November 9th, 2011
I wanted to like Barbara Gordon. I tried to like Barbara Gordon. I’d grown up with her, with the 1970s comics and the re-runs of Yvonne Craig’s 1960s TV performances. I just never had a convincing sense of who she was, or why she really did it.
Batman, obviously, was driven by his parents’ death, and his need to replay personal revenge night after night in the guise of a ‘war on crime’. Dick Grayson had seen his parents murdered, too, and been raised by Bruce Wayne; enough there to explain why a boy would dress up in costume and risk his life every evening. But Barbara? A cop’s daughter, who thought it’d be fun to join in?
Batman, we know, is in the top ten percent across several international categories: greatest martial artists, greatest investigative minds. Robin was privately tutored by the most obsessive teacher in the business. But Barbara? Quite good at judo, relatively athletic, pretty smart?
Batman, we accept, has wealth as his primary superpower. He’s a billionaire with multiple businesses. He can order state-of-the-art-plus hardware from military wish-lists. Robin is the favoured son, with all the high-tech toys he wants. But Barbara? A fancy dress costume, and some home-made gadgets, on a student budget?
I wanted to like Barbara. I just wasn’t getting much to work with.
Around the mid-1990s, I started immersing myself in the Batman mythos like nobody has before. Again, I tried with Barbara. If there was ever a time I should have connected with the character, this was it. I spent a summer in New York, living in Columbia University student residences with a girlfriend, up on 116th Street. I rode the subway to work at DC Comics on Broadway every day. I was living the daily routines Barbara might: bagel from the Greek place on the corner, pizza and a beer at a diner in the evening. I came back to the UK, where I shared a house with three other girls. I was a PhD student, like Barbara. I even had long red hair for a while, like Barbara. I was running a fanzine – a printed one, in those early days of the internet – called Deviant Glam: ‘comics, cosmetics and cross-dressing’. If there was ever a time for me and Barbara, this was it.
But here’s what DC was giving me, at the time.
Girlfrenzy! Girlfrenzy? Yeah, ‘where the girls are’, according to the back cover. In a bold attempt to capture the female market, DC had decided to run six one-off titles with some of their best-loved superheroines, and give them lurid day-glo covers in canary yellow, neon green and turquoise.
Barbara was joined in this prestigious run by familiar cultural icons like ‘The Mist’, ‘The Ravens’, ‘Tomorrow Woman’ and ‘The Secret’. Oh, come on, you remember ‘The Mist’. She plagued Jack Knight in the pages of Starman, according to this. Tomorrow Woman appeared in at least one issue of JLA, and The Secret starred in JLA: World Without Grown-Ups.
‘Take Your Relationship with Batgirl to the Next Level!’ says the slogan, reaching out to girls and women who might not have picked up a comic before, and convincing them once and for all that superhero stories aren’t just for teenage boys.
Inside, Barbara jumps around in yellow heeled boots, and defeats Zsasz by flicking open a convenient salt cellar and throwing it into his open cut. Comics aren’t for kids anymore, so she calls him a ‘sick bastard’. Batman turns up and asks her if she wants to go to Nepal. She says no: ‘I think I need… some time off.’ This single case has traumatised her so much, she has to retreat to her bedroom and stare at her dressing table toiletries for a while.
I don’t know if the girls and women who’d never picked up a comic before enjoyed this issue and wanted to take their relationship with Batgirl to the next level, but I put ‘Girlfrenzy!’ straight back in its bag.
Meanwhile at the movies, Alicia Silverstone was playing ‘Barbara Wilson’, Alfred Pennyworth’s niece, as a Batgirl without a cowl in Joel Schumacher’s second attempt at the franchise.
I like Alicia Silverstone. She’s a survivor, a fighter; it seems fitting here that she looks so much like Britney Spears, who’s also struggled through ups and downs but keeps coming back, squeezed into circus costumes and putting on her best show. But she’s fighting a losing battle with this movie: even the publicity shots look cheap (look at the dirty floor).
To cash in on the critical success of Schumacher’s blockbuster, DC released another one-shot special, titled simply Batgirl.
It’s nice to see that she keeps her costume shiny as her bike, but are you really going to run in those heels, let alone swing around the rooftops? The interior artwork is less glossy, and again there’s a sense of resignation in the final pages, after Barbara’s fumbled her way through another case. Her dad comes to see her in the middle of the night – she’s still living at home – and she asks him if he thinks crimefighting is fun. No, he says, ‘it’s just people getting hurt. Or not. Get some sleep now’. Barbara stares at herself in the window, and reflects: ‘But I’m not that young anymore, either’.
