A quote from the late Yvonne Craig, who portrayed Barbara Gordon on the hit TV show Batman states “I meet young women who say Batgirl was their role model… They say it’s because it was the first time they ever felt girls could do the same things guys could do, and sometimes better. I think that’s lovely.” Now more than ever, young girls and women all over the world need an inspiring heroine, even if they exist in comic book culture.
50 years ago this month, the character Barbara Gordon debuted in Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino’s Detective Comics (Vol 1) 359 from 1967. By day Barbara was Commissioner James Gordon’s daughter, the equally brilliant and beautiful head librarian in Gotham City. By night she transformed into her alter ego, Batgirl. Proving through her wits and fighting style she could hang toe-to-toe with Batman and Robin (Dick Grayson). From the comics to Craig’s portrayal in the Batman classic TV series, Barbara’s role epitomized the female empowerment movement in the 1960’s. Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl became an overnight sensation, even earning her place within the Batman Family and solo adventures in Detective Comics in the 1970’s to the early 1980’s.
After Barbara hung up the mantle and became one of the youngest congresswomen in the United States, tragedy struck when she was shot and paralyzed by the Dark Knight’s arch nemesis The Joker in Alan Moore’s 1988 one shot Batman: The Killing Joke. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Barbara refused to accept defeat and took up a new persona: the genius computer hacker Oracle. For the next 20+ years, Oracle would become one of the most important figures in the Batman mythology and the DC Universe, until Barbara Gordon’s revival as Batgirl in the DC Comics’ 2011 reboot of The New 52. Barbara Gordon illustrates in many ways the archetype of a hero and this is to both celebrate Babs’ history of empowerment, trauma and endurance showcased in both comics and collectibles.
The Million-Dollar Debut of Batgirl!
For most, their first introduction to the persona of Batgirl is Barbara Gordon. Yet the first ever Bat-girl came in the form of Betty Kane in 1961’s Batman (Vol 1) 139 as a response to the accusations of Batman and Robin’s homoerotic relationship during the 1950’s. As DC Comics editor Julius Schwartz in 1964 observed, Kane’s “Batgirl” didn’t properly represent a strong female character within the Batman canon. Once the live action television series Batman became a huge success sparking Batmania in 1966, both Schwartz and ABC producer William Dozier wanted to bring in a larger female audience. Introduced first in the comics, writer Gardner Fox and illustrators Carmine Infantino, Murphy Anderson and Sid Greene brought to life the character of Barbara Gordon in the tale “The Million-Dollar Debut of Batgirl!” in January 1967’s Detective Comics (Vol 1) 359. Inspired by the Batman of Gotham City and her father James Gordon, the commissioner of the police department, Barbara creates a costume and aids in stopping a potential kidnapping on millionaire Bruce Wayne by the rogue Killer Moth at a charity ball. Despite Batman and even Robin the Boy Wonder’s opposition to having the mysterious Batgirl fight alongside them due to her gender, Babs showed she was just as valuable to this crime fighting team as any man and soon became part of the Batman Family.
As Barbara’s Batgirl continued to appear in more Batman comic book stories in the late 1960’s, in the last season of Batman, Babs debuted in the episode “Enter Batgirl, Exit Penguin” on September 14, 1967 portrayed by actress Yvonne Craig. While other female characters on the show played to the stereotypical strengths for women at the time, from Catwoman as the seductive temptress to Aunt Harriet as the caring mother figure, Craig’s Batgirl stood tall with the male dominant Dynamic Duo of Adam West’s Batman and Burt Ward’s Robin as the smart, beautiful and independent ally that embodied female empowerment to young girls and women watching. Even after the cancellation of Batman in 1968, Babs’ Batgirl still appeared in animated television due to her popularity. Yvonne Craig’s Batgirl was also featured in a PSA for the U.S Department of Labor explaining the Federal Equal Pay Act of 1963, making it illegal for employers to pay men or women different wages if they perform jobs with equal performance skills. In this memorable tv commercial, Batgirl (Craig) confronts her employer Batman (Dick Gautier) about not getting paid equally as Robin (Ward), his other employee, although they perform the same job. Highlighting the social and political struggle that continues to illustrate as hot button issues today, Yvonne Craig broke the mold of the definition of a superhero inside and outside of comic books.
The Batman Family
Entering the Bronze Age of DC Comics, many readers missed some of the Silver Age family members that were written out of canon, such as Betty Kane’s Bat-Girl and Batwoman, despite Barbara’s popularity. As many writing Batman comics at the time would note, however, now that Gordon represented the heroine that could take out bad guys on her own, the desire for characters, such as Batwoman, only created to compliment a man fell flat. Barbara’s Batgirl became such a popular figure across all demographics in the Batman Family she starred in back up stories with Robin (Dick Grayson) in the Detective Comics publication. After their first official team up tale, facing an Edgar Allen Poe-inspired murderer on Hudson University’s campus (Detective Comics 400, 1970), this new Dynamic Duo grappled together on thrilling adventures throughout the next decade, even in the short lived book Batman Family beginning in 1975. Barbara in this time not only revealed her secret identity to her father but also realized that in order to truly fix the corrupt justice system, she needed to work with both the mask on and off, officially running for U.S Congress in 1972 (Detective Comics 422). Becoming accustomed to her role as Batgirl, Barbara briefly returned to the mantle on a few missions, some including Grayson, while she worked and lived in Washington, D.C. on Capital Hill.
