From the Library: And Then There Was Oracle

The Killing Joke, published in 1988, was anything but a joke. In this graphic novel, The Joker is set out to drive Commissioner Gordon insane, so he decides to go for the Commissioner's daughter (Barbara Gordon, also known as Batgirl). It's a classic story: one man wants to intimidate or attack another man, so he finds a woman that is important to the other man's life and he hurts her. In this story, Barbara Gordon is used as a mere plot device. The Joker shows up at Gordon's house and he shoots her. The bullet damages her spine, paralyzing one of the world's most important female superheroes from the waist down.

Writer Alan Moore's decision to paralyze Barbara Gordon upset Batgirl fans (rightly so!). Bitch addressed Moore's decision to "cripple that bitch" (yes, that's what he said), and pointed out that The Killing Joke further perpetuated the "women in refrigerators" trope so often used in comics.

 Barbara Gordon as Oracle

While the decision to paralyze Barbara Gordon was certainly a misogynistic one, the way that her character develops after the shooting speaks to the transformative power of information and technology... and librarians! Last week we looked at Barbara Gordon's character prior to The Killing Joke. Her role as a librarian disguised her alter ego as Batgirl; reasserting the stereotype of librarians as meek and the opposite of badass. But this all changes after The Killing Joke. Thanks to a few writers who decided to make the best of what had happened to Gordon, Gordon's character decides to embrace her identity as a skilled librarian. She becomes Oracle, a computer hacker who discovers that access to information is a pretty phenomenal superpower.

In this page from Oracle -- Year One: Born of Hope, Gordon climbs out of the depression that followed her paralysis: "I was tired of being a victim. I had skills and abilities long before I became Batgirl. It was time to make them work for me again. It was time to stop being afraid." She then goes on to say, "One thing I knew how to do was research and, thanks to my modem, I could tap into databases worldwide. I discovered I had an affinity for computer hacking, and I started to make some money," and "I got into the internet before the general public really knew what it was. And I discovered a world there."

Given Gordon's history as a savvy librarian, it makes sense that she would be tapped into the wonders of the Internet before the general public. This comic poses Gordon at the forefront of the information age—and her ability to access information is seen as liberating and powerful. Gordon becomes a utilized librarian. She turns into the go-to person for the "good guys", providing information to Batman as well as law enforcement agents looking for villains. She finds that she doesn't need to be able bodied in order to fight the good fight; her skills as a librarian manifest themselves into crime fighting tools. I'm also a big fan of the way her laptop becomes her weapon of choice, appearing with her throughout the comics as a way of illustrating her intelligence and access to information.

Barbara Gordon later stars in Birds of Prey, a comic that casts an all-female superhero team led by Oracle, who continued to harness her power as a computer hacker. Gail Simone, who happens to be responsible for coining the term "women in refrigerators," played an instrumental role in developing the characters in Birds of Prey. Simone, who scripted the comic for several years, once said, "The characters don't apologize for being asskickers, nor for being smart, nor for being sexy, nor for being sexual, for that matter."

In the 60s, Barbara Gordon masked her Batgirl identity behind her traditionally feminine career as a librarian. But with the birth of Oracle, she reinvents what it means to be a librarian. She will not be pigeonholed as the stereotypical harmless librarian behind the reference desk, but will instead carry her laptop onto the streets, where she will prove that those who are capable of accessing information are important to the fight.

by Ashley McAllister
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5 Comments Have Been Posted

minor quibble

Alan Moore didn't say "cripple the bitch" - he was quoting his editor, who he had to ask for approval. So, really, it's worse, because it wasn't just one writer, it was a person who was (I assume) in charge of overseeing multiple projects. And for whatever it's worth, Moore has publicly expressed regret at pursuing that storyline.


Thanks for pointing out that mistake! You're right, he was quoting his editor. The entire exchange that Moore recounts in that interview is disturbing.

And I'm glad that he regrets his decision, although I haven't found any evidence that points to him being aware of the misogyny in the story...He called the story clumsy and misjudged, but he still doesn't get at the real issue.

<b>Ashley McAllister, Library Coordinator</b>
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In defense of Moore

First of all, thanks for writing on Orcale. She's definitely my favorite DCU character (Sorry, Rene Montoya- I love you too)

As to the comment-thanks, I was about to point to that out myself. Lack of specific comment from Moore may be attributed to the fact it's neigh on impossible to get the man to comment on anything, and say anything public in general. And for what it's worth, Moore's female characters are generally above and beyond the creations of other similar writers (I'm looking at you, Frank Miller). He tends to make young woman the everyman in his works, from Evey in V for Vendetta to Laurie in Watchmen. Laurie is a particularly interesting character, and one of the reasons I wasn't fond of the movie. She's spent her life being known as the daughter of a sex symbol and the girlfriend of Doctor Manhattan, and it's incredibly frustrating to her. It's only when she takes control of her own life does she become the character who comes closest to saving the day-the one who uses her good will and hope to convince Manhattan that human beings, and their lives, are not worthless. He's also big on making woman action heroes as of late- Promethea is the famous one, though I haven't read it yet. I was really impressed with League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and it's portrayal of Mina Murray. The comic doesn't tone down the sexism of Victorian society (particularly involving her rape by Dracula), but shows the former damsel in distress as a incredibly determined and brilliant strategist, and the unquestioned protagonist of the work. Plus, feminists cheered everywhere when she knocked out a young, piggish James Bond in The Black Dossier. Or at least I did.

Great Post

I think this post and the 2 linked posts are relevant to previous discussions about movies, too. I immediately start thinking about the new Zach Snyder movie (and others) and the way comic book heroines get treated in movie versions that might just be a function of the source material to begin with, as a genre. Good to see your commentary and to hear about ways people are attempting to correct the problem. Thanks!

When I decided to become a

When I decided to become a librarian, and kind of immersed myself in the culture, I was surprised by the way Batgirl seemed to be something of a mascot for librarians. When I recalled how she's Oracle now, I thought about how much BETTER a mascot for librarians she was, now that she is well and truly the DC heroes' <i>reference librarian</i>.

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