Both stories end on a downbeat, melancholy note, with Barbara out of costume, in her bedroom, wondering if she can carry on, and if so, when, and why she does all this after all.
Of course, there’s another reason for the half-hearted, dejected tone of Batgirl’s late-90s adventures. They’re overshadowed by the fact that Batgirl, as such, doesn’t even exist anymore. She was put out of action, out of continuity, in The Killing Joke, ten years earlier: these stories don’t really count. They’re just additions to a possible past, rather than genuine contributions to an ongoing story. Barbara’s story as Batgirl is always already over.
So I’ve always felt frustrated by Barbara as Batgirl. It’s not her fault, any more than it’s Alicia Silverstone’s fault she was cast in a crummy movie with a rubber suit. She’s simply always seemed a wasted character; never fully-realised, never fully distinctive. Nobody seemed to have ever made the effort with her, and I wished they had. As a lifelong Batman fan, it annoyed me that the longest-running female character in Bruce Wayne’s extended family – the only woman to wear the costume and the brand, from 1967-1999 – had been around for decades, but never seemed to have a decent story to her name.
When I heard she was coming back in costume, as Batgirl, as part of the New 52, it rang alarm bells. I couldn’t see the rationale for undoing twenty-five years of history and miracle-curing an established character with a disability, just for the sake of getting Barbara back in the suit. I wrote a couple of articles that voiced my misgivings and then expressed my doubts about the Gail Simone reboot. I still don’t see the wisdom in bringing her back. But I decided to do something about that; rather than complain about other people’s work, I thought I’d see if I could do anything better. I decided to pitch a new version of Batgirl, as an experiment: a non-commercial project to prompt discussion and maybe suggest a different way of doing things, in terms of approach, aesthetic and practice.
In practical terms, I felt it would be an interesting idea to reverse the usual industry ratios and have a predominantly-female creative team involved. Most of the artists contributing to this project are women. I’ve also asked some feminist comic book critics and commentators I admire to give their feedback and help shape the script. The approach is collaborative, based on discussion and consultation. The aesthetic is different from most mainstream superhero comics, based around a scrapbook variety of styles, and informed by an attempt to represent women in a more interesting and nuanced way.
And the approach is, I hope, different from the usual, because of my background. I’m a researcher. Before I write, I read. I try to put in the work. So, over the last month, I’ve been collecting Batgirl stories, and trying to get a sense of the raw material; building up a story of her life so far.
And just look at all those logos.
Barbara Gordon: A Life in Pictures
I need time
I need love
I need… me.
(Action!) Say hello, to the girl, that I am
Britney Spears, Overprotected
What do we know about Barbara Gordon? To assemble a coherent picture of her character, we have to pick and choose from the mosaic of her life, and put those pieces together in a linear order.
‘You might be grown now,’ says Jim in Batgirl Rising (2009) ‘but don’t forget – most of us old-timers remember when you were our little red-headed mascot.’
‘Well, that was a long time ago,’ says Babs.
That was a long time ago.
(Legends of the DC Universe: Folie a Deux, 1998)
It was a long time ago, but we still have a record of it. Or rather, because this is superhero history, with all its contradictions, corrections, second-thoughts and redrafts, we have several different records. According to the Secret Origins of 1987, Barbara’s mother died in a car accident, while her father drank himself to death on the operating table.
(Secret Origins: Batgirl, 1987)
In the 1998 retelling of her origin, Thelma and Roger Gordon died together, in a car crash.
Either way, Jim Gordon became the guardian.
In the nostalgic past of the 1980s – which always seems to look and and feel a little like Miller and Mazzucchelli’s Year One – young Barbara’s journal, all round script and hearts dotting the ‘I’s, adds a further layer to the more familiar narratives of Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon.
Back in the day when Jim still had reddish brown hair, rather than white, Babs was kidnapped by the Mad Hatter. She met Batman.
(Legends of the Dark Knight Halloween Special: Madness, 1994)
And then? Well, Babs got a training montage, like the ones Bruce went through in post-Crisis stories like The Man Who Falls. She read books, she found a sensei. Like Bruce, she pretended to be bored and arrogant as she sped through school and college, always moving on, never settling.
