Barbara’s first appearance as Batgirl, in “Detective Comics” #359 (January 1967).
This week’s minorities in cartoons entry is Barbara Gordon, most famously known as the original/longest-lasting Batgirl. Between the early 90s and DC Comics’ “New 52″ reboot, Barbara was also known as the physically handicapped heroine Oracle. Barbara first appeared in “Detective Comics” #359 in January 1967, and was created by writer Gardner Fox and artist Carmine Infantino. Her creation was partially spurred by the demands of the then-current Adam West “Batman” TV series, as the show’s producers wanted a new, female character to add.
Barbara was introduced as the young adult daughter of Commissioner Gordon, who worked as a librarian at Gotham City’s public library. While attending a costume party dressed in her now-familiar costume (meant to be a “female version of Batman”), Barbara ran across minor Batman villain Killer Moth’s attempt to kidnap Bruce Wayne. Helping thwart the crime and eventually capture Killer Moth, Barbara decides to take up crime fighting as the superheroine Batgirl.
Batgirl made appearances in various stories in the late 60s and 70s, including her own series in 70s title “Batman Family.” Her 12-year-old self was also shown in 1977′s “Adventure Comics” #453 as having gone to summer camp in Smallville, where she had an adventure with Superboy. During the Bronze Age, Barbara was elected to the House of Representatives as Gotham’s congresswoman in 1972′s “Detective Comics” #424, which saw her move to Washington, DC for a time. Of course, this being superhero comics (and with Gotham City’s ambiguous east coast location), she was still near enough to the rest of the Bat-family for various adventures as Batgirl. Her political career ended about the same time disco did, as 1980′s “Detective” #488 sees her lose her bid for re-election.
Later in the 80s came one of Barbara’s most famous comic appearances, though for all the wrong reasons. In the 1988 special “The Killing Joke,” Barbara (in her civilian identity) was shot in the spine by the Joker and permanently disabled, as part of the Joker’s attempt to torment her father. Despite having starred in a special earlier that year, apparently Barbara was deemed usable as “cannon fodder” for the sake of a story primarily about the Joker’s nature. One side effect of “The Killing Joke,” though mostly amplified starting in the 90s, was helping to kick off the modern storytelling trend of the Joker as a mass killer. Stories since the 90s repetitively show the Joker gruesomely killing more people than the population of Cincinnati per appearance. I’ve written at length about why I dislike the modern comics’ Joker (and how he symbolizes a lot of what’s wrong with modern superhero comics), so I won’t repeat myself.
The other, more positive side effect of “The Killing Joke” was Barbara eventually being rescued from cannon-fodder limbo by editor Kim Yale and writer John Ostrander. Yale and Ostrander decided to make a silk purse out of “The Killing Joke”‘s sow’s ear by turning Barbara, now using a wheelchair, into the computer expert Oracle. Introduced in the role of Oracle in “Suicide Squad” #23 in January 1989, Barbara became a broker of information for the DC Universe’s superhero community, using a vast array of computer knowledge along with her pre-existing skills. Barbara also kept up her martial arts training via modifying her fighting techniques.
Barbara Gordon as Oracle.
Barbara’s role as Oracle became quite popular with comic fans, and this eventually led to her leading her own superheroine group that debuted in 1996, the “Birds of Prey.” Under various writers (most notably Gail Simone) and titles, the Birds of Prey is a rotating group of superheroines headed by Barbara, who engage in various adventures. It was even spun off into a (short-lived) live-action primetime series on The WB, under the same name.
With DC’s “New 52″ reboot in 2011, the entire line of characters were de-aged into younger versions, with much of their post-Crisis developments (Superman and Lois’ marriage, etc.) undone or rolled back. Since Batman is DC’s best-selling character, Batman was mostly spared from changes, however illogical that is from a continuity perspective. One major change in the Bat-mythos, however, was undoing Barbara’s disability. This was explained via Barbara having undergone intensive physical rehabilitation (including experimental surgery) that restored her ability to walk. As a consequence, Barbara also regained her role as Batgirl (displacing the several characters that had gone by that name in Barbara’s retirement from the role), including her own ongoing title. This change was met with quite a bit of controversy, to put it mildly. The reasoning for the change given by DC’s head honchos seemed, well, as well thought out as the rest of their “New 52″ changes. The blog “DC Women Kicking Ass” delved into the controversy, as well as various other websites.
Outside of the DCU, Barbara’s a regularly seen member of the Batman supporting cast in the various spinoffs. Babs appeared as Batgirl in the live-action Adam West TV series, as well as the 90s “Batman and Robin” movie. In animation, Barbara first appeared in the 60s Filmation animated series. Batgirl was also seen in the various 90s TV cartoons, as well as later series such as “The Batman.” While most of her appearances in non-comics media and merchandise are as Batgirl, Barbara also has appeared as Oracle on occasion; besides the aforementioned “Birds of Prey” series, Barbara also appeared as Oracle in a future-set episode of 2000s animated series “The Batman,” as well as in the all-ages digital comic “Lil’ Gotham.”
Among the various actresses to play Barbara in non-comics media include: Yvonne Craig (in the live-action TV show); Jane Webb (in the Filmation series); Melissa Gilbert and Tara Strong (in the 90s DC animated series); Dina Meyer in “Birds of Prey”; and Alicia Silverstone in “Batman and Robin.”