Fiction’s Fearless Females is back! That’s right folks, your favorite bloggers are back with this series for Women’s History Month: Nancy and I, Michael of My Comic Relief, Kalie of Just Dread-full, Jeff of The Imperial Talker, and Rob of My Side of the Laundry Room. Michael kicked off the series earlier this week with his wonderful post on the 13th iteration of Doctor Who (which you can read on his blog or on ours). Not to worry, for more posts featuring your favorite fictional females from all these other fabulous bloggers will be served up all month long 😉
This year for #FictionsFearlessFemales, I’ve chosen Barbara Gordon! Barbara was the original Batgirl, and became the hero Oracle after the events of The Killing Joke. Though Barbara Gordon is not the first superheroine (that mantle goes to Wonder Woman, as chronicled in last year’s FFF post), she is one of the first examples of a heroine derivative of a male hero: in this case, Batman. That doesn’t mean she is exactly like Batman, however, as we will see! Barbara was also the first superheroine to have a disability, making her debut as Oracle hugely important for representation in the comic industry.
Batgirl was written into Batman and Robin’s comics series at the request of the producers of the 1960’s Batman TV show. The creators of the show wanted to create a character who would appeal to a female audience, but they wanted her to premiere in the comics first. Therefore, William Dozier (executive producer and uncredited narrator of Batman), Julius Schwartz (DC comics editor), and Carmine Infantino (DC comics artist) collaborated to create Batgirl! She first appeared in Detective Comics #359 in January of 1967, the title of which was “The Million Dollar Debut of Batgirl!” In September of that same year, her first appearance on the TV show was aired, in the episode called “Enter Batgirl, Exit Penguin.” She was played by the late Yvonne Craig. (Wikipedia)
What I found particularly charming about Batgirl’s early comics (seen in her Bronze Age omnibus) was how easily and cheerfully she forcefully integrated herself into the Dynamic Duo to make it a Batfamily. Batman and Robin are puzzled and even alarmed at Batgirl’s sudden appearance, and they don’t believe she can be a good crime-fighter. They mince no words making their doubts known to her. Do those doubts bother Batgirl? Heck no! She razzes them right back, giving as good as she gets. Mostly, she lets her actions do the talking: using her brains and physical prowess to prove herself rather than her words. Barbara doesn’t let their misguided, misogynistic views of her get in the way of doing what’s right: joining their crusade to keep Gotham safe. Her persistence leaves Batman and Robin little choice but to accept her once they realize she’s not going anywhere!
Once they do accept Batgirl, she proves to be an invaluable member of the team. Though Batgirl is of course derivative of Batman, the two characters are very different. Barbara Gordon in her very first incarnation was the head librarian of the Gotham City Library by day (which, as a librarian myself, I cannot tell you how inspiring I find that and how much that means to me!!!). Her specialty from the start lay in information: finding it, distilling it, and following it to solve crimes. Later, after she became Oracle, the methods of her information gathering changed as she became a tech/computer wizard, and she delivered information to the right people rather than using it herself. But therein is her main difference from Batman: while he may be the World’s Greatest Detective, the best at deducing information, Batgirl is the expert of information gathering.
Over her long and varied career, Barbara Gordon as Batgirl has fought crime, kept her identity a secret from her father (Gotham City Police Commissioner Jim Gordon), and even ran for the House of Representatives in Washington D.C. in the early 1970’s. Some of this story appears in the Bronze Age omnibus linked above. This was the start of the retirement of the character, with both Barbara and Batgirl appearing on and off in various DC titles until 1988. Her official retirement title, “Batgirl Special #1″ was published in July of that year.
Remember, however, that The Killing Joke (linked above) was published in March of 1988. Though Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s story was initially meant to be a one-shot about the Joker, it proved immensely popular both with long-time fans and newcomers. In the story, as the Joker tries to tell us his story, his origin is interspersed with the present-day, where he shoots Barbara Gordon through the spine (paralyzing her from the waist down), kidnaps Commissioner Jim Gordon, and attempts to torture him into losing his sanity. He tries to prove that anyone can go insane by having “one bad day,” like the day he had that ultimately drove him over the edge. That one-shot was so popular and influential to DC’s overall storyline that Barbara’s paralysis became canon. It was written into her last title, the “Batgirl Special #1″ mentioned above.
If you’ve never read The Killing Joke, I recommend you do on the basis of it being a milestone story in the overarching Batman lore. For my part, I could only stomach it one time, due to what I deem to be excessive violence against Barbara’s character (I wish I’m joking when I say that it gave me nightmares). Comic book author Gail Simone added Barbara (as Batgirl I) to her website “Women in Refrigerators,” in which she lists female comic book characters who have been killed, tortured, or otherwise depowered in some other way, often for the sake of a male character’s personal or story development. So, Barbara, up until this point, had been a popular character in her own right. She was connected to the ever-popular Batman, sure, but she was her own person, with her own title. In order to serve the story Moore and Bolland were trying to tell (to drive her father and Batman insane), her power was stripped away with a gunshot from the Joker.
… Or was it?
In 1996, a story called “Oracle: Year One: Born of Hope” was published in The Batman Chronicles #5 (I know I’ve read and reviewed it here, but can’t find the omnibus I read it in to link!). This story, penned by John Ostrander and Kim Yale, shows the events of The Killing Joke and the year after from Barbara’s point of view. We see her struggle to accept her paralysis and with her physical therapy. But, we also see her discover her affinity with computers and hacking on the early internet. We see her learn to defend herself though she is now bound to a wheelchair. We see her find her purpose again.
