Minorities in cartoons: Barbara Gordon

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 computer-using hero Oracle.

Barbara first appeared in “Detective Comics” #359 in January 1967. Writer Gardner Fox and artist Carmine Infantino created Barbara.

Silver Age and Bronze Age

Barbara is the young adult daughter of Commissioner Gordon; in her early appearances, she’s a librarian in Gotham City. While attending a costume party dressed in her now-familiar costume (meant to be a “female version of Batman”), Barbara saw minor Batman villain Killer Moth trying to kidnap Bruce Wayne. Helping thwart the crime and eventually capture Killer Moth, Barbara decides to take up crime fighting as Batgirl.

Batgirl made appearances in various stories in the late 60s and 70s, including her own series in 70s title “Batman Family.” 1977’s “Adventure Comics” #453 reveals 12-year-old Barbara went to summer camp in Smallville; there, she had an adventure with Superboy.

In 1972’s “Detective Comics” #424, Barbara got elected to the US House of Representatives. This 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; 1980’s “Detective” #488 saw her lose her bid for re-election.

Modern Age

Barbara Gordon as Oracle.
Barbara Gordon as Oracle, from “Bruce Wayne: The Road Home: Oracle” #1 (December 2010). Art by Shane Davis and Barbara Ciardo.

In the 1988 special “The Killing Joke,” Barbara (in her civilian identity) was shot in the spine by the Joker. The villain then tortured/assaulted Barbara, after stripping her naked. This was supposedly part of the Joker’s attempt to torment her father.

Despite its crass, sexist, and shock-violence treatment of Barbara, the story’s gone on to become a perennial best-seller for DC. (It also helped cemented Joker as a one-note mass killer, as he’s done little else since the 1980s.)

Fortunately, editor Kim Yale and writer John Ostrander decided to make a silk purse out of “The Killing Joke”‘s sow’s ear by turning Barbara into the computer expert Oracle. Introduced in the role of Oracle in “Suicide Squad” #23 (January 1989), Barbara became a broker of information for the DC Universe’s superhero community. She made use of 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’s role as Oracle became quite popular with comic fans. In 1996, Barbara started leading her own superhero team, 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. The series received a short-lived primetime spin-off on The WB, where actress Dina Meyer played Barbara.

The New 52

With DC’s “New 52” reboot in 2011, the publisher decided to de-age their line of characters. Most or all of their post-Crisis developments (Superman and Lois Lane’s marriage, etc.) were undone or rolled back.

Since Batman is DC’s best-selling character, the Dark Knight avoided very many changes, however illogical that is from a continuity perspective. One major change in the Bat-mythos, however, was undoing Barbara’s disability. Barbara went through intensive physical rehabilitation (including experimental surgery) that restored her ability to walk. Subsequently, Barbara resumed her role as Batgirl, and got her own ongoing title. Barbara also displaced several other characters that served as Batgirl, who’d become popular in their own right.

These changes received 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 the New 52’s changes. The blog “DC Women Kicking Ass” and other websites have delved into this controversy.

Other media

Barbara appeared as Batgirl in the live-action Adam West TV series. Yvonne Craig played Barbara.

Barbara’s first animated appearance was in the 60s Filmation Batman series. Jane Webb voiced Barbara.

Batgirl appeared in “Batman: The Animated Series” and its spin-offs. Melissa Gilbert and Tara Strong voiced Barbara.

Barbara also appeared as Batgirl in the 1997 “Batman and Robin” movie. Alicia Silverstone played Barbara.

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.” Oracle also was in the all-ages digital comic “Lil’ Gotham,” as well as an issue of the 2000s “Super Friends” series.

(Updated 6/17/17)

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