Batgirl, Oracle, and Change in Comic Books

Today I started reading Retromania: Pop culture’s addiction to its own past. The title says it all – pop culture has increasingly cannibalised itself until innovation has become stifled. I’m only a few pages in so I can’t comment too much, but it’s turned out to be an ironic day to start reading that particular book, thanks to news emerging from the DC Comics reboot I ranted about a few days ago.

Some history: in the sixties DC Comics introduced Batgirl, the costumed identity of Commissioner Gordon’s daughter Barbara. The character soon caught on and became a fixture of Gotham City until 1988 and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, in which Barbara was shot and crippled by the Joker.

Unfortunately this sort of thing isn’t entirely rare in recent comic books – something terrible happens only for it to be ‘fixed’ a couple of years later, depending on the whims of writers and editors.

To DC’s credit, they didn’t go down this route with Barbara. Instead of coming up with some sci-fi way to get her out of her wheelchair, she came to terms with her paraplegia and embraced a new hero identity as Oracle, the superheroes’ information broker and computer genius, a role she’s held since 1989. In a medium not always great at diversity, this was an important message to send. Barbara losing the use of her legs wasn’t the end of the world, it was something she could face and from which could be birthed a positive new role. If Batgirl was created to appeal to young girls, Oracle was a character through which those with disabilities could see themselves in comics, alongside Batman, Superman and the rest for over twenty years now.

All that changes in September. Barbara becomes Batgirl again in a new series written by Gail Simone. Presumably things are rebooted so that she can walk again, or maybe history is rewritten so that she never became Oracle in the first place. In comments over at the DC Women Kicking Ass blog, Gail has stated that she’s embracing the project because of her childhood love for Barbara as Batgirl.

I have seriously mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, Gail Simone is a fantastic writer and a great person – check out her Twitter feed. She’s going to do her best to make Batgirl a successful book and hopefully bring a new audience to the character.

On the other hand, I really don’t like the idea that one of the very few disabled characters in comics is going to be rebooted to get rid of that disability. Not only does that send out a poor message, it undoes twenty-plus years of character development, and this is what bugs me about this reboot – I don’t care too much about continuity in terms of plots, but I do like to think that characters can grow and change. I like the idea that Clark can marry Lois, I like that the Flash could die and see his sidekick take up the mantle. And I appreciated that, if a character was severely injured in the course of their superheroics, they could adapt and grow and embrace that, rather than have it cast aside by a sci-fi cop-out.

No-one’s undoing all these things out of malice, it’s just that writers and DC executives loved comics when they were young and want to recapture those eras. But what happens when doing that undermines the growth of the last couple of decades? It would be one thing to press ahead with something new, but… Well, Barbara was Batgirl, then she became Oracle, now she’ll be Batgirl again. It’s circular but I’m not sure circular is the best approach to character development.

But where does that leave those who could see themselves in Oracle’s portrayal? Who appreciated her character development, her status as, yes, I’ll say it, a role model. Gail Simone spoke lovingly about being inspired by Batgirl and I know where sge’s coming from; I like Superman for similar reasons. But what about those who could speak lovingly about being inspired by Oracle?

Whatever happens, Gail Simone will do a good job. I just can’t help thinking thst the DC Universe, in its attempts to revisit the past, will lose something hugely important if Oracle ceases to exist. Maybe things will be diffrrent, maybe plans will change. But there’s the thing – comics aren’t good with change. And sometimes in fighting that change, good things are lost, and something important and special fades away, leaving comics – and their audience – poorer and less relevant as a result.


4 thoughts on “Batgirl, Oracle, and Change in Comic Books

  1. elmediat

    Quite right on the diversity issue. The problem for DC is making the characters accessible to a very wide audience. The average person, if they know Batgirl at all, will connect her to the old TV show that first introduced her to the public.
    As for Retromania, we forget how often previous cultures looked back at an earlier one and borrowed from it. The Augustan Age of Art and Literature comes to mind. The Renaissance also looked back in order to move forward. Of course that is the trick, using the past to create something new.

  2. matthewhyde Post author

    Thanks for commenting – I think you’re right about DC wanting to use the most recognisable versions of their key characters, although that can be a sliding scale – most kids would probably think of the Flash as Wally, not Barry. Using the iconic characters is fine, but like you said, the trick is to do something new wuth them; that’s the difference between having a healthy relationship with the past and having one that’s incestuous.

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