Some Thoughts About New 52 Batgirl

Let me start this… I guess you’d call it an essay, by saying a couple things:

First, I really like Barbara Gordon. She’s my second-favorite DC character after Batman, and sometimes I like to call her my “other favorite.”

Second, I really like Gail Simone. She’s one of my favorite DC writers and her Birds of Prey run (a series which was largely about Babs back when it had an actual premise) is one of my all-time favorites.

For those reasons, I was hoping that New 52 Batgirl would read like a good writer trying to make the best of a bad editorial decision and avoid alienating fans of the character as she was a few months earlier before Flashpoint.

That was not what it read like.

I’ve learned not to assume too much knowledge of continuity when I do things like this. On that basis, here’s a hopefully fairly abridged history lesson for context.
  • 1961: The first Bat-Girl, Betty Kane, is introduced. She wasn’t used much and was mainly a sidekick to the Batwoman of the time, Kathy Kane.

  • 1967: Barbara Gordon is introduced as the new Batgirl in anticipation of her being adapted into the Batman TV show. She has a moderately successful run as a backup feature up through the ‘70s but starts to fall out of use by the ‘80s.

  • 1986: Crisis on Infinite Earths causes the DC Universe’s second reboot. Batman: Year One seems to suggest that Babs no longer exists, giving Jim Gordon an infant son instead of an adult daughter.

  • 1988: Alan Moore writes Batman: The Killing Joke. It wasn’t originally intended to be canon, so part of the plot involves Babs. The Joker shoots her, paralyzing her from the waist down, and tortures her. This is so he can take pictures to show to Jim to try to drive him insane so he can in turn make a point to Batman. Babs is basically a prop here, and yet the decision to make this story canon is the reason she exists at all Post-Crisis.

  • Still 1988: John Ostrander and Kim Yale, writers on the Suicide Squad title, was having none of this. They introduce Oracle, an information broker, spymaster, and hacker who assists the titular government black ops team. Oracle turns out to be Barbara Gordon, dealing with what happened to her by becoming a new kind of hero. It’s really cool. After Suicide Squad ended, she appeared a bit more sporadically until she started working more with the Bat-Family starting circa Knightfall in 1993. This grows into a sort of “mission control for all the superheroes” role.

  • 1996: Ostrander and Yale also write a story for the anthology book The Batman Chronicles – Oracle: Year One. It’s really good.

  • Also 1996: They don’t get a proper series for a couple more years, but we get the first appearance of the Birds of Prey. A similarly mistreated character, Black Canary, teams up with Oracle as her personal field operative. Basically, Oracle’s role in other books is to help other superheroes when they need information, but in Birds of Prey, she sets the agenda. Other characters get involved over time and the Birds become less a duo and more a team, especially when Gail Simone takes over the title in 2003 and adds Huntress to the main cast, but it’s essentially an Oracle series.

  • 1999: Huntress briefly attempts to be a new Batgirl. Not exactly being friends with her yet, Babs is not amused.

  • Still 1999: Huntress’s Batgirl costume sure looked cool, though, so Cassandra Cain is created as an actual, non-fakeout new Batgirl who can wear it. She’s pretty awesome, and Babs is heavily involved in her title as sort of a surrogate mother to her. Books about legacy characters are so much more polite when the previous holder of the name doesn’t have to be shunted out of the way for the new one to exist.

  • 2009: Speaking of which, Stephanie Brown’s run as Batgirl shunts Cass out of the way so Steph (who had a perfectly serviceable identity as Spoiler already) can take over. I don’t like this book, but it has fans and at least stands out tonally from the extremely edgy Batbooks that were running contemporary to it.

  • 2011: Flashpoint nukes the whole timeline. Suddenly, Cass and Steph don’t exist at all and Babs has been magically healed by an inexplicable spinal implant and is Batgirl again.

  • 2014-2015: Steph and then Cass are at least reintroduced to continuity, though Cass’s new name (“Orphan”) is still dumb.

  • 2021: We’re supposedly getting Oracle back. I don’t super trust DC to stick to this, but I’m hopeful.

