Adding insult to injury

As a comic book character, Batgirl only really took flight once she became permanently grounded.  It wasn’t until a vicious attack by the Joker put her in a wheelchair that Barbara Gordon—daughter of Gotham City Police Commissioner James Gordon and part-time caped crusader—demonstrated the kind of courage seldom seen among costumed crime-fighters, and in the process, became one of the most compelling, interesting, and inspiring characters in the history of superhero comic books. But one week from today, DC Comics, her publisher and copyright holder, will restore the use of her legs by editorial edict, thereby setting back comic book diversity more than twenty years.

Barbara Gordon shot

Dramatic storytelling or violent misogyny? You decide. Panel from Batman: The Killing Joke. Copyright DC Comics.

Roll model
The Joker ended Barbara Gordon’s 20-year career as Batgirl, unaware of her dual identity, when he shot her through the spine  as part of a plan to drive Commissioner Gordon and Batman to the point of mental breakdown. When this tragic event took place in the 1988 one-shot comic, Batman: The Killing Joke, written by the legendary Alan Moore and drawn by Brian Bolland, it sparked immediate outrage among readers. Some of this reaction was due to the apparent misogyny of the act. It was seen by many as one more example of a disturbing tendency for comic book writers (almost exclusively male) to have female characters de-powered, brutalized, crippled, raped, or killed. This trend was dubbed the Women in Refrigerators syndrome, by comic book writer Gail Simone, after the kitchen appliance in which Green Lantern once found the body of his murdered girlfriend. (To his credit, Alan Moore later expressed his regret for having written The Killing Joke.)

But after that shocking moment when Barbara Gordon was paralyzed from the waist down, something extraordinary happened (at least for the world of superhero comic books). John Ostrander and the late Kim Yale took the character in a new and unprecedented direction. They and subsequent writers showed Barbara refusing to let a little thing like her inability to walk get in the way of her passion for justice. Like so many real-world people suddenly faced with such adversity, she rose to the challenge, persevered, and even thrived. Setting up a state-of-the-art computer network in a Gotham City clock tower, she reinvented herself as a new, and far more efficient crime-fighter geared for the 21st century. Hiding behind the code name Oracle and a computer-generated avatar, she offered intelligence gathering, communications and logistical support to Batman, the Justice League of America and other members of the superhero community. She also established a partnership with Black Canary and other female crime-fighters—as well as the occasional criminal—calling themselves the Birds of Prey, so she could pursue cases of personal interest.

Oracle

Oracle character design by Carlos D’Anda for the video game Batman: Arkham Asylum.

More than 22 years later, Oracle has become one of the most popular characters in the DC Comics universe. More importantly, she remains one of very few disabled characters portrayed in superhero comics.  And even among that minority, she is unique in that her disability is not offset by some super power. For example, although Daredevil is blind, his heightened superhuman senses effectively render sight unnecessary (whereas Daredevil’s former lover, the deaf superhero Echo, still faces the same challenges as anyone who is unable to hear). And even though comics’ most famous wheelchair-bound character, X-Men leader Prof. Charles Xavier, can’t walk, his powers of telepathy seem like they would more than make up for his lack of mobility. Barbara Gordon is one of the greatest superhero role models in comics, precisely because she has no super powers. Her character, her commitment, her courage and competency are things that any and every comic book reader could aspire to achieve themselves. (You can read more about Oracle’s impressive skill set, which includes a proficiency in armed and unarmed combat, in her bio from my previously posted list of women superheroes).

Unfortunately, DC Comics is putting an end to that with the latest reboot of their entire superhero franchise. This will include restoring  Barbara Gordon’s ability to walk and returning her to her less than groundbreaking role as a copycat caped crusader.

Yvonne Craig

Yvonne Craig, who played Barbara Gordon on television, reacts to Batgirl’s first comic book appearance in 1966.

Two steps backwards
Although Batgirl made her first appearance in Detective Comics #359, on sale November 1966, the character was literally made for TV. When the popularity of the 1960s Batman television series began to diminish after the second season, producer William Dozier decided that the addition of a female crime-fighting character might help boost the show’s sagging ratings. To build some advance buzz around the character, Dozier asked DC Comics to first introduce her in comic books months before the role would be played on television by Yvonne Craig. Unfortunately, the origin story for Batgirl developed by veteran editor Julius Schwartz, popular artist Carmine Infantino and accomplished author Gardner Fox was as lackluster as it was implausible (even by comic book standards).

