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Barbara Randall Kesel is one of the key writers in building the history and character of Barbara Gordon at DC Comics. While Kesel didn’t write many stories that included Barbara, the ones she did write are seminal. Among among them the post-Crisis origin story “Flawed Gems” which was named one of the most memorable moments for DC women earlier this year and the “Last Batgirl story” the only standalone Batgirl comic published prior to The Killing Joke. Kesel also wrote the Elseworlds: Batgirl/Supergirl special and she has the rare distinction of writing Barbara Gordon as both Batgirl and Oracle.
Earlier this week I interviewed Barbara about her work on how she got started writing at DC, her work on Barbara Gordon both pre and post The Killing Joke (including her follow-up pitch for Barbara Gordon that was passed over to have her become Oracle) and what it was like being a female creator during the 80s at DC and how things have changed since then.
DCWKA: I read that you got into comic writing after sending a letter to DC making suggestions about how they could write women better, do you remember what you said in the letter? Any stories that stood out as bothering you?
BRK: I should dig into my files someday to see if I can come up with the rough draft, but my letter was in response to a letter in the back of one of the Batman comics (maybe Detective?). The letter writer suggested that DC’s female characters were a little shallow, and maybe they should hire some female writers or artists. Dick Giordano’s editorial reply was that he didn’t think it made any difference, so I shot off a ten-page missive disagreeing, with examples. I had no idea he’d call and want to interview me for a job; I just wanted to read comics where the women didn’t embarrass me. When I was a kid, the lesson comics was teaching me was that boys got to keep their powers, but Wonder Woman and Supergirl had off-and-ons (and Supergirl had this OLD and UGLY boyfriend in the seventies! Eeyew!J) when she wasn’t hiding in an orphanage or a tree. I loved the idea of superheroes and being a hero, but not of standing around waiting for permission or instructions from the guy first.
Even saying that, though, it’s not just about having the women be good characters: it’s about ALL characters having personality and distinctive voices. I wasn’t just advising how to make the women better, but the men too. They can all be eye candy; they can all also be interesting on the inside. My point was that if the creators invested a little of themselves in their stories and maybe spent some time in the company of someone who was different, they’d make better comics. I still believe that. Comics, that unique blending of words and pictures that charges up both lobes of the brain, is a medium with incredible power to spark the imagination and touch the heart. I want to see that power used for good.
DCWKA: What was your take on how Barbara Gordon was handled by DC before you showed up?
BRK: I didn’t care for the character. I had only ever read one or two Batgirl stories before being asked to write one, so they sent me copies of all of them and I pretty much enjoyed them. [I was terribly disappointed to be asked to write Batgirl—I had some issues with that girl: my name is Barbara, my father’s name is James, and I had to walk the villain gauntlet in second grade because of the TV show: two boys (who knows who their real identities were) who said they were the Penguin and the Joker tried to “capture” me before class every morning… Hey, I was young and tiny. If I’d been a teenaged cosplayer, it might have been fun. But I was a very literal-minded terrified kid and learned to kick like a demon.] Batgirl had a spotty history with each writer adding their own skew to her mythos, which wasn’t bad, until you looked at them all together and tried to figure out how old she should be. Just like most comics stories, some are lame and some are great, and each reader’s list will be different. I ended up liking her a lot more after reading them all than I did when I started out, so I flipped the chip off my shoulder and compiled a character history that made all the pieces work.
DCWKA: You were hired for to write the Batgirl back-up but only wrote one. If you had written more, did you have any plans for the character?
BRK: I wrote two stories: the first was published in two parts in Detective [#518 and #519] before Dick was promoted and Len [Wein] decided to boot Batgirl for Catwoman. [Note: Catwoman replaced Batgirl as the back-up in Detective starting with issue #520] one (part one of two) was used as a training script for new artists, so I’ve seen MULTIPLE versions of it.
Dick had had me do up a rough outline for where the feature would go, but each story was going to be written as we got to it. Some of that outline material became backstory in the Secret Origins story and the Batgirl Special: Marcy would have been a foil character/best friend and I think there might have been another character inserted in there somewhere, but… sadly, my old project files are in storage or I could tell you for sure.
