A Brief History of Batgirl

batgirl taking a photo in the bathroom mirror

The ongoing struggle to make geek culture more inclusive takes a positive step forward this month as DC Comics relaunches its iconic-but-neglected Batgirl series.

In 2011, when DC shrunk their line up to 52 monthly titles, only one percent of their creators were women (inclduing Batgirl writer Gail Simone). Thanks in part to pressure from fans and comics journalists fed up with the lack of female voices in the comics industry, DC now employs almost 12 percent female creators. One of those newcomers is artist Babs Tarr, who joins writers Cameron Stewart and Brandon Fletcher for the relaunch of Batgirl. Like the older iterations of the storyline, Batgirl revolves around Barbara Gordon, the whip-smart daughter of Batman’s police-force ally Jim Gordon. Unlike older versions of Batgirl, though, the new Barbara Gordon is decked out in canary yellow Doc Martens, takes selfies, and sometimes parties harder than she should. It may seem simple enough to create a superhero who speaks to the viewers of Broad City, but nothing has ever been simple in the long and twisted history of one of comics’ most fully realized female superheroes.

batgirl's new costume

Sketches of Batgirl's new look: practical grad student. From DC Comics.

Batgirl started life oddly: she was introduced in 1961 as part of an attempt to make the Batman series seem less homoerotic. After parents accused the Batman series of having too much homoerotic subtext, the writers introduced Batwoman as a suitable female love interest for Batman and Batgirl as a niece-like character, setting up Batman, Batwoman, Robin, and Batgirl as a nonthreatening nuclear family. Most Americans, though, got to know her on the campy Batman television show starring Adam West. In the show’s final season in 1967, Yvonne Craig was cast as Barbara Gordon, the librarian daughter of police chief Jim Gordon who dons a sparkly purple and gold crime-fighting costume.

yvonne craig in a purple bodysuit and cape as batgirl

Yvonne Craig as the classic campy Batgirl. Photo via Pop Culture Safari.

Much like the DIY aesthetic that  drives the new Batgirl costume in this month’s revamp, in the comic book storyline, Barbara Gordon made her first Batgirl outfit herself: it was meant to be a joke for a policeman’s ball. She intending to tease her father with a female version of the Batman that bedeviled him, but (as so often happens in comics) happened to arrive at the ball just in the nick of time to disrupt a villain’s plans to hold the attendees hostage. Unlike the regret-ridden backstories that motivate male counterparts like Bruce Wayne or Peter Parker, Barbara approached her early adventures as Batgirl as personal intellectual exercises, choosing to prove her worth as a detective only to herself. With no considerations of fame or prestige for her alter ego, Babs frequently deferring credit for her successes to the men in her life. Even when she was elected to Congress in 1972 (triggering her retirement as Batgirl), Barbara saw it more as a means to help her father out of a tight spot by running in his place than anything else.

an early batgirl comic

The creation of Batgirl — comic panels via ComicsAlliance.

In 1988, Barbara Gordon returned to publication in the pages of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke. In the story, Barbara endures the trauma of a highly sexualized attack by the Joker, who shoots her. The injury results in Barbara’s paralysis from the waist down and is one of  the most memorable moments in superhero comics. Immediately after the publication of Killing Joke, editor Kim Yale and writer John Ostrander began conversations about how to reintroduce Barbara into the comics on a regular basis. Within a year they debuted to mysterious computer hacker Oracle in the pages of Suicide Squad—the hacker wasn’t revealed to be Barbara until 1990, fully two years later. From there, Barbara grew into a harder, colder leader, even assuming control of the Suicide Squad briefly and working up to running her own all-female superhero team the Birds of Prey. Over the next two decades, Barbara would evolve into the information clearinghouse for not only Gotham’s heroes but much of the DC universe and go on to mentor both of her successors in the Batgirl role.

oracle

Barbara Gordon as Oracle in a digital comic by Tom Taylor. Image via Multiversity Comics.

During Barbara’s period as Oracle (1989-2011) she asserted herself as not only the focal point for building relationships between female superheroes in the DC Universe and as the world’s premier computer hacker, but also as the highest profile character with a disability in all of superhero comics. While not always as successful as intended, the major writers and artists working on her story during Barbara’s tenure as Oracle strove to portray her as not being lessened by her paralysis, but as a woman who adapted her original mission to her current circumstances. As Oracle, Barbara Gordon become something new rather than dwelling on what was lost. Gail Simone began petitioning fans to help her create a unified design document that would ensure that her wheelchair was always drawn to be consistent with what a person in her circumstances in real life would use. But then in 2011, DC executives decided to force a reset of the entire Batgirl story, eliminating the Oracle persona and reverting Barbara to the able-bodied, young adult crime fighter she’d been introduced as in 1967. To her credit, Simone clung to the title and accomplished all she could in a line that was becoming unforgivingly grim—she even managed to introduce a transgender woman into the title as Barbara’s roommate before leaving the title.

the cover of a batgirl comic in 2011

The cover of the Batgirl comic released in 2011. 