Detective Comics #371

Wardrobe malfunction takes precedence over crime-fighting. Detective Comics #371. Cover by Carmine Infantino and Murphy Anderson. Copyright DC Comics.

Barbara Gordon, the librarian daughter of Gotham City’s Police Commissioner, goes to a party in a Batman-inspired costume, ends up thwarting an attempted kidnapping of Bruce Wayne, and apparently decides her mastery of the Dewey decimal system  qualifies her to embark on a permanent career as a superhero. This uninspired origin established Batgirl as yet another in a long line of female spin-offs of popular male superheroes that also includes Batwoman, SupergirlMary Marvel, Ms. Marvel, Spider-Girl and She-Hulk. Usually created to draw in female readers and/or appeal to the pubescent fantasies of young male readers, the costumes of these super women (or “girls,” as they are frequently and condescendingly called) tend to be distinguished from those of their male namesakes by the amount of bare skin they leave exposed. Although Batgirl’s costume offered as much coverage as Batman’s, her femininity was reasserted by modifications such as her utility purse and impractically high-heeled boots, coupled with ample cheesecake poses and occasional “blond moments” (despite being a redhead). Although Batgirl built up quite a fan following over her two-decade career, unoriginal by design and unremarkable by her actions, she added very little of significance to the canon of superhero literature.

Oracle, on the other hand, is another story. As master comics writer Grant Morrison says of Barbara Gordon’s heroic evolution in his new book, Supergods, “A character born to camp in one medium was transplanted to richer soil where she grew into a fascinating and complex living fiction.”

At this point, Barbara Gordon has been Oracle longer than she was Batgirl. There is an entire generation of devoted fans who never knew her in her supporting roll as yin to the Dark Knight’s yang. As a result, DC Comics’ decision to cast Oracle out of her wheelchair and back into Batgirl’s bright yellow boots is causing just as much outrage among many loyal readers as paralyzing her once did. But there is an important difference this time. With her miraculous and yet-to-be explained recovery, Batgirl will be walking away from more than just a rich graphic literary legacy. She will also be abandoning thousands of real-world readers who will once again be left with no one to represent them in the world of superhero comics.

Walk of shame
When news of Barbara Gordon’s impending rehabilitation broke back in June, reaction from her fan base was as swift as it was severe. DC Comics tried to soften the blow by announcing that the new Batgirl series, which debuts September 7, will be written by none other than Gail Simone—identifier of the Women in Refrigerator syndrome and long-time writer of Oracle’s adventures in the Birds of Prey series.

In an interview with self-proclaimed Nerdy Bird blogger Jill Pantozzi, Simone shared her reasons for supporting Barbara Gordon’s recuperation. She points out that when Batman’s back was broken by the massively strong villain Bane in the 1993 “Knightfall” saga, “he was barely in the [wheel]chair long enough to keep the seat warm.” To me, this seems like an argument against rebooting Batgirl rather than for it.

Perhaps Bruce Wayne was so invested in his self-image, and unable to envision any other way of waging his one-man war on criminals, that he had no choice but to get back on his feet—that giving up the lifestyle that had sustained him for so many years seemed like a fate worse than death. On the other hand, when Barbara Gordon became a direct victim of violent crime—rather than just a witness to it—she was able to adapt to her devastating injury and invent a new paradigm for crime-fighting on a global scale that allowed her to apprehend far more evildoers and protect far more innocents than she ever could have by beating up one Gotham City psychopath at a time. (Of course, the real reason for Batman’s swift recovery was the multimillion dollar merchandising empire built around him—something that Oracle is unfortunately lacking.)

As much as I respect Simone as a writer, most of her reasons for endorsing Batgirl’s return ring hollow to me. All, in fact, except one.

. . . honestly, the thought of writing Babs-as-Batgirl stories is one of those dreams a writer holds in her heart, like the hope of writing the Marvel Family, or Plastic Man, or Spider-Man, or any of the other things I’m not sure I’ll ever really get the chance to do.

