I’m a huge fan of Gail Simone’s Batgirl, a series in DC Comic’s New 52 reboot; I was heartbroken when I learned she was stepping down as writer. She breathed life into the character, giving her a nuanced personality, with hopes, fears, relationship problems, family issues (to put it mildly) – and she wasn’t perfect. In other words, Gail Simone made Barbara Gordon relatable, a very average person doing extraordinary things, and that is something I treasure in comics. While I’m not a new fan of Batman, and have read some Batgirl comics in the past, Simone’s New 52 run is the first time I really delved into the character.
Simone started writing for the hero in Birds of Prey, where Barbara was known as Oracle – a persona she embodied after being shot and paralyzed by The Joker in the last comic I reviewed, The Killing Joke. That review was the start of my journey in exploring this character, and I’ve grown to love what she stands for. Oracle is disabled, but she’s not a trope. She is everything she was as Batgirl – smart, powerful, and resilient – but she had to redefine herself because of her disability. She couldn’t go out and fight criminals like she once did, but by using the skills she already had, she created a new, fulfilling life for herself.
When the New 52 reboot was announced, readers learned that Barbara Gordon would be “cured”; she would be back to her spandex and crime-fighting ways. Oracle, a character many had grown to love, was gone; she was once again Batgirl, stripped of her disability. This upset many readers, and Gail Simone was initially against the change herself. Then why was this icon for disabled comic fans taken from us? There is an interview with Gail you can read by clicking here that explains the decision, but I understand why fans continue to be upset over this. However, I think it’s important to remember that the decision was ultimately in DC’s hands, and Ms. Simone continues to create diverse characters (including other disabled individuals) that grace the pages of mainstream comics. That last fact is one reason why I remain an ardent fan of her work.
Since my obsession with Batgirl and Oracle has grown over time, and considering the focus of this blog, I thought it would be important for me to review crucial moments in the hero’s story. I want to make this a regular thing for The Geeky Gimp – a series, if you will. Sure, I’ll review other comic titles as well, but my passion lies here, with Barbara and Oracle and Batgirl. I suppose you could say I started the series already, with my review of The Killing Joke, but I feel icky beginning there. That comic was well done, from a purely artistic level, but it’s a painful read for me. It disturbed me. That isn’t how I want to introduce this character I love.
So I’m starting here, officially, with The Batman Chronicles #5’s “Oracle: Year One”. This is where Barbara stops feeling like nothing more than a victim, and starts empowering herself. The birth of Oracle, written by John Ostrander and the late Kim Yale, takes the horror and sexism of The Killing Joke and turns it into something meaningful. They give power back to the character, while portraying newly-aquired disability in a realistic manner.
This comic begins with a quote by one of my favorite authors, Elie Wiesel. It reads, “Just as despair can come to one only from other human beings, hope, too, can be given to one only by other human beings.” The use of this quote is interesting here, especially since I think much of the hope realized by Barbara comes from inner strength. I guess they are using it to show “despair” brought on by the Joker, and…wait, are they saying Batman gave her hope? You’ll see in a bit why I think that’s what they are getting at, but maybe I missed something.
We find Barbara Gordon lying in a hospital bed at night, some time after the events in The Killing Joke. Her narration says she feels like an idiot for opening the door on the night of the shooting without checking who it was first. She thinks, “I’m no novice. I ran one of the largest libraries on the east coast. I was Batgirl, for crying out loud! I’ve fought everything from crooked beauracrats to costumed crazies.” All she remembers from the incident is seeing the Joker, a flash, “blinding pain,” falling, her dad shouting, and then waking up in a hospital with “part of [her] spine shot away.” She still has nightmares about it, and when she wakes up, the pain does not go away. During this narration, we are shown flashback scenes of that night, as well as from her life before; they are in grayscale, with highlights of green, as well as red in the panel where she is shot. It’s very effective in evoking the horror of that night. The art in this comic is crude, and not always consistent, but I would say it works overall. Not my favorite, but I’m sure others will like it. I don’t think it takes away from the story, which is the most important thing.
Batman is sitting on the window ledge, creeper style, as she sleeps. He moves, and wakes her up. He says he heard she was going home the next day. She explains how the Joker shot her with a faulty bullet, knowing he wouldn’t kill her – that what happened to her was not important – and she was only used as a pawn to get to Batman. Barbara says, “Do you understand how humiliating, how demeaning that is?! My life has no importance save in relation to you! Even as Batgirl, I was perceived just as some weaker version of you!” I really, really liked this part. In a few heated words, she sums up a huge potential issue with woman superheroes, and with The Killing Joke in general. In that comic, Barbara was solely a plot device (that included sexual/physical violence) to further the story of the men; it’s pretty much the epitome of Women in Refrigerators. It was like the character of Batgirl wasn’t important, and her contributions could be discarded in one comic – that Batman was the “real” hero who would save Gotham from the Joker. I thought Barbara yelling at Batman was the perfect way to critique these problems. It addresses things face-to-face. It’s blatant, and there’s no argument about it – no one to say she’s wrong for thinking these things.
