I’ll let you in on a little secret. I’ve wanted to write this column since before I had a column to write. And I’ve had butterflies in my stomach about it for almost just as long. Batgirl, and by extension its cowl-bearing character Barbara Gordon, isn’t just my favorite book on the stands. She’s my favorite idea in comics. Ever. Barbara is, to me, the pinnacle of what a comic book character can achieve: she’s known to millions but ever-evolving, developed out of a greater tradition but stands independent of it, and above all, is someone fans can aspire to be more like — in more ways than just one. Over the last 45 years, Barbara Gordon has meant so much to so many different people. This is what she means to me.
From her first appearance in 1967, a coordinated effort between legendary DC Comics editor Julius Schwartz and the producers of the Batman television series,1 it was clear this new Batgirl was going to stand apart from other superheroes. On the very first story page of Detective Comics #359, Barbara lays it all out for the reader — she has earned a Ph.D., graduated summa cum laude, and wears a brown belt in Judo — in that order. No wonder she became a visible inspiration for educated women, and especially librarians, in the years that followed. Brains first, physical achievement second is the subtext for so much of Barbara’s career, and remains to this day one of the reasons she resonates so personally with so many. Never a romantic interest for headlining hero Batman, this Batgirl could be regarded as his peer by the readers (and the Dark Knight himself) in the way few other heroines were to date. A powerful symbol for the emerging female empowerment movement of the late 1960s, Barbara raced on her motorcycle across the television screen as the first female superhero to grace that medium, instantly becoming a household name to millions.
This is where I first encountered Barbara, or “Babs” as she is known to her close friends — among whom I generously count myself. Not in 1967, mind you, but in syndicated reruns years later as a child of 6 or 7, who would rush home from school every day to see what was popping up on Batman. Some kids got excited about the Joker or the Riddler or whatever villain of the week was appearing. Me? It was the roar of that motorbike that I was waiting for, as well as the “BONG!” that appeared as an animated Batgirl swung across the opening credits and kicked a nasty thug in the face. Like many gay kids (and I promise, I absolutely knew I was homosexual even then), seeing a strong female character on television substituted for the absolute lack of gay characters on screen and in books. Batgirl was the outsider coming in, wanting to be accepted by the dynamic duo, but always having to keep secrets to protect her identity, even from the best of friends and most trustworthy gents around. She was charming, smart, determined and didn’t let anyone tell her she couldn’t accomplish what she set out to do. It also helped that her costume was just a little bit more fabulous than those donned by Batman and Robin. No surprise, a sparkly purple unitard goes a long way towards winning my heart, even to this day. But back then, she was an inspiration to me — an acknowledgement that being smart and talented could get me where I wanted to go, even if there were massive obstacles in my way.
Barbara Gordon represented that optimistic reality for many women and gay men I know, and, in the comics, she never let up. In 1972, Babs was elected to higher office, the same year only 15 of 535 members of Congress were women in real life. By the early 1980s, it was well established that she knew the secret identities of Batman and Robin all along. As she put it in Detective Comics #526, “I’m not stupid — and I am a detective.” But even as it seemed Batgirl was rising to the top of the comic book food chain, early signs of trouble surfaced for Babs in the form of an eponymous special issue (her first) in 1988. Written by Barbara Randall Kesel and drawn by Barry Kitson, “The Last Batgirl Story” was a foreboding, but genuinely brilliant mystery wherein Barbara needs to overcome the trauma of a near-death experience in the field to stop a series of murders plaguing Gotham City.
What was so remarkable about the story was that it didn’t sexualize Barbara’s trauma. Like any cop or soldier injured in the course of doing their job, Batgirl went through a period of recovery for both body and mind, but she didn’t let fear overcome her sense of duty. She was driven to get right back into the costume and finish what she started, not letting victimhood exclusively define her. Even though the issue concluded with Babs hanging up her togs upon successfully closing the case, I never imagined it was really the end for her as Batgirl. Little did I know that a tale replaying this near-death experience to a permanent — albeit comic book permanent — state had already been written, and to a much more cavalier and over-sexualized effect. With Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke, I’d lost a bit of my childhood inspiration and in the most despicable way possible — the casual maiming and sexual assault of a female hero in her civilian identity, only to serve as a backdrop for plot development. I was crushed.
To the supreme credit of creators John Ostrander and Kim Yale — and the heroine’s own innate inspirational status — Barbara Gordon rose again to galvanize an entirely new generation of readers. Paralyzed from the waist down after her devastating encounter with the Joker, Barbara became DC Comics’ most notable hero with a disability as Oracle, this universe’s supreme info-jock. Still putting brains ahead of brawn (although remaining incredibly well-trained in the art of physical self-defense), Barbara grew to become as spectacular a model of creativity and innovation to readers with disabilities as she had been to aspiring women and gay persons for years on end. She remained a character I loved, even if she wasn’t in the role that inspired me all those years ago. That she could do for others as Oracle, what she did for me as Batgirl, was special in itself. And like so many comic book characters who mean the world to her fans, Barbara had become a real person that readers could cheer for and be comforted by — which made her debut in DC Comics’ New 52 all the harder for some, but even more joyous for others, myself included.
All previews and advance advertising aside, opening up Batgirl #1 and seeing Barbara flying through the air on a line, grinning ear-to-ear as if to burst from happiness — it got me. As one of the few characters to even grace the covers of their #1 issues last September with a smile on her face, I could feel the joy radiating off the page right into my chest. I knew it was a controversial move, taking Babs out of the wheelchair and back into costume. But I couldn’t help it. I was that little kid running home from school all over again, beaming when his hero finally appeared after waiting through so many episodes where she hadn’t. That said, if all I was getting was my favorite version of Barbara Gordon back, then yes, I knew it would feel hollow later on. It’s one thing to understand that the appearance and reappearance of characters in comics is cyclical, but it is another to see such a rich character devolve back to an earlier, less interesting version of herself.
