Well, it’s been a fun week to be a DC comic book fan, I suppose, as the company announced 52 #1 issues that will be shipping in September, after their entire line ends in August. In fairness, I’ll talk about it a bit more over the next week, but I’m actually cautiously optimistic about this.
The biggest news of the week was actually nothing to do with continuity, despite the fact that the entire internet seemed caught up in the “is it a reboot or relaunch or retcon?” debate about the status of DC’s long and tangled in-universe history. The one that will have the biggest impact (for the industry as much as the publisher) is the same day digital release of each of these new comics. That is the one that is going to impact the sales and that is the one that will attract the possibly mythological new readers to comics.
Still, for me, the biggest continuity shift was the announcement that DC would be releasing Batgirl #1, starring Barbara Gordon. This is interesting, because the character of Barbara Gordon has been in a wheelchair for the past few decades following the impact of Alan Moore’s still-controversial The Killing Joke. In that wheelchair, Barbara has adopted the persona of Oracle, Batman’s intelligence network and the person who coordinates the Bat-family throughout Gotham.
Understandably, taking Barbara out of the wheelchair and back in her batsuit has sparked quite the controversy on-line. Much has been made of the suggestion that DC sees this as “fixing” the character, implying that there was something inherently wrong about a character in a wheelchair. That’s a public relations nightmare waiting to happen, for understandable reasons. As Oracle, the character has drawn her own fanbase, and become something of an icon for people living with disabilities in superhero comics, a genre that has often had difficulties with diversity.
To be honest, I don’t believe that there’s any especially sinister motivation behind trying to put Barbara back in the cowl. The main thrust of this reboot, at least as far as I can see, has been attempting to put the comic book properties in a position where they best reflect popular culture’s awareness of that particular character – the idea being that the stories are more accessible if they feature names and characters the general public are likely to recognise.
So Bruce Wayne is again the only Batman, because he is the only Batman (excluding Terry McGinnis) that the public have ever really been exposed to (and they’ve only ever been exposed to one Batman instead of two). The blue of Nightwing’s costume has been replaced with red, which moves it conspicuously closer to the costume worn by Chris O’Donnell in Batman Forever and Batman & Robin.
And Barbara is back in the role of Batgirl, because of the huge impact she made as that character in the Adam West Batman! television show. There’s no malice in the move, and it probably has nothing to do with Oracle or the wheelchair or anybody’s opinion of The Killing Joke as a story (despite the fact DC seems to feel incredibly uncomfortable about it of late). It’s just an attempt to build “synergy”, that intensely irritating corporate buzzword, quite possibly made in some boardroom somewhere.
Or I could be entirely wrong, and this could be the result of some puch from a creative officer who just fell in love with Yvonne Craig’s portrayal of the character and believes she really truly belongs in the cowl. It’s almost pointless to speculate about possible conspiracy theories. This is happening, and we might as well make our peace with it, as they say.
The arguments about how Barbara meant more as Oracle than she ever could as Batgirl have been well articulated elsewhere. In particular by the editorial Oracle is Stronger than Batgirl Will Ever Be over at Newsarama, written by fan Jill Pantozzi. This prompted an interview with the author of the upcoming Batgirl book, Gail Simone.
It’s worth remarking at this point that I have absolute respect for Simone. She’s a consistently great writer, and her Secret Six is easily one of the best monthly books published. I am sad to see it end as part of the reboot, but I’ll probably start reading her upcoming Firestorm. She’s also generally incredibly quick to engage and discuss matters with fans, and has been one of the creators trying to ease long-term fans through the adjustment process. Such engagement is to be commended, and she seems like a genuinely nice person. I think she deserves credit for that. Being frank, I think that she is perhaps the best author at DC to handle the book, because she seems keenly aware of the potential risks in bring Barbara back as Batgirl.
That said, I do find some of her comments on the relaunch of interest. Her interview with Jill was very candid and frank, and a pleasure to read, but I’m not sure I was entirely convinced by her defence of the decision to put Barbara back in the suit.
A lot of readers and a lot of editors had a story problem with Oracle, in that she made for such an easy, convenient story accelerator, that we missed the sense of having characters have to struggle to discover, to solve mysteries. Famously, it helped make Batman less of a detective and more of a monster hunter.
I don’t really understand this argument. If Oracle is functioning is a deus ex machina to solve Batman’s cases, simply stop using her in that capacity. I can think of plenty appearances by Barbara which use her quite well, but I can also think of stories that don’t use her at all, while allowing Batman to play detective on her own terms. This doesn’t represent a fundamental flaw with the character, and it seems strange to present it as such.
