The identity of a comic character can be transient, something that gets passed along to someone else. This has happened in the Batman family, and I’ve talked previously about why I believe Cassandra Cain is the greatest Batgirl, even if she isn’t the original. That title belongs to Barbara Gordon. From her earliest appearance, Babs was shown to be a resourceful and capable woman who earned Batman’s respect. But, in my opinion, it wasn’t until she became Oracle that she evolved into a timeless character.
Babs was introduced in 1967’s Detective Comics #359 as the daughter of Commissioner Gordon. In her civilian identity, she possessed a PHD in library science and worked as the head of Gotham City public library. In her origin story, she saved Bruce Wayne from a kidnapping attempt by Killer Moth, attracting Batman’s attention. The Dark Knight insisted she give up crime-fighting because of her gender, but Batgirl refused and eventually became a trusted ally.
She played a supporting role to Batman and Robin, until 1988’s The Killing Joke, written by Alan Moore. In the iconic graphic novel, Babs was shot by The Joker and paralyzed. During an interview with Wizard in 2006, Moore said he regretted his treatment of the character, stating it was “shallow and ill-conceived.” In his own words
“I asked DC if they had a problem with me crippling Barbara Gordon – who was Batgirl at the time – and if I remember, I spoke to Len Wein, who was our editor on the project. Len got back onto the phone and said ‘Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.”
Despite this treatment, Babs overcame her trauma and went on to operate as the information broker known as Oracle. She became a member of the Birds of Prey, alongside Black Canary, Huntress and Lady Blackhawk. Barbara went from a plot device to a strong woman who could continue to save lives, even though she couldn’t walk. Much of this can be credited to comic writers Kim Yale and John Ostrander.
Babs used her genius-level intellect and photographic memory to help many people within the superhero community. Even though she was paralyzed, Babs adapted her combat style. She trained with Richard Dragon, using eskrima so she could fight from her wheelchair. She was no longer exclusively tied to the Bat family. This allowed her to step out of Batman’s shadow and continue to develop as a character.
As Oracle, Barbara became an icon for the disabled community. She was a role model for people who faced real life difficulties. As part of the 2011 New 52 relaunch, Barbara’s mobility was restored and she became Batgirl again at the request of Gail Simone. This decision was met with controversy. Simone argued that although she fought to keep Barbara disabled she had a good reason for changing her mind.
“Arms and legs get ripped off, and they grow back, somehow. Graves don’t stay filled. But the one constant is that Barbara stays in that chair. Role model or not, that is problematic and uncomfortable, and the excuses to not cure her, in a world of purple rays and magic and super-science, are often unconvincing or wholly meta-textual. And the longer it goes on, the more it has stretched credibility.”
I can appreciate Simone’s reasoning, but I would argue that Barbara was able to have a lot more agency as Oracle. She acted as a mentor to younger heroes, like Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown. They went on to inherit the Batgirl mantle and developed into multilayered characters.
No matter what codename she goes by, Barbara Gordon is an essential part of the DC Universe. What do you think? Do you think she’s better as Batgirl or Oracle?