YA market and takes a look at one of the longest serving members of the Bat-family, Barbara Gordon. But rather than focus on her most famous alter-ego, Batgirl, Nijkamp instead looks at Barbara under the guise of master hacker Oracle.

The Oracle moniker is best known to fans of the 00’s era Birds of Prey comics as well as her involvement during the No Man’s Land storyline which ran through much of DC’s line in 1999. When the DC Universe was rebooted for the New 52 and Rebirth era’s it was decided to return Barbara to her Batgirl career and the Oracle name has become distant memory to some.

Barbara’s transition from Batgirl to Oracle in the comics came about following the events of 1988’s Batman: The Killing Joke, in which Barbara was shot and paralysed by The Joker.

Nijkamp cleverly sidesteps the Batgirl mythology in order to tell a different type of story. Firstly, the circumstances in which Barbara found herself paralysed in the comics are fairly unsuitable for a YA audience, but also to introduce elements like the Batgirl costume, Batman and Joker would easily have engulfed the story and pulled focus from the main character.

Instead The Oracle Code crafts a clever mystery for Barbara to resolve when she finds herself recuperating in the Arkham Center for Independence. It instead focusses on the emotional core of the character and her incredible skill set which has made her such an asset to the rest of the Bat-Family. The structure and overall narrative are constructed in such a way that it allows the characters to breathe but also to allow for a deep emotional resonance for the reader.

We start out with the young Barbara as a budding hacker with a tendency to run headfirst in to trouble and soon catch up with her after the tragedy which leaves her in a wheelchair. Rather than hopping across rooftops with Batman hunting supervillains, she instead spends her nights with best friend Ben as the two hack their way through online challenges.

Again, rather than focus on the events which lead Barbara to become paralysed, The Oracle Code focusses on the emotional impact to the character herself. We spend just enough time with Barbara pre-shooting to be able to fully understand the loss that she suffers.

Following the shooting, Oracle Code picks up as Barbara arrives at the Arkham Centre and we instantly discover that she has been fundamentally changed by her experience. The warm, enthusiastic teen has been replaced by a cold and detached shell, now reluctant to make any human connections. As she pushes away her father she begins a journey of self-discovery which is the real crux of The Oracle Code’s story.

On an emotional level the book is perfectly pitched for the YA audience. Never too heavy handed it also never babies its audience. There are real and raw emotions tied to Barbara’s loss of mobility and Nijkamp does not shy away from dealing with them face-on.

The story is tracked by Barbara’s narration, starting on day one and leading up to its conclusion. The tone and language of her narrations portray some of her internal struggle to accept her own change in circumstances but also brilliantly reflect the emotional struggle of simply being a teenager. “Day One” gives way to much more angsty captions as Barbara clashes with teachers and resists befriending other patients.

It’s only when another patient, Jena, sneaks in to her room one night that Barbara begins to piece together the mystery which surrounds the Arkham Center. Jena, unable to sleep as she constantly checks on her brother, tells Barbara stories to help her sleep as she settles in to Arkham life.

These story sequences form interesting segues between chapters and provide interesting clues to the bigger story which is in play. It offers the reader a different perspective on the character and a different entry point to the story.

For me, I read The Oracle Code by tracking Barbara’s journey and her determination to solve the mystery. Her quest for knowledge and the almost unwavering commitment with which she goes about it are traits which follow the character through every medium and, for a long-time comics fan (i.e. not a YA reader!) easily reflect the Barbara we’ve known for years. Through her determination I came to learn about the history of the Arkham Center and the mystery hidden in its basement.

For readers more inclined to track the mystery aspect, there’s plenty of small clues littered throughout the book in both the visuals and the dialogue.

Manuel Preitano’s illustrations are also a sight to behold. He makes bold choices in terms of colouring which draw the reader’s eye to important areas of the frame. It might be that certain characters are in full colour whilst others are not, or certain aspects of the environment which are important to the scene are coloured to stand out against the backdrop.

But even still there are so many small nods and Easter eggs throughout The Oracle Code that by the final chapter I was pouring over every page searching for details. Of note are appearances of a cuddly toy Robin, a Robotman t-shirt and a very cool poster on Bab’s wall which states “Resistance is futile” underneath an oversized cube.

I don’t want to spoil the ending or even the third act of The Oracle Code as it’s a mystery you will want to discover by yourself. But suffice to say Nijkamp builds dramatic tension in a manner which will be satisfying to all audiences young and old.

The resolution of the Arkham mystery itself is in keeping with the story and it feels like a story which could easily have taken place in the pages of Batgirl comics.

With an audience as rabid as comic book fans, it’s no easy task to update a character like this. But Nijkamp does an excellent job of making Bab’s 2020 feel relevant to her audience without compromising the history of the character. Likewise, Preitano draws her in a way which feels familiar but fits well with the YA format. It’s never too complex but doesn’t oversimplify itself in order to become accessible.

More so than with other books in the YA line from DC, I felt myself closing the book on Barbara Gordon hoping that we might get to see more of this version of the character in the future.

Verdict

The Oracle Code is a beautiful and empowering introduction to this contemporary version of Barbara Gordon. A well constructed mystery which focussed on the character’s heart and her strength.

9/10

The Oracle Code is written by Marieke Nijkamp and illustrated by Manuel Preitano.

The Oracle Code (DC Comics)

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By Neil Vagg

Neil is the GYCO Editorial Chief. He has a BA in Film & Tv and an MA in Scriptwriting; he currently works 9-5 as an office manager and 5-9 as a reviewer/web designer. He has been subscribing to comics for around nine years but has been reading them as long as he can remember. Favourite comics: Batman; Nightwing, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and All New X-Men Favourite films: Batman (any apart from & Robin); Star Trek Generations, Underworld, Beetlejuice Favourite TV shows: Fringe; Buffy, Arrow, TBBT, Being Human UK and Star Trek TNG