A while ago, I wrote a post about the Robin issue, and I touched upon the idea that writers were paradoxically claiming that Nightwing is what Dick was meant to be and that Nightwing is a lesser hero than Batman, refusing to let him be truly independent. That made me want to write another post on something very similar that happened to a different character: Barbara Gordon, when she was pushed back into her role as Batgirl.
There has been a lot of debate over the years over Barbara’s status and disability, such as in this article from 2009. Now, the writer does a pretty good job of expressing why returning her to her state pre-paralysis is problematic, pointing out that Barbara is one of the very few disabled characters in comics and undoing her paralysis would be making the slate less representative of the world as it is, but he also says something that I staunchly disagree with, and that’s the following:
One could argue that curing Barbara and allowing her to be Batgirl again would simply allow her to do more good fighting crime than she ever could in a wheelchair, but then you look insensitive to the ability and usefulness she has in other capacities as Oracle. Conversely, you could say that removing Barbara from her wheelchair drastically alters her character, but then wouldn’t that indicate that this is a character defined by her handicap? This begs the question [sic] of why so many fans adore her: is it because she’s a bold and daring leader that rivals the Calculator in brains? Or is it because she’s all of that, but stuck in a wheelchair? Think about the question, and surely many of you will find an answer you don’t like.
The problem with this quote is that it’s confusing two issues. Barbara as Oracle matters for many reasons. And yes, one of them is that she’s in a wheelchair! She’s a disabled hero, and erasing that is disgusting. There are very few disabled characters in the DC universe; she’s arguably the most popular of those; and since people in reality aren’t going to get some magical fix for all their injuries, it means something that Barbara lives in a world of aliens and mythological beings, but was still in a wheelchair. But the reasons she matters are part of a different list than that of the reasons why she’s a great character. Sure, there’s overlap, but they are still different lists.
Barbara is awesome because she’s smart and competent, a leader that grew from a teenage girl that saw injustice and was determined to do her part to stop it long before any personal tragedy. And as horribly sexist as her being shot The Killing Joke was – and believe me, I know it is, I talked about that here – it also paved the way for added depth to her character, because it gave her a tragedy. You can’t see what characters are made of until you push them to their limits, and what Barbara proved to be made of was iron willpower and determination to keep fighting.
As Oracle, Barbara wasn’t an extension of Batman. She wasn’t Batgirl, she was the one and only of her name. She’d graduated to being a full partner. She’d already given up Batgirl at the time of her paralysis because she’d outgrown the role, and her paralysis let her pave a new path. Barbara as Oracle wasn’t defined by her wheelchair or how it stopped her from being Batgirl. She was defined by how she got back up and refused to stay down, how she’s brilliant and capable and absolutely necessary to other heroes she is. That all could have happened without the wheelchair. She didn’t need to be permanently paralyzed to be Oracle. But you know what? She was. By the time of the New 52, she’d been so for literally half her publication history. I saw another comment once, from before the New 52. Someone was arguing that Barbara should return to being Batgirl because her paralysis was sexist, pointing out that when Bruce broke his back, he recovered, while Barbara was paralyzed for life. And that may be partly true. But when Bruce broke his back, he never did what Barbara did, never forged an entirely new identity, never built something new and better. When Barbara became Oracle, that’s what she did, and she was Oracle – a fully grown woman in a wheelchair, a leader of a team of superheroes, and a mentor and maternal figure to her successors as Batgirl – for too long to just erase it and force her back into a role she no longer fits.
Removing Barbara from her wheelchair may not “drastically alter her character”. With it or without, she’s still the same smart, tough, badass she always was. But removing her from her wheelchair is synonymous with removing her from the identity she created out of her trauma. It’s disregarding over twenty years of an iconic character’s history – pretty much the most interesting part. And beyond that, it’s just a gross thing to do! You can’t advocate erasing a character’s disability by saying, “oh, she’s a badass character that’s more than her wheelchair”. That’s disingenuous. It’s not a good faith argument. It’s designed to trap people into either saying that they think the wheelchair is the most important thing about her or believing that because it’s not, maybe it’s no big deal to get rid of it. Neither of those things are true! Because yes, Barbara is more than her disability, but that doesn’t mean her disability isn’t a part of who she is. Returning her to her feet was pretty much keeping the bad from The Killing Joke with none of the good that came about because of it.
Look, Barbara is great in all forms. But as Batgirl, there’s nothing special about her. She’s another generic costumed vigilante in a city that has way too many of them. Plenty of girls can be Batgirl, but only Barbara can be Oracle. She helped so many more people as Oracle than she ever could as Batgirl. Oracle is incredible because her paralysis was one of the few lasting consequences in DC. Characters die then come back to life to the point where death is just whatever. They recover from injuries that should have long lasting impacts, if not kill them out right. It’s because of this that comics can get frustrating – at times, it seems like an endless cycle of the same story over and over again, with nothing ever mattering, because we all know it’ll be undone in a few months, only to be brought up now and then when a writer wants some angst or drama. Oracle was one of the few exceptions to that.
She’s been treated terribly since Flashpoint. She’s stopped being a mentor. She stopped being an equal. She’s been deaged and devalued, going from being a long established and independent and the leader and founder of the Birds of Prey to someone that dreamed of joining that team. It’s not even just Barbara – Barry Allen returning to life, everything that happened with Wally, was almost as bad, because that, too, was getting rid of one of the few lasting changes in the universe. But Barbara being forced back into her Batgirl role is the one that bothers me, personally, the most. Batgirl is fine. And Batgirl is not a part of Barbara’s past that can be set aside. It’s her legacy. But she and Dick are counterparts. Batgirl and Robin are counterparts. Barbara has moved beyond Batgirl just as much as Dick has moved beyond Robin. It’s time to let her move on, to let Cass and Steph have Batgirl in their histories again, to let Barbara stop being Anything-girl and be an adult.
It’s also interesting – and by interesting, I mean tragic – to consider how little Barbara’s role as Oracle is really valued when it comes to adaptations. For a start, she’s not going to be in the Birds of Prey movie, even though it’s titled after her team and she was one of the only three core members. But it goes well beyond that and into the fact that we never really see Barbara’s origin. We see her as Batgirl sometimes – Young Justice, the 60s Batman, Batman: The Animated Series. We see her as Oracle sometimes – Birds of Prey, season three of Young Justice. And sometimes, we see The Killing Joke. But not Barbara’s real origin. Because that wasn’t The Killing Joke, it was what came after. It was her refusing to let anything stop her, least of all the Joker. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy we don’t have to witness her being shot more. I find that very similar to how it’s, in most cases, going to be unnecessary to see Jason get beat to death with a crowbar. I have no issue with not seeing either of those stories played out on screen. But as much as I love seeing Babs as Oracle, it’s disappointing to not see her journey to getting there. The context is so valuable in giving us a rich story.
Barbara Gordon is too damn good a character to waste like this. Maybe we won’t ever get to see her as Oracle again in the main continuity. But if that’s the case, I at least want to see that in elseworlds tale, because call me crazy, but throwing away twenty years of history and a major chunk of a fabulous character is a dumbass decision.