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Oracle, 1989 – 2011: Farewell To DC Comics’ Disabled Heroine

Next week’s release of Justice League #1 marks the beginning of a new era for DC Comics, whose superhero titles and characters will throughout September undergo a radical reconfiguration where many will be newly created, relaunched, reimagined or even abandoned. Among the casualties will be Oracle — aka Barbara Gordon, the original Batgirl a superhero who uses a wheelchair. Her appearance in this week’s Batman Incorporated #8 is presumably Barbara’s final adventure as the handicapped über-hacker Oracle, a role she’s filled since 1989 and one that’s since become one of the most beloved and culturally significant in superhero comics. Barbara will return fully mobile as the title character in Batgirl #1.

As we discussed back in June, Barbara Gordon’s restoration to Batgirl is without question the most controversial and bittersweet of all the changes DC will implement as part of it’s “The New 52″ initiative. The success and popularity of Oracle over the last 17 years, particularly in the long-running Birds of Prey series, has paradoxically necessitated the character’s regression to her original idiom, a move that itself necessitates removing from mainstream comics the industry’s most important character representing disabled persons and those with long-term illnesses that impair mobility.

Among those compelled to respond to the loss of Oracle is Phil Noto, the superlative comics artist and illustrator whose first work in the industry was creating cover artwork for Birds of Prey. He published the above portrait to his blog in June, along with the following remarks:

My first job in comics was creating covers for DC’s Birds of Prey and and over the the course of 24 issues I drew this lovely lady a lot. And then I did some brief interior work on the Cassandra Cain Batgirl and finally did the first run of covers for the Stephanie Brown incarnation. They’ve all been great Batgirls much like Steed’s partners in the Avengers. I’ve done numerous pieces of Babs as Batgirl more so for the retro iconography and the aesthetic look of the black, yellow and red then her actual persona as Batgirl. Honestly in terms of fictional characters, I always just considered her to be Oracle. I, like many others, am very sad her to see her go, but if there’s anyone to keep her spirit alive as Batgirl once again, Gail Simone is the one to do it.

Noto referred to Gail Simone, the writer depicting Barbara’s transition to Batgirl in the new series. A longtime Birds of Prey writer, Simone is the comics creator most responsible for Oracle’s popularity over the last decade. But the first person to write an Oracle solo adventure was Scott Peterson, in Showcase ’94 #12. Along with artist Brian Stelfreeze (another master who recently told Peterson that Oracle was his favorite character — she has talented fans), Peterson introduced concepts like Barbara’s clock tower headquarters and her mastery of the Escrima fighting style, both of which went on to become major trademarks of the character.

As part of a series of posts in tribute to Oracle, the DC Women Kicking Ass blog published a remembrance by Peterson in which he detailed the story’s origins, his work with Stelfreeze, and his estimation of Barbara Gordon as a character:

Oracle. One of the great characters in comic book history. As Batgirl, Barbara Gordon was usually portrayed as light-hearted and free-spirited. She was a superhero not because she saw her parents murdered, but because it seemed like it’d be a hoot. Which worked great at the time-it sure made me fall in love with her as a kid. But by the late ’80s, as grim-and-gritty became the order of the day, she didn’t seem to fit quite as well. But as Oracle, she was not only a perfect fit for the times, she was something of a groundbreaker for comics, a computer whiz at the moment when still a tiny percentage of the popular had even heard of the internet or email or websites. Yet far from being a gimmick or a fad, as comic character created to fit the changing times often seem to be, Barbara’s backstory-both as Batgirl and the Killing Joke events-gave her an unusual amount of depth for a character.

Much more from Peterson, as well as Devin Grayson and Joan Hilty, at DC Women Kicking Ass.

Farewell, Oracle. You mattered.

Hello, Batgirl. On behalf of many of us of a certain generation, it’s nice to finally meet you.

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