When people think Batgirl, they think Barbara Gordon. When they think Barbara Gordon, they think Oracle.
A few weeks ago, the ongoing Batgirl title from DC comics got cancelled with #50 to be the end. While this is, in hindsight, more likely the result of the mass-firing and restructuring the company is currently undergoing, the timing of said cancellation intrigued me. The 'Joker War' story-line across all of the Bat-books was (and still is) happening. Barbara Gordon's tie-in story already focused on her (temporarily) losing the mobility in her legs again and with the 'Joker War' said to have far-reaching consequences I wondered to myself: 'are they returning Barbara Gordon to her Oracle persona, wheelchair and all?'. At that time it was only a random thought echoing in my brain, but since then, some things have come to light that pointed towards this direction.
Black and white preview pages for Batman #100, originally meant as Batman's grand-finale before the 5G relaunch before that one got canned, sees not only Barbara seemingly back in the chair but also Cassandra Cain wearing her Batgirl uniform again and the former Batgirl Stephanie Brown with a bat-emblem.
Now, these preview pages have no context and the recently released Batman #99 confirms that Barbara goes back to her clock-tower to coordinate the bat-families assault on Joker's forces on her own initiative and not because she lost the use of her legs again. It's definitely meant as a callback to her time as Oracle. However, Bleeding Cool, who has a track record when it comes to these things, have reported on sources telling them that Cassandra will adopt the mantle again next year in 2021. How this would affect Barbara is currently unknown.
There's no way to tell if there's any truth to this reported but however the situation ends up being if Barbara will go back to Oracle or stay as Batgirl, it has made me wonder the age-old question again of which version of Barbara Gordon is the one that should have a place in DC's main continuity.
Some of you might not know this, but Barbara Gordon wasn't the first Batgirl. No, that honour goes to Betty Kane, named "Bat-Girl", the sidekick to the original Batwoman introduced in 1956. After accusations of homoerotic subtext in the relationship between Batman and Robin (Google it if you don't know what I'm talking about) DC comics introduced female counterparts as love-interest to end these accusations once and for all. We must remember: this was the 1950's. To say that their depiction were those of stereotypes would be an understatement.
After only a few years both characters were removed and retconned out of existence as they weren't 'of the times anymore' AKA were outdated and harmful representations of women. Batwoman would eventually make her way back and Betty Kane did as well post Crisis on Infinite Earth as the retooled character Firebird, but the fans had wanted female members back to the Bat-family earlier than that. Enter the Batman TV series of the 1960s. To sell the third season to the network the show's producers decided that adding in a female character would give the show the boost in popularity it needed. They got their wish and the comics department was tasked with introducing the character and work out the finer details. Enter Barbara Gordon: the new Batgirl.
Debuting in 1967 in an issue of Detective Comics, the daughter of commission Gordon, this new Batgirl was much more independent then either Batwoman and Bat-Girl had been. There was some criticism against this new Batgirl when she was first introduced, mainly her role as a librarian and her 'Bat-purse' made here part of the same negative stereotype of many depictions of woman, but over time these elements were either nuanced on fazed out entirely.
Barbara Gordon's Batgirl exceeded the earlier Bat-Girl and Batwoman in popularity, and readers requested for her to appear in other titles. She was a regular in Batman stories during this time, had her own backup slot in Detective Comics and survived Crisis on Infinite Earths without too many scratches. She got an updated origin, yes, but aside from being retconned as Jim's niece instead of his daughter no real significant changes were made. The Barbara Gordon Batgirl was as a success, both in the TV show and on the page, to the point that she became a mainstay of the wider Batman mythos. Batgirl became a permanent member of the Bat-Family, known even outside of comic books and a role-model to many young girls.
While very popular during the '70s, Batgirl's popularity started to decline during the 1980s. The tonal shift in all Batman related material is pointed towards as the main cause of this. The 'cheerier' Batgirl just didn't fit the darker Batman anymore. Whatever the exact cause, she wasn't as popular anymore as she once was which is what eventually lead her to The Killing Joke.
In arguably the most recognizable Batman story of all time, The Joker shot Barbara through her waist leaving her paralyzed from the waist down, all to drive her father insane. This could have very much been the end of the character, if not for wife and husband duo Kim Yale and John Ostrander. Alan Moore, writer of The Killing Joke, didn't really care much about Barbara Gordon at the time, which is seen in his portrayal of her. While The Killing Joke has a large impact on Barbara, she has no impact on the story itself outside of her getting shot. That's the only thing that she's there for and the only thing she does. Kim Yale, comic book editor and writer, found the treatment of Barbara Gordon distasteful and together with her husband, fellow comic writer John Ostrander, they decided that instead of letting Barbara fall into obscurity, to revive her as a character living with a disability.
end, they introduced the mysterious 'Oracle' within the Suicide Squad comics. A
genius hack and information broker, Oracle offered their services to the
Suicide Squad and others for almost two years before her identity as Barbara
Gordon was finally revealed. This new version of Barbara caught on. She got her
own mini-series chronicling her journey to become Oracle, was re-introduced to
the Batman titles where she became an integral and unmissable part to his war
on crime and became the founder and leader of her own team: The Birds of Prey.