The editorial decision to revert Babs from Oracle to Batgirl has always left a very sour taste in my mouth. I’ve expounded on this in numerous places on here, so let me just quote one of my more recent formulations of my arguments for this:

So, coming back around to what I said to begin with: This is a bad editorial decision. But Gail Simone had that great Birds of Prey run. Before @HubCityQuestion fact-checked me below, I said “She’s in the holy trinity of Oracle writers with Ostrander and Chuck Dixon (the writer of the early part of Birds of Prey which everyone ignores but I actually like almost as much or more than Simone’s stuff – it’s got some tremendously silly arcs, but it also has really emotionally powerful moments like #8 or #16-17),” but the “holy trinity” comment doesn’t work because Kim Yale was co-writer on the Ostrander stuff I was talking about and she makes four. But anyway, you’d think that Simone would handle the transition with some tact and respect for the character’s previous incarnation.

But… her Batgirl run seems to be structured around thumbing her nose at anyone who misses Oracle. It opens on a villain who is motivated by a hatred of people who have experienced “miracles.” It really comes across as a strawman of those of us who preferred Babs as Oracle – “You monster, why do you want her to be disabled?” Not only does that ignore a lot of the actual reasons it upset people, it’s still demeaning for any number of reasons. It’s equating preferring a strong, positive protagonist with a disability with being a serial killer.

And then this happens in Batgirl (2011) #6:


Aw, that’s sweet, right?

Yeah, if you haven’t done your homework. And there’s no way Simone hasn’t done her homework.

Let me show you something else. This is from Oracle: Year One by Ostrander and Yale:

What you just read is Ostrander and Yale tearing The Killing Joke apart in a single page. But it also manages to say a lot about both of these two characters and inform characterization for the following fifteen years.

The arc was simple, believable for both characters, and effective. Fairly or not, both Babs and Bruce would process what happened to her as Bruce’s fault – her because she resents being his collateral damage and him because he has this whole guilt complex about seeing people get hurt around him. This turns the previous dynamic where she clearly admired him enough to imitate him very tense.

There are a lot of later stories where Bruce is kind of overprotective of Babs, doing things like surveilling her house just to make sure she’s all right early in Birds of Prey – again, he feels guilty about the whole thing. But she (and Simone gets this part and specifically brings it up in the issue with Nightwing) doesn’t want to be pitied or coddled. (This, by the way, makes more sense when she has a disability that keeps reminding all parties of all of this baggage. She doesn’t want to and doesn’t let what happened define her, but she has to deal with people being weird about it, and has trouble accepting that they just want to help. Again, Batgirl #3 actually expresses this pretty eloquently even while the rest of the series is shooting all of this to hell.)

There was some unnecessary squabbling at various points, but their dynamic is about their having to work to be friends again. And neither of them wants to not be friends, so it’s not like the whole thing is bitterness and angst, it’s just difficult, dramatic, and most importantly interesting. In fact, something that was really satisfying about the 2010 volume of Birds of Prey (written by Simone, and clearly very shortly before this Batgirl run) was that they finally did start to reconnect as less tense, complicated colleagues and more genuine friends.

All of that is what Simone blows up in two pages. The character in Ostrander and Yale’s story has agency. She was used and hurt and tossed aside and disregarded… and that makes her mad, so over the course of O:YO and the (earlier by publication) Suicide Squad run, she uses that anger to move forward. She’s strong, motivated, and has agency.

Simone turned it backwards, though. We have this stubborn insistence that Batgirl is totes independent and not a sidekick and didn’t like or want to work with Batman when, um, what part of “you decided to dress like him” don’t you understand? When New 52 Babs gets shot, she’s left broken and afraid and needing to be comforted by, frankly, a big, strong man. Instead of having motivation and agency, she’s just grateful that someone (who arguably helped put her in this position in the first place) is deigning to be nice to her. (An odd point to miss for the writer who literally created the term “women in refrigerators,” incidentally.)

And it’s not that I have any problem with Batman being nice. I like that, and that’s what he’s there to do even in Ostrander and Yale’s version. He was being kind of a jerk in terms of apparently sharing the Joker’s dismissive attitude towards Babs, but that was part of what Moore did, which is still canon in the New 52 while Ostrander and Yale’s much more interesting and thoughtful character work is getting deliberately retconned out.

This sort of thing is exactly why becoming Batgirl again was unbelievably toxic to this character. People who seem to genuinely care about the character seem to get defensive when some of these points are raised, so to be clear, I am not spending my day pounding out two thousand words about Babs because I dislike her or have some sadistic desire to see stories where she’s suffering. I’m doing it because I want to see the character treated with respect and the things that are cool and interesting about her preserved.

