The Unstoppable Hero: Celebrating The Million Dollar Debut Of Barbara Gordon
On this day in 1966, one of the greatest characters in the Batman Family appeared for the first time: Barbara Gordon. While many aspects of her identity are tied to the men in her life, including Commissioner Gordon, Batman, and the Joker, she’s at her best when she’s the star of her own stories, or saving the world with other women.
Barbara Gordon debuted in Detective Comics #359, “The Million Dollar Debut of Batgirl!” by Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino, cover dated January 1967, but arriving in stores the year before. She was created on request of the producers of the 1960s live action Batman television show, who wanted another female character after Julie Newmar’s Catwoman performed so well with audiences.
Barbara Gordon is the daughter of James Gordon, the police commissioner of Gotham City, and friend and ally to Batman. Unlike Batman, who became a caped crusader originally out of a desire to avenge the death of his parents, Barbara Gordon simply wanted to do good. She fell into crime fighting by accident, intervening in a crime while on her way to a costume party dressed as a female version of Batman, and continued on despite Batman’s objections.
By day, Barbara Gordon ran the Gotham City Public Library; by night, she cleaned up the streets of Gotham. She was very much a modern woman, and a product of the second wave feminism of the 1960s.
Batgirl and Barbara continued to appear in Detective Comics and other DC series during the '60s, '70s and '80s, including Action Comics, Justice League of America, and Superman. She teamed up with both Supergirl and Robin on various occasions, and she revealed her secret identity to her father --- only to discover he had already deduced it on his own. She also became a politician and moved to Washington, DC, and she even went on a date with Clark Kent!
In 1988, DC published Batman: The Killing Joke, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Brian Bolland. The story sees Barbara shot and paralyzed by the Joker in an attempt to hurt her father and drive him insane. Barbara is forever changed by these events, but it isn’t her story; she's a plot device used to further the stories of the men in her life. Barbara’s paralysis became a classic example of the “Women in Refrigerators” trope, a term coined by Gail Simone to describe stories in which female characters are “killed, mutilated, and depowered” in order to advance the stories of male lead characters.
Barbara didn’t let paralysis stop her, however. After coming out a deep depression, she realized that she had other skills that would be extremely useful in the fight against crime. With her eidetic memory, incredible research ability, and genius intellect, she developed a highly complex computer system and set herself up as a sort of hacker spy, calling herself Oracle after the Oracle at Delphi. She also trained to improve her upper body strength and learned techniques for fighting from a wheelchair.
Oracle first appeared in Suicide Squad #23, an anonymous hacker offering her help to Task Force X, and revealed herself as Barbara Gordon in Suicide Squad #38.
Oracle appeared in various DC titles throughout the late '80s and early '90s and in Black Canary/Oracle: Birds of Prey, a one-shot written by Chuck Dixon and illustrated by Gary Frank, in which she recruits Black Canary to work with her, fighting international crime.
Oracle and Black Canary became the core team members of the Birds of Prey, a team of female superheros under Oracle’s direction. With her information and their physical prowess, the Birds of Prey made an incredible team. But Dinah and Barbara were not just teammates, they were friends. The success of Black Canary/Oracle: Birds of Prey led to an ongoing Birds of Prey series written by Chuck Dixon, and later Gail Simone.
Oracle was a remarkable character, but she also had a special place within the comics world as a superhero with a disability. While some fans contend that Barbara should never have been paralysed, and that she was always better as Batgirl, other fans love Barbara as Oracle, and appreciate her as a rare positive representation of life with a disability.
Barbara’s paralysis was reversed in the New 52 era, when Babs got to star in her own Batgirl series. Post-Flashpoint, changes occurred to continuity all across the DC universe. The events of The Killing Joke still happened, and Barbara had still become Oracle, but she regained the use of her legs and returned to fighting crime under her original codename.
The New 52 Batgirl reunited Barbara with Gail Simone, and saw the character reestablish her role within the Batman Family. In 2014 the series was given a soft relaunch with creators Brenden Fletcher, Cameron Stewart, and Babs Tarr, as Barbara moved to the hip Brooklyn-esque Gotham borough of Burnside, adopted a fashionable new uniform, and found a new team of friends to help her out.
Through all her changes, and against any adversity, Barbara Gordon has proved an unstoppable fan favorite. Whether she's Batgirl, Oracle, or Barbara, she remains an incredible character, and one of comics' true feminist icons.