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Barbara Gordon: From Sidekick to Superhero

Batgirl (Barbara Gordon) has long been a source of both pride and controversy in feminist circles. She is both superheroine and sidekick, a character unto herself whose identity is derived from that of a male hero. She is a reflection of who we are - for good and ill - and a model of what we aspire to be.

Batgirl is most often compared to three other well-known women characters: Wonder Woman and Supergirl and Lois Lane. However, whereas Wonder Woman and Supergirl are gifted with extraordinary abilities, Batgirl is a normal woman. She is us. And in contrast to Lois Lane, Superman's long-time foil and eventual wife, Batgirl wears a costume. She is not an ordinary person caught up in extraordinary events, but an ordinary person who has chosen to live an extraordinary life. She is a superhero.

The Biography of a Hero

Barbara Gordon, the red-headed daughter of Police Commissioner James Gordon, made her debut in DETECTIVE COMICS #359 (January 1967). Enroute to a costume party in her home-made "Batgirl" costume, Barbara Gordon stumbled across a kidnapping-in-progress. Unaware that he was really Batman, Batgirl rescued millionaire Bruce Wayne from his would-be captor, Killer Moth.

Batgirl's comic debut roughly coincided with her first appearance on the live-action TV show "Batman," where she was played by Yvonne Craig. Both on television and in the comics, however, the writers and editors seemed uncertain as to how to treat the character. Reflecting the uncertain and changing mores of the late 1960s, Batgirl/Barbara Gordon bounced back and forth between competent professional, fashion freak and sidekick-in-need-of-rescue; even love-struck groupie on occasion. As the Sexual Revolution surged ahead, however, and women became firmly established in the workplace and in politics, the writers and editors and artists came to terms with the character. Batgirl/Barbara Gordon matured into a professional crime-fighter, one capable of holding her own against the worst Gotham had to offer. Sometimes she fought alone. Sometimes she teamed with Batman or Robin or even Supergirl. Barbara Gordon herself was elected to Congress and Batgirl was soon making appearances around the capital. When she left Congress, Barbara returned to head the Gotham Public Library, the largest library on the East Coast. Staid librarian by day, masked crime-fighter by night.

Then in 1985, DC decided to reboot the universe. Quite simply, it had become a little too unwieldy, what with all those parallel Earths. In the maxiseries CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, DC wiped out most of the universes and merged those that remained into one universe. In the process, a significant number of characters were killed off, erased from existence, or greatly altered.

Barbara Gordon survived, essentially unchanged but for one significant detail. She was now the niece and adopted daughter of Commissioner James Gordon, rather than his biological daughter. In her up-dated origin story, Batgirl was taken in and trained by Batman. She soon rivaled her mentor as a detective and crime-fighter. After several years, Barbara gave up her costumed identity and settled down to a quiet life in Gotham-until she was shot and crippled by the Joker.

In the wake of the Joker's attack, Barbara lived in fear. She isolated herself, hiding away in her apartment. Emerging finally from her cocoon, determined that she would continue to fight monsters like the Joker, Barbara created a new identity for herself, an identity all her own: Oracle. Now an integral member of the global crime-fighting community, computer-savvy Barbara Gordon provides vital information to many of the DCU's heroes, coordinates their efforts in battling crime and terrorism, and even employs field agents of her own to gather information. Her most well-known and most trusted agent-and good friend--is Dinah Lance aka Black Canary. Together, they form one of DC's most effective crime-fighting teams.

The Legacy of Batgirl

Alan Moore's THE KILLING JOKE, in which Barbara Gordon was shot and paralyzed, shocked and angered many fans. Though many have since come to accept her paralysis, Moore's story has produced endless "what if..." conversations. What if she was never shot? What if she regains her mobility? Should she become Batgirl again or remain Oracle? The question of whether Barbara Gordon should ever become Batgirl again is linked to a larger problem: that of identity. As Batgirl, she is seen, both in the real world and in the comics, as an extension of Batman. Both her name and her costume are a variation on the original, male character. Oracle, on the other hand, is a wholly original character. Barbara Gordon's search for a name and identity all her own has paralleled the search by real women for their own identities and their rightful place in the world.

Perhaps the surest sign that Barbara Gordon has come into her own is the appearance of a new Batgirl. During No Man's Land, when Gotham lay in ruins, the vigilante known as the Huntress donned the costume of Batgirl. She did so without the blessings of Barbara Gordon. The Huntress has since returned to her original costume, however, and a new hero wears the costume: Cassandra Cain. Barbara Gordon chose her own successor. She chose Cassandra to carry on her legacy-a legacy which has inspired countless other heroes, both fictional and real.