DCWKA: Tell me about how they approached you to write the Secret Origins and Batgirl Special. Did they give you any direction about how the character should be portrayed?
BRK: It was pretty much this simple: “She’s getting her spine blown out in ‘The Killing Joke’, so try to make people care.”
DCWKA: Did you know exactly what would happen to Barbara in the Killing Joke? What was your reaction when you found out? How did you find out?
BRK:I did: TKJ was in progress before I started on the Origin and the Special. I was torn—I really admire Alan’s work, but I hated seeing Batgirl stay down. I actually followed it up with a proposal for a new heroic identity for Batgirl (working with Dan Mishkin, I think?) that would have used the technology available in the DCU to let her walk and fight: basically, she’d have armor with Promethium joints and Star Labs tech that would let her use her photographic memory to program in her former movements: she’d still be paralyzed without the armor but able to patrol and fight (guardedly, part of the psychology of recovering from the attack that paralyzed her) while wearing it. That got accepted and then axed in favor of the Oracle storyline. Which is a damn good use of her character, but it’s still creepy that DC women seem to stay damaged and dead while the men… sigh.
DCWKA: How would you categorize DC Comics’ view of women during that time. What was it like being one of the few female writers?
BRK: I quickly went from freelancer to associate editor, so I wasn’t just writing for DC, but being a writer there was part of why Dick hired me. Jenette Kahn ran the company then. DC corporate didn’t have anything against women (in fact, I pretty much owe my job to Jenette’s telling Dick that he needed more women in editorial right around the time I showed up all opinionated and creative…), but the individual writers and artists didn’t so much choose to include women as admire and enjoy them…and forget to look at the stories from their POV. (The clearly obvious exception being Wolfman and Perez’s New Teen Titans.)
Every time I pointed out to a creator that they had a character (male or female, but most often female) standing around doing nothing and asked them to make a pass through their scripts from each character’s POV, they got better about that.
They weren’t looking to exclude women; they just didn’t think about it. It is a natural bias to connect with the character closest to you. At DC at that time, that was usually male writers and artists, so the male characters took prominence. Over the years, when fans who weren’t white males would say “Why don’t I see (me) in comics?” I’d say it was because THEY weren’t making them. The writer works out of his own ego first. The artist works out of his own mirror first, You can remember to work around that natural bias, but that’s where we all start. (Okay, way more artists than writers would include women, but largely as eye candy, and they might include random people on the street, but if you said “draw a hero” without any further instructions, you’d get a while male character.)
I love comics, but I am a girl. I might climb rocks and race bicycles, but I’m not a boy. But that doesn’t mean I can’t observe and replicate behavior, or that I don’t have a working imagination. But since I’m not a boy, there’s a background culture of boys doing stories for boys and assuming boys can do a better job at that, so there’s a lot of people who think I “can’t” write a mainstream superhero story. (I would just RATHER write one with a character just like me!) I did (and still do) beat my head against the wall when I pitch something for a male character, then get told I can’t write that, but what about (insert suggestion to work on second-rate female character here)? I’m trying to remember if there were any other women writers back at DC at that time, and I’m sure there must have been, but I’m only coming up with Barbara Slate of “Angel Love.” Weezie [Note: Louise Simonson] was working at Marvel, and Wendy Pini had made a success of Elfquest with Richard, Colleen [Doran] started up “A Distant Soil”, and Gail Simone wouldn’t start blogging for another decade…
DCWKA: I was struck by how much time Barbara spent on a computer in both of the final stories you wrote given the direction the character took post TKJ. Did it surprise you that Barbara showed in Suicide Squad as a computer jock? Did you ever speak to Kim Yale and John Ostrander about the character?
