Batgirl is one of my absolute favourites, in all her variations. As with many other legacy characters, emotions often run high between fans as to which Batgirl is the best, but I think it’s important to celebrate all of them, and the legacy that each character has brought to the name.
These characters mostly existed to make Batman and Robin appear less gay, and as with most women in 1950’s comics, the Comics Code which laid out the expectations for female characters in comics ensured that Bat-Girl and Bat-Woman were portrayed as hyper-feminine ditzes, more worried about whether or not the boys liked them than whether the criminals had escaped or not. When they did show actual crimefighting chops, the boys were quick to patronise them so they wouldn’t get ideas above their station.
Betty Kane appeared only seven time over four years, and was written out altogether when it was decided that the Bat-Family made Batman himself appear lightweight. (Betty was later restored to the DC Universe as Bette Kane AKA Flamebird, and joined Batwoman once again as her sidekick)
Only a couple of years after Betty disappeared, a new Batgirl was written into Gotham City: red-haired Barbara Gordon, daughter of Commissioner James Gordon (a supporting character who had been part of the Batman comic since its launch in 1939).
A librarian with a PhD, Barbara makes her own “Batgirl” costume for a fancy dress party, and then finds herself mistaken for a real life superhero. After foiling some crooks almost by accident, she decides that she rather likes doing that sort of thing, despite Batman’s initial disapproval. Allowed to be far more pro-active than her predecessors now that the Swinging Sixties were leaving the Comics Code in the dust, the “Darknight Damsel” rode a motorcycle, displayed martial arts skills, and used all manner of fun tools and weapons just like Batman himself.
Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl was created to be a character who could also be used in the live action TV series, then about to head into its third season, to draw in female viewers. Played by Yvonne Craig in the TV series, she was popular enough that it was even suggested she should have her own show. Yvonne Craig’s Batgirl was even used to promote the important political issue of Equal Pay in an official PSA.
The fact that the original Batman TV series is not available on DVD is a crime against humanity. I’m just saying.
Batgirl, the Dominoed Daredoll (yes, really) continued to be an important member of the supporting cast of the Batman comics of the 60’s and 70’s – and Barbara’s character was allowed to develop in quite interesting ways.
Frustrated with what she saw as the limited usefulness of their roles as costumed vigilantes, Barbara’s opinions about law enforcement and the flaws in the prison system led her to campaign for Congress and to move to Washington. At this point she officially retired as Batgirl (and confessed her secret to her father, who had already guessed it) but later found a use for her Batgirl identity again and had many adventures in Batman and Superman comics, often teaming up with Supergirl.
For three years, Batgirl was even the lead character of her own comic, titled Batman Family. There are some rather adorable stories from this era in which Dick Grayson is working as an intern for Barbara in Washington, and they both fight crime as Robin and Batgirl at night, but are yet to figure out each other’s secret identities.
There are occasional hints of romance between Robin and Batgirl in this era – and indeed, between Dick and Babs – but these are often downplayed in that discreet black and white comics way, with their friendship emphasised over a real love story. It’s notable that there is never any hint of romance between Batman and Batgirl (or indeed, between Batman any of the Batgirls). Barbara did, however, once go on a date with Clark Kent, and forged a friendship with him independent of her relationship with Batman.
Batgirl did not participate greatly in the Crisis of Infinite Earths event of 1985, though she did read the eulogy of her friend Supergirl, who was killed in battle. The massive reboot that followed, however, changed her character quite drastically.
This post-Crisis Batgirl never knew Supergirl, who was retroactively erased from existence. Some of their past adventures were retold as if they had happened to Batgirl and Power Girl, but the friendship was not portrayed with a similar level of closeness. Also, Barbara was no longer Commissioner Gordon’s biological daughter, but his niece and adopted daughter. Her revised origin focused on her athletic abilities and martial arts training, and less on her life as a highly qualified librarian. Her political career was erased.