Thus, Barbara Gordon becomes Oracle, expert computer wizard, hacker, and information broker not only to Batman, but to other superheroes and organizations as needed.
Also in 1996, Chuck Dixon’s crossover Black Canary/Oracle: Birds of Prey was published, beginning my very favorite comic book series of all time: Birds of Prey. Oracle reaches out to the Black Canary, and the two form an unlikely partnership which later blossoms into friendship. In 2000, Gail Simone herself took over writing the BoP title, added Huntress to the main roster, and the rest, as they say, is history.
If I’ve said it once, I’ll say it a million times. Birds of Prey is unequivocally my favorite comic book series. The Birds of Prey are THE landmark girl power group in comics. You have Barbara Gordon as Oracle, of course, Dinah Lance as the Black Canary, and Helena Bertinelli as the Huntress. Separately, the three heroines are very different in crime fighting methods, race and nationality, socio-economic status, and abilities. Despite their differences, they learn to work together as a team. They eventually become much more than a team: they become a family.
This series having such a special place in my heart is in no small part due to Barbara Gordon. She may have started out as Batgirl, but she grew and evolved in ways that not many female comic book characters would have after her paralysis. If it weren’t for Ostrander and Yale’s intervention, Barbara might not have seen the light of day again in DC comic canon. She would have been shot, paralyzed, and retired permanently. Perhaps she would have made a few guest appearances here and there as Commissioner Gordon’s crippled daughter – but Ostrander and Yale knew better than that. They knew Barbara wouldn’t have resigned herself to that fate. They knew she would have fought to make something of herself again, and that is EXACTLY what she did.
Barbara might not have been able to physically kick ass as Oracle, but she served an important role in being one of the first physically disabled superheroes. She proved that even after suffering a horrific and life-changing experience, one can still pick themselves back up. One can fight through and even come out stronger on the other side – not necessarily in the same way, but that’s not a bad thing! Barbara proved that her worth was not necessarily in her body or in her physical accomplishments, but in her mind, her ability to think and to find, recall, and communicate information.
This is a very important distinction to make between Barbara Gordon and, say, Wonder Woman, Supergirl, or Green Lantern Jessica Cruz. Wonder Woman’s powers were bestowed upon her by her patron gods. Supergirl’s powers come from how our yellow sun’s rays interact with her Kryptonian (alien) DNA. Jessica Cruz, like all Green Lanterns, was chosen by a power ring, through which she can create corporeal constructs using her own willpower. Wonder Woman and Supergirl have amazing supernatural and physical capabilities that they were born with or that they were given. Though Green Lanterns need extraordinary mind- and willpower in order to create constructs through their ring – they need the supernatural device of their power ring in order to do so.
Barbara doesn’t have any of that. She has no supernatural crutches, so to speak. She only has her her human body and her sharp, analytical mind. Batgirl showed the world that girls can play in the boys’ sandbox (and damned what they think), but Oracle showed the world that the mind is what Barbara Gordon’s best asset is, and what ultimately makes her a hero.
For the New 52 that DC launched in 2011, we got to see Barbara (literally) stand up and become Batgirl once more. While the New 52 established a new continuity after the effects of Flashpoint, many previously canonical things were different – but not for Barbara. The events of The Killing Joke still happened, and Barbara really WAS paralyzed. She regained the use of her legs and her paralysis was reversed by way of an experimental surgery in the New 52. Gail Simone returned to pen Barbara’s second debut as Batgirl, this time as trying to relearn how to be Batgirl, and trying to work through the trauma and PTSD that the events of The Killing Joke had left her. Though she was no longer bound to a wheelchair, there were still inner demons to overcome in order to be a hero. Even a powerful mind such as Barbara’s struggles with roadblocks, PTSD, anxiety, panic attacks. And that’s powerful stuff.
Barbara Gordon has been both Batgirl and Oracle since the launch of the New 52, into Rebirth. The first volume of Rebirth’s Birds of Prey sees the newly re-formed Birds trying to uncover who has stolen Barbara’s Oracle mantle. Barbara is shown as a young adult, as she has been for most of her career, but this time with all of today’s technology – and she’s still very good at it 😉
Barbara Gordon is my Fiction’s Fearless Female for this year, but she is also one that is very near and dear to my own heart. She started out as a librarian (like me!), and used not just physical abilities, but mental abilities in order to fight crime and make a difference. She didn’t let Batman or Robin’s vocal disapproval stand in her way. Even after being shot and paralyzed by the Joker in 1988’s The Killing Joke, Barbara continued to be a hero under the mantle of Oracle and found new strength and purpose in not only the Oracle guise but in the Birds of Prey. Though she is now back as Batgirl after the New 52, Barbara’s heroism is mostly defined by her mind, not necessarily for supernatural abilities or physical prowess.
Barbara Gordon ultimately proves that women don’t need to kick ass to be badass.
Next week, look for Kalie’s Fictional Fearless Female on her blog, Just Dread-full. Join us back here for Jeff of The Imperial Talker and then Nancy’s post. Rob of My Side of the Laundry Room will wrap up this year’s series! Please continue to join us in this celebration of #FictionsFearlessFemales during Women’s History Month!