Don’t get me wrong, I like Batman and all, but I don’t see why every DC comic has to be equally grim and dark. Surely each should have its own feel? (The same should be true for the movies, by the way. I remember describing Man of Steel to a friend as “Superman Batmanned”.)
So thank goodness for Barbara Gordon, whose Batgirl takes a completely different route. This isn’t to say that she doesn’t have difficulties, or face challenges. She just handles them differently.
A Quick Recap
For those of you who aren’t up on the backstory, back in The Killing Joke (1988), Barbara was shot by the Joker, as an attack on her father, James Gordon. She didn’t die, but the bullet damaged her spine, confining her to a wheelchair. Down but not out, she recreated herself as Oracle, a computer whiz who teamed up with Black Canary to form Birds of Prey.
At first Canary didn’t even know who Oracle was, but eventually they meet up and cement their friendship. (And of course, Oracle became a heroine to librarians everywhere.)
By the time the New 52 rolled around, Barbara had been cured and could stand up, presumably after a visit to the same place that Bruce Wayne fixed his broken back. The first five or six issues deal with that, as Batgirl freezes up when confronted with a gun, and tries to regain her old physical confidence despite still feeling a little shaky. (Right there you see the difference between the stoic Batman and the more open, emotional responses of Batgirl.) There’s been a certain amount of back-and-forth about Barbara’s cure, but this is, after all, a comic book. If heroes can come back from the dead, surely they can rise and walk.
This turn of events led to Batgirl negotiating and otherwise trying methods other than just beating the crap out everyone, which did net her results. It was an interesting turn for a comic, positioning her as smart rather than badass. As the series progressed, she lost her tentativeness and has become more physical, but the stories still value her intelligence and tech abilities as much as her strength and agility.
That’s not to say that the series hasn’t had its bumps. Issue #37 ran into protests from LGBT fans over the big reveal: the other Batgirl was a man. I thought it was interesting twist, but I can see that the long tradition of the bad guy being a transvestite is very annoying to real trans people. (Here, however, is a list of some of the best ones.) And the reveal scene itself is completely clichéd: gasp! it’s a man, dressed as a woman! (cue Psycho music)
It’s just as bad as the one where the stunt driver takes off her helmet and turns out to be a woman.
All the same, I don’t think the Dagger character was meant to be trans. (Now, Batgirl’s friend Alysia Yeoh is trans.) He seemed more like, as one blog put it, a “low-rent David Bowie”. He was more of a fame whore than anything else, and would probably put on a dog suit if he thought someone would pay attention to him.
Apart from the controversy over Dagger, the big news about Batgirl is that, like Spider-Woman, her costume is getting a revamp. The new look is intended to reflect Barbara Gordon’s new life, as she goes to college, moves into a trendy part of Gotham, and puts the dark stuff behind her. Like SW, her outfit is practical, and once again, movie-friendly.
Of course, Batgirl has always been at a slight angle to the whole Bat-mythos. She didn’t originate in the comics, but in the old Bat-Man TV show. (Nor she is the only one: here is a list of 10 characters who had their start in other media.) Apparently the show asked DC to invent a female character who would help prop up the show’s ratings, and bring in young girls. Batgirl did not save the show, but she did begin a long stint as a comics character.
Batgirl: Feminist Icon
Another interesting point about Batgirl is that she came along just as Wonder Woman was giving up her powers and a great deal of her point. As Tim Hartley puts it: “Batgirl was the feminist heroine Diana Prince should have been.”1 The Wonder Woman of that period spent more time gallivanting around with one man after another and going shopping than detecting or fighting crime.
It just goes to show that names don’t count. As Hartley puts it, you would expect Batgirl to be just a knockoff of Batman, but “Batgirl was the most independent and self-reliant female character in DC comics at the beginning of the Bronze Age.”2 (You can never guess how people are going to “read” things: I liked Batgirl when I was young because she seemed to say that a girl could be like Batman.)
Perhaps what made her character good was the fact that in the beginning, both on TV and in the comics, Batgirl wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms by the Dynamic Duo. You could argue that everything she did after, including running for Congress, was her version of doing a Ginger Rogers (“backward and in high heels“).
I want to end this post by stressing the point I just made two paragraphs ago. Huntress and Batgirl were heroines to me as a girl, because they represented possibility. I liked Batman, and they were like him. They could do what he did, and like him they had no special powers. They weren’t knock-offs of Batman, any more than Robin was. And like Robin, who grew up, got a new name, and moved away, they went on to have their own adventures and make their own way in the world.
The Batgirl image at the top comes from Kroxie on Deviantart.
1. Hartley, Tim Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous Heroine, loc. 2950.↩
2. Hartley: 2898.↩