It’s the same sort of “story problem” that Batman coexisting in a fictional world with Superman creates. Everytime Batman faces a problem that he can’t handle, how come he doesn’t radio Superman and have the Man of Steel nip down and defeat the new foe in a matter of seconds. Hell, it could even work in scenarios like hostage situations or hijackings – Superman is fast enough to get in, save the hostages and defeat the bad guys without batting an eyelid, but Batman takes a huge risk in going in there. Surely phoning Clark and asking for a hand makes sense?
Of course, Batman doesn’t do that, because it would make him look ineffective and weak. However, the solution is not to depower Superman or ship him off to another Earth, it’s simply to ignore that particular story problem in order to facilitate a more fascinating plot development. The same logic applies to Oracle. If Batman faces a mystery he can’t easily solve, there’s no need for every story to send him to Oracle, just because she exists in the same fictional universe. The solution is not to get rid of the character, but to use her differently.
But beyond that, there are so many stories that can be told with Barbara that are hard to tell with other characters, even great other characters. He [sic] connection to the Bat-family is immediate and direct. Her skills, which have been used in a lofty tower for a quarter of a century, once again will be used in the field, right where the action is. She’s going to be using that eidetic memory while dodging bullets and acid-squirting flowers.
This is a valid point, but it negates the fact that there are also so many stories with Barbara as Oracle that are impossible to tell with other characters. Or, at least, far more difficult to tell with other characters than Barbara as Batgirl stories.
Tom Breevort of Marvel praised the decision a little while back, remarking that any other character could substitute for Barbara as Oracle. I think that’s a very worrying remark, because it treats the character as Oracle as somebody defined by their disability, as if you could just break another character’s spine and substitute them in the wheelchair for Barbara and call them Oracle.
Barbara’s evolution to Oracle was a wonderful piece of character growth. She didn’t earn the title when she was shot by the Joker, which is arguably an example of a female character being wounded to generate emotional torque for a male lead (in this case her father). Barbara grew and defined herself into the provider of information, deciding not to be defined by her disability – not to be a victim, not to be a background character, not to be a burden, not to exist as simply another shameful failure of the men around her.
That’s part of what’s genuinely worrying about this, at least for me. The idea that comics treat the tragedy of losing mobility and then defining yourself on your own terms as something of a minor background event, which needs or deserves to be corrected. Being entirely honest, I don’t think I would have minded had she been healed immediately after her wound, but before her subsequent development. I probably would have decried the shooting as a cheap shock tactic, but I don’t think I would have cared too much.
Simone makes a very valid point that the shooting and crippling of Barbara was a classic “women in refrigerators” moment, and I think that’s a valid point. However, it isn’t that story that defined her, and it isn’t that story that created her identity as Oracle. It’s not about her being shot or victimised, it’s about how she managed to regain control of her own life despite the most horrible of circumstances. It’s not the retconning of The Killing Joke, or diminishing the impact of that moment we’re worried about, it’s negating everything that followed, along with the clear implication that Barbara is somehow “better” if she can walk.
To wipe away her empowerment like that, in order to replace her as a legacy character doesn’t sit with me. “Batgirl” is a mantle that other characters have, and passes from generation to generation like a mask handed down. “Oracle” isn’t just a mask or a persona, it’s a conscious decision by a character to face their disability on their own terms. You can tell Batgirl stories with anyone. You can only tell Oracle stories with Barbara.
The most persuasive argument to put Babs back in the boots has always been one that I would argue against vehemently for story reasons, but that was impossible to argue with ethically. And I have heard this question a million times…why is it that virtually every single hero with a grievous injury, or even a death, gets to come back whole, except Barbara Gordon? Why? Why was Batman’s back broken, and he was barely in the chair long enough to keep the seat warm, and now it’s never even mentioned?
Arms and legs get ripped off, and they grow back, somehow. Graves don’t stay filled. But the one constant is that Barbara stays in that chair.
Role model or not, that is problematic and uncomfortable, and the excuses to not cure her, in a world of purple rays and magic and super-science, are often unconvincing or wholly meta-textual. And the longer it goes on, the more it has stretched credibility.
This is an interesting argument, because it goes back to the nature of the DC Universe as a shared continuity featuring all manner of strange and wonderful creations that can do pretty much anything under the sun. I don’t believe that this is an argument you can really engage with “ethically”, because it’s so random and formless and abstract. It’s a question asked in a fictional world that the author controls, so it isn’t debated objectively or in a vacuum. Basically, in any story, stuff happens because the writer wants it to. If it’s unethical for a writer to write Barbara in a wheelchair, it’s unethical for any character in any story ever to be in a wheelchair.