Highlighting Barbara's intelligence and perseverance, Oracle became a fascinating
character. A representation of how a disability does not defy who you are while
simultaneous showing the struggles that come along with it.
The infamous shooting of Barbara Gordon by the Joker.
Batgirl wasn't forgotten, however. Later down the line, the mantle of Batgirl would get picked up by two different young teens hoping to make a difference. Cassandra Cain during 'No Mans Land' in the late '90s and Stephanie Brown in the late 2000s with her own solo-title. In each case, Barbara wasn't far behind, serving as the new heroes mentor.
Efforts to get Barbara back as Batgirl were made behind the scenes as well. Most notably, the design for the Kate Kane Batwoman design started out as the new Batgirl suit for Barbara. Paul Dini and Alex Ross intended to use the Lazarus Pit to give Barbara the use of her legs back with the red colour intended to show how the pit had morally compromised her. That didn't go through, obviously, and the idea was shot down as, according to him, "everybody loves Barbara Gordon as Oracle and as a handicapped character. The theory was that DC didn't have enough handicapped characters, so they weren't going to do anything with Barbara as she was". The design was later reused and adjusted for the new Batwoman: Kate Kane.
Batgirl once more
By the time 2011 and the New 52 rolled around, however, it seems that most people that felt this way had either changed their mind or left the company as Barbara became Batgirl once more. The reason for this is that the reboot was meant to 'simplify' the continuity as well as 'bring back the iconic versions of the characters'. In this new continuity, The Killing Joke still happened, but instead of remaining in a wheelchair for the rest of her life she went through physical rehabilitation and could thus walk again three years after the event. The initial Batgirl run was written by Gail Simone, who had also written extensively about her during her time as Oracle and her time in the wheelchair hangs heavily over Barbara in the title. She suffers from PTSD from the shooting, as well as a sense of survivors guilt that she managed to walk again while so many others who end up in a wheelchair will stay there for the rest of their lives.
Simone tried her best to pay respect to both Barbara's time as Oracle and disabled people as a whole and this approach, while controversial at first, worked. While this new Batgirl was a bestseller, the staff at DC comics were not as respectful as she was. It's a whole thing in and of itself, but the short story is that Simone got fired through a no-reply Email, was rehired after fan and creator outcry and then left over creative differences. A new creative team was brought in and the title was rebooted. It's this soft-rebooted version of Batgirl that you see can currently see popping up everywhere, from the animated movies to even the recent Harley Quinn series. The book became much lighter in tone and style though it does still deal with darker elements and her history as Oracle. I'm not a big fan of this new direction. It feels very tropey, the new suit looks more like a cosplayer's Batgirl suit than an actual effective piece of equipment amongst many other things, but I digress.
|The Bargirl suit that I'm talking about in the above paragraph, FYI.|
Barbara is favoured as Batgirl because this is how she is known as in popular culture, because she considered more effective crimefighter and as the main representative within the Bat-family for young girls. Oracle is seen as a strong representation of the disabled, one of the few within the comic industry and as a progression/improvement of Barbara as a character, though the method in which she became paralyzed is criticized as another example of 'Women in Refrigerators'. Giving her the ability to walk again makes more sense within the DC universe, is more reflective of the progress in medical science when it comes to this and forms a strong narrative for those who have been through the same thing.
Now, what do I think? In what role do I prefer Barbara Gordon in? Batgirl. That's how I knew her as for well over a decade, that's how she is in, like, 85% of all the stories I've read or seen her in. My exposure to Barbara as Oracle has been limited while I've seen her as Batgirl plenty that the version that will always be the one stuck in my head. Barbara as Oracle does certainly has a lot of appeal. I really like her and her role in No Man's Land and the same goes for her role in Stephanie Brown's short-lived solo Batgirl title. I understand why people like her better as Oracle and do think that the representation she brings as a powerful and compelling disabled character is something good. I still prefer her as Batgirl though and have thus enjoyed her reclaiming the mantle these last few years.
However, for those of you who like her better as Oracle and want to see her return in the role: I have a few words for you to cap this entire story of with. Barbara's transition to Oracle is, no doubt, the characters defining moment both in and out of the medium and will forever remain a part of her lore. Just as Barbara was portrayed as Batgirl in outside media like TV during her time as Oracle in the comics, so is she still portrayed as Oracle in stuff like Young Justice. Oracle will never go away completely and who knows: maybe Barbara will return to the role in the comics as well sometime in the future. It's certainly something you can hope for.