I have numerous other gripes with the series, but aside from a few other small but recurring points like references to “the real Batgirl,” the rest is more about these particular stories being silly than the long-term damage to the character I’m talking about here.

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This is extremely well written and stated, and mirrors a lot of my own feelings. I agree with basically all of this, so I’m just going to quote the parts I don’t agree with or I feel warrant further clarification.

First, let’s not minimize Kim Yale’s role in writing this still essential Suicide Squad run, not to mention “Oracle: Year One” – they did the whole thing together. Second, Tim Seeley, Rob Williams, and Tom Taylor all had really great runs on the book in the past 5-6 years.

I agree with you that this book could have been set up much better, but Steph’s time as Batgirl is unique, charming, and memorable.

Babs has already been acting as Oracle across all of DC’s bat-books this year, but it’s a sort of half-measure of “I’m resting my spinal implant, maaaybe I’ll go back to the suit someday, who knows”. Seems to me like bet-hedging on editorial’s part. She’s still waking around though, which is something I am not personally in favor of, since Oracle in her initial form meant so much as a symbol of heroism to the disabled community.

Finally, I’m not sure why Simone did any of this. I’m not sure how much of this was her call, and how much of it was direct editorial interference. I’m not sure why this series took the shape it did. I don’t know if we’ll ever be sure. I really do want to give Simone the benefit of the doubt, and chalk up a lot of these choices to higher powers than a freelance writer can do much to fight against. All I can say is that under the current editorial leadership, I don’t believe such a dramatic reversal of the character’s development ever would have happened, whether Simone was writing or not.

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Oh, yes. I didn’t realize Kim Yale was involved in Oracle: Year One (I don’t think she’s credited?) but I meant a writer. I’ll edit to reflect that.

My dig at later Suicide Squad runs was probably not called for since it’s related to various unrelated things and not as well-researched as this.

I found it to be heavy on plot holes and aggressively dismissive of both Cass and Steph’s respective histories, but like I said, I’m pretty alone in this opinion.

Ah, OK. I’m pretty behind on the most recent developments. I’m reading this as part of a broader effort to get caught up on Batbooks, so some of the news I’ve heard is out-of-date, but I do intend to look into this more.

I want to believe this as well, but a lot of the problems feel very specific in a way that’s hard to chalk up to editorial. It’s not impossible, though.

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I think you’d like them! Ostrander even wrote a guest issue in the middle of Williams’ run that fits right in. All three runs I mentioned iterate on the international themes of Ostrander and Yale’s original series in inventive and interesting ways. After a while you won’t even mind Harley’s ubiquity on the team.

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Not to start an argument, but I really enjoyed the later New 52 Batgirl stuff. I’m far behind on the rebirth era Batgirl but what I did read wasn’t bad. I think the early New 52 Batgirl wasn’t perfect but not terrible. What I do like was the Burnside arc, and its more lighthearted tone. I think this was Batgirl at her most enjoyable.

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There she is!

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I’ll say this here, because there’s not much more to say to expand on your points. You covered the main points really well, and you know I agree with much of your feelings about this book.

The one caveat I’ll give before making my point is I’m only through the first 12 issues and the 0 issue of New 52 Batgirl, and I read them as part of a much wider dive into the entire line. I also don’t know Babs’ history from the mid-'80s through 2011 as well as you do, nor do I have the passionate fandom.
That said, I really did like Simone’s previous runs on Birds of Prey when I read them. And the transition from Barbara as Oracle to Barbara back to Batgirl is very disappointing.

Primarily, I disliked the character regression she seemed to undergo.
Of the Bat-family characters who transitioned through Flashpoint into New 52, Babs is the only other one whose status quo as a character (not the injury healing) gets dialed back. Bruce is always Bruce, but: Damian, Dick, Tim, Kate Kane and in some weird (but no less awful) way Jason all pretty much retained their characterizations as the new books launched. Babs did not.
Babs in Batgirl is portrayed as like a post-college 20-something Millennial hipster (circa 2011) trying to get her ■■■■ together, figure out what she wants to do with her life, be roomies with someone, literally get slapped around for being depressed…
Seriously, Dick’s running a circus and investing in an amusement park, Tim’s the golden child running the Teen Titans, even Jason’s sometimes shown as dapper when he wants to be. Selina becomes a hot mess, and even Kate’s kind of a hot mess but still fairly consistent with her previous appearances.

