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Batgirl Triumphant: The Price of Restoring DC Comics’ Disabled Heroine

Barbara Gordon — the original Batgirl who’s been confined to a wheelchair since 1988′s Batman: The Killing Joke, in which she was shot in the spine by The Joker — will be up and running again in the wake of the forthcoming DC Comics relaunch/reboot. The news was confirmed Monday by Gail Simone, writer of DC’s new Batgirl series and also the author most responsible for Barbara Gordon’s activities in the last several years.

This aspect of DC’s plan is particularly emotional for longtime readers who are painfully trying to reconcile their excitement over the restoration of what is arguably the publisher’s most beloved heroine with the fact that Barbara Gordon, presently operating as the hacker Oracle, represents a segment of comic book readership and society at large that is routinely ignored in virtually all media: the disabled and those with long-term illnesses that impair mobility.For my generation of DC Comics readers — the kids born in the years surrounding 1985′s Crisis On Infinite Earths, which facilitated the previous line-wide relaunch — Barbara Gordon was basically never Batgirl, at least not on the comic book page. She’s been Oracle for as long as I can remember, certainly, and the comics have seen a succession of new bat-themed heroines including Batgirls Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown and the Batwoman Kate Kane. But whatever their individual merits as characters and icons, the plucky spirit and ageless costume of Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl continues to eclipse them all.

The classic Batgirl idiom endures in the form of reruns of Batman ’66 and Batman: The Animated Series (and even the odious Batman & Robin), not to mention countless forms of licensed merchandise. Perhaps most tellingly, there are vast, enormous numbers of original illustrations and other artworks created by individuals both professional and amateur, all inspired by the original Batgirl and mostly to the exclusion of the other characters. Indeed, one ComicsAlliance reader recently noted that only one edition of our Best Art Ever (This Week) feature has not contained a depiction of the classic Batgirl. Even the relatively few modern Babs-as-Batgirl comics projects — like 2003′s Batgirl: Year One by Scott Beatty & Chuck Dixon and Alvaro Lopez and Marcos Martin — were held in much higher esteem than any stories in the Batgirl ongoing series starring other characters, at least until the debut of Greg Rucka and JH Williams III’s take on Batwoman.

Barbara’s Batgirl is indomitable not just in the collective hearts of fandom and the mass media, but also in the Oracle comics themselves. While she’s accomplished far more as a crime-fighter as Oracle than she ever did as Batgirl, that Barbara Gordon used to be Batgirl is arguably the central dramatic component of her character. The violent tragedy of her past is an inexorably critical driving force behind any Oracle adventure, which, perhaps paradoxically, only fuels the reverence for the original Batgirl. In this strange way, the character of Barbara Gordon as Batgirl has developed retroactively and endeared itself to audiences for 20 years despite leaving that identity behind. Even in absentia, the spirit of the classic Batgirl grows stronger.

As such, it’s easy for me to understand why I can look at the charming image above (created by artist Jamie Noguchi) and feel compelled to throw my hands in the air and cheer like I’ve just seen a dramatic goal scored in the last seconds of a harrowing sporting event. This character whom I’ve come to love; this brilliant, powerful and heroic woman who’s confronted ceaselessly with an inescapable reminder of a vicious and unfair attack that changed her life for years (or for 20 of my years), is finally strutting gleefully away from that painful reality, and in the guise of her ideal self, no less.

Gail Simone feels similarly, writing the following for DC Comics’ The Source blog.

“Barbara Gordon is pretty much my everything. Because of the Batman TV show, she was the reason I fell in love with superheroes. Because she was a redhead who could kick ass, she is the reason I fell in love with comics. She was always forward-looking as Batgirl, a girl who was smarter than the male characters, who had class and elegance and style, as well as tough-as-nails grit. For a long time, there was simply nothing else like her in comics, and for me and a lot of other readers, her every appearance was joyful and explosive.

For many years, I got to write the character as Oracle, and there is to this day, no character who means more to me. This is classic Barbara as she was originally conceived, with a few big surprises. It’s a bit of a shock, to be sure, but we’re doing everything we can to be respectful to this character’s amazing legacy, while presenting something thrilling that a generation of comics readers will be experiencing for the first time…

…Barbara Gordon leaping, fighting, and swinging over Gotham. Now, when citizens of that city look up, they are going to see BATGIRL.

And that is absolutely thrilling.”

It’s a stupendous moment to which many of us aspire, the miraculous victory over an impossibly difficult circumstance. Really, it’s the kind of thing superhero comics are all about. But the elation of such an image comes at a very high price, and for a segment of the readership that is already marginalized or outright ignored.

Mainstream comics has lost an important hero in the fight against ableism, or discrimination against people with disabilities. The plight of the chronically sick and disabled people of Western culture is largely invisible, which is why Oracle was so important.

Society makes concessions for those in need in the forms of wheelchair ramps, convenient parking spots and handicapped seating in cinemas, but that’s really where most of our interactions with the disabled end. They endure levels of discrimination and and prejudice — often well-intentioned or otherwise non-hateful discrimination and prejudice — that are pervasive and subtly dehumanizing in ways that most of us could never perceive. To read or listen to someone who moves only in a chair or with the use of a cane or crutches describe their day-to-day life is like waking up from the Matrix. There is just so much of these people’s lives that many of us have never seen, not on television, not in films or in our fiction, and not in comic books.

In the same way that superheroes like Nightrunner, Steel and the Ryan Choi incarnation of The Atom humanize ethnic and religious minorities who are unrepresented or even vilified in mainstream culture, Barbara Gordon is a beacon for the chronically ill, mobility impaired and disabled. Her adventures over the last 20 years, particularly in Birds of Prey (written primarily by Chuck Dixon and Gail Simone), have depicted a handicapped person — a handicapped woman – not only with basic human dignity, but also with a mental, emotional and indeed a physical capableness that’s made her the hero of her own stories as well as invaluable asset to other heroes in the DC Universe. Even more importantly, Oracle has developed deep friendships with able-bodied people of all types, some of which were even romantic and presumably sexual, demonstrating that people like her don’t have to be segregated to the unseen fringes of society. For those readers and others who recognized her status, Oracle made a rarely seen transcendence from pop culture artifact to genuine role model.

But the one obstacle that Oracle couldn’t manage was inevitability. Given a long enough timeline, it seems that every major change to the core myth of a superhero character or their cast will snap back like a rubber band, and it’s a lesson learned again and again. For example, it must have seemed unthinkable to a certain generation of Batman readers that Bruce Wayne would allow harm to come to one of his sidekicks, but Robin totally died. How could Supergirl, Superman’s cousin from Krypton, no longer exist? The original Captain America dead and replaced by his own dead sidekick? All of these seismic changes and many more like them whose implications were felt for years or in some cases decades later were considered unbreakable canon by my generation of superhero comics readers. Yet they were all undone; the characters returned to something approximating their original shapes.

Seemingly one of the few remaining superheroes whose core myth has yet to be recompiled, Barbara Gordon is next in line. She follows numerous other culturally diverse characters into the oblivion of regressive storytelling, where restoring the icons to their classic personas necessarily diminishes that which makes them distinct and progressive.

While the Oracle stories of the last 20 years will not just disappear from our bookshelves or comic book stores when Barbara Gordon reemerges leaping, fighting, and swinging from the post-Flashpoint DC Universe in September, an important symbol of strength for the differently abled will have been retired with no obvious replacement in sight to inspire the next generation of fans that DC hopes to acquire with this latest kind-of-Crisis, many of whom will doubtlessly be reading those comics from within eyeshot of a wheelchair.

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