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 DC Comics, her publisher and copyright holder, has restored the use of her legs by editorial edict, thereby setting back comic book diversity more than twenty years.

Roll Model

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

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 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.

Two Steps Backwards

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

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).

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 BatwomanSupergirlMary MarvelMs. MarvelSpider-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 debuted 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.”

When DC Comics made Barbara Gordon walk again, they finally accomplished what one of their vilest villains was unable to. They crippled a great literary character and robbed the comic book world of one of its most inspiring role models.

This article was originally published on Richard De Angelis’s blog Comic Book Justice.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Richard runs a blog called Comic Book Justice, where he shares his thoughts on social justice issues as they are presented in comic books. From January 1999 to September 2006 he served as Director of the non-profit Comics for Compassion program, which sought to produce and distribute comic books that promoted humane values to children. His writings on comics have been published in the International Journal of Comic Art and Satya magazine.

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1 Comment

  1. I discussed this issue here on Sequart on 12 June of this year, shortly after DC’s decision was announced.

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