Women In Comics: Batgirl Returns

11 Sep

Barbara Gordon Back In Action

September 2011 marks DC Comics undertaking their biggest reinvention ever. The company is relaunching every character and starting 52 new ongoing series with issue #1. Although the company has engaged in various reboots of its continuity over the past twenty-five years, this is the most serious overhaul, truly re-inventing all the characters. As we noted here at TSM last month, the relaunch is missing a valuable opportunity to involve more women creators and characters in the new universe. (Prime example: the new Justice League features seven heroes, six of whom are men. How’s that for bold reinvention?) This week, we got a taste of one of the major exceptions as Batgirl #1 was released.

The classic Batgirl was Barbara Gordon, daughter of Gotham City police commissioner Jim Gordon. A librarian by day, she took on the role of Batgirl to fight crime, at first in parallel and eventually in occasional partnership with Batman and Robin. Added almost simultaneously to the campy 60s TV show and to Detective comics, the character was always something of an afterthought (a four-color example  of the glass ceiling). Barbara had a loyal if limited fan base, but never significant sales as a lead. Her fate changed dramatically in 1988 with the publication of The Killing Joke. In that story, the Joker shot Barbara Gordon to punish her father, not realizing she was also Batgirl. The bullet lodged in her spine paralyzing her. Over the following two decades, Gordon has operated from a wheelchair as Oracle, a nexus of information and organization for the superhero world. Critics have rightfully lauded this presentation of super-heroics from a disabled person. During the same period a couple of other people have worn Batgirl’s cowl, having solid (if limited) fan bases and decent critical success.

When DC announced the new 52, one of the most controversial announcements was the return of Barbara Gordon as Batgirl. What happened to Oracle? Did DC remove the shooting from continuity? The one bright spot was that Gail Simone, one of the strongest female voices in comics today, was announced as the writer. Simone also has a long history of writing Barbara Gordon as Oracle in the book Birds of Prey. She had long resisted taking Barbara out of her chair. When told that this was an editorial fiat, however, she looked at the history of other characters since 1988 and refused to give up one of her favorites.

[With other characters,] arms and legs get ripped off, and they grow back, somehow. Graves don’t stay filled. But the one constant is that Barbara stays in that chair. Role model or not, that is problematic and uncomfortable, and the excuses to not cure her, in a world of purple rays and magic and super-science, are often unconvincing or wholly meta-textual. And the longer it goes on, the more it has stretched credibility. But now, everything has changed. If nearly everyone in the DCU, not just Batgirl but almost everyone, is now at a much earlier stage in their career, then my main objection no longer applies, because we are seeing Barbara at an earlier starting point.

So how is the first issue? Amazing. [SPOILER ALERT]  Simone keeps the shooting in the story. Barbara is finally mobile after three years. The injury haunts her, and has a clear impact on her heroics. While I might have preferred that we keep Oracle, in Gail Simone’s capable hands we get to see the honest aftermath of a horrible injury as seen through the eyes of someone whose avocation demands physical excellence. Brava, Gail, well done!

My biggest criticism is retaining the name BatGIRL. Barbara Gordon is a professional woman. The name is at least as derivative as it was in 1967. Sadly for Barbara (but good for the comic-reading public), DC also reinvented another weak Bat-character recently. Batwoman, originally a lame Lois-Lane-in-spandex character during the 50s silly Batman comics, was rewritten as a gritty detective and a lesbian starting in 2006. DC is launching a new Batwoman #1 next week, so we’ll see how well they do with that character in the new 52. Sadly, it left Barbara Gordon with the lamer name.

Overall, however, the relaunched Batgirl is brilliantly handled. It’s action-based super-hero comics with a heart and conscience, just as we would expect from Gail Simone. Farewell, Oracle, but welcome back Batgirl. As a rare female lead in the new DC Universe, you are a bright spot of feminist strength. Long may you run.

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