Soon afterward, Batgirl made her ‘Million Dollar Debut’. And it all went down any number of different ways, depending who you ask. According to the Secret Origin of 87, she was invited to the GCPD masquerade ball, and decided to dress up her role model. As a kid, she’d been into Supergirl – but now she’d grown up, and had a new idol. On the way to the party, she ran into one of the DCU’s lowest-rent villains, Killer Moth.
It’s a hokey story, but it’s reproduced almost directly from the 1967 original.
(The Million Dollar Debut of Batgirl, 1967)
During her first appearance in the animated universe, with its ambiguous relationship to mainstream continuity, Babs also makes her debut at a costume party, but runs into Harley and Ivy, instead of Killer Moth.
In the 2003 retelling, Batgirl Year One, Killer Moth is back, but – unlike the 1967 original – Babs makes it to the ball, rather than meeting him on a suburban highway. Beatty, Dixon, Lopez and Martin’s rendition is easily the most likeable version of Barbara/Batgirl in the last forty-five years, with its fluid, witty art and its depiction of Barbara as a spirited rebel, rather than a sidekick or hanger-on. Rather than idolising Batman, she has a girl-crush on Black Canary. And she realises in the first fight-scene that heels aren’t going to work.
Anyway, it happens, somehow or other. Barbara makes her debut at a costume party, and crime-fighting chooses her, rather than vice versa. There’s no solemn vow at a graveside, or oath with upturned palm in a cave. It just happens, overnight.
And from that point, she’s Batgirl. There’s no decade of training. According to one story, there are barely two days of training.
There’s no dramatic origin story. Her parents are dead, but that all seems resolved long ago. There are no traumatic flashbacks, no recurring images of an orphan crying in the alley or in the sawdust of the Big Top. The comics don’t even agree how it happened; it doesn’t even seem to matter if Roger and Thelma Gordon died together, or apart. Instead of an iconic primal scene, we get the repeated and mundane: a lot of evenings where Babs and her dad eat dinner together, the conversation always a little strained.
There are a lot of scenes of Babs in a pink dressing gown, with a towel around her head, and sitting in her bedroom, staring dreamily at the mirror, at the window, at the ceiling. Sometimes she’s even clutching a pink, heart-shaped pillow to her stomach. If Batman’s life is film noir, Barbara’s is an advert for face masks and feminine hygiene.
There’s a lot of first-person narration. The 1987 origin confessed ‘I used to pretend I had a friend, but it hurt much more when I realised I was talking to myself.’ Babs still talks to herself a lot. We learn a couple of times that she keeps a scrapbook – ‘you know – little mementos of special days and pictures of your family and stuff’ – and it seems she still keeps a regular diary, though her handwriting is a little more grown up these days. Funny how her clothes keep falling off; that doesn’t happen so much to Dick and Bruce.
We get into her head a lot, and it’s a lot less gritty and hard-boiled than Bruce’s head. It’s chatty, insecure, vulnerable. She’s young, and she doesn’t take everything seriously. She’s constantly doubting herself. The tone is apologetic, self-consciously klutzy. There’s the constant reminder, from her own narration, that maybe Barbara simply isn’t good enough even to tackle low-level thugs. She makes mistakes, gets knocked out, slips up, fakes confidence. She tries to balance work, home, family and study with crime-fighting, but never seems absolutely committed to a career in costume: to Bruce, the war on crime isn’t something you juggle with ‘life’. It is life.
She has adventures, naturally. But are they memorable adventures? ‘I was mindwiped, impersonated, turned into a snake,’ she reports; but The Greatest Batgirl Stories Ever Told only features ten chapters, with no introduction, and nothing from the 1980s. Nobody ever seems to know quite what to do with Barbara-Batgirl. She jumps around a lot, and wisecracks a little, and flirts uncomfortably with Robin, and has regular dinners with her dad, but at the end of every story, she seems almost ready to give it up.
Her 1987 Secret Origin talks about the past, but has to apologise for the present day, and promises more for the future. ‘Batgirl has not appeared much recently, but readers interested in seeing what next awaits Barbara Gordon should watch for the forthcoming JOKER Graphic Novel by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland.’
What a promise that turned out to be.
And then, in a Batgirl Special from 1988, without any particular cause or explanation, and after a career that’s never really made its mark, she finally does it. She retires.
What’s striking is how easily she takes to this new life. There are no regrets, no nightmares (yet), no dark, elemental voice inside her calling her back to the street. She spends cosy evenings with her dad, working on scrapbooks and making cocoa. She seems to have suddenly turned aged a decade or more: she could be Jim’s wife, rather than his twenty-something daughter.
