Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Batgirl Debate

No news from DC's reboot has generated as much controversy as the decision to return the currently disabled Barbara Gordon to her iconic role as Batgirl. And even life-long Batgirl fans, like myself, can't help but take the news as bittersweet, considering what it means. Here are some excellent essays detailing reaction to this.

First, an article from DC Women Kicking Ass which highlights the initial decision to paralyze Barbara Gordon in the first place and examines subsequent aborted plans to return her to the Batgirl role.

Then an earlier, very personal, passionate write up, shortly after the news first broke.

And speaking of personal and passionate responses, this article by Jill Pantozzi from Newsarama REALLY had me feeling torn on the suject.

The whole affair is nicely summed up by Andy Khouri in this article:

All of these articles are fantastically written and thought-provoking, so if you read my blog for more than pretty pictures or guys in the underwear, give them a read.

Now, some of my thoughts on the matter.

It's no secret, I'm thrilled about this. EVERY other change DC is implementing is at best "Hmmm, that might be interesting," but most of it is "Ugh!" or "I hope that doesn't suck as bad as it looks to!" or like I said on the first day, "Looks like I won't be reading monthly super hero comics anymore." To have the original Batgirl back, is the one bright spot.

Here's the thing that I think a lot of people miss: a lot of these characters AREN'T just comic book characters. That's where they originated of course, but many of them have transcended the medium and have imbedded themselves in our collective pop culture database, taking certain trappings with them. The Barbara Gordon Batgirl is one such icon. With Batman, everyone knows he's Bruce Wayne and that Dick Grayson was Robin, even if they don't read comics, that much is just common knowledge. People may not necessarily know Barbara Gordon or even what her relationship is to Batman. (It's hard for me to speculate on these things, as I don't know how non-nerds think.) But most people know there IS a Batgirl and the Barbara version is the one they recognize.

Growing up in the 70s, Batgirl and Supergirl, despite not appearing on Super Friends (although Babs at least appeared on Filmation's Batman cartoon series), were EVERYWHERE. If they made a pair of house slippers or a sleeping bag with Batman on it, you could bet your ass that they made one with Batgirl on it!

Even after she was injured and retired in the comics, Batgirl returned on Batman: The Animated Series. You have to keep in mind that this show reached millions of more viewers than the comic had readers. So to another generation, Barbara was once again introduced as the only Batgirl and proved incredibly popular, even starring in her own spin-off comics and receiving episodes of the show built around her.

It didn't end there. When Batman was relaunched in a new cartoon series, The Batman, they once again introduced Barbara as Batgirl. A variation of Barbara was even used in the much-reviled Batman & Robin live action movie.

Barbara just simply IS Batgirl in the collective conscious.

This can certainly be seen as a diss to replacement Batgirls, Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown. I never read any of their books, due to my own shortcomings, I suppose, out of spite. They weren't the real Batgirl and I wasn't going to support them. I couldn't believe it when I read that Cassandra Cain was the first female of color to star in her own DC book! And Stephanie's current book is getting great word of mouth, but I don't believe that that has resulted in sales.

Then there's the Oracle factor. The disability issue is huge. People with disabilities are rarely depicted in ANY medium, comics, TV, movies, so to have one, particularly a woman with a disability, appear as strong and smart and all-around well-written as Oracle has, the loss to comics in general is huge! (She isn't the only hero with a disability, though, the most famous being Professor X.) Oracle did provide much-needed representation.

The argument though, is that Oracle is a comic book character. Period. She was on the short-lived Birds of Prey TV show that no one watched or remembers today, but that's it. Could they have utilized Oracle in other media? Sure they could have. They didn't. If Barbara appeared, it was as Batgirl. Batgirl is the icon.

They've made two Barbie Batgirls in the last ten years and several Tonner dolls. They've made possibly over a 100 tee shirts with Barbara as Batgirl, usually in the company of Wonder Woman and pre-Crisis Supergirl.