In fairness, the question of why Barbara hasn’t been cured has stunted several writers in-continuity, and I can understand why. It’s pretty difficult to wrestle with, to be frank. J. Michael Straczynski just argued (in an extremely unsatisfying manner) that it was just “fate” that put Barbara in tht wheelchair. Some other writers over the years have suggested that it’s something of a personal decision for Barbara, not to use any cure that isn’t available to other people, not to take advantage of her superhero connections to give here something that nobody else has.
I’m not sure I’m convinced, but I don’t have to be, because this isn’t a question of ethics, it’s a question of continuity. It’s a problem presented by having Zatanna hang out with Batman, and having Green Arrow rubs shoulders with Superman. It’s cool for the occasional crossover, but it’s one of those things that causes a great deal of bother if one thinks too long about it. It’s the “Reed Richards dilemma”, for lack of a better term.
Over at Marvel, Reed Richards is a scientific genius. He runs his family like a corporation and makes money through patents which he funds back into his work. This is a man who can build shrink rays and teleporters and all manner of fancy gadgets. Imagine a world where that technology is patented. Imagine how incredibly different a world with a genius like Richards would actually be. If somebody that smart existed, they would have cured cancer and HIV, wiped out world hunger and poverty and reversed global warming. Even little things like traffic congestion would likely be fixed.
However, Marvel doesn’t do that. Reed’s inventions are magical and incredibly and have infinite practical uses, but they are either never acknowledged, justified in a passive manner or used in a very minor off-hand sort of way. The reason for this is that a world with a Reed Richards would look very different from our own. It would be very different philosophically. It would be almost impossible to imagine, and very distinct. The reason that Reed hasn’t impacted the world in such a manner is because Marvel want to keep it “relatable.” So there’s still traffic on the street and characters still get cancer, because that’s the way our world works, and superhero comics need to reflect that in some manner. What would the world be like if magic was real? Or there were actual sorcerers and aliens about the place? Surely that would affect the very fabric of society in such a way as to render it distinct form our own?
This same logic about the wider universe can be rationalised down to particular characters. Why can’t Tony Stark get Professor Xavier or Stephen Strange to cure him of his alcoholism? How come Matt Murdock can’t get occular implants or visit a healer? How is Peter Parker struggling financially when the Avengers own both a huge tower and a mansion? These characters continue to work that way because that’s how they are defined. Those are the circumstances which make them engaging and relatable and understandable.
Barbara doesn’t get her spine replaced like Damian did in Grant Morrison’s Batman & Robin for the same reason Stephen Strange couldn’t wipe the world’s memories of Matt Murdock’s secret identity or cure Sentry’s personality disorder – those were the situations that faced those characters, and that allowed them to tell engaging stories. A world where no character is physically or mentally challenged prevents the comics from engaging with any readers that might face similar problems, and disengages from the real world in a manner far more fundamental than the mere presence spandex or capes. It pretends that people facing similar challenges don’t exist, and belittles their own triumphs and accomplishments. “We don’t have to worry about that in our fictional universe, because we have superheroes who can fix it.”
You might argue that these are superhero comics, and don’t reflect reality anyway. Still, just because not every person in a wheelchair can humble a country or hack government computer doesn’t mean that Oracle isn’t a powerful symbol. In much the same way that just because not all immigrants to America can fight crime or save the word regularly doesn’t mean that Superman doesn’t represent the ultimate immigrant. Because, when you boil it down, isn’t that what comic books are? Symbols and archetypes, and metaphors and fantastical stories? Don’t they reflect something back at our culture, and the way we look at and treat other people?
If Batman is the story of human potential in a world populated with higher and seemingly random powers, Oracle was the story about how a disability doesn’t define or discount the person who lives with it. That was a great story, and one of the more iconic myths that comics have produced in recent times.
I really and sincerely wish Simone the best of luck with Batgirl #1. She’s a talented writer, and one who is honest and open with the fans. If anybody can make this work, she can. And, truth be told, I’ll try to keep an open mind on this. It deserves a shot. Still, I can’t help but feel that DC is losing far more than it’s gaining in all this. After all, hasn’t one of the key points of this relaunch been diversity, with titles like Mr. Terrific, Batwing and the elevation of Cyborg to the Justice League. This feels like a move that reduces the representation in the DC Universe, rather than increasing it.
I’m sorry to lose that.