So, Batman lets her know he caught the Joker, but she lambasts him for joking with the detective while she lay in bed after the accident. She asks if the joke was about her, to which Batman looks down silently. God, they really make him to be such an ass in this comic. As Batman swoops away, she hopes she hurt him, even though it’s nothing compared to the pain she felt, or will feel.
Cut to Barbara being discharged from the hospital, with more of her narration. Of course, there is a media frenzy surrounding this, and she feels embarrassed as she gets in the car with difficulty. She says how, “when you’re healthy, when you’re whole,” there’s so many little things you take for granted, like the ease of getting in and out of a car; now she must “choreograph” every movement, in full view of the public. I think this is fairly spot on; when you acquire disability, especially in adulthood, you are not used to the staring or concerned, puzzled looks of strangers when you do something particularly gimpy. I’ve always been disabled, used a wheelchair since I was 3, and I still deal with feeling like all eyes are on me. Of course, it doesn’t bother me as much as it does Barbara, but I imagine it’s not easy to accept. I also want to address the use of “when you’re whole,” suggesting people with disabilities are half people. Yes, it’s problematic, but it is something that many abled people say and believe. And this narration is Barbara before she accepts herself – perhaps it was the writers’ way to contrast these feelings with her transformation at the end. When in the car, her dad asks if she’s alright, but she says she isn’t; that the press wouldn’t even care, except that she’s a symbol, the commissioner’s daughter. Undoubtedly, you know the press will turn this into some ridiculous inspiration porn.
The narration continues, explaining her six-month rehabilitation, where she saw physical and emotional therapists. She had to accept she was never going to walk again, and her biggest fear was feeling “physically helpless, unable to defend myself, of having no sense of self, of feeling that I meant nothing, that my life was over now.” So she sat in her bedroom of her father’s apartment for weeks, afraid to go out. She worried about what would happen if her father was injured or killed: “How would I live? On charity?” Again, I think this is realistic. When you go from your livelihood of physical crime fighting to not being able to walk, you would lose a sense of direction. What do I do now? If I rely on other people, what happens to me if something happens to them? That feeling is not segregated to the newly disabled, either. For most disabled people who rely on others to provide care, this is a looming fear – especially if you live somewhere that would rather institutionalize you than give you the access needed to stay in the community (New Jersey, I’m looking at you). Also, I want to point out that I recognize her problematic distaste of “charity,” but again, it’s realistic.
In the next panel, Barbara says: “I was tired of being a victim. I had skills and abilities long before I became Batgirl. It was time to make them work for me again. It was time to stop being afraid.” So with a grant from the Wayne Foundation, she sets up a high-tech computer network in her bedroom so she could access databases all over the world. She learned the fine art of computer hacking, and earned some money. Her narration states, “The Internet was a community of people talking — arguing, romancing, helping one another — and you didn’t even have to use your real name. You were simply who you were online. I found an enormous freedom — and a complete acceptance — there and, for a time in my life, the cybernate was more real to me than the world outside my window. In a strange way, I became more real to me as well. More content, more happy.” I’m glad Barbara realized her potential, finally. I wish they would have gone into more detail about this realization, but there’s page count to consider. I definitely related to her love of the internet, particularly as a disabled woman. The internet has opened up opportunities for me that improved my quality of life, just like with Barbara.
One day over breakfast, her father talks about a case he’s investigating – a woman named Ashley Mavis Powell who’s laundering money via computers. Without her dad’s knowledge, Barbara does some snooping online, asking around about this Powell woman. A police computer operator from New York says they know about her, but she goes by the nickname Interface; she’s a child abuser (among other things) who interacts directly with computers using her mind. Barbara realizes why her dad didn’t want her to get involved, but she decides to go after Interface anyway using her new high-tech set up.
At her father’s suggestion, Babs decides to go out more on her own in the city. She knows he is right, but feels “conspicuous and clumsy,” compared to her former self as a gymnast and dancer. She used to walk everywhere, not caring about the traffic, but just coming to a busy corner now makes her panic. I can see that, especially if you are not used to navigating a busy city in a wheelchair. I’ve been doing it for almost 30 years, and it’s even difficult for me sometimes. You feel like you’re in the way, or that you might run into someone. It takes practice and patience to get around in crowds, which is both tiresome and frustrating. But it’s good that they show Barbara going out and pushing herself to do so. It’s important to show this, as the reader knows it’s not that she doesn’t want to go out, or can’t go out, but that it can be difficult because of access reasons.
