Inspired by Monday’s post about the upcoming DC animated feature, The Killing Joke, and Tuesday’s post about the plight of the female superhero, I thought I would dedicate this woman crush Wednesday to one of DC’s most brilliant women, Barbara Gordon.
The Barbara Gordon storyline is an interesting one, given her tumultuous experiences within the DC Universe and is thus split into her two alter egos; Batgirl and Oracle.
Batgirl: the origin
Barbara Gordon and her Batgirl alter ego made her initial DC Comics appearance in Detective Comics #359: The Million Dollar Debut of Batgirl in 1967, and since then became a perpetual presence in the DC Universe. At the time, the concept behind her inception was to attract a female viewership to the 1960s Batman television series, as a direct result of the success of Catwoman. She was created around the same time as Poison Ivy, who was created for the same purpose.
The intention was to offer Batgirl as a light hearted alternative to other heroes in Gotham, such as Batman and Robin. While these two were fighting crime to avenge the death of their parents, Batgirl’s desire to fight crime was completely altruistic, and entirely dependent from both a motive and any form of male superhero intervention; she was an entirely independent female superhero.
While attending a party dressed as a female counterpart to Batman, Barbara Gordon witnesses the kidnapping of Bruce Wayne by the super-villain, Killer Moth. She manages to prevent this from happening, thus attracting the attention of the dark knight, leading to her plunge into the world of crime fighting.
Canonically, Barbara Gordon appeared as Batgirl in DC comics up until her retirement, then she began phasing out of canon circulation. Therefore, when writer Alan Moore approached the DC editing team with ideas for Batman: The Killing Joke in 1988, the ‘kill the bitch’ sentiment led to Barbara Gordon becoming a victim of Joker’s psychopathy. She was shot through the spinal-cord and left paraplegic; Barbara Gordon was finished in DC Comic circulation.
What became of Barbara Gordon: The Oracle Origins
Unhappy with the way DC Comics discarded one of its most dynamic superheroes, Kim Yale and John Ostrander decided to give Barbara Gordon the justice she deserved.
In 1988, a mysterious character appeared in their Suicide Squad. Her face was never shown, and the only thing that readers understood was that this anonymous character was a phenomenal hacker. It wasn’t until 1990, in Suicide Squad #38, she was revealed to be Barbara Gordon.
In 1996, she was given her proper superhero origin story, again by Yale and Ostrander in Oracle: Year One. In this, Barbara admits she was ‘tired of being a victim. I had skills and abilities long before I became Batgirl. It’s time for me to make them work for me again’.
The concept behind her re-inception was that Barbara was still more than capable and still exhibited the qualities necessary to be a superhero and that something such as lower body paralysis did not detract from her power and strength – physical power alone does not a superhero make, so to speak. Oracle demonstrated that being in a wheelchair was not an obstacle in fighting crime; she could still do so with great aplomb, without having to leap of buildings.
Following this, Oracle was introduced into one of the most empowering DC Comics series ever made, Birds of Prey, where she led an all-female team of superheroes – many of whom had suffered at the hands of male characters – both heroes and villains – in the past. In this series, Barbara used her intelligence and hacking skills to prevent crime and assist other women in the DC Universe in their journey to empowerment.
Oracle is a vital character in the DC Universe, and is renowned for being the best information broker within the DC Universe; there are many superheroes who are completely dependent on her for information, and villains are terrified that she will find out about their existence.
Barbara Gordon: New 52’s Batgirl
Following the DC Comics company re-launch in 2011, Barbara Gordon has returned as Batgirl, following as a rehabilitated character, following surgery in South Africa. Her new origin story still sees the Joker’s brutal attack in The Killing Joke occurring, and she still had a brief spell as Oracle, but she was to return as Batgirl alone in the new DC canon.
While creators have insisted she is now a more nuanced character, offering a new set of incredibly diverse skills to the Batgirl character, audiences were understandably disgruntled at having a character who, for the past 20 years, established herself as an incredibly strong, independent and engaging character – who also represented the disabled community, as the first superhero to do so – forgotten about and discarded.
This reincarnation of Batgirl in the New 52 series sees Barbara Gordon as a weakened version of herself, and negates and contradicts the character development we’d seen of her previously. She is now suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, causing her to hesitate and get upset when exposed to gunfire in battle. She now also suffers from survivor’s guilt, due to the fact that she has made a full recovery and there are others who haven’t. The alleged idea behind this was to raise awareness of the after-effects of post-traumatic stress, and that it can take hold of incredibly intellectually strong people, which is not widely explored in comic book culture. However, I wholeheartedly disagree with this New 52 direction for Barbara Gordon – why couldn’t this have happened to Batman, who has perpetually and continually battled with the death of his parents and his moral code for decades?
New 52: Batgirl origin
In her New 52 inception, Barbara is a college student, first seen visiting her father at the police station, using the excuse of college project to be shown around the station. However, her real motivation is to find out what officers think about Batman.
During her visit, an incarcerated criminal has managed to cause chaos, threatening to kidnap the Commissioner’s daughter, causing her to run away while the police officer escorting her, Dwight Morgan, fights off the criminal. Seemingly, it comes about that the criminal would undoubtedly kill the officer without Barbara’s intervention, so she dresses up as Batman and uses her martial arts skills to defeat the bad guy. She is then overjoyed when Batman praises her for her good work – and then decides to continue as Batgirl…
There is still a lot of controversy surrounding Barbara Gordon and her Batgirl/Oracle alter egos. Since The Killing Joke offered audiences a dark period in which to be female in the DC Universe, the love and dedication of Kim Yale and her husband John Ostrander, Barbara Gordon as her new alter ego Oracle, managed to establish herself as one of the most imperative, brilliant and intelligent superheroes in the DCU over the last 25 or so years. Needless to say, it is severely disappointing that Oracle has effectively been forgotten about and removed from the New 52, and that Barbara has once again been re-established as a victim of the Joker’s… It makes no sense and it is incredibly regressive, doing nothing for the advancement of women in comics.
Still, I choose to celebrate Barbara Gordon, Batgirl and Oracle, whose character development and story arc has been one of the most impressive – if not the most impressive – that DC Comics have ever offered… Until 2011, that is.