Babs, though, she’s essentially a child.

As Oracle, Babs was fierce. Babs was tough. Babs was mature, focused and driven. She was an entrepreneur who, in that role admittedly jumped the shark by around the time of Platinum Flats, had built successful enterprises both legitimate and (technically) illegitimate. Babs was a force to be reckoned with who could go face-to-face with Lois Lane and who even intimidated Kate Spencer into respect at times.

Batgirl Babs is not that person. I don’t mind characters with genuine human qualities, such as doubts, anxiety or fears – and Oracle had plenty of those. What I do mind is the blatant stripping of the adult Oracle was to regress into this more subservient, appreciative, indecisive child who basically has to start all over while the other Bat kids get a pass to stay who they were between eras.
And, guys, seriously, New 52 Teen Titans makes about as much sense existing as New 52 Birds of Prey.

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Just to back that up, here’s a quote from the writer of Secret Origins #20 and Batgirl Special, the two post-Crisis stories that featured Batgirl:

It was pretty much this simple: “She’s getting her spine blown out in ‘The Killing Joke’, so try to make people care.” . . . TKJ was in progress before I started on the Origin and the Special. I was torn—I really admire Alan’s work, but I hated seeing Batgirl stay down. I actually followed it up with a proposal for a new heroic identity for Batgirl (working with Dan Mishkin, I think?) that would have used the technology available in the DCU to let her walk and fight: basically, she’d have armor Promethium joints and Star Labs tech that would let her use her photographic memory to program in her former movements: she’d still be paralyzed without the armor but able to patrol and fight (guardedly, part of the psychology of recovering from the attack that paralyzed her) while wearing it. That got accepted and then axed in favor of the Oracle storyline. Which is a damn good use of her character, but it’s still creepy that DC women seem to stay damaged and dead while the men… sigh.

Source: DC Women Kicking Ass - A chat with former Batgirl writer Barbara Randall...

That said, I’m actually quite fond of the New 52 Batgirl series by Gail Simone. It’s one of the few New 52 comics I actually like. In an ideal world, Simone could’ve written Barbara-as-Batgirl without the backstory from The Killing Joke grandfathered into the new continuity, but I’m sure that DC editorial would’ve been salivating at the mouth to “remake” the story and put her through it all again if it had been erased from the timeline.

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YES, they deaged her, which was especially weird when dick got aged up? yet they kept them as romantic paring? :face_vomiting:

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on the note of steph’s run, the only real problem is the reason for starting it and cass giving away the batgirl suit doesn’t make sense(it contradicts earlier things she had said). they tried to make it make more sense when bruce came back saying he told cass that in the event of his death she should not be batgirl, and give the mantle to steph. maybe he meant her to take a larger role? (it is really unclear)

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I hadn’t thought about a lot of this stuff w/ the New 52 run, but you bring up some great points that’s definitely got me thinking about this run in some new ways

One other specific element of this run that really bothered me was the initial treatment of Ricky Gutierrez. When he’s introduced in Batgirl #10, Babs thinks he might not be more than 16 but then immediately goes on to call him “handsome.” Even though this definitely creeped me out w/ Babs being in her early 20s (I can’t remember her specific age at this time), she was also trying to calm him down after he got his leg stuck in a bear trap of all things, which actually led to him losing his foot, so I didn’t think it was completely terrible

But what was a lot worse was when she kissed Ricky a few issues later in Batgirl Annual #1 and then again in Young Romance: The New 52 Special. Even though neither kiss is romantic on her end, w/ the 1st one being strictly to prevent him from being seen as a rat, the fact is she’s still kissing someone she thinks is 16, w/ the 2nd kiss being especially bad because she knows Ricky is taking it romantically (I can’t blame Simone for this one since she didn’t write Babs’ story in that anthology, but it still needs to be pointed out)

Thankfully, Ricky’s actually 19, but Babs doesn’t actually find that out until Batgirl #17. And the fact that she makes a comment questioning if he’s 16 seems to suggest that she still thought he was that old this entire time as opposed to possibly realizing at some point earlier that he’s probably older

If those 2 kisses never happened, I could see this being a case where Simone didn’t intend for Ricky to be a love interest, but she or editorial decided for it later on and so she had to specifically clarify later on that he was over 18 before the romance could start properly. But that’s not what happened, and I’m just left wondering why Babs thought it was OK to kiss someone (twice!) who she thought was only 16

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