While much of what immediately led into this week’s promising revamp of the character is bittersweet reunion for many readers—myself included—it’s an important moment for women in comics. Earlier this year, the first issue of Ms. Marvel, the ongoing adventures of plucky Muslim teenager Kamala Khan, went into an astonishing six printings and boasted even stronger digital sales. Thus, there’s big potential for Batgirl #35 to shatter sales records and make the industry take clear notice of its female audience. The triumphant return of a lighthearted Barbara Gordon ought to get the beehive buzzing—throughout her complicated history, she’s always been a hero we can connect with.

Related Reading: In a Bizarre 1976 Comic, Spider-Man Fought the Villain of Misleading Sex Education. 

Emma Houxbois is a comic loving queer blogger out of Vancouver, Canada.

by Emma Houxbois
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Emma Houxbois is a fiercely queer trans woman from the wilds of Canada, most recently spotted in the Pacific Northwest. 

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10 Comments Have Been Posted

Great piece, but I can't help

Great piece, but I can't help but be a stickler about one thing--the iteration introduced in 1961 to combat the "Seduction of the Innocent" panic was not Barbara Gordon, but a different "Bat-Girl" character named Bette Kane, who was the niece & Robin-style sidekick of the new Batwoman Kathy Kane. Barbara Gordon & the modern conception of Batgirl was actually only introduced to the comics following her development for the TV show.

Yes, Bette Kane was

Yes, Bette Kane was introduced in 1961 and I didn't say differently, I declined to name her because it wasn't relevant. Barbara Gordon was created by DC Comics at the request of the network for a new female character and was conceived with the intention of debuting her in the comics and the show simultaneously.

Fair enough! I'm just a huge

Fair enough! I'm just a huge fan of Barbara Gordon, and wanted to emphasize the fact that she was created more specifically to appeal to female audiences, and that her origin was personally deciding to create the Batgirl identity, as opposed to the 1961 Bat-Girl who was the Robin to Batwoman's Batman for the sake of heteronormativity.

Are you kidding me>

So this is where we are at, the simple introduction of a FEMALE character is lauded as an inclusive step? The author rightly notes that there is a huge void when it comes to notable female disabled comic book character, and reintroducing Batgirl as a "lighthearted"gal with a smartphone and a cheeky grin does absolutely nothing for me and certainly does not seem 'inclusive' on any level.

Responsive, but not progressive

As a medium and on the whole, comics have been responsive to social change, often immediately so, but rarely have they been the progressive driver of change that they are often lauded for being. Comics generally only tell the stories the public is ready for, albeit heavily on the edge that the public doesn't quite realize it is ready for. Your criticism underscores that fact and might even be part of larger signals that, as comics have gone mainstream, they've also become reactionary--that is, resistant rather than responsive to social shifts. In fact, comics may actually be a rare case of a medium turning regressive, deliberately tracking backwards over past advances. Of course, the industry works to maintain appearances as a progressive medium, what with girl-Thor and other equally safe gestures. But the proof is on the pages--what is the industry currently publishing that hasn't been socially acceptable for decades already? I can't think of a thing.

Independent comics

You are talking like mainstream superhero comics were the only comics. You can't judge a medium just by the mainstream or the most consumed. It's like saying that movies are solely represented by Rambo, or music by Nicky Minaj. There are comics for everybody, with many topics as people can be. Go to the independent comics section and you will find what you are looking for.
Aside from that, I liked it more when Batgirl was Oracle, she was really smart, a great fighter and was not defined by the wheelchair. But that's just my opinion.

Great article - thanks! One

Great article - thanks!

One very very minor correction: in "the world’s premiere computer hacker", that should be "premier".

One point of contention

I love this article. I'm not a huge comic-nerd, and was very happy to learn the back story for Batgirl. I'm really excited for this relaunch, this looks like a well developed character.

At one point you say that Batgirl is <cite>the highest profile character with a disability in all of superhero comics</cite>, but I'd imagine Professor X takes this title, unless I don't get your meaning.

Thanks!

"she asserted herself... as

"she asserted herself... as the highest profile character with a disability in all of superhero comics." Professor Xavier would like a word with you...

You left out a significant period...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Batman_Family - From 1975 to 1978 Batgirl and Robin co-starred in the title. One of the more interesting aspects was that over time they became a couple - kind of an Anakkin-Amidala relationship because she was a member of Congress dating a college student.

Eventually they had an emicable breakup when he got involved with his fellow Teen Titan Starfire.

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