I believe nostalgia has clouded the minds of Simone and the editorial staff of DC Comics. They have been blinded to the larger ramifications of trying to recapture their own youthful experiences with favorite childhood characters. And while they may hope that regressing superheroes back to their infancy will appeal to like-minded readers (coincidentally leading to increased sales figures), they fail to see (or worse, don’t care) that they are setting back years of progress in the real world as well, resulting in far more than mere comic book casualties.

As blogger Andy Khouri put it in a ComicsAlliance post:

…Barbara Gordon is a beacon for the chronically ill, mobility impaired and disabled. Her adventures over the last 20 years, particularly in Birds of Prey (written primarily by Chuck Dixon and Gail Simone), have depicted a handicapped person–a handicapped woman–not only with basic human dignity, but also with a mental, emotional and indeed a physical capableness that’s made her the hero of her own stories as well as invaluable asset to other heroes in the DC Universe. Even more importantly, Oracle has developed deep friendships with able-bodied people of all types, some of which were even romantic and presumably sexual, demonstrating that people like her don’t have to be segregated to the unseen fringes of society.

Unsurprisingly, Khouri’s sentiments are echoed by many comic book readers with a personal stake in Oracle’s fate.

Paraplegic actress and disability rights activist Teal Sherer plays Barbara Gordon in a humorous but heartfelt two-minute video where she gives Oracle’s unhappy reaction to learning that she’s to be reinstated as the fully ambulatory yet wholly unnecessary Batgirl.

Neil Kapit, on his blog site, Handi-Capable, where he shares his “thoughts on comics, disability, and everything in between,” posted this, among other things, about Batgirl’s impending return:

It’s insulting to readers with physical and/or mental handicaps who can’t retcon away their challenges. It’s insulting to readers who enjoyed seeing the character progress into not only a prominent disabled character, but a genuinely interesting character thanks to the way the experience shaped her…

Jill Pantozzi, who’s spent the last fourteen years using a wheelchair due to Muscular Dystrophy, made her feelings about Oracle passionately clear in a post on Newsarama.com that led Gail Simone to request the chance to tell her side of the story in the above-quoted interview:

To say I’m disheartened and disappointed by DC Comics’ decision would be an understatement and only part of my feelings on the matter. To be honest, I’m furious. I’m hurt. For all their fictionality, we let characters become very important to us and Oracle was the most important to me. When I was told the news, I cried.

I feel the same way—even though the most serious disability I can rightfully claim is being a nearly 50-year-old comic book reader.

As Oracle, Barbara Gordon was more than just another superhero character apprehending imaginary criminals for committing pretend crimes. She represented the idea that every individual, no matter how unjustly marginalized by society, still has a right to justice—both to receive it and dispense it.

Oracle reminded readers that adversity isn’t the same as failure, and handicapped doesn’t mean helpless.

As Pantozzi put it, “Every hero has a defining moment that makes them who they are. Batgirl didn’t. Oracle did.”

Next week, when DC Comics makes Barbara Gordon walk again, they will finally accomplish what one of their vilest villains was unable to. They will cripple a great literary character and rob the comic book world of one of its most inspiring role models.

This entry was posted in Disability rights, Fiction, Superheroes, Women and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Adding insult to injury

  1. Lawrence Carter-Long says:

    Richard – I think I love you. In fact, I know I do. If I wasn’t already married and you weren’t already married and we were gay, well, you get the picture. Anyway, thanks for writing this! Will spread around.

    • My first blog proposal! Seriously, Lawrence, it was my honor to add my voice to the many others who oppose DC Comics decision to destroy a great fictional character and symbol for the disability rights movement.

  2. Seems like DC Comics could have found ways to leverage something distinctive instead of abandon it. Sad for readers who lose this source of inspiration. Really interesting read, Richard.

  3. Good summary of Barbara Gordon’s history, up to the present debate. I liked it enough to tweet it.

    It’s an important subject (one I’ve written about myself).

    I would say, in Gail Simone’s defense, that she’s been very clear that she wouldn’t have chosen herself to undo Barbara Gordon’s injury. Just that, since DC decided to do this, it was best for her to write it. And that, yes, given these facts, she has to admit that she sees the appeal of the character as the classic Batgirl. I personally think she’s been very delicate and sensitive about this, to her credit, and that any blame or praise for the decision lies with DC editorial.

    Finally, your point about nostalgia’s very well made. And definitely should be one of the hottest issues right now, in debating the direction super-hero comics are going.

    Thanks for the article!

