Barbara Gordon made her million-dollar debut as Batgirl in the 1960s, as part of an effort to draw female viewers to that era’s campy Batman TV series. The comics version, either the daughter or niece of Commissioner Gordon depending on who was writing her, was an enduring and endearing character who mixed Batman’s determination and detective skills with Robin’s enthusiasm and youthful exuberance. She did this off and on for 21 years before being shot in the spine by the Joker in Alan Moore’s renowned 1988 effort The Killing Joke.
The Killing Joke famously put Barbara Gordon in a wheelchair, and a year later she emerged as a shadowy informant named Oracle in the pages of Suicide Squad, later becoming the human equivalent of Batman’s computer, offering tech-savvy support to crimefighters in Gotham and elsewhere. She eventually joined Birds of Prey and helped train a new Batgirl, Cassandra Cain.
Cassandra Cain was pretty popular, starring in the first-ever solo Batgirl series and helping that title last for half a decade. Following Infinite Crisis and running parallel to the series 52, the company-wide “One Year Later” arc turned Cassandra into a villain, which, given her upbringing, was plausible but unlikely. Fans were upset not only at the bungled character change, but also because DC’s first A-list Asian superheroine was now a villain, and no longer a role model.
Similarly, with the exception of X-Men‘s Professor X, there weren’t a lot of wheelchair-bound superheroes in the comic medium, and none at DC (Niles Caulder doesn’t count). Oracle was a symbol of diversity without being the token handicapped character, and Barbara Gordon tended to roll her eyes at people who saw her disability as something to be pitied. So when the New 52 decided to make Barbara Gordon the new Batgirl, fans were slightly miffed, having to say goodbye to a character they’d watched overcome adversity in the most badass of ways for 22 years. Also because the previous Batgirl, the much-loved Stephanie Brown, had seemingly been wiped from existence to make all of this happen.
Audiences questioned the wisdom of granting Barbara the ability to walk. Gail Simone was announced as writer of the new Batgirl title, and since Simone was the vocal critic who coined the term Women in Refrigerators many moons ago, fans could at least assume Barbara’s disability-free career would be handled gracefully.
So now that we’re a year into the title, how has Simone approached this touchy subject matter? Pretty much by refusing to sweep it under the rug. It’s something that gets addressed in every issue, whether it be Barbara boasting about her phenomenal upper-arm strength or going out on a date with her physical therapist. Simone also acknowledges that Barbara’s good luck might be seen as unfair wish fulfilment:
In the early issues, Barbara tends to choke when confronted by a gun, which, living in Gotham, is something of a liability to a crimefighter. She quickly gets over it, but the effects of Killing Joke tend to linger. In Batgirl #7, she encounters one of the goons that accompanied the Joker the night he shot Barbara in the spine:
And in Batgirl #8, she lets the guy escape and later tries to save his life. He’s a goon with a heart of gold, you see, and he doesn’t kill. There’s a bit of a retcon that takes advantage of something we never see in The Killing Joke: what happened between the Joker shooting Barbara and Barbara waking up in the hospital. As far as retcons go, it’s pretty genius: the goon is responsible for alerting the police/medics to Barbara’s apartment, thus ensuring her survival. It’s something that was never addressed in the comic, because it didn’t need to be, and adding this little revision actually enhances Barbara’s back story:
Interestingly, Batgirl makes no mention of the Joker photographing Barbara’s wounded body in various states of undress, which makes me think that part of the story might’ve been wiped from the post-Flashpoint DCU.
There’s also some overt and not-so-overt nods to previous (subsequent?) Batgirls:
That’s Charlotte Gage-Radcliffe’s famous “Dark vengeance!” catch phrase, and the word “spoiling” seems to be a conscious choice given that Simone could’ve used “ruining” instead. If there’s a reference to Cassandra Cain somewhere in Batgirl‘s first 12 issues, I missed it.
There’s also a bit in Batgirl #2 where Barbara discovers the dividing line between the haves and the have-nots doesn’t apply strictly to the living:
Class conflict has always been a thing in Gotham City – it comes up whenever Barbara runs into Bruce Wayne or Dick Grayson – but in recent years it’s become a more immediate global issue (and a major theme of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises). It’s easier to sympathize with Barbara Gordon knowing that she didn’t grow up with money.
Neither did Stephanie Brown, of course. And one of the major problems with Simone’s writing is that Barbara’s narration and dialogue are almost exactly the same as Brown’s in the previous Batgirl title:
Which makes you wonder why they didn’t just use Stephanie Brown in the first place. She doesn’t have Barbara’s rich history, but change the hair to blonde and throw some purple on the costume, and that could be Stephanie Brown.
This might be due to the fact that in the New 52 Barbara is no longer a decade older than Stephanie Brown. She’s now about the same age as her former protégé. Pre-New 52, Barbara was slightly older than Dick Grayson, but in Batgirl she mentions that she and Dick were both kids when they worked with Batman, indicating they’re both college age. Speaking of which:
That’s Nightwing, stopping by to remind us just how much the New 52′s revised five-year timeline doesn’t work. Consider the following: if Batman began his career five years ago, Dick wouldn’t have debuted as Robin until, let’s say, six months to a year afterward. At some point, according to Roy Harper in Red Hood and the Outlaws, the Marv Wolfman-era lineup of the New Teen Titans existed, contrary to what Tim Drake claims in Teen Titans #1. Batgirl would’ve debuted sometime after the first Robin, so we’ll guess a year after Bruce first donned the cowl. Now, she’s just started walking after three years in a wheelchair, which means her Batgirl career lasted either a year or less than a year, logically while Dick was doing double duty as Batman’s sidekick and leader of the Teen Titans. So how much time could Dick and Barbara have possibly spent together establishing the foundation of their present-day flirt-fighting on a Gotham rooftop?
In addition to The Killing Joke getting repeated narrative callbacks, the infamous James Gordon Jr. shows up. This feels a little like having Cobalt Blue (Barry Allen’s evil twin, switched at birth in the hospital) appear in the New 52 version of The Flash. James Gordon Jr. was a ridiculous character (one of Commissioner Gordon’s children is a superhero and the other is a serial killer? Really?) Adding to the soap opera theatrics is Barbara’s absentee mother has suddenly re-emerged in her daughter’s life, blaming her longtime disappearance on her son’s insanity.
More intriguing than having the Cluemaster as a dad, I guess.
Gail Simone manages to balance out tried-and-true story elements with new and unique ones: criminals have created an app to keep tabs on Batman’s whereabouts via their smartphones, which is pretty clever, and the idea that Gotham’s citizens are worth saving (another nod, I think, to Nolan’s Batman trilogy) comes across nicely in this bit:
There’s also Barbara’s run-in with Kate Kane, in which artist Ardian Syaf nicely emulates J.H. William III’s creative panelling:
Batgirl and Batwoman, together! Again! For the first time!
All in all, Simone does a fantastic job with the material. Retaining The Killing Joke and its after-effects works: DC isn’t glossing over this aspect of Barbara’s life by completely rebooting the character, which would’ve been more insulting than giving her back the use of her legs. But couldn’t they have just let Oracle be Oracle and Stephanie Brown fill Batgirl’s boots?
The most likely answer can be found in Batgirl #6, in which Bruce Wayne make a very pointed comment to Barbara Gordon:
Or maybe it’s just another dig against Alan Moore.