Babs, They Did You Dirty

12 Apr

Batman is often projected as an inconsolable loner, someone so emotionally distant and single-minded in his crusade that no one can ever get close to him. Funny thing, really, since Batman works with a gang of no fewer than half a dozen superheroes at any given time. Suffice to say, if you slip on a pair of tights and a domino mask in Batman’s town, you’ll be working for him soon enough whether you like it or not. It’s a wonder that criminals even attempt to cause mischief in Gotham, it being the best-patrolled city in the fictional DC Universe.

Batman’s cadre of muscular weirdos are organized via a high-tech Bluetooth (or maybe Bat-tooth) system of intelligence gathering and dissemination. This system is controlled by the enigmatic Oracle, who we, the readers, know is Barbara Gordon, daughter of Commissioner James Gordon and one-time Batgirl. Barbara “Babs” Gordon was the first Batgirl, she whose fiery tresses streamed from beneath her cowl and whose reversible skirt could turn into a cape. All that changed with the publication of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, a Batman story where the Joker shoots Babs in the spine and photographs her naked in an attempt to drive her father insane. That doesn’t work: Commissioner Gordon is seemingly none the worse for the wear after enduring a surrealistic ordeal at the hands of the Joker, Batman captures the Clown Prince of Crime who presumably gets carted off to Arkham Asylum. Everything is as it was before, ready for the next installment of Batman where he’ll probably slap Killer Croc around while Robin hops about making whimsical puns.

Except for Barbara Gordon. She wound up crippled for life.

I have to thank the brilliant and wonderfully talented Sarah Velez for opening my eyes to this inconsistency. Because, for people whose lives are too full of joy to scrutinize such things, characters become critically damaged and bounce back to a full recovery on a regular basis in comic books. In fact, superheroes routinely die and come back to life. There are very few permanent changes to the status quo in comics: whatever given facts you know about a character are almost always immutable in the long run. To make this point even more cruelly, within the Batman universe alone there have been so many miraculous recoveries and lives after death that Barbara Gordon sticks out like a sore, wheelchair-bound thumb. Batman, himself, had his back broken and still resturned to full power to kick the crap out of a pretender to his throne. Yet Babs sits behind an array of computer screens, sending intel to any garish acrobat that skirts the rooftops of Gotham with an earpiece in.

I didn’t notice this inconsistency at first because, well, by and large I never gave a shit about Batgirl. Similarly, I never cared about Ace the Bat-Hound or Bat Mite or any of the other ancillary characters that padded out Batman Family. It just seems uncreative, really, to hit paydirt with Batman and then saddle anything that has a pulse with a pointy-eared cowl and a bat silhouette across its chest. It’s ironic, because if Batman was real–which is to say if dogs wore bedroom slippers and people walked on their hands–there certainly would be scores of Bat-wannabes. But as long as I am believing that there is a reality where citizens condone a maniac shooting zip lines along the roofs of Gotham City, I prefer to believe that he’s the only one doing it.

I would be remiss to sell Batgirl short, however. Batgirl is one of the most recognized characters in Batman’s many media incarnations. And unlike quickie characters like Bat Woman (the original one, not the post-Crisis lady), Barbara Gordon has a rich back story and a tight DNA connection to one of the main people in Batman: Commissioner James Gordon. So while I was never a huge Batgirl fan, I never mocked her stories like I did, say, Alfred Pennyworth’s. I took it for granted that she hung around, and suffered the occasional romantic tension between she and Robin whenever that cropped up.

But the bigger reason I didn’t notice how fucked up it is that Barbara Gordon has been left in a wheelchair is because her newer incarnation as Oracle is so awesome. Using her as a conduit for information has made Batman almost totally unstoppable: through Oracle, he has access to city plans, blueprints, surveillance camera feeds, and just about anything else that can be divined via computer. I think Batman is the first hero to make such use of the information superhighway, and it would be difficult now to imagine him doing his work otherwise. Oracle is so awesome, she’s even spawned her own successful and long-running comic book series, Birds of Prey where she’s the point person for a team of lady heroes. The comic birthed an awful television series that died after thirteen episodes, but I don’t blame Oracle for that.