In 1988, in a Batgirl Special, Barbara officially retired (again) from being a costumed crusader. Later that same year, she was shot in her civilian identity by the Joker in The Killing Joke, in order to punish her father. Famously, when the writer Alan Moore checked with the office if it was okay for him to declare that Barbara would be permanently paralysed, the editor discussed it with the Executive Editorial Director and then came back on the phone to say: “Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.”
The fate of Barbara Gordon was later discussed and analysed at length as a key example of “Women in Refrigerators,” the phenomenon of female characters in comics repeatedly being sacrificed to move forward the plot or emotional journey of male characters. I doubt I’m remotely doing the topic justice.
It could have ended there, but writer Kim Yale was quite furious at the treatment of the iconic character of Barbara Gordon. Together, she and her husband John Ostrander, both working for DC, developed the character of Oracle, a mysterious figure who used advanced computer systems to assist superheroes in the field. After several appearances over various titles, Oracle was revealed in 1990 to be Barbara Gordon, now wheelchair-enabled and kicking information technology arse.
[And yes, I will be doing a separate post on Oracle at some point, as a wonder woman of comics in her own right. But for now I want to concentrate on the relationship Barbara continued to have with the Batgirl legacy.]
While Oracle formed an important partnership with Black Canary, her first field agent, and had her own regular comic Birds of Prey from 1996 onwards, she remained closely connected to Gotham City, and ended up playing “eyes and ears” to a variety of superheroes, many of them women. She set up home in the Clock Tower, a monument in Gotham.
In No Man’s Land, a major Batman event of the late 90’s, Gotham City was all but destroyed in an earthquake, then declared a no go zone by the American government, which went so far as to blow up the bridges leading to the city. With Bruce Wayne stuck outside the city, trying to use his wealth and political influence to save Gotham, there was no Batman inside to prevent the remaining people in the city from falling into violent gang warfare and the dissolution of civilisation.
Barbara found herself secure but trapped in her Clock Tower, unable to travel far from home thanks to rubble in the streets, and frustrated by the lack of power in the city which meant she was also cut off from most of Oracle’s usual information sources (she had electricity and phone lines for instance but most of the villains didn’t, so she couldn’t listen in on them!). Feeling abandoned by Batman, Barbara was especially furious to discover that a woman in a Batsuit was patrolling the city. Assuming that whoever it was had Bruce Wayne’s approval, she was gutted that he should have nominated a replacement for Batgirl, whom she still thought of as her own.
As it turned out, Batman had not endorsed the mystery woman’s use of the Bat symbol ahead of time, though he finally returned he did agree she should continue wearing the costume… briefly.
During a particularly bloody street battle, however, “Batgirl” (she never claimed that she was working under that name and indeed the only person who does use it to refer to her is Oracle in her internal narrative) was unable to stop Two-Face and his unexpectedly large army from killing a dozen of the “Blue Boys” (former police officers, now members of their own gang). Batman used this failure as an excuse to humiliate her, revealing that he had always known her identity (Helena Bertinelli, the Huntress). He proceeded to bully her mercilessly in front of Nightwing, declaring that she was too emotional to be trusted. Unsurprisingly, Helena handed over the Batgirl costume and stormed away, going rogue again – exactly as Batman had planned. Because he is an arse.
Meanwhile, Barbara had found her own replacement, Cassandra Cain. This Eurasian teenager (whose name was obviously a play on the original Kathy Kane) was the daughter of super assassin David Cain, one of the men who had trained Bruce Wayne. Conditioned from young childhood to be the perfect assassin, she had also been raised without verbal or writing skills, so that she should be able to concentrate more fully on reading the visual cues of body language.
Tormented by her own past and the murder she had been forced to commit, Cassandra started out as one of Oracle’s field operatives, and proved her worth by saving Commissioner Gordon from assassination by her father. Supported and endorsed by both Barbara and Batman, Cass took on the mantle of Batgirl and joined the Batman family.
Her Batgirl costume, the one taken from Helena, is a black leather catsuit with a full mask and symbolic stitches around her mouthpiece. Instead of the bright yellow logo once worn by Barbara, this Batgirl’s bat symbol is merely a yellow outline against the black.
