Handicapitated: How Losing Her Wheelchair Didn't Cripple Barbara Gordon
The callous insensitivity to remove an icon of resilience from the wheelchair that allowed her to define her character is only part of the problem with Batgirl.
Batgirl #1Publisher: DC
Length: 22 pages
Writer: Gail Simone, Adrian Syaf
Publication Date: 2011-09
Maybe there's a missed opportunity here. Let's say the Batgirl could edgier, much edgier. There's a way to write Batgirl that taps a Moment in the current celeb-driven media. The TMZ of it all, not at all unlike the beautifully crafted characters that adorn the pages of Viktor Kalvachev's Blue Estate.
We pick up about a year after some unnamed trauma that Batgirl survived. She's still all charm-bracelets and bangles, bubblegum and skinny jeans. But she's a little darker now, these things are just props now. That bright youthful optimism is something she's faking now.
And in this edgier, version of Batgirl that seems to fit in with a show like The Wire, Barbara Gordon has changed also. The outpouring of concern for Batgirl has gone to Barbara's head just a little. Barbara's now playing for the spotlight. She's a superstar now, even in her secret identity.
But Barbara still feels the need to go out each night and patrol the streets. It's the one part of her life that remains pure. The system shock though of being Glamour Barbie and the purity of being Batgirl is just a little too much for her to handle. So Barbara's found herself drawn more and more to casual one night stands.
Until of course she meets Prince Harming. At first he seems alright, and she seriously thinks he might even her The One. But he Harms rather than Charms, he has a subtle way crippling Barbara emotionally. And she finds, much to her surprise, and probably because of her recent traumas, she's not as repulsed as she should be, as she would have been before all this happened. And that's where our story starts.
Of course that's a great story. It's easy to applaud. It's dark, but not cliched. It's Batgirl battling the seediness of Gotham at a psychological level. And it is completely inadequate because it is wholly polarizing.
That Batgirl might gain some die-hard fans, but ultimately it would probably exclude more readers than it appeals to. The task facing Gail Simone, facing all of the New 52 writers, but particularly the Bat-book writers is maintaining the dark tone of Gotham, without poisoning the characters to a point where they exclude mainstream readers. The very nature of the New 52 experiment is a continuity-wide reboot that would bring on a great return of the masses. DC books should be read by 100s of 1000s again, seems to be the innate lesson of the New 52. So when Batgirl gets given the lowest possible rating, it's not because the story fails to meet expectations. Ironically, Simone succeeds in the intentions behind the New 52, she offers a beguilingly simple story that can appeal to the broadest possible audience. That level of skill in storytelling is rarely mastered.
But somebody at DC, and soon, needs to explain why Barbara Gordon is no longer in a wheelchair. But actually the wheelchair is not the problem at all.
The story of Barbara Gordon's characterization is a singularly interesting one. She emerges as Batgirl and brings a charm and a whimsy and a lust for life to the dark world of Batman. Hers is a bright enthusiasm against the driven, single-minded excellence that propels the Batman.
Frank Miller, in the poorly-received All-Star Batman And Robin (issue #6), is able to tell the story of this first phase of Barbara's career in just five words. If Simone's Barbara is masterful, Miller's is genius. "Youth", Miller tells us, "hope, inspiration, purpose… and mischief". Barbara even as a teenage girl is inspired by the Batman, but not beholden to him.
But Barbara is wounded near-fatally in Alan Moore's Killing Joke. After being shot point blank by the Joker, she never walks again. She becomes an icon of resilience and power. Not defeated by being bound to a wheelchair, she becomes the number one broker of information in the DCU. Without the use of her legs, it's her mind that stretches out into the world. And she's every bit as capable of impacting the world as Oracle (perhaps even more so) as she was as Batgirl. Hope, and inspiration and purpose, never die.
The problem with Batgirl isn't Barbara with the returned use of her legs. It's that the shiny new Batgirl book, with its rebooted continuity, sacrificed an essential core by including Barbara having been shot by the Joker. In this DC Universe, Barbara was still shot by the Joker, but this time round she was able to recover.
Why not simply write the shooting out of continuity?
It would take time to re-accept Barbara as being de-handicapable, but it could happen. Just as we accepted her previously new role as Oracle. But including the fragment of the Joker having shot her feels very much like she just didn't apply herself the first time around. Like maybe, if she worked just that little bit harder, she needn't have found herself in that wheelchair at all. It feels very much like blaming the victim for a sexual assault.
But beyond the cultural iconography here, beyond even the wholly insensitive way of dealing with the handicapable, the real question is around DC. Just how invested are they in the New 52 reboot? Are they willing to cling to iconic bits of character history simply for the sake of those anecdotes having once been there? Even if, like Barbara having been shot, those anecdotes damage the current characterization. Or should DC commit fully to their reboot?
Batgirl feels half-hearted because this time she really is crippled, this time by her own past. Miller's characterization of her youthful exuberance seems wholly off the table now. And perhaps for the first time, Barbara Gordon might become a victim.