Fortunately, this has not been the case. Writer Gail Simone, architect of much of Barbara Gordon’s last decade of appearances as Oracle in the title Birds of Prey, has crafted a new iteration of the character for the New 52 that is as meaningful and important as every one that came before. Her Babs is younger, fresh out of college, and one year into her recovery from the devastating encounter with the Joker that put a stop to her Batgirl career three years prior. Having undergone an experimental surgery at a South African clinic renowned for its success in mobility rehabilitation, Barbara Gordon is well on her way to being the street vigilante she once was, but not without noticeable struggle. Simone has taken great care to infuse the inner monologue of the title with clues to Barbara’s physical state of recovery, even having Batgirl remark in her head that her legs won’t stop shaking and she has to go to the bathroom something fierce (a weakened bladder being one residual effect of long term paralysis). Like many of the heroes reintroduced last September, Barbara isn’t at the top of her game yet, but the reasoning behind this lack of polish is key to Batgirl’s ongoing narrative.
Barbara Gordon here is no teenage lightweight, but a woman who has experienced a significant physical and mental trauma, and remains affected by post-traumatic stress disorder. In the first issue, when confronted by a gun pointed in precisely the same way as that of her personal attacker, Batgirl freezes — unable to proceed despite her best efforts. No matter how smart, tough or well-prepared Barbara thought she was, her mind betrays her in that moment, as it would any cop or soldier suffering from the same insidious disorder. The mind, as it turns out, rehabilitates on a different timetable than the body. What has been so elegant to watch unfold over the course of a year is, in fact, just how Babs’ mind recovers bit by bit — a rebuilding of her confidence in herself and her mission. We were not privy to witnessing Barbara’s physical recovery, and I believe we are the better for it, as this form of recuperation is far more engrossing and, ultimately, more rewarding. Mental recovery in the face of extreme trauma is something readers rarely see on the comic page, no matter how many extreme situations a hero finds him or herself faced with. To experience it here through Barbara’s eyes is a fascinating new twist on a tradition steeped in personal violence.
Ardian Syaf’s pencils throughout the year have been exemplary in depicting a Barbara still a little bit unsure of her own footing, both literally and metaphorically. No easy task to portray physical awkwardness with the same sophistication as acrobatic excellence, Syaf excels at maintaining a kinetic feel to the page without drowning in self-conscious turbulance. Even in her brief moments of failure, Barbara’s appearance is clean and crisp, but emotive. Particularly in scenes between Barbara and her mother — returned to seek a relationship after leaving her family nine years prior — guest penciller Alitha Martinez adeptly captures the tension between the women without resorting to caricature (and illustrates, in my opinion, some of the best hairstyles on female characters that I have ever seen). Ultimately, however, it is Batgirl’s moments of great success — in taking down an opponent physically with all she has — that shine brightest. In those moments when the adversary believes Barbara beaten, her unique ability to think out the winning move and execute it so proficiently, is profoundly satisfying — all the more knowing the difficult path it took to get there.
In addition to PTSD, Barbara exhibits significant signs of survivor’s guilt, the sense that one has done wrong simply by overcoming a significant trauma when others have not. Frequently experienced by those who endure and survive combat, physical disease or disastrous circumstances when others in similar circumstances do not, the guilt Barbara is experiencing is affecting her physical aptitude — once again constructing a perilous bridge for Batgirl to travel from body to mind (and back again) in recovery. In the first storyline, Barbara confronts the villain Mirror, who is motivated by the same survivor’s guilt after the death of his wife and two children in a car crash. To find and defeat Mirror, Babs has to understand her own recovery as a blessing, not a curse, that survival is neither a miracle nor a mistake. Not everything can be explained as part of a greater plan, and that’s a difficult lesson to learn for someone who has always held her own analytical skill in high regard.
To stand before Mirror — before any reader who has experienced and survived traumatic events — and insist that sometimes miracles just happen whether deserved or not, Babs unfolds a new layer of inspiration for yet another deserving fan-base. Like every incarnation since 1967, Simone’s Barbara Gordon represents the personal experience and aspiration of many of those who eagerly read her monthly tales, and its been a deep pleasure to see that represented online, on twitter and in convention stories, by those who have been affected by trauma and recovered — or have not, as the case may be.
Most of the time, it’s impossible for one person (or character) to be everything to everybody — to be so meaningful that fans will climb over each other to claim her as exclusively their own. Barbara Gordon is that rare person who has represented so many of life’s different struggles with honesty and humility, and every last one of them with the same commitment and sense of self-worth. We each want to own that piece of Barbara that we hold dear, but in life, as in the comics, she is her own woman — unable to be boxed into just one version of her own best self. As a character, Barbara has truly been blessed to accumulate creators and fans that feel so passionately about her. But as someone who has found inspiration in Batgirl and her extensive publishing history, I’m the one who feels blessed today. I have gotten to share in just one sliver of Barbara Gordon’s greatness with these words, however inadequate they may be. But knowing Babs as we do after all these years, I have a feeling she’d humbly smile and reassure me with a gentle pat on the shoulder and a few heartfelt words. That’s just the kind of person we’ve watched her grow to be.
1. For a little bit of earworm-inducing fun, check out the delightful theme song from the 1967 Batman television show that Batgirl fans had to endure and adore in equal measure.
Matt Santori-Griffith owns one business suit, three pairs of shoes, and over 15,000 comic books. He works a day job as an art director for several non-profit organizations, but spends his dark nights and weekends fighting the good fight on Twitter.com in the guise of @FotoCub. He has not yet saved the world, but isn’t giving up quite yet.