Preamble

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.

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But like, fifty-two cards when I’m, I’m through dealin
Now fifty-two bars come out, now you feel ‘em
Now, fifty-two cars roll out, remove ceiling
In case fifty-two broads come out, now you chillin…
No chrome on the wheels, I’m a grown-up for real

Jay-Z

October 2011. Babies are filmed playing with iPads.  The technology has existed for their entire lives; not only are they expert with the swipe, pinch and tap, fluent in a language of digits – a truly digital language – but paper technology proves a disappointment. Take away the tablet and give the kid a magazine, and it pokes for a while at the still, unmoving images before giving up.
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September 2011. I have an iPad. I am staying in a hotel, in Birmingham. Next door is a store called Nostalgia and Comics. I swipe glossy issues from the racks, as smoothly as an online move to a digital shopping basket. They slip in your hand, shiny. Each of them is labelled #1. The new 52. I present them at the counter. I can afford comics these days – the problem is finding any I actually want to read.

I’m about to pay when I catch a scent of something. A scent of cellars. Attics. Boxes. Brittle paper. It rises from the back issues like a call home. Suddenly you’re back in the 1970s. The pages are packed with tiny adverts, like a Victorian newspaper promoting wonder remedies and crackpot novelties: X Ray Glasses, Hypnotic Whirling Coin, All Metal JET Submarine. Electric Shocker and GENERATOR. Beat Up Big Bullies. Ugly Blackheads Out in Seconds: Be Good Looking. Each superhero story is interrupted (continued on 3rd page following) for a commercial break, offering the equipment and accessories you’d need to cross over into the fiction: we can all be heroes, or mad scientists.

I take one comic from the boxes, then another. They slide easily against each other, too: less floppy and shiny than the new titles, but they’re all encased in plastic bags. They start to form a new pile. I find the first Action Comics I ever read, and another that I cut up to stick in a 1970s scrapbook. Here it is again, intact. Silver Age covers address me directly, like propaganda posters: ‘WHEN Will the Government Stop Harassing Our Heroes? WHO is the Surprise Super-Villain Hawkeye Battles Alone?’ A grey-haired Superman protests ‘I’m 100,000 Years Old… When Will I Die?’ Batman and the Outsiders, leaning over a pile of Christmas presents, ask ‘Where Are The Children?’ Two kids stare at a Superman poster: ‘Gee, I Wonder Whatever Happened To Him?’

I take my piles to the counter. They slide together like a shuffled deck. Worlds and times collide and merge. Flashpoint #5 of 5 from October 2011, alongside World’s Finest: Superman and the Flash, from December 1970. That red-suited figure, still running in 2011 as he did forty-one years before; still the eternal scarlet blur.

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The Brave and the Bold #33 (June 2010): J. Michael Straczynski, Cliff Chiang, Trish Mulvihill

 

‘Brave and the Bold, huh? You got me all misty.’

-Green Arrow, Infinite Crisis

Sometimes you have a bad feeling about a date. Maybe you’ve just had too many ho-hum evenings out, forcing interest in the same-old same-old, going through the motions. Maybe you just can’t work up the enthusiasm: she sounds like a nice enough girl, this Barbara – librarian, cop’s daughter – but not your type. But you go along with it, because it’s more hassle to back out, to be the bad guy and call it off. So you spend an evening with Barbara. A single evening. And something strange happens, halfway through; something magic, something tragic. Something just clicks, and for a brief while you’re absolutely in tune, totally connected, but you both know it can’t last.

You never see her again. You can’t get her out of your head.

Fall truly, madly, deeply over the jump