BRK: Oh, yes, we talked. Kim was passionate about Barbara not sitting on the sidelines. While my stories weren’t a direct setup, I think they helped inspire the idea of Oracle. I had worked in a library and knew that the profession of “librarian” was morphing into “information retrieval specialist” thanks to computers, and projected that she’d be way ahead of the curve thanks to her extraordinary recall. And it was a cooler take on the profession than the bun-wearing book handler. Kim took Barbara’s (the fictional one) situation very seriously and worked tirelessly to promote Barbara’s rehabilitation.
DCWKA: I believe you are the only person who has written contemporary versions of Barbara Gordon as Batgirl and Oracle. What was it like to write her in Hawk and Dove? How did you approach that?
Hawk & Dove was co-written with my ex-husband, so I can’t take credit for all of the writing. I’d done a multi-page character assessment of her when I wrote the first backup stories, so I just kept on with the same character in new circumstances. Driven, and keeps her fears in a box in the back of her head.
DCWKA: The Barbara Gordon Batgirl/Supergirl Elsewords seems quite different from the Barbara Gordon as Batgirl but is more like Barbara as Oracle. What was your take on the character when writing her?
BRK: That she was Barbara with Batman’s origin: SHE was the one working her way through the vengeance motive with her own different set of skills and a single-minded focus on keeping everyone else safe. (The inside joke being that Bruce himself is a little listless—she seems to have something he lacks…yeah! His origin.)
DCWKA: The Elseworlds issue is very popular and the characters even had their own action figures. Has DC ever spoken to you about doing another one?
BRK: Sadly, it sold out when it first went on sale, which I think is a crime, since we’ll never know how many copies might have sold to people who came in during the rest of that month. And then they didn’t want to reprint it because…(or so I was told)…it didn’t sell enough. Holy self-fulfilling prophecy, Batman! We pitched one idea for a sequel. We were shot down and then told DC didn’t want another. I’m hoping they reprint the original someday.[Note: copies are listed on Amazon between $17 and $70]
DCWKA: Any thoughts on how Barbara Gordon has been written over the last few years?
BRK: I like her. I like the strength of will and character she’s been allowed. I especially like the Dick Grayson hookup, although part of my initial direction underlying my first stories, was that Barbara was fixated on Batman: that Batgirl is the unleashed sexual persona she doesn’t allow herself in her work world, making her the equal and ideal partner to the most exciting male influence in her life. It’s no biggie now, but back then (those days before fetish gear became the standard costuming) I made a point of saying that her costume was leather, not leotard. She was her own bad girl.
DCWKA: DC almost made Barbara Gordon return to being Batgirl during the “Battle for the Cowl” but decided to keep her as Oracle. Do you think she should return to being Batgirl?
BRK: A little too much water under the bridge for that, I think. I like Oracle: I think it’s great that a “disabled” character is that powerfully connected and effective. And I like their new Batgirl, so I’d keep it as is. (Well, as it is this week. Things change…)
DCWKA: How do you think DC handles female characters vs. 25 years ago? What’s better?
BRK: What’s worse? Hmmm… any answer would have to rate each individual title, and each character in that title. The company as a whole has a strong bias toward an older male readership, which is kind of limiting. Even so, I could pick up a half dozen and find scenes I’m proud of. What’s better is that the world as a whole is better represented—it’s not just white males. What’s worse is that the stories, while intense and exciting, don’t seem to be at all accessible to new readers. Given the success of superhero movies in recent years, you’d think at least part of the audience would be invited to sample the source material, but you see current-day sales figures, and… doesn’t look like it.
I was just discussing this with a prominent comics creator on Monday, how DC has such a wealth of iconic characters but seems determined to keep them inaccessible to the general public. The material is so intense, both on a violence and sexuality level, but also on a plain ol’ composition and storytelling level, that it’s a bullet train—hard to leap onto something that never slows down beyond blur. Of course, the next new generation of readers likely won’t want to touch an icky old paper comic anyway, so we just need to set up their iPad version to read panel-by-panel so they can access the flow at their own comprehension speed.
DCWKA: If you had a chance to write any DC character today who would it be? Any female character?
BRK: Hawkman, but the version I like is the old one, half of the husband-and-wife cop team from another planet, which supplies the other answer.