Speaking of Supergirl, she suffered a similar fate... well, technically even worse, she was KILLED. But DC had to have A Supergirl to keep the rights to the name, so they created a new one, an artificial, shape-shifting life form known as Matrix. Eventually this creature merged with a dying human girl named Linda Danvers (the pre-Crisis Supergirl's secret identity) and mystical energy becoming an Earth-born angel with quasi-mystical powers. Okay, seriously, it may not sound like it, but it was actually a good series. But it was complicated and to the uninitiated, too hard to grasp and most people were like, "What does that have to do with Superman?!" Nothing. That's why this version of the character was written out of the books and Superman's Kryptonian cousin brought back. Khouri's article points out that the reversal to the classic form of the character is inevitable. Batgirl's not alone... some other changes that didn't stick...
Hal Jordan went insane, became Parallax, KILLED most of the Green Lantern Corps and eventually died and was replaced by Kyle Rayner. He's better now. So are most of the people he killed. No harm, no foul.
Batman was replaced by the ultra-violent, overly-accessorized Azrael, who was intended as a parody of ultra-violent, overly-accessorized anti-heroes that dominated comics in the 90s. But ha ha! 90s readers ate him up and he proved so popular that even after Bruce Wayne took back the Batman name, Azrael got his own series! (He's since been killed off and replaced by a new Azrael.) Also, we all knew the Dick Grayson-as-Batman thing wasn't going to last.
In an almost identical move, Diana was replaced as Wonder Woman by a more violent counterpart, Artemis, rendered in the typically modest and reserved style of the 90s. And likewise, Artemis proved popular enough that she's still around, just not as Wonder Woman. (Because there's only one true Wonder Woman. Notice a pattern?)
Speaking of patterns, Green Arrow was killed off and replaced by his illegitimate son, Conner Hawke. The original GA has returned and last I heard, Conner was in a coma.
In a real head-scratcher, Aquaman was replaced by James Hetfield of Metallica who had his hand replaced with a harpoon. That whole Napster fiasco ended Metallica's career and the original, clean cut Aquaman returned with two real hands. (Although Black Manta recently amended that last part.)
In most people's minds, she never STOPPED being Batgirl. I don't mean this as a jab, and I know that the owner of the blog didn't create it, but even the artwork on the DC Women Kicking Ass masthead depicts their roster of current heroines in their modern costumes. There's Kate Kane as Batwoman. The current Supergirl. They're all dressed and depicted as they are currently in the comics. Except Batgirl. No Cassandra Cain. No Stephanie Brown. No Oracle. It features Barbara Gordon, somehow traveling through time to join this class photo in her iconic costume. It's not just that one piece of artwork either. Scroll through tumblr or deviant art and you see HUNDREDS of... well first HUNDREDS of images of Babs as Batgirl solo, as well as group shots of her as Batgirl alongside the MODERN versions of the Bat Family or alongside other DC heroines as they appear currently, BUT Barbara anachronistically as Batgirl.
It's hard to argue with reality: That to MOST people Barbara IS Batgirl no matter what else is going on in the actual comics. Yes, the loss of Oracle is immense. She is a symbol of strength and hope and one of the best-written characters in comics. She DOES leave a huge gap. But Batgirl is an icon. She transcends comics and if DC really does want to present the most recognizable versions of their characters, they have no choice but to make Barbara Batgirl again.

1 comment:

  1. Team Barbara, always have, always will. I remember when they shot her and it was like "WTF why?" Basically because she wasn't being utilized, written well or featured. And her existence just reminded everyone that there was a time when Batman wasn't a brooding grim shit and Robin wore short pants. You know, the fun times when Batman could use his facial muscles to create a smile. So, I was never happy about her life in the chair. But like Blanche "You ARRRREEEE in the chair!" and when she was handled so well and more importantly "saved from neglect" and used for what she is (great intelligent hero) she proved amazing as Orcale. But it's been 20 years, it's time. So, I for one can't wait to have her back, and think it's great. I may start buying comics again!