Batgirl’s Back

by | November 27, 2011
filed under Feminism, Pop Culture

Jarrah wrote a great post about one of my all time favourite comic book heroes: Batgirl. She took a look back at the origin of Barbara Gordon, and the shift that came when Batgirl was shot by the Joker, leaving her physically paralyzed. When that happened, Barbara put away her suit and cape and became Oracle, the ghost in the machine. With her keen intelligence, computer hacking skills and photographic memory, Oracle led the Birds of Prey through the underworld of Gotham City, and on more than one occasion, helped the World’s Greatest Detective, Batman, out of a jam.

Now Batgirl’s back with the DC Comics 52 relaunch. It’s three years after the incident with the Joker and after a lot of physical and emotional therapy, Barbara is not only able to walk but tumble, climb, stalk and fight the forces of evil. Written by Gail Simone, one of the best contemporary comic book writers, Barbara Gordon is working through a wicked case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and rebuilding her life as an independent person.

Jarrah wrote about the outcry over Oracle returning to her incarnation as Batgirl (see Barbara’s Not Broken on Facebook). I agree that there is a lack of diversity in the comic book universe, but I have always disagreed with the move DC made to create Oracle in the first place and here’s why: they never, ever would have pulled that shit with a dude.

Superman died! Oh, no, wait, our bad, he’s back. The Flash died! Oh, no, wait, our bad, he’s back. Green Lantern is gone forever! Oh, no, wait, our bad, here he is again, with a bunch of buddies who keep getting reincarnated as themselves. That scenario would never have played out with a male character. If Batman was shot and paralyzed by the Joker, three issues later he’d be back using both feet to knock out the Joker’s teeth. If Robin had been shot and paralyzed by the Joker, ten issues later, after a whole lot of vengeful brooding, Robin would be back flipping cartwheels at Batman’s side.

Alan Moore, who penned “The Killing Joke”, the issue in which Batgirl had this to say in an interview with Wizard Magazine:

“I asked DC if they had any problem with me crippling Barbara Gordon—who was Batgirl at the time—and if I remember, I spoke to Len Wein, who was our editor on the project, and he said, ‘Hold on to the phone, I’m just going to walk down the hall and I’m going to ask [former DC Executive Editorial Director] Dick Giordano if it’s alright,’ and there was a brief period where I was put on hold and then, as I remember it, Len got back onto the phone and said, ‘Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch,’ (Cochran).”

Moore later went on to say that he regretted the choice to paralyze Batgirl, and that it was a “shallow and ill-conceived” idea.

I disagree with the idea that physical disabilities are not represented in comic books. Perhaps not conventionally, although if we travel over to the Marvel universe, one of the most powerful mutants in the universe is Professor Charles Xavier, who has spent most of his life in a wheelchair. Check out Aquaman before the relaunch. He lost a hand in a fight and didn’t magically regrow one although he did get a bad ass hook out of the deal. Lex Luthor spends a lot of time in a special suit that keeps him alive because he has a rare form of cancer. Many of the characters in the comic book universe are differently abled and that’s part of their struggle, many of them have experienced severe discrimination and almost all of them have a serious amount of internal conflict, to the point of being clinically ill. Take a tour of Arkham Asylum.

But those are the dudes. Even when the dudes are dying they still get to fly around and fuck shit up. Not so the ladies.

Gail Simone’s incredible Women in Refrigerators is an infamous online discussion from the late nineties about the deaths of women in comic books. It seems like every time a female character changes hands with a new writer, she gets breast cancer or raped or murdered. It’s as if most writers have no clue what to do with their female heroes so they wipe them out the first chance they get. Or disable them and strip them of all of their previous abilities, like Oracle. One notable exception to this almost hard and fast rule is Wonder Woman. Part of the inviolate triumvirate of Batman, Superman and herself, Wonder Woman has died and been reborn but it still seems like they don’t know what to do with her or where to put her. Last year she got pants, this year she’s “just Diana” in the 52 relaunch. She’s been on the scene since 1941 and the boys at DC are still fumbling around like wallflowers at a high school dance.

I for one am relieved that Batgirl is back, and that Simone is leading her out into the night. Simone’s handled the relaunch beautifully; acknowledging the trauma Batgirl has suffered and the sheer joy she experiences at being able to once again leap over Gotham’s skyline. Having her physical abilities returned in no way diminishes her intellectual capabilities. I believe that she will be a richer, more fully developed character for having had the experience of being Oracle. No, Barbara isn’t broken, she never was. But no one would ever have put Batman in a wheelchair for a decade and held him up as a poster child so the comic book industry could say how progressive they are in their treatment of the disabled.


(image by Crazy runner via Wikimedia Commons)

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