This is the story of how DC comics depowered Barbara Gordon.
For twenty five years, Barbara Gordon played the role of Oracle, a master-hacker and world-class information broken, leader of the Birds of Prey and a revolving roster of superheroines, and one of the smartest people in the DC universe. This Oracle persona was developed by John Ostrander and Kim Yale after her spine injury in the famous (or notorious) storyline The Killing Joke. This storyline was rightly criticized for treating Batgirl as a prop in a story that focused on the relationship between Batman and the Joker. The Killing Joke is commonly included in lists of “fridgings”, brutal plots visited on female characters, for the purpose of providing motivation for male characters.
The double standard is driven home when compared to the Knightfall storyline of 1993, where Batman has his spine broken by the supervillain Bane. Bruce Wayne is briefly replaced as Batman but, to no one’s surprise, he quickly becomes magically healed and resumes activity as the one and only Dark Knight in perpetuity. Barbara Gordon remained paraplegic. She also remained a master hacker and information broker, and developed a dedicated following of fans in her incarnation as leader of the Birds of Prey.
It’s not easy to find positive representation of disabled characters, let alone specifically paraplegic characters. Paralysis seems to strike most people as being beyond tragic. Paraplegic characters are often described as “wheelchair-bound” and relegated to pity porn. Or else cured, magically or otherwise. Oracle was an unusual example in that she manifested a journey of recovery. Not always explicitly, but Barbara Gordon’s inner world was one in which a spinal cord injury didn’t end her life or strip it from meaning, didn’t make her unwhole, or less-than.
I wouldn’t say that her spinal injury was the best thing that ever happened to Barbara Gordon, as I’ve heard some fans say. But maybe that’s because I think the coupling between her paralysis and her career as Oracle is entirely optional. A long string of writers put their minds into making the ex-Batgirl into something new and marvelous, and Oracle is flat-out one of the best characters in the DC universe. For twenty-five years Babs was a global-level player and for the last four years she’s been a street-level fighter.
Babs was rebooted in the New 52 and returned unceremoniously to being a character defined by not being Batman. The rebooted Black Canary in the rebooted Birds of Prey offered her a spot on the team that she built and she used to run. Kicked back to a cutesy adolescent story of social media and artisanal microbreweries, Batgirl’s Babs taps on a smartphone and uses Instagram to track low-rent villains where her adult counterpart used to run an entire farm of military-grade servers. Drawn in an art style that makes her look barely fifteen, obsessing over fashion and dating, she blends in with a dozen other post-Buffy superheroines.
Oracle was one of a kind.
Throughout the process of supposedly correcting the injustice represented by the Killing Joke storyline, the reversion to a Batgirl persona was treated as automatic. After all, if Babs can walk, why wouldn’t she want to return to a world of high kicks and spandex unitards? None of the writers seemed to consider that it was possible for Babs to be a top-tier mastermind without losing the use of her legs. Oracle is unquestionably a more powerful character than Batgirl could ever be. If DC is determined to give us a superhero world where injuries have zero consequences, at least they could do us the courtesy of not undoing the character development that these injuries provided.
Well and good for Batman to be stuck in eternal stasis as a thirty-five year old emotionally stunted manchild. He’s too iconic to ever experience any lasting character development. But Babs Gordon is not Bruce Wayne, and it’s grossly unfair for her to be relegated to glorified teen sidekick to preserve a non-existent continuity. Selling red-haired Batgirl action figures is not a good enough reason to depower one of the most compelling intellectual superheroes in the modern age. Leave the Batgirl mantle to some teenage girl on her first hero gig. Babs Gordon has bigger fish to fry.
Crossposted to Dreamwidth.