My fall’s reading has been not nearly so prolific as the summer or spring had been. Since Icon wrapped up in October, I still haven’t finished the small pile of graphic novels sitting on my shelf, gazing at me, forlorn. NaNoWriMo happened and I was focused on trying to break barriers in my own writing and, frankly, November had been a rough month for everyone.
It’s a good thing I started out with Lumberjanes, then. This comics series, bound up in four-issue trade paperbacks, hovers somewhere between young adult and middle grade. Though nominally a fantasy adventure book, it’s a little more unrestrained in its fantastical exploration than I’m used to seeing in YA. The art style is vibrant and compelling, but the human figures are stylized enough that the age of the protagonists stays ambiguous. The summer camp environment and the bright and cheery atmosphere give it an overall middle grade vibe.
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.
Poor Supergirl. She never can seem to settle on a proper supporting cast of her very own. Sure, all comics superheroes go through endless permutations — power changes, costume changes, forgettable one-off villains — but always there is some sort of baseline to come back to. Always there is at least a mentor, or best friend, or love interest that recurs in every incarnation. And always, always a nemesis. A hero that doesn’t manage to establish a proper rogues gallery is bound to falter.
Supergirl, in her capacity as a spin-off hero, has a tendency to inherit Superman’s cast-offs. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing, characters can grow and change and develop new roles in the mythology, when discharged from their role as third-tier Superman hangers-on. A few years ago, pre-New 52 when I was still following the ongoing Supergirl title, this was done to moderately good effect with Lana Lang. As an ex-love interest, the Superman comics didn’t really have room for her. Unfortunately, I was never really sold on the connection between them, and why Lana would specifically seek Kara out.
Other characters from that run stuck better, it seems. The Supergirl TV show has a couple of original supporting cast, but is replete with third-tier Superman characters, as well as ambiguous Checkmate-aligned Maxwell Lord. Side note: having Maxwell Lord in Supergirl and then notcrossing over with Legends of Tomorrow would be a crying shame. Still, it seems like the creators of the show are intent on keeping Kara firmly connected to the Superman mythos, while situating her in her own hometown with her own concerns.
I’m glad to see Kara getting a robust TV presence, even if the themes are lightweight and the dialogue is clunky. Granted, my enjoyment of the show — or any contemporary Supergirl comics — will always be capped by my own unnecessarily specific ideas for exactly what Supergirl should be. Of course, that point is largely moot, since the most recent iteration of Kara Zor-El had her ongoing title cancelled some time last spring. Not that I’m terribly worried, DC has the good sense to make sure that they have something on the shelves ready for fans of the show to pick up. Probably.
But the depth-problem is that each new volume (the most recent being the sixth) will have its own set of writers and artists sweeping in to “redefine” the character, without anyone having any idea of what exists at her core. Except me, obviously. All that means is that different iterations will have wildly different approaches. Of course, most comics superheroes go through this, but when Superman starts wearing T-shirts and punching people, everybody and their cryo-frozen cousin has an opinion on whether or not this is the “real” Superman.
The core of the problem, I think, is that very few Supergirl writers seem to have started out as readers. The TV show, curiously, might finally be an exception to this. If I had to guess, I’d say there’s at least one person in that writers’ room that read and enjoyed the Sterling Gates run — my own favorite, incidentally. Despite many flaws. Ultimately, comics continuity and the snarls that come with it are part and parcel of forming a superhero mythos, and they need to be formed out of an amalgam of more than one writer’s ideas about who Kara Zor-El really is.
The core idea behind the TV show, aside from Supergirl’s ongoing efforts to achieve an independent reputation, seems to be that Kara, unlike Clark, actually remembers Krypton. This, I think, is a good start. How it progresses remains to be seen.
Crossposted to Dreamwidth.