The Last Batgirl Story
By the early 1980’s, Barbara was established as a U.S congresswoman and the popular hero Batgirl in the DC Universe. Even when Green Arrow replaced her in backup stories in 1982’s Detective Comics, Babs as Batgirl returned to play a pivotal role in Marv Wolfman and George Perez’ epic saga Crisis on Infinite Earths when Supergirl dies, reading her eulogy. After this major event for the company, many DC heroes received different origin stories, including Barbara Gordon in Barbara Kesel’s (Randall) Secret Origins (Vol 2) 20 from November 1987. Originally living in Ohio, when her mother Thelma was killed in a tragic car accident and her alcoholic father Roger dies from committing suicide, a shattered young Barbara moves to Gotham City and is adopted by her aunt and uncle, Barbara and James Gordon. Once she was in Gotham, she was inspired by the vigilante Batman so much so that she trained in the martial arts all while being an extraordinary scholar, attending Gotham City University at the age of 16 and working as a research librarian. Paying homage to her million-dollar debut, when Babs creates a “Batgirl” costume and crashes a charity ball, she also stops a robber named Killer Moth at the same event, catching the eye of Batman. Also reminiscent of her comic book debut two decades prior, the Caped Crusader scolds Batgirl on her reckless behavior, but this doesn’t stop our powerful heroine for creating her own path and trust right into the Batman Family.
Kesel penned Barbara Gordon’s retirement from her Batgirl persona in Batgirl Special #1, which hit comic book stands on March 22, 1988. The next tale Barbara is featured in was released a week later on the 29th: Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s Batman: The Killing Joke. Moore’s graphic novel remains one of the best writings of The Joker’s origin story and illustrating the twisted and mirrored dynamic between the Clown Prince of Crime and Batman. Tragically for Barbara, this one shot has a shot heard ‘round the world; to prove to Batman that any sane man can have ‘one bad day’ and become insanely corrupt, The Joker goes to the home of Commissioner Gordon and, as Barbara opens the door, he shoots her with a gun, ultimately paralyzing her from the waist down and confining her to a wheelchair.
For the Love of Oracle + Batgirl
This act committed by Joker in The Killing Joke stirred controversy both in and outside of the comic book continuity. Even writer Alan Moore stated concern about such a horrid act on a prominent figure like Barbara in Batman comics. The outcry of criticism from admirers and female writers of the heroine grew, as many thought it sexist to destroy a strong character for a good plot device. But thanks to writer and editor Kim Yale and John Ostrander, they assured Barbara Gordon would still thrive in the Batman mythos, being a shining example of a hero living with a disability: Barbara took on a new persona, the genius computer hacker Oracle, debuting in Suicide Squad (Vol 1) 23 in January 1989 and becoming an official member of Amanda Waller’s Task Force X in Suicide Squad (Vol 1) 48 in December 1990. Barbara Gordon as Oracle in the 90’s became an established member of the Batman Family during the Batman: Knightfall and Batman: No Man’s Land sagas with her brilliant Intel. Other visual media in this decade continued to highlight Barbara’s decades long history as Batgirl, from the small screen classic Batman: The Animated Series and The New Batman Adventures television series to the big screen in Joel Schumacher’s live action Batman & Robin starring Alicia Silverstone as Babs, continually reminding viewers just how dynamic this character remains in DC Comics, no matter what persona.
In the late 1990’s, Barbara Gordon’s origin as Oracle was told in The Batman Chronicles (Vol 1) 5, detailing her deep depression from the shooting, coming to terms with her disability and not letting herself be a victim anymore. From learning how to physically defend herself in her wheelchair to attaining her degrees in Library Sciences, she became the hacker Oracle that is valued immensely in canon. Throughout the early 2000’s, Oracle becomes the main member of Gail Simone’s female heroine team Birds of Prey in several reincarnations, branching outside and becoming main intelligence center for Batman and other DC characters. With the lack of disabled or handicapped superheroes in DC Comics, Barbara’s role as Oracle was even more significant with her incredible skills extending past the Batman Family.
The Batgirl of Burnside
Barbara Gordon returns as Batgirl with DC Comics soft reboot of The New 52 in 2011. Wanting to keep Moore’s The Killing Joke storyline, Barbara’s paralysis only lasted three years when she receives an experimental surgery. Even with 34 thrilling issues by Gail Simone of Babs as Batgirl, there were many who missed the character of Oracle, believing that DC was being disrespectful towards a character that created such a powerful impact in the disabled community. Nevertheless, in issue #35, a new creative team of Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr presented a fresh take on this female heroine who debuted in 1967, living in the hip area of Burnside by day, by night protecting it as a hero that is relevant and inspiring to women readers. This Batgirl continues today in the DC Comics series Rebirth in both Batgirl by Hope Larson and Batgirl and the Birds of Prey by Julie and Shawna Benson showcasing both the fun and heroic Batgirl and the legacy of the ever-important Oracle.
As a Batman and comic book fan, I love Babs. Ever since seeing her in the 1960s Batman television series, she has always been one of my favorite heroes, period. Her theme song is my ringtone, that’s how much I am enamored with this figure. It made it even better that she was a girl like me, loving the fact that she stands alongside as equal to my other favorite heroes, Batman and Robin. As we celebrate her 50th birthday, the DC Comics character of Barbara Gordon still remains a cultural icon in American comic books, with a brilliant history of breaking barriers in and outside of comics. Whether the spunky silver age Batgirl to rising out of tragic ashes as Oracle or the hip new Batgirl of Burnside, everyone has a favorite Barbara Gordon, and each establishes what it truly takes to represent a hero.