But later that year, something finally happened. Batgirl had her biggest storyline yet, and typically for her – this girl who never really had much luck or limelight – it was her last story, and she wasn’t even in costume at the time. She was just a civilian, a secondary character, a pawn in a larger game. And it happened to her, rather than vice versa; she didn’t do anything herself, except open the door.
(In 1988, you will remember, there was a controversial phone vote to kill off Jason Todd, the current Robin.
Earlier that year, someone else had made a phone call that changed someone’s life.
Alan Moore had called his editor, Len Wein, and asked if it was OK if Barbara was shot in the spine. Len Wein spoke to Dick Giordano, and got back on the horn to Alan. Len said, ‘Yeah, OK. Cripple the bitch.’)
Barbara made cocoa. She was expecting Colleen Reece from across the street, for yoga. She opened the door.
He took pictures. We’ve all seen the pictures. He shot this girl in the spine, and while she was clutching her stomach on the floor, he stripped her naked, and took pictures, and showed them to her dad.
When you remember that, the coyly titillating semi-nude scenes in 2009’s The Cat and The Bat, with Babs stripping to pursue Selina through a ‘hedonist society’, cross the line from cheesy into uneasy.
And when you reconsider the pacing of Moore and Bolland’s original story, with two whole frames – two moments, two heartbeats – between Babs opening the door, and Joker shooting, you realise this should have been the scene where Batgirl took Joker down once and for all, not the other way around. She’s Batgirl. She had a door between her and the perp, and a cup of hot cocoa in her hand.
But it’s done now. Finally, Barbara had her own scene of trauma and tragedy. Finally she had an iconic, horrific moment to haunt her and drive her forward; a reason to hate, a reason to live, a reason to fight.
Now instead of the light and girly scenes in dressing gown and towels, we saw her in a hospital bed, her red hair pulled back under a green medical cap, a changed woman.
Finally, like Bruce, she could have nightmares, and a tormented inner voice instead of a chatty journal.
Finally, she had flashbacks. Batman had flashbacks about it, and he wasn’t even there at the time.
It is perhaps the ultimate irony – perhaps the ultimate insult – that Batgirl’s personal trauma was poached from her and added to Batman’s memory-bank of bad experiences. Barbara Gordon’s shooting and sexual assault – an event that Bruce Wayne never even witnessed – became just another reason for Batman to feel sorry for himself, to channel the guilt and sorrow into anger and use it to fuel his never-ending ‘war’ on ‘crime’; his nightly patrols and the endless beatings dealt out to petty thugs and costumed clowns.
So finally, Babs could have become a dark knight, a haunted knight herself, rather than a fun-loving thrill-seeker. Finally, Batman was taking her seriously; finally, she could be truly accepted as one of the family, though it came at a cost. In a 1996 version of the Oracle origin, she confronts Batman, accusing him of laughing with his arch-enemy over some private, killing joke: ‘Tell me… was it me?’
In a 2010 retelling, that specific accusation – and the bleaker, broader one that she was never anything except his second-rate sidekick – is written out of history, and she builds herself up after the shooting to win Bruce’s approval.
So, finally she earned Batman’s respect, by transforming after a tragedy. And in the 2010 telling, it all works out better than expected for Batman: Babs goes through an appropriate period of grief – in his cold and stilted world-view, maybe she didn’t feel her parents’ death deeply enough, and needed another trial – and comes out harder, stronger, angrier on the other side, but still looking to him as a mentor and master.
Now, perhaps, she was ready to be a Batgirl that the Dark Age Batman would accept. Except that the timing was all wrong. Barbara’s equivalent of Bruce and Dick’s origin sequences – the tears, the helplessness, the resolve to keep going and make herself into something new – came at the end of her costumed career, rather than the beginning.
Barbara finally ran into the dominant mood of grim and gritty in the 1980s, but it hit back hard, and it signalled the end of Batgirl.
But life goes on. Of course, it wasn’t the end of Batgirl, or the end of Barbara. It wasn’t even the end of Barbara as Batgirl, if we include the time-shifting comeback in Zero Hour, the alternate Elseworlds of stories like Thrillkiller, or the auteurist experiment of All-Star Batman and Robin.
Batgirl’s mantle was, as we know, taken up by Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown, and Barbara resurfaced as Oracle. I missed Cassandra and Stephanie’s careers first time round; catching up now, I’m surprised how strong and interesting their characters and stories are, but those are different Batgirls, and deserve their own separate discussions, as do Bette and Kathy Kane.
