Barbara Gordon returns to the role of Batgirl this week, with the release of Batgirl #1, so I thought it wise to brush up on a little Barbara Gordon history. See, by the time I started reading comics, Barbara Gordon was already Oracle, acting as the cybertronic guru for the heroes of Gotham and beyond. I don’t have any nostalgic memories of Barbara in the suit (except for Yvonne Craig, of course), so I don’t really have an emotional stake in the relaunch, though I was terribly fond of Stephanie Brown in the role and will miss her.
The Barbara Gordon I know, the Oracle Barbara Gordon, has always been a tower of strength, intelligence and poise, so I was anxious to find out what she was like as Batgirl. I picked up DC’s Batgirl: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, a collection of 11 classic Batgirl adventures, to get a better idea of Barbara’s legacy as a member of the Bat family.
Whenever I do these little research projects, I’m always surprised by the drastically different tone and storytelling structure of early comics. The dialogue can be rather overwrought, and the narration a bit heavy-handed, but there’s still a great deal of charm and character in there. In “The Million Dollar Debut of Batgirl,” Barbara, the librarian daughter of Gotham’s Police Commissioner Gordon, describes herself thusly:
“The whole world thinks I’m just a plain Jane—a colorless female ‘brain!’”
The artist makes her the hottest plain Jane in the history of the world, though, so we kind of guess that she’s going to make one hell of a glamorous superhero. Barbara plans to shock her father and the rest of Gotham at the Policeman’s Masquerade Ball by dressing as a female version of Batman. She’s quick to point out how big of a deal this really is:
“I made my PHD at Gotham State University! I graduated summa cum laude! I wear a brown belt at Judo! But tonight will be the highlight of my life!”
Oh, Babs, I too once thought I could overcome being overeducated by being the life of the party, but trust me, after you wake up under one too many bartenders or your best friend’s father, you’ll be running screaming back to the safety of the library.
Babs never makes it to the party, though, since she happens upon the Moth Men attacking Bruce Wayne and decides to give crimefighting a try. Why not? She’s wearing a costume, after all. I was somewhat surprised this was her origin story. Though she quickly becomes hooked on being a caped crusader-ess, there’s not much in the way of build-up to this decision. I suppose it’s telling that she made that particular costume, and she jumped right into the fray in order to rescue Bruce. Still, by today’s standards, it’s a quick transformation.
Barbara then upgrades her costume and becomes a regular fixture in the capes and cowls set. What comes through, even in the somewhat stilted style of these earlier adventures, is Barbara’s determination to make a difference in the world, which must have meshed nicely with the women’s lib movement of the late 60s and early 70s. She’s not Batman’s sidekick. She’s not her father’s sidekick. She’s her own woman and superhero and she’s extremely brave. For example, when a serial killer is offing “plain Janes,” she throws herself right into anonymous computer dating, hoping to draw out the killer with her own ravishing plainness.
Throughout the book, and the eras represented, Batgirl has a recurring team-up with none other than the Boy Wonder himself, Dick Grayson’s Robin. Being a reader who lacks knowledge in a lot of historical context, it’s nice to see just how far back the relationship between these two goes. Though I find it sort of funny (and awkward) that Dick is depicted as being so much younger than Barbara. I always thought of them as contemporaries, but Barbara is already a congresswoman (!) by the time Dick makes it to college. Still, the bond between them as the “dynamite duo” is evident, and is definitely worth checking out. (The choreographed can-can the pair performs to take out the Joker’s daughter in “The Startling Secret of the Devilish Daughters” is not to be missed, with Robin’s bare legs making for an especially powerful visual.)
The more modern tales included in the book are a little weak, though, and the depiction of Barbara varies wildly from story to story. For instance, in “Photo Finish” (published in 1997), Barbara’s steely determination is gone, and she’s depicted much more along the lines of an indecisive amateur. Then, in “Folie a Deux” Parts One and Two, we’re given a new origin story, which now includes a set of dead parents, which every member of the Bat family requires, I suppose. Though we still don’t get much of an explanation for her transformation into Batgirl, the story does explore the complexities of her relationship with Gordon and Batman in a way earlier comics couldn’t have done.
Though 11 stories can’t really cover 40+ years of a comic book character’s history, I do feel like I have a better grasp on the role Barbara played as Batgirl, not just in the books, but in pop culture and the changing social norms of the past four decades. We’ll find out on Wednesday what sort of character writer Gail Simone will be adding to the Batgirl legacy, but I sincerely hope that whatever she comes up with, she’ll call her “that dominoed daredoll” at every opportunity.
Batgirl: The Greatest Stories Ever Told retails for $19.99 at your local comic book store or wherever books about plain Jane leather fetishists are sold.