I am not one to put too much stock in what is new and popular -- give it a decade and see how it wears. This is probably obvious, since I write a column entitled "Quarterbin Follies." I mean, when was the last time you bought a comic for a quarter, fer Pete's sake? Nevertheless, I could not help but notice that Batgirl has been "in the buzz" recently. From Newsarama to Comic Book Resources, the "New 52" Batgirl series is making headlines, and frankly that breaks my heart a little. Now, I don't want to sit here and go on some sort of diatribe about what's wrong with America's comics. I don't want to lean back, prop my feet up start up a sonorous song of "back my day, blah blah blah." But I do think just maybe people are missing the point.
Whenever I am sick with the struggles of the modern world, with the inconsistencies of today, it is my habit dig into yesteryear. And so, I found myself rifling through my file cabinets where I pulled out two comics: Batman Family #17 and the Batgirl Special #1 from 1988. Batman Family was published from 1975-1978 and featured, of course, stories about Batman himself, but more importantly, stories about the Gotham City "irregulars" (if you will), centering on Robin and Batgirl, and such features as Man-Bat, Commisioner Gordon, Alfred, or even the Demon Etrigan. If it happened in Gotham City, you might find it in Batman Family. It was in the pages of this periodical that Barbara Gordon grew from an occasional guest star to a character in her own right. Brilliant, beautiful, and forceful, Barbara used her physical prowess and eidetic memory as she grew from a high school student, to a college student, and finally a US representative, all while in her twenties.
Batman Family #17 revolves around, and is tied together by, the appearance, and disappearance, of Earth-2's Huntress. That's right kiddos, Batman Family #17 is set within the pre-Crisis universes, where the "modern" Batman of "Earth-1" has a Golden Age equivalent Bruce Wayne who serves as Commissioner of Police of Gotham City in a dimension next door. This Bruce Wayne had hung up the cape and cowl, retiring from crime fighting and marrying the lovely, reformed Selina Kyle. This Dynamic Duo produce Helena Wayne, the little girl who would one day become The Huntress in homage to her super-parents.
This career is something of a secret, and so Helena Wayne decides to jump dimensions and get some training from her daddy-doppelganger. The younger Bruce feels unequipped to deal with the struggles of his "daughter," and so he sends her to meet with Kathy Kane, the retired-but-occasional Bat-Woman, and another police commissioner's daughter, Batgirl, Barbara Gordon.
These three characters are introduced in the first tale, but they have a real chance to shine in their own story, "Horoscopes of Crime" by Bob Rozakis. Yes DC's own "Answer Man" takes the typewriter, (assisted by Don Heck, Bob Wiacek and Vince Colleta on art duties) with this tale that is full of silver age silliness and classic super-hero action. Our story begins with Catwoman and Poison Ivy having a tarot reading by the mysterious Madame Zodiac. The Gypsy-esque woman has just explained that bad omens surround carefully conducted plans by both Poison Ivy and Catwoman. The villainesses scoff the fortune teller, of course, pontificating upon their on their preparedness, and a bet is struck. Meanwhile several hundred miles away from Washington DC, several UN ambassadors are on a tour of a National Park when they are kidnapped by the trees under command of Poison Ivy. Luckily for them, they had been accompanied by Representative Barbara Gordon. Batgirl begins to give Poison Ivy what for, and spies that the marauder is using an energy based ray gun to grow and control the plants. Batgirl destroys it and Ivy turns tail. Meanwhile, Huntress finds herself in the right place to stop a robbery by none but Selina Kyle. At the sight of Catwoman, Huntress is conflicted, this Selina being the spitting pending image of her own deceased mother. But again, justice prevails and Catrwoman is thwarted by not but force of will. One scene change later, Catwoman and Poison Ivy have returned to Madam Zodiac's tent to tell their sad tales. Well surprise, surprise, Madame Zodiac has a scheme of her own, convincing the other femme fatales to join her. And so, the villains embark only to be intercepted by the fortuitously located heroic trio of Batgirl, Huntress, and Bat-Woman, who easily defeat the thieves through some super woman teamwork. Overall, it is a silly story, but still a fun one, and it is worth mentioning that the only character using any detective skill is Batgirl, herself.
Some ten years later, DC published Batgirl Special #1. Set a few "comic-book-time" years from Batman Family #17, the "The Last Batgirl Story," written by Barbara Randall, and drawn by Barry Kitson and Bruce D. Patterson (and with a fancy cover by Mike Magnolia), opens with a flashback to a story arc from 1980's Detective Comics #491-492.* Back then, campaign-hatted assassin Cormorant was hired to hunt down Batgirl, but the crafty Ms. Gordon had escaped only wounded and was so shaken that she almost gave up her crime-fighting career. That is until she is forced to face her fears as all those who would be heroes must. Great story, right? Well, it seems that after "four years" have ticked by, in 1988's Batgirl Special #1, Barbara Gordon has been tortured by nightmares of her own shooting, and it is a terrorized Barbara who, having fulfilled term as a US Representative, has now returned to Gotham City as the head of the Library System.