As for Oracle, whether she’s been treated well is also an argument for another time. The shot to the spine is part of Barbara’s story, and her new life as Oracle is important; but I think it could be handled differently, and possibly better. Which brings us back to where we began.
In September 2011, I led an induction session for the Fall intake of PhD students at my institution. I’d been thinking about Batgirl, and Barbara, and why she’d never really clicked or connected with me. I looked across the seminar room at the doctoral candidates; at women in their early to mid-twenties. They were tall, beautiful, stylish, whip-smart, witty, and, above all, they were keen as hell. They had an intelligent energy that made the air spark. They were absolutely motivated.
Barbara Gordon, on her first appearance, has a PhD from Gotham State University. Take her back a couple of years – but not too far – and she’s a student. Not a naïve, thrill-seeking, fun-loving teenager, but a doctoral student with something to prove. There’s no reason why she can’t still be physically fit, though anything like Olympic standard is implausible; there’s no reason why she can’t be attractive, though that doesn’t mean she has to wear shiny spandex and heels. There’s no reason why she can’t have fun. But more than anything, her defining characteristic is intelligence and drive.
Gail Simone announced at a recent panel that Barbara was the smartest in the Batman family. Of course, intelligence comes in different forms, and expresses itself in different ways. Smarter than Batman doesn’t mean more hard-boiled and grittier than Batman. But Simone’s Batgirl sounds a little like Lady Gaga in Arkham Asylum; the narration doesn’t sell itself immediately as a form of super-smarts.
There you are, you rotten monsters. Found you, didn’t I? Oh, yes, I did, babies. How sad for you….
Batgirl can be smarter than Batman. But you can’t just claim it; you have to make the reader believe it; and to do that, you have to get Barbara to believe it. That means doing without some of the girly, cutesy narration, toning down the endless self-doubt, and actually writing her, for once, as an incredibly intelligent woman. Rather than the good-girl equivalent of Harley, Ivy and Selina, she could be more like a fiercely sane version of the Riddler. She can make connections. She can interpret clues. She can solve puzzles; and the whole of Gotham City is one big puzzle, one big performance, a secret sentence written in the architecture and the criss-crossing paths of the costumed cast, if you can only find the right angle to read it from.
I was a PhD student in the 1990s. In that decade I didn’t read so many mainstream superhero titles for pleasure; I read them for work. My favourite comics were from Vertigo: Sandman, Hellblazer, Swamp Thing, Kid Eternity, Black Orchid, but most of all, Doom Patrol and Shade. These were comics that women and girls who weren’t into comics genuinely picked up, and sometimes didn’t put straight back down again. They may look dated now, with their collaged covers and pre-digital colouring, but they attempted something different. They weren’t so much about action and spectacle as dialogue, character, relationships and identity. They weren’t always about ‘boys all biceps and the girls all chest,’ in Philip Larkin’s phrase; they were about girls who were born boys, and boys who became girls, and girls who liked girls, and boys who liked boys. They weren’t just about spandex suits, heels and shiny costumes. They were about Goths, grunge, New Romance, catwalk outfits, incredible long coats and amazing chunky boots. They were about, and shaped by, alternative fashion and music styles. They were comics that made you want to go clothes shopping.
I decided to place Barbara Gordon in that milieu. In this could-have-been alternate world, Batgirl was a Vertigo character; but the look and feel of her stories would also be reminiscent of the other stories I loved from that period, the Animated Series Batman and its spin-off comics. The style would embrace various styles, in the spirit of the late 80s/early 1990s bricolage aesthetic – epitomised by McKean and Sienkiewicz – that stuck lace and feathers on the page and switched from photorealistic painting to scribbled cartoon.
It would be a scrapbook, like the ones Barbara herself kept all her life. It would include photos, text, watercolour, photomontage and digital art to tell the story of a time in this woman’s life. It wouldn’t look like a conventional comic: it would be a compendium of photos, interviews, texts, sketches and drawn pages, more like a magazine or a portfolio. As such, it would foreground the collaborative nature of comics, and push that aspect to the front: it would be a group project, with different artists contributing their own individual take, and with different critics, consultants and commentators shaping the characters – all of them credited. Rather than a sole-authored vehicle, it would be a partnership. And unlike the mainstream comics industry, most of the team would be female.
We are building a better Batgirl. Look out for her.