Oracle has become something of a handi-capable idol to comic book fans everywhere, making her miraculous recovery an even more remote possibility. That, claims DC, is reason enough not to return Babs to her walking state, particularly since a few other waifs have adopted the Batgirl name (if not the precise mantle) with reasonably good effect. And for handicapped fans, I’m glad for them. But it’s still fucked up. There’s no reason an entirely new character couldn’t have been introduced, or even dredged up from days of forgotten comics lore, who could have become Oracle. Alan Moore himself was shocked that DC decided to keep Barbara in a wheelchair: he never intended The Killing Joke to be canonical, and even if it did become part of Batman’s continuity, he assumed she would be repaired and walking around right as rain like every other fucking hero in comics. But that didn’t happen. The Flash died and came back to life twenty years later, but Barbara Gordon still rolls around on dubs.

I think it all boils down to misogyny, personally. While there have been plenty of female heroes who have been battered and broken only to make a full recovery, it’s safe to say that they’d never leave Green Arrow in a wheelchair. Hell, they’d never leave Jimmy Olsen in a wheelchair, and he’s not even a superhero (well, most of the time he isn’t). But Batgirl, being a kind of second-string female in a very macho comic where a grown man horses around with a teenage boy, she’s okay to make an example of. It’s fucked up, and despite that I think Oracle is a great and integral character to the Batman universe, I can’t read the comic anymore without thinking about the disservice that’s been done to this fictional person.

If you’re the type of person who doesn’t click hotlinks, then please visit Sarah Velez’s website at She’s really talented.

6 Responses to “Babs, They Did You Dirty”

  1. Scarlet Kira at 4:39 pm #

    I noticed this too. I find it really sad that they don’t let her regain her life back. Maybe you are right about the people being misogynist because it’s not just her. Strong female characters are just created and then discarded once they are no longer useful to a male-centric comic book. It even shows up in the mainstream films about superheroes.

    • 3Fingers Brown at 6:33 pm #

      Women are always getting dealt horrible fates in comics: You’re familiar with “Women in Refrigerators,” yes?

      Call me cynical but in this case I think it’s a matter of DC wanting to get a piece of the handicapped readership that Professor X has been bringing in for Marvel.

      • Scarlet Kira at 7:49 pm #

        Yeah, I’m aware of WIR. I don’t know many of the women on the list but just reading their fates, it’s just bad.

        I actually did not think about that until right now. That could be another good reason as to why Babs won’t regain use of her legs. I don’t think there are many handicapped superheroes (but I’m not a huge comic book reader either) other Matt Murdock, Prof. Xavier, and Babara. That’s a really interesting concept.

  2. 3Fingers Brown at 6:52 pm #

    Oh yeah, forgot about Murdock. I’m not that caught up with recent story arcs, but think there’s a deaf woman in the Avengers now too…

    Thinking about it a little more and I’m just bummed that Babs doesn’t get to rock spandex (or is it latex hmmmmm?) anymore as Oracle. like her new uniform is a green sweater? Lame. I know it would be a pain to get in and out of a catsuit or unitard if you were unable to use your legs but whatever, impossible things happen all the time in comic book land.

  3. A at 9:54 pm #

    You’re all aware that these are FICTIONAL women you’re cabitsing about right? God forbid something happen to a fictional woman. We must all be protected like lil flowers and not subject to tragedy like our male counterparts. Women in refrigerators is bullshit and you know it.


  1. Sins of the Father « Defending Regicide -

    […] even dads. And Commissioner Gordon is a dad, to his adopted daughter (in the current iteration) Barbara Gordon and his biological son, James Gordon, […]

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