In 1999, Cassandra Cain became the first Batgirl to have an ongoing comic with that title. Her brain was adjusted by a telepath to gain verbal and writing skills, but she then had to start almost from scratch with martial arts training and body language perception, to get back what she had lost. She gave herself over to Lady Shiva, an infamous and dangerous assassin, for a year’s training with the promise of a duel to the death when that year was over.
As well as Oracle and Batman, Cassandra had ties to many of the members of the “Bat Family,” especially Stephanie Brown (Spoiler/Robin) and Tim Drake (Robin/Red Robin). A later storyline had Cassandra discovering that Lady Shiva is her mother, stating that one of the reasons Lady Shiva chose to have a baby was to stop herself murdering people, though it didn’t work out that way. Cassandra defeats Lady Shiva more than once (the only person ever to do so) but always holds herself back from killing her, even when she is convinced it is the most moral choice she could make.
Dealing with the violence in her past and her nature is an important part of Cassandra Cain’s ongoing character arc. She was often shows struggling with these issues, going back and forth as to whether she was deserving of the name of Batgirl. After the time jump of the One Year Later storyline, Cass was revealed to have become the leader of the League of Assassins. It was later shown that she followed this path after being abandoned by Batman, Robin and Nightwing (who were away for a year-long trip – what, Batman was a thoughtless arse? You surprise me.) and manipulated by both Deathstroke and her father with the help of some mind-altering drugs.
The portrayal of Cassandra Cain as a sudden villain and antagonist was met with widespread dismay by her fans, many of whom were the same readers who had been so distressed by the way Stephanie Brown was tortured and killed a few years earlier. The unpopular move was gradually altered so that Cassandra was allowed to be heroic again, but was never explained fully enough for fans to accept or understand.
Despite Cassandra’s move to the dark side, Batman himself did not lose faith in her, and after she finally gained closure with her evil father in a deadly rooftop battle, Bruce decided to adopt her as a daughter.
Then Batman died. Apparently disillusioned after the loss of her adopted father and mentor, Cassandra passed the Batgirl mantle to Stephanie Brown, her friend who had recently turned out to be less dead than previously supposed. (for the early history of Steph as Spoiler and then Robin, read this one)
In fact, Cassandra was following Bruce’s standing orders. She went undercover as an operative for Batman while he was “dead” (he got better, of course) and later turned up in Hong Kong, representing Batman Inc under the (pleasingly gender-neutral) name Black Bat.
Meanwhile, there was a new Batgirl in town.
While many of Cass Cain’s fans were grieved to lose “their” Batgirl, Stephanie proved a popular and successful version of the character, with her own monthly title. As Spoiler she had overcome her villainous father’s wicked schemes, and as Robin she had faked her own death after managing to get every criminal in Gotham’s underworld out to get her. Now she was a college student, her junkie mother had got her act together and was working full time as a nurse, and things were looking a whole lot brighter.
Written by Bryan Q Miller, the Stephanie Brown run as Batgirl was highly acclaimed, and still stands as an example of the great things you can do with a young female superhero. Steph juggled school, family and friends, and still managed to fight crime in a world without Bruce Wayne as Batman without losing her sense of humour. With Oracle and the new Batman (former Nightwing Dick Grayson) as her mentors, and the bratty Damien Wayne as the occasional thorn in her side, she proved to be entertaining and fun-loving, a breath of fresh air in the often-angsty Batverse.
Particularly enjoyable was Steph’s friendship with Supergirl (whose own journey in and out of existence in the DC Universe is a long and complicated one) which reflected the original vibe between Batgirl and Supergirl in the 1970’s. Another blast from the past was Steph’s costume, which used the bright purple and yellow that Yvonne Craig had worn in the Batman TV series, though the colour also reflected her own original Spoiler costume. When Bruce Wayne finally returned from the grave brandishing a shiny gold credit card or three, Stephanie even got an adorable purple Bat car, because reasons.
It was all, obviously, too good to be true.
Along came the New 52, and with it the declaration that the clock was being rewound, and the “most iconic” versions of characters would be playing the various legacy roles. This meant, most controversially, that Barbara Gordon would be stepping out of her wheelchair to take on the role of Batgirl again.