So, after a one page intoduction, Batgirl Special #1 starts off with a bang, or more accurately, a scream, as Barbara discovers a dead body in the library. Stabbed in the heart, the man is found next to a campaign hat. This sends Barbara on a trip down memory lane as she assumes Cormorant must be the killer. Now, Cormorant has been quiet for the last four years, but Barbara is convinced he is the guilty party, though the only evidence she has on him is this not so unique hat and her own certainty. Meanwhile, Barbara somehow misses reports, on the news and everything, about a serial killer calling herself "Slash." (No, really, I am not making this up.)
It seems that every one of the killed men had stood accused of, but not convicted of, rape or other sexual assault, and this "Slash" has left notes on the victims explaining herself. Despite this, Barbara fails to figure it out, dedicated to the idea that Cormorant is the guilty party. Finally, Babs meets Slash and vows to stop her, but instead ends ups sustaining some nasty cuts.
All of this is complicated by the arrival of her friend, Marcy (for those who might not know, Barbara as a pre-teen had sewn a small stuffed character that she and Marcy named "Batgirl." This was the foundation for the 'Batgirl' costume Barbara made when taking up the crime fighting life). Marcy acts as a voice questioning the whole of Babs's mission, and after Barbara's injury, Marcy questions the import of there even being a Batgirl. After all, isn't Gotham full of heroes? Could she do as much help from behind the scenes? This then must be the final Batgirl case!
In all honesty I found this story to be more confusing than satisfying. It's really strange because I remember reading it years ago and thinking, "man, I really enjoyed that." But now, on this reading, I found Barbara herself to be inconsistent and emotional in no good ways. This is further complicated by Marcy's insistence that Barbara needs to give up the danger. This leads to a third act that seems anti-climactic (so much so, I have sort of cut short the description above). It is not that it is a terrible story, or even that Babs chooses to call it quits, but for me, it is a complicated but unclear and inconsistent motive, as Babs vacillates between baselessly defending her assumptions (both in the investigation and personally) and succumbing (almost blindly) to the assertions of others.
And I imagine it was the grand scheme, Batgirl's retirement. Later that same spring, Barbara would lose the base of her spine in the first few pages of Alan Moore's The Killing Joke. But, I am not here to talk about The Killing Joke. That is a story for another day. I am here to discuss Batgirl as a character.
I really enjoy Barbara as a superhero. She tackles, with a certain finesse, super- and not-so-super rivals. But in the Batgirl Special, she seems outclassed, and her detective skills were far below what I would expect to see. And, in pondering that, I really took the time to notice that I was using virtually the same set of criteria to judge a "Batgirl" story that I would use for any other Batman tale: that the hero be able to out-perform larger foes in terms of physical prowess and an intellectual acumen. But in these stories, we see someone who almost can hold their own in either category. This is pronounced on the Batgirl Special, and that is largely due to the projected psychological issues, which I believe were only intended as a motivator to justify Barbara's transformation into Oracle, including her necessary paralysis.
And now this brings me full circle. I mentioned in the first paragraph that Barbara’s current popularity made me somewhat sad. This was not because I did not like Barbara Gordon as a character – far from it. But rather, I see the great strength of character and personal fortitude that was allowed to flesh itself out on the pages Batman and Birds of Prey, and much of the strength was due to Barbara’s ability to overcome the personal struggles of becoming a "handicapped" person. Barbara Gordon, without the ability to walk, is stronger than she ever was as Batgirl. As Batgirl, Barbara has a ceiling -- she can never be more than a female Batman. Batman is a box, you see, and it is a box dictated by rigid barriers. And without something else to define a character's struggle, the character is trapped into that box. Nightwing struggles to unite his past with his future. Tim Drake, for many years, balanced his relationship to his father with that to his mentor. Babs needed something outside of her "Batman-like" traits to make her stand out, and while "Batgirl" itself is a fun idea, there comes a time to let characters have the room to grow. Barbara Gordon is one of the best characters to have worn the Cape and Cowl, but Barbara Gordon is bigger and more than that Cape, or Cowl, or the box they come with, and it is my feeling that changing her back into that is an injury to her character, to the Batman Family, and to the rest of Western Culture, because Barbara Gordon is bigger and better than Batgirl.
*This was back in the days after the DC Implosion of the late 1970's, at a time when 'TEC's circulation numbers were so low, that the seminal DC book was nearly cancelled. Instead, 'TEC took over for Batman Family, and there you go.