    • I’m glad you enoyed the post, and thanks for sharing it.

      Thanks also for clarifying Gail Simone’s position on the Batgirl reboot. My personal feelings on the issue may have led me to be somewhat unfair. I certainly agree that the responsibility for this misguided move lies entirely with DC Comics.

      I think the nostalgia problem is connected to the fact that mainstream publishers tend to approach superhero comics as an industry rather than a graphic literary art form. These characters have to remain eternally familiar to support the multibillion dollar movie and merchandising deals attached to them. This prevents character progression that, however logical or beneficial to good storytelling, will allienate the consumer base of the most marketable superheroes. Hence the recurring reboots that keep these characters both fresh and stale at the same time.

      • Fraser says:

        I don’t think even as marketing it makes sense. If you’re a fan under 21 (and this reboot is supposed to hook younger readers, IIRC), Babs Gordon is Oracle. Always has been. And if you’re not a fan, why is Batgirl going to hook you better than Oracle? It’s not as if the Batman sixties show has a grip on Gen Y/millenial (and certainly not Alicia Silverstone’s turn in the role).

        • These are good points. And if DC felt like the universe of the “New 52″ just had to have a Batgirl, why not use any of the several who followed in Barbara’s footsteps and would be more familiar to the younger demographic they are supposedly after? Hard to believe as it seems, this just reinforces the theory that Barbara’s reinstatement as Batgirl was driven less by any artistic vision or sound marketing strategy than by the nostalgic desire of DC’s editorial staff to bring back one of their personal favorite characters (maybe they still resented her having been paralyzed in the first place).

  4. Edward Engel says:

    Very interesting read on a subject I know little about. Enjoyed the Teal Sherer video too.

  5. Neil Kapit, of the blog site, Handi-Capable, who I quoted above, posted this more-favorable-than-expected review of Batgirl #1, which came out yesterday. Now that I’ve read it as well, I posted this reply on his site:

    I agree that Batgirl #1 was well-written and illustrated, and that Gail Simone showed as much sensitivity to Barbara Gordon’s controversial situation as any writer could have been expected to. I also agree that the issue fails to compensate for the loss of Oracle as a great comic book character and icon/role model for the disabled. Here’s why:

    Referring to her three-years spent in a wheelchair, Barbara says, “The Joker didn’t beat me. The bullet didn’t beat me.” Judging only from the information provided in this story, I’m not so sure.

    Since Barbara describes her recovery as a “miracle,” I can only presume that for most of the time she was paralyzed, she had no reasonable expectation that she would ever regain the use of her legs. Despite this, I also gather from her recapping of her past that in this rebooted reality, Barbara never adopted her Oracle persona or important tactical role in the DC Universe. That would mean this Barbara Gordon showed far less resilience and adaptability than her pre-rebooted counterpart who, as I put it in a post on Comic Book Justice, refused “to let a little thing like her inability to walk get in the way of her passion for justice.” The previous Barbara Gordon was paralyzed less than a year before “she reinvented herself as a new, and far more efficient crime-fighter geared for the 21st century.”

    But perhaps we’ll eventually learn that Barbara did spend some part of her three-year break from being Batgirl using her brilliant mind and computer skills as Oracle. If so, why when she was able to walk again would she choose to give up her wholly unique and frankly indispensible niche as a master intelligence-gatherer and tactician for the entire superhero community to go back to being one of four “bat” beings–along with Man, Woman, and now Wing–patrolling the same mean streets? This would seem to be making the less-than-well-thought-out decision that, as I put it in my post, “beating up one Gotham City psychopath at a time” is a better use of her talents than inventing “a new paradigm for crime-fighting on a global scale that allowed her to apprehend far more evildoers and protect far more innocents.” Even if she wanted to go out occasionally as Batgirl for old-time’s sake and to get some exercise, I would hope she wouldn’t abandon the greater good she could do as Oracle.

    So whether she was ever Oracle, or she wasn’t, this Barbara Gordon seems just a little less heroic than her predecessor.

  6. will says:

    Great posting Richard. I didn’t know about any of this, which is why I love coming here.

    I just finished The Dark Tower, and one of the main characters, Susannah/Detta Walker is a bad-ass gunslinger who happened to have lost both of her legs below her knees in an accident. I won’t give any more than that away but this posting made me think of her character.

