Women in the Panels: Barbara Gordon

From the pages of Geek Syndicate Magazine Issue 1, we present Women in the Panels. This series of articles looks at the portrayal of female characters in comics throughout the years. This time, the focus is on The Dark Knight’s family – particularly a young red-head who became one of the strongest female characters (some would argue strongest character period) presented by DC Comics at the least. This girl has brains, skill, heart and more importantly spirit. Join LittleWitch as she looks at the evolution of Barbara Gordon throughout her crime-fighting career…

The Original Barbara

Barbara Gordon Yvonne CraigIn 1966 to help revive Detective Comics and promote the third season of the Batman TV series, Barbara Gordon was created by Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino under the watchful eye of DC Comics Editor Julius Schwartz.  She first appeared in Detective Comics issue 359 where she made a big impact by helping foil a plan by Killer Moth to kidnap Bruce Wayne.  Meanwhile in the TV series, Barbara was brought to life by the beautiful Yvonne Craig.

Dr. Barbara Gordon Ph. D. And her heroic alter-ego, Batgirl, was almost instantly popular to both television and comic audiences.  The daughter of Police Commissioner Jim Gordon, Barbara was portrayed as an intelligent, daring woman with her own career. How couldn’t she be?  The sixties saw the second wave of feminism with the United States government bringing in legislation to combat workplace discrimination based on gender. At the same time, women were campaigning on issues such as pay and educational opportunities.  Barbara showed the comic book world the modern woman and the readers responded well on the whole.  Some readers did write to DC requesting the previous version of “Bat-girl” (Betty Kane) rather than this new incarnation, however, DC wrote an open letter back explaining that “the days of helpless female superheroes were gone”.

During the sixties and seventies, Barbara continued to work alongside Batman and Robin as well as making appearances in other DC titles, including an issue where she goes on a blind date with Superman! (Superman #238, October 1973).  During her appearances in the Superman family of comics a strong friendship formed between Barbara and Kara Zor-El – the Supergirl of the time.  This friendship was brought to a tragic and unfortunate end with Supergirl’s death in Crisis of Infinite Earths in 1985.  Indeed, such was their friendship, that it was Barbara who delivered the eulogy of “her friend and confident”, in Issue 7 of that universe-defining maxi-series.  Though this friendship was lost effectively lost as Kara no longer existed in the DC Universe at this point, the reboot that Crisis of Infinite Earths caused paved the way for caused the foundations of the Barbara we see today.

The New (and Younger) Barbara

Barbara came out of Crisis of Infinite Earths with a new backstory, she was now Jim Gordon’s niece adopted by him when her parents died.  This Barbara had grown up with Batman around her and she had pushed herself to finish school earlier than her peers.  This kept her smart but now made her a closer age to the young Robin, Dick Grayson, which would lead to a romance between the two.

Barbara Gordon suicide squad 38In 1988, Barbara hung up her cowl in Batgirl Special #1 and soon after she was shot and paralysed in The Killing Joke by Alan Moore.  This caused huge controversy with readers and creators both outraged at how this tale depicted her as just a tool used by the Joker to send Jim Gordon insane.  Many people saw this as a devolution of Barbara from being a strong, independent woman into a  homemaker who was just concerned with the mess her dad was making.  Later Alan Moore would go on to admit that he regretted the way she was used.

Two creators who were also disgusted with Barbara’s treatment were the husband and wife team Kim Yale and John Ostrander.  They decided to revive the character and not allow her to be a victim of her disability.  In 1989 she appeared in Suicide Squad #23, merely as a computer message announcing the presence of “Oracle” into the superhero community.  It wasn’t until issue 38 of that that Oracle was revealed to be Barbara Gordon.

Oracle was an information powerhouse providing intelligence to superheroes across the DC universe.  She was now Batman’s intellectual equal and he would come to rely on her over the years rather than using his own resources on many occasions.

In 1996 Chuck Dixon wrote a one shot comic, Black Canary/Oracle: Birds of Prey.Off the back of the popularity of this one shot came several mini-series which finally led to the Birds of Prey ongoing series, which ran for over 10 years.  The premise of Birds of Prey was simple: an all-female superhero team led by Oracle.

Birds of Prey gave Barbara storylines that allowed her to be integral to the plot without needing to be out in a cape.  One of my favourite issues from the Chuck Dixon run was issue #25 where Barbara shares her geeky side with Scientist Ted Kord, better known in the superhero community as Blue Beetle.

Gail Simone took over the writing Birds of Prey from issue 56 and in my opinion it was here where we saw Barbara develop further.  In this run Barbara faces not only other hackers such as The Calculator but also Superman’s nemesis, the intelligence gathering alien construct known as Brainiac.  It’s during Simone’s run that we also see Barbara and the Birds of Prey leaving Gotham for Metropolis – finally Barbara is freed from the shadow of The Batman.  During the late two-thousands we saw the Birds of Prey team change regularly, however Barbara remained the one constant, sending her team to fight all over the world.

During Batman R.I.P and Battle for the Cowl Barbara summoned the disbanded Birds of Prey back to Gotham to help Robin and Nightwing get a grip on the crime in Gotham.  This showed the comic book world that she was still integral to the Batman family.

Most recently, Barbara Gordon has caused controversy again. In 2011, DC Comics’ new “52” rebooted comic line saw Barbara coming out of the wheelchair and becoming Batgirl once more.  Many people, including myself, regarded this as an insult to the strong character she had become.  However, writer Gail Simone in this most recent Batgirl series has dealt with the issue carefully, not writing out the tragedy of The Killing Joke but instead making Barbara a recent “miraculous recovery” with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  In my opinion a very smart move as this condition is not covered enough in any media.

The Impact of Barbara

For me personally, Barbara made a massive impact. When I was in a very dark place I discovered a woman who was paralysed and still managed to kick ass.  By reading her story it gave me strength to start again and when talking to people they tell me the same.

In the 1960s Barbara was a strong feminist role model without needing to preach about equal rights.  She showed the world that women could hold a Ph. D., run for congress and fight crime. In my eyes, although she wasn’t always truly portrayed as Batman’s equal she clearly was, even back then.

Although there have been endless arguments about whether it was right to paralyse her for so long  in a universe that saw Batman have his back broken and healed and saw many characters recover from being … well … Dead (Superman and Green Arrow are just two examples), Barbara, through her personal life and her Oracle alter-ego has shown that disability doesn’t stop the hero inside people.

What makes Barbara great is that even with the most recent reboot she is a character that has had a strong storyline and an even stronger character to go with it.  She’s not afraid to outsmart Batman or tell Superman that she’s not afraid of him.  By leading other women in her own superhero team she shows that even in a spandex universe where women get cut up and put in refrigerators there is a place for strong independent women working with each other instead of cat-fighting over a man.

I know I am not alone in my love for Barbara Gordon, many creators for DC Comics talk about their love for her.  This can be seen clearly with Yale and Ostrander’s introduction of Oracle and in Simone’s careful handling of the recent reboot.  No matter what happens to Barbara next, no one can deny the amazing impact that the Commissioner’s daughter has had in the DC Universe.

Recommended Reading

  • Showcase Presents: Batgirl, Vol. 1 – Various writers and artists
  • Batgirl: The Greatest Stories Ever Told – Various writers and artists
  • Batgirl: Year One – Scott Beatty and Chuck Dixon
  • The Killing Joke – Alan Moore and Brian Bolland
  • Suicide Squad (1987 series) issues 23-65
  • The Hunt for Oracle – Chuck Dixon, Greg Land and Jackson Guice
  • Any of the Birds of Prey trades by Gail Simone

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