“Fixing” Barbara Gordon’s Legs:

The Politics of Retconning a Disability

What does it mean when you take the most successful disabled character in comics and reverse her disability?

That’s what people are asking, in the wake of its revelation that the new Batgirl series will star Barbara Gordon.

DC fans will almost certainly spot the problem here: Barbara Gordon was famously crippled by the Joker in 1988′s Batman: The Killing Joke, and she eventually found a new role as the wheelchair-bound Oracle, who coordinated super-heroes and hacked computers. DC tried out other characters as Batgirl, but they never took. Now, the company’s restoring Barbara Gordon to the title.

The Joker shoots and cripples Barbara Gordon. From Batman: The Killing Joke (1988). Art by Brian Bolland.

There’s no arguing that the Barbara Gordon version of Batgirl is seen as the character’s classic version. She’s the version of the character seen in the 1960s Batman TV show. In fact, she was created in the comics to give the TV show’s producers a female character to use on air (as recounted in the excellent Gotham City 14 Miles). Hell, she was even in the film Batman and Robin (1997), almost a decade after she was retired in the comics. It’s not too much to say that she’s part of Americana.

Batgirl, as seen in the 1960s Batman TV series, where she was played by Yvonne Craig.

Even in comics, the most fondly-remembered Batgirl stories in the past two decades have largely been flashbacks starring Barbara Gordon, such as Batgirl: Year One. Having Batgirl be the daughter of the police commissioner added another dynamic to the character, one missing from subsequent incarnations.

On the other hand, Barbara Gordon hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s largely due to her popularity that the character of Oracle was created to honor her, by allowing her to be a hero despite her handicap. This, in turn, has made Oracle beloved in her own right, especially as a hero for the disabled. As Oracle, Barbara was shown participating in healthy, presumably sexual romantic relationships with men, a great rarity for disabled characters (and minority characters in general). And as a hacker and super-hero coordinator, Oracle even filled a niche that no other character did, one uniquely suited to the digital age.

Oracle, as drawn by Phil Noto.

And while the Barbara Gordon version of Batgirl may be a part of Americana, Oracle has also appeared on TV — specifically, in 2002′s short-lived series Birds of Prey. There, too, her backstory was that she had been Batgirl, prior to her injury, but viewers only sat Batgirl in brief flashbacks, and the focus was distinctly on Oracle.

Barbara Gordon, from TV's Birds of Prey, where she was played by Dina Meyer.

In particular, fans or Oracle and proponents of the disabled have expressed outrage over DC’s choice to restore Barbara’s legs. And it’s certainly ironic that, while DC is championing diversity as one of the reasons for its relaunches and revisions, it’s simultaneously eliminating one of the few successful disabled super-heroes.

Barabara Gordon as Batgirl, from TV's Birds of Prey, where she was played by Dina Meyer.

Then again, Oracle’s stories often functioned because of the shadow of Batgirl. Thankfully, she rarely pined for her ability to walk, but her career as a super-hero helped exaggerated her handicap, making her success as Oracle all the more heroic. If losing the ability to walk is hard for anyone, it’s especially hard for a young super-hero.

The new Batgirl series is to be written by Gail Simone, the writer who wrote many of Oracle’s stories. For her part, Simone has said that, while she enjoyed writing Oracle, she’s thrilled to have Barbara Gordon back as Batgirl, who helped prepared the way for other strong female action heroes. So at least those creators most associated with Oracle aren’t complaining.

It’s unclear at this time exactly how Barbara’s legs are to be restored, and this does puts DC in a strange position. If her legs are literally restored, beyond straining credibility (as when Bruce Wayne’s broken back was healed), it suggests that those who are different must be “healed” by being restored to normalcy — a very insulting idea for a lot of the so-called “disabled.” But if her legs are restored by a retroactive change to continuity, her time as Oracle would be eliminated (or perhaps relegated to the brief consequences of a more limited injury).

Then again, many have pointed out that, in a world where the Amazons have a “purple ray” that magically heals people and everyone comes back from the dead, you’d think someone would’ve offered Barbara Gordon the same opportunity.

Ultimately, wherever one stands on restoring Barbara Gordon’s ability to walk (and fight crime in tights), it’s yet another move in DC’s by-now-long attempt to restore its continuity to some mythical status quo. This began with the return of silly elements of the Superman mythos, such as the super-dog Krypto and the bottled city of Kandor, before a new Supergirl was introduced as a fellow Kryptonian survivor, because that was the classic character’s origin (even if this new version had a totally different personality). But it was really Geoff Johns who kicked this regressionism into high gear, with the return of Hal Jordan as Green Lantern, retroactively changing continuity radically in the process. This continued with the return of elements from Crisis on Infinite Earths (in Infinite Crisis), with the return of Barry Allen as the Flash, and with the resurrection of seemingly every beloved character who had ever died in Blackest Night.

To those who watch comics, then, Barbara Gordon’s return should come as no surprise at all. It’s relatively minor, in the big picture, compared to what DC’s already done. The implications for the disabled might be new, but a company inclined to reverse every meaningful character development, like Hal Jordan’s corruption or Barry Allen’s death, isn’t likely to let Oracle stand in its way.

Especially when Barbara Gordon is the definitive Batgirl in a way that Hal Jordan isn’t the definitive Green Lantern, nor Barry Allen the definitive Flash. Jordan and Allen were empty suits, certainly fun to read but relics from a more primitive time, when super-hero characters were rarely more than cardboard thin. Barbara Gordon also doesn’t have a successor who’s caught on, whereas Jordan had Kyle Rayner, not to mention a slew of colleagues, and Wally West had been far more thoroughly characterized as Flash than Barry Allen ever had.

Barbara Gordon as Batgirl, as painted by Alex Ross.

Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl had a certain schoolgirl smile, an almost carefree charm that subsequent incarnations have lacked. It’s easy to see why fans would celebrate her return.

Comics are increasingly a nostalgia market, and nostalgia depends on misremembering, on romanticizing the past. Someday, younger creators, who grew up with Oracle and Wally West and Kyle Rayner, will take over and reverse everything. The next generation will probably reverse everything again, because they grew up when these Silver Age characters had been revived.

And one of the arguments they’ll surely make is that Oracle was a novel character, certainly as novel as Batgirl, in part because of her paralysis.

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In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

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