As she is waiting to cross the street in her wheelchair, a red-headed woman (who looks a lot like Cruella Deville) attempts to push her across despite Barbara’s instance that she doesn’t need any help. The woman turns out to be Interface, and pushes her out of her chair into the street, calling her a “l’il cripple” beforehand. A stranger helps Barbara back into her chair as Powell runs off, leaving Barbara to feel once again like a helpless victim. Violence against people in wheelchairs is an actual thing that happens, so I didn’t find this scene over-the-top at all. Powell is a disgusting person, so it would make sense that she’d target Babs through her disability.
Now we get to the one part of the comic that kind of annoyed me, and why I questioned the Elie Wiesel quote. Barbara’s narration says “I need a resource…and not one from Batman or my father. One I would find on my own.” So she posts online about being “confined to a wheelchair” (I hate that term, but okay) and wanting to learn some self defense. Fine, right? Except she gets an anonymous response from someone who knows someone who’s willing to help her. Guess who the response was from? Batman. Essentially, Batman is once again saving the day here. This comic, I feel, makes a strong effort to make Barbara her own character, set her apart from Batman, and make her stronger. I mean, the very beginning of the comic tells us she wants to be seen as her own person, not just an extension of Batman. So why have Batman be the one to help her, again? Why couldn’t she just find someone, like she said, on her own? This writing decision confused me.
Anyway, the anonymous guy (um, Batman) tells her to meet his contact in the park. Babs goes, of course, and meets up with a guy named Richard Dragon. I had to laugh at that – Dick Dragon? What is he, a porn star? I looked him up, and he’s a DC comics martial artist dude, but I’ve never heard of him. As I’ve said before, I don’t know much about the history of comics, even though I’ve been reading them since I was little. He asks her what she wants, and she says she doesn’t want to be afraid anymore – she wants to walk again. Mr. Dragon tells her that isn’t what she wants, because that’s who she was, and not who she is now. He tells her she’s here to discover who she is, and he hands her some martial art sticks. Again, I am a bit upset she discovers her “true potential” via another dude, but I think we can also view him as a tool that she is using to empower herself. It was her decision to go see him, and the work she will put in is what makes her who she is, ultimately.
Over some months, Richard trains her in the Philippine art of stick fighting called escrima, which heightened her physical and mental awareness. Because of her new heightened state, Barbara has a dream where she’s walking, in ancient Greece, dressed as Batgirl. She’s at Delphi, and a woman who speaks for the gods (an oracle) tells Barbara to ask her a question. She asks “Who am I now? How do I go on?” The oracle replies, “You have lost nothing that matters. You have everything you need. Everything before leads up to now and now leads to what shall be.” Barbara doesn’t understand. Oracle tells her to take off her mask and she will do the same. Surprisingly, the oracle reveals herself to be Barbara. Upon waking up from this dream, Babs knows exactly what she will do with Powell. “I realized that the Internet could be a mask as surely as any cowl. I could assume an identity — and this time, not a second-hand version of someone else. This would be mine — my mask, my shield — my persona.” She’s starting to come into her own, realizing her disability does not change the person she is, just how she has to go about doing things. Batgirl was in relation to Batman, but Oracle is her own. The vision was right – Barbara didn’t lose anything that mattered. She still has work to do, and can continue doing it, albeit in a different fashion.
Three weeks later, under the guise of Oracle, Barbara sends a message to Interface. She says she knows who she is, and Interface can do nothing about it. Interface gets pissed, and becomes psi-linked with the computer; Barbara then runs a program which essentially keeps her brain hostage until she turns herself in. The next day, Commissioner Gordon tells his daughter that Powell turned herself in.
The final scenes of this comic are of Oracle meeting up with Richard Dragon. He tells her that she no longer needs him, and hands her fighting sticks. She thanks him, and wheels away. It ends with her narration: “A little over a year has passed since my old life ended, since I died and was reborn. The shadows remain, but only to give contrast to the light. I am no longer a distaff impersonation of someone else. I am me — more me than I have ever been. My life is my own. I embrace it, and the light, with a deep, continuing joy.” Fantastic end. I think those may be my favorite lines from a comic, ever. She treats her disability as a rebirth, becoming someone she is more comfortable with than ever before. She admits there are still dark times, but that is true for anyone. Those moments of shadow highlight the other great things in her life – the life she now accepts, understands, and cherishes. It’s beautiful without being inspirational in an ableist way.
Overall, “Oracle: Year One” is superb. A few problematic moments, but I still love what they did with Barbara. I should also mention that Kim Yale, one of the writers for this comic, died from breast cancer not long after this was published. This was the first story of hers that I read, and I immediately went online to see what other comics she did. The realization that she is no longer with us, and can no longer write such great stories, saddened me. So I dedicate this review to Kim, the woman who made Barbara Gordon into a super badass disabled hero and touched the hearts of thousands of fans.