OK, so that article about Batgirl’s history that got posted in the general board (and the fact that I just read a whole bunch of Birds of Prey and Batgirl 2000) got me thinking, and I wanted to talk about the character. I’m not trying to start a fight here; if anything, I’m legitimately curious what those who disagree with my perspective on this whole thing have to say.
So… my favorite DC heroes are essentially the classic Batman trio: Bruce, Dick, and Barbara. Now, ever since the Adam West show (which I love dearly), the average person would probably tell you that Batman has two younger sidekicks, Robin and Batgirl.
That’s great for adaptations that are meant to stand on their own and don’t have time to dive into complex continuity. Comics, though, are some of the longest-running serial media in existence. By their nature, comic book characters grow and change overtime. That’s both a curse, since it creates a sort of lockout for non-fans, and a blessing, since that’s part of the appeal for fans. Either way, it’s the case and won’t be changing anytime soon.
Obviously, all three of those characters I led off by talking about have changed. Batman is the closest to being stagnant, but he still fluctuates in terms of his level of edginess, how willing he is to work with others, and whether he’s a Machiavellian jerk or a moody-but-basically-sympathetic hero. I think the biggest change is that since sometime in the ‘90s or so, he’s often more interesting as a mentor to other characters than as a protagonist in his own right. Still, though, ultimately Batman’s always going to be the same dude living in a big mansion with his butler and meeting with Commissioner Gordon on the roof of GCPD headquarters when the bat-signal gets turned on because the Joker broke out of Arkham Asylum. “Stagnant” may be an overly harsh word, but Batman is certainly a comparatively stable character.
Nightwing, on the other hand, puts the “dynamic” in “dynamic duo.” He always carries his background as Bruce’s sidekick with him, and it’s a big part of his characterization, but as Batman writers moved away from the idea of the Batman-and-Robin duo being inseparable, Robin had to go somewhere else. Through the ‘70s, he kind of drifted, showing up as an occasional backup feature and running around with the (not yet especially popular) Teen Titans. It wasn’t until Wolfman and Perez put him in charge of the New Teen Titans (themselves a reinvention of a floundering older idea) and subsequently made him Nightwing that he was really resuscitated. From that point on, he was always changing. First he was at odds with Bruce. Then they were friends. Then he moved to Bludhaven. Then he wasn’t with the Titans for a while. Then Bludhaven got blown up. Then he was back in Gotham. Then he was Batman. Then he was Nightwing again, but he had an ugly red costume and also was a sleeper agent for an evil conspiracy. Then he was a superspy for some reason, which I don’t get but people seem to like it, so if that’s your thing, then more power to you. Then he tried to go back to the Bludhaven era and it went over alright until all this “Ric Grayson” stuff started, which I honestly haven’t been following all that closely but haven’t heard good things about.
So, I guess this is the ultimate question: Should Barbara be more like Bruce, who provides a consistent anchor and symbol to an otherwise chaotic and constantly-evolving franchise? Or should she be more like Dick, whose appeal comes from the fact that he can always be adapting without (usually – see the various issues people have raised with the nuking of Bludhaven and Ric Grayson) abandoning or disrespecting what he’s done in the past? Is there a middle ground?
Early on, sometime during the ‘70s or early ‘80s, she kind of drifted away from the main Bat-books. She had regular back-up strips and became a congresswoman for a while, which was kind of weird but was at least a new direction. Then Alan Moore paralyzed her, which was rather disrespectful. In his defense, if I recall correctly, The Killing Joke wasn’t originally supposed to be in-continuity, so whatever you think of it as a narrative beat, it’s not Moore’s fault that it stuck.
Well, that sort of locked them out of going the Batman route, which they otherwise could’ve done if they’d just hit the reset button like they originally planned. Barbara couldn’t run around in a Batsuit punching bad guys in the face without… you know, running around. So, if she can’t go the Bruce route, she either has to go the Nightwing route or disappear again. So, John Ostrander introduces Oracle in Suicide Squad, she shows up in JLA, gets her own team, recruits a new Batgirl, etcetera.
In fact, let’s talk about Cassandra Cain for a brief moment: Like Jason Todd and Tim Drake before her, she showed up to fill one of those “Batman’s younger sidekick” roles people remember from the Adam West show that had gone vacant sometime in the ‘80s. Now, like Barbara before her (not so much Betty Kane, but she only showed up in a couple issues and would in all likelihood be forgotten by now if the “Batgirl” name hadn’t taken off while attached to different characters), Cass was a bit more independent than the concurrent Robin, but she was still one of the more “subordinate” members of the Bat-Family. The same can be said of Stephanie Brown.
Now, there are a ton of issues one could raise about the idea of Barbara going back to being Batgirl after so long as Oracle. Some, like the New 52’s habit of erasing the history and characterization of beloved characters like Cass and Steph, are broader, more systemic things. Others, like the summary “fixing” of a character with a disability or the fact that a character who can fight evil primarily with her mind rather than her fists is something you don’t see very often, are more unique to Barbara’s situation. However, my biggest issue is this:
Batgirl is always going to be one of Batman’s teenaged sidekicks. Pre-Flashpoint, Barbara Gordon was an adult and she was not a sidekick. Ergo, Barbara Gordon being Batgirl post-Flashpoint seems to be a step back. It’s even in the name: BatGIRL. Barbara is not a girl any more than Bruce is a boy, and last I checked, “Batwoman” was taken.
Does she HAVE to be Oracle? Does she HAVE to be a hacker? Does she HAVE to be in a wheelchair? Does she HAVE to hang out with Black Canary? Does she HAVE to live in a clock tower? Not really, not any more than Dick has to be Nightwing, fight with sticks, wear black-and-blue, hang out with the Titans, and live in Bludhaven. Arguably, Dick was at his best when he did those things, but like I said, people seemed to like his superspy phase and that’s cool.
So, similarly, I think having Barbara use the Oracle identity is a good idea because it worked when they did it and because it’s the easiest way to avoid those other issues I talked about a couple paragraphs ago, but I’m not necessarily calling for Barbara-as-Oracle. All I’m saying is that Barbara-as-Batgirl is a… troubling direction for the character.
So… Thoughts? Agreement? Disagreement? Am I just blowing a lot of hot air about something most people don’t care about? I’m genuinely curious what everyone else thinks.