Steph’s Batgirl series was wound up with a final montage of “future images” showing the way that the character could have grown and developed over the next decade or more. Awesome adventures flashed before the eyes of the reader, all carrying the one message: these are the issues you won’t get to read. We saw Steph grow up, mature as a hero, and even become a mother, bringing her story full circle.
It felt poignant at the time, but has become even more so given what happened next.
While the reasons for paralysing Barbara Gordon in the first place had been horrible and problematic, un-paralysing her brought new waves of protest. Barbara had been Oracle for more than 20 years, and readers were not happy about losing the most prominent, beloved disabled superhero in the DC Universe. There were also questions about youthening the character (to a recent college graduate) rather than keeping her as a mature mentor figure, and the accomplished woman she had become. While “all” the DC characters were supposedly youthened, this is a tradition usually applied more dramatically to female characters (Batman for instance remains an experienced paternal figure, whereas Wonder Woman has been remade young and innocent every decade or so). There is already a Batwoman, so if you take Oracle away from Barbara, she has nowhere to develop except to stay young and perky for eternity.
Finally, of course, there was the fact that Stephanie Brown was not only losing her series, but her place in the DC Universe. Since the New 52 reboot, there has been no canon reference to Stephanie or to Cassandra Cain, and no information as to whether they exist at all, and which (if any) of their past is still “canon.” Even diehard Barbara fans can’t miss the fact that all the male Robins and their backstories have been kept, while the history of the Batgirl legacy has been erased.
The new Batgirl title is written sensitively and with great skill by Gail Simone, a writer known for her feminist voice and particularly associated with Barbara Gordon from her Oracle days. It’s also important that neither the shooting nor the paralysis have been erased from the story – Barbara is depicted here as a former wheelchair user still getting used to the fact that she can walk again, and there is still a place for at least some of the Oracle history to be acknowledged. It’s also technically possible that a writer could acknowledge the history of the Batgirls who replaced Barbara during her time in the wheelchair, though as yet this has not been the case.
There’s no denying that Barbara Gordon is the most iconic and well-known version of Batgirl – she is the version of the character who has appeared most often outside the comics: in the animated series, and the original live action series as well as on merchandise. A “Barbara” Batgirl even appeared in the movies, though Alicia Silverstone didn’t look much like our Babs, and was the niece of Alfred instead of being related to Commissioner Gordon. (I have a secret soft spot for Barbara Pennyworth, as I do for all the Batgirls.)
To most people, comics readers or not, Barbara Gordon is Batgirl. But I would certainly argue that Batgirl is herself an iconic enough figure that she doesn’t have to be Barbara. Why is Batman the only one who is allowed to pass on his legacy, taking on and training all manner of sidekicks and children, while Barbara is not allowed to grow up?
In the current Super Best Friends Forever series of DC Nation shorts, Batgirl is a fun loving teenager who rackets around town with mad gadgets and spring-loaded feet. In Ame-Comi Girls she takes the lead in a world without Batman or the Joker, with friends like Robin and Steel at her side, an evil antagonist in Duella Dent, and a growing wary alliance with Catwoman. There are great versions of Babs-as-Barbara in most of the animated series.
Then there’s Tiny Titans, which doesn’t make us choose between Barbara, Steph or Cass. We get all the Batgirls, and all the Robins, and they hang out with each other in the treehouse, and no one gets all het up about which of them are “iconic” or not. DC Comics has a rich and varied history, and it’s a shame they keep throwing away whacking great chunks of it in the name of appearing fresh.
I’m loving the current Batgirl series, but I would have much preferred it if it had been set in the past, as was the Superman Action Comics, allowing us to experience Barbara’s dashing and valiant adventures as a youngster, without losing the fascinating and mature character she had become as Oracle.
And I miss Stephanie Brown. A lot.
Where the Wonder Women Are:
1: Black Canary
4: Black Widow
5: Wonder Girl
6: Captain Marvel
8: Abigail Brand.