  7. Rebecca says:

    Must admit I am not conversant in this area, but I’m wondering…
    Might Simone’s reboot include, eventually, a retelling of Barbara Gordon’s spinal trauma, and ultimately, her re-Oracle-ification?

    • Vicki, my wife, made the same suggestion. Unfortunately that’s not the case. Batgirl #1, which came out last Wednesday, revealed that Barbara has already been shot by the Joker, causing her to spend three years in a wheelchair until her ability to walk was restored by “a miracle” (which has yet to be described). See my comment above (dated Sept. 8 ) for more on how her prior injury was related in the story and why I think it diminishes Barbara’s character.

  8. J. Subhumyn says:

    Another great post Richard. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the loss of an important character in recent DC history. Oracle will be missed by a great many fans, disabled and nondisabled alikr.

    I think you nailed it when you chalked up Barbara Gordon’s “miracle” recovery and return to the Batgirl alter-ego as nostalgia on the part of DC editorial & writing staff. I was waiting to reserve full judgement until I actually read issue #1, and agree with you and others that it was very well written, surprisingly sensitive (or maybe not so surprising concidering Gail Simone’s love of the character). And I share your sense of loss for the even more complex charcter that was Barbara Gordon as Oracle. I love Batgirl and I love Barbara Gordon as Batgirl, but I loved Oracle even more.

    Yeah, BG as Batgirl is iconic. But for the past 20 years we’ve known BG as Oracle in a role that the entire superhero community relied on for her computer skills. They could have stuck anyone in that Batgirl suit. If you ask me, Stephanie Brown was robbed. Just as Bruce Wayne didn’t really give her a chance as Robin, DC never really gave her a chance to break out and spread her wings as Batgirl. I was looking foward to them developing her relationship with Oracle as well as how she would relate to the whole Bat Family concidering their history.

    This whole reboot has felt rushed/forced and not very well thought out. There are some things i’m really looking foward to, such as The Dark and The Edge titles and the long overdue Batwoman series, but the rest is leaving me wonder if should I switch to Marvel or just buy backissues.

    • Thanks, Jeff. I agree that it would have been a really nice–and I think, more meaningful–gesture to let Stephanie Brown assume Batgirl’s mantle. And the fact that DC is relaunching Birds of Prey without Barbara/Oracle in command seems as pointless as making Barbara Batgirl again. Before, Birds of Prey was like a badass superhero version of Charlie’s Angels, where Charlie was also one of the Angels. While I’m glad that DC’s keeping an all-woman super team among their “New 52,” to me, Barbara/Oracle was really the driving force behind the series.

      I also agree that this whole reboot doesn’t seem to have been very well thought out. The one thing I am grateful for so far is that Jeff Lemire has kept Buddy Baker a vegan animal rights activist in the new Animal Man series. At least for now.

      • J. Subhumyn says:

        Oh, yeah! I wanted to ask about your take on the Animal Man reboot since you were the one who introduced me to mainstream comics through Grant Morrison’s Animal Man nearly two decades ago, starting with issue #1.

        Personally I loved the reboot. It sermed to have the feel of Morrison’s original 26 issue run on Animal Man. Seems like every writer since G M has tried to out-Morrison Morrison by taking the title in even more strange and bizarre directions. Not always successfully mind you. But I love that the reboot is going back to focusing on Buddy and his family. And I really look forward to seeing where they go with Maxine’s spooky, and disgusting, powers.

        I too sighed a huge sigh of relief to find Buddy is still vegan and still an animal rights activist. Hopefully he stays that way.

  9. Fraser says:

    For all the talk about the reboot being a great jumping-on point, I don’t think Batgirl pulled that of.
    It is about as good as one could ask (which is still a poor replacement for Oracle) but if they’re trying to give some backstory to new fans, why highlight her crippling and walking and give nothing else? Is that the bit they need?
    If it was an explanation for older fans, they blew it: I’ve no idea how she became mobile, if she was ever Oracle, etc. (I’m guessing not).
    For that matter, I’ve no idea why The Killing Joke is deemed one of those events that must be retained in canon. I think it’s a good story despite the treatment of Barbara but it ain’t that brilliant. If she’s not Oracle, I’d think starting her from scratch as a new hero would make more sense (or do they think acknowledging her time in the wheelchair somehow keeps her in good standing as a disabled heroine?).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>