Recommended Reading

DETECTIVE COMICS #359 (January 1967). In "The Million Dollar Debut of Batgirl" librarian Barbara Gordon is enroute to a costume party when she stumbles across a kidnapping attempt. She leaps to millionaire Bruce Wayne's rescue, and later proves instrumental in helping Batman and Robin capture the criminal Killer Moth.

THE SUPERMAN FAMILY #171 (July 1975) features a super team-up by Batgirl and Supergirl as they go up against Cleopatra, Queen of America.

THE BATMAN FAMILY #17 (January 1978) features a team-up by Batwoman, Batgirl and the Earth-2 Huntress against Catwoman and Poison Ivy.

BATMAN: BATGIRL (1997). In the days following her first appearance as Batgirl, Barbara Gordon grows more confident in her role as a superhero. When a local businessman is targeted for murder, Batgirl comes face to face with the city's most infamous sociopath: the Joker.

LEGENDS OF THE DC UNIVERSE #10 and #11 (November and December 1998) finds Batman confronting Barbara Gordon about her nocturnal activities and finally taking her on as a protege.

GIRLFRENZY: BATMAN--BATGIRL (June 1998). In "Scars," Barbara Gordon comes to realize that being Batgirl carries a price. Barbara becomes obsessed with her pursuit of the serial murderer Mr. Zsasz, to the point of forgetting about a close friend's funeral.

WORLD'S FINEST #5 (August 1999) features a team-up by Batgirl and Superman, and a guest appearance by the Thorn.

THE KILLING JOKE (1988). Determined to destroy the Dark Knight, the Joker hits upon an insane plan: he shoots and paralyzes Barbara Gordon and kidnaps her father, Commissioner James Gordon.

THE BATMAN CHRONICLES #5 (Summer 1996). "Oracle: Year One-Born of Hope" chronicles Barbara Gordon's struggle to rebuild her life after she is shot and paralyzed by the Joker. Stung by the realization that she was only a means of getting to Batman-that even as Batgirl she was only seen as an extension of the Dark Knight-Barbara crafts a new identity all her own. She becomes the Oracle, and finds her place in the world.

BIRDS OF PREY (1998) collects the first two miniseries and one-shots in which Black Canary and Oracle team up for the first time.

BIRDS OF PREY (January 1999 through present). This on-going series follows the continuing adventures of Black Canary and Oracle against such adversaries as Catwoman, The Ravens, Blockbuster, the Joker, terrorists, drug-runners and dictators.

NO MAN'S LAND SECRET FILES AND ORIGINS #1 (December 1999). In "The Message," set in the early hours before Gotham becomes a No Man's Land, the city of Gotham itself sends civilian Jason Braun on a quest: he must deliver a message to Gotham's guardian spirit. Enroute, he encounters a number of the city's resident heroes and villains, including Oracle and the Huntress.

NO MAN'S LAND: GROUND ZERO (December 1999). In the early months of No Man's Land, Batman is nowhere to be seen. Determined to keep order in a rapidly decaying situation, Helena Bertinelli aka the Huntress-the black sheep of Gotham's vigilante family-dons her own Batgirl costume. When Batman finally returns, he offers the new Batgirl a chance to earn her place at his side.

BATMAN: LEGENDS OF THE DARK KNIGHT #120 (August 1999). In "Assembly" Batman gathers all of his allies in preparation for retaking Gotham from the criminals who assumed control during No Man's Land. In an emotional showdown, Batman confronts the Huntress and ultimately takes the mantle of Batgirl away from her. With the blessings of Barbara Gordon, it is passed to Cassandra Cain.

BATGIRL #1 (April 2000) stars the latest young woman to wear the uniform, Cassandra Cain. When an old enemy comes to Gotham, Cassandra remembers back to her childhood with the assassin Cain, and finally comes to realize what it means to wear the symbol of the Bat.

BATMAN: GOTHAM KNIGHTS #6 (August 2000) finds Batman investigating the theft of a safety deposit vault. One of the boxes belonged to Barbara Gordon and inside was a letter from her deceased mother, a letter Barbara had never dared to show anyone.

ELSEWORLD'S FINEST: SUPERGIRL AND BATGIRL (1998). Batgirl/Barbara Gordon is the true Guardian of Gotham. Supergirl/Kara Zor-El is the sole survivor of Krypton. On a world which never knew Superman or Batman, can these two heroes overcome their distrust of one another to defeat the Joker and Lex Luthor?

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