The news that DC Comics will return Barbara Gordon to the role a Batgirl after 22 years was the comic news story this week. Opinions were mixed with some readers thrilled to see the character who created the role in 1966 once again take on the title while others were deeply concerned that it meant the elimination of Barbara Gordon as Oracle the most prominent differently-abled character in DC Comics.
This isn’t the first time DC has flirted with the idea of having Barbara Gordon return to the tights. Today, I take a look back at how she went from Batgirl to Oracle and the previous attempts DC has made to return her to the role.
So how did Barbara Gordon become Oracle? Just two years after 1986’s Crisis on Infinite Earths had eradicated two parts of the Female Trinity of DC Comics (Supergirl who killed and Wonder Woman who was rebooted), Batgirl was alone. As the world of Batman became darker, the character of Batgirl was seen as too light. As Alan Moore wrote his story, The Killing Joke, he made a request of DC. Could he shoot Barbara Gordon? The decision was made in the time it took Len Wein to walk down the hallway to Dick Giordano. The answer? “Yeah, okay cripple the bitch.”
Once the decision was to “cripple” her, DC had writer Barbara Randall, who had been brought on to DC to write Batgirl, prepare the audience for the character’s departure. In my interview with Randall (now Randall Kesel) she said:
It was pretty much this simple: “She’s getting her spine blown out in ‘The Killing Joke’, so try to make people care.”
And so in March of 1988, at the end of The Killing Joke Barbara Gordon was left unable to walk. She was next seen in a wheelchair in Batman #428 at the burial of Jason Todd, the second Robin and another causality of the move towards a dark Dark Knight. Many people assume The Killing Joke ended her career as Batgirl. It didn’t. Kesel had Barbara Gordon retire as Batgirl at the end of the final Batgirl story in Batgirl Special #1”.
The attempts to return Barbara as a superhero actually happened quickly and Kesel told me that she attempted to make Barbara Gordon mobile almost immediately:
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.
The “Oracle storyline” had Barbara Gordon, now using a wheelchair, become an information provider in the fight against crime in role defined by Kim Yale and her husband John Ostrander. Barbara was introduced off panel as “Oracle” in the pages of Suicide Squad #23 at the end of 1988 and her identity was slowly teased until she was revealed as the former Batgirl over a year later in #38. Her run in the Suicide Squad ended in 1992.
In 1994, DC tried to fix some of the continuity issues of COIE with an mega-cross over event (are you surprised) called Zero Hour. The event had Barbara Gordon/Oracle come face to face with her Batgirl/self.
Was this an attempt to return Barbara Gordon as Batgirl? I’ve found lots of speculation that writer Dan Jurgens intended to have the time line “corrected” to have a Barbara Gordon Batgirl return to the DCU. The Batgirl in Zero Hour died trying saving the life of Green Lantern. Did DC chicken out? Whether they did or not, it does show that DC was at least teasing the audience with the idea of Barbara making a return.
Another attempt to return Barbara to Batgirl was made by Paul Dini and Alex Ross around 2000. Ross told the story to Newsarama in October of 2007.
Paul Dini had this idea of putting Barbara Gordon in the Lazarus Pit to revive her…spine, I guess,” Ross said. “At least, that’s what he would’ve done in the television show had they continued doing more cartoons, and her spin was broken the way it was. I thought it was a great idea, and we pitched then-Batman editor Denny O’Neil with these drawings of that costume design.
That costume ironically became the basis for Kate Kane the new Batwoman introduced in 52.
Denny shot it down, because, according to him, everybody loves Barbara Gordon as Oracle and as a handicapped character. The theory was that DC didn’t have enough handicapped characters, so they weren’t going to do anything with Barbara as she was. And the design went into the drawer.”
The idea came out of the drawer again in 2008. As part of the events to realign the Batfamily following Bruce’s “death” in “Battle for the Cowl”, DC canceled the book that Barbara Gordon as Oracle had starred in for almost a decade, Birds of Prey, and announced a new Batgirl title.
The Batgirl role had been held for the previous six years by another woman, Cassandra Cain, the first women of color to headline her own ongoing book at DC. Speculation began that DC, in an effort described by Dan Didio “to return characters to their most iconic”, would mean that Barbara Gordon would once again become Batgirl. That speculation increased when a mini-series, Oracle: Search for the Cure, was announced. Would Barbara Gordon emerge from the Battle for the Cowl as Batgirl?
Despite the fact that just the previous year at Wizard World in 2008, Dan DiDio when asked whether Barbara Gordon would walk again, had stated, “No. Never.” fans were now faced with the very real possibility of Barbara Gordon becoming Batgirl. That possibility generated much discussion. Fans were concerned, just as they are now, that DC would lose the important character of Oracle.
When the new Batgirl was solicted the company refused to reveal who was wearing the cowl. The first cover featured a woman wearing the Cassandra Cain costume. The second featured the classic Barbara Gordon version of the costume:
The new Batgirl, however, was revealed in the first issue to be Stephanie Brown, the former Spoiler. DiDio later admitted in a DC Nation column on September 16, 2009, that DC had come close to making Barbara Batgirl once again but decided against it.
Choosing the new Batgirl was not an easy decision, and strong arguments could be made for most of them. At one point we were sure it would be Barbara (she was as close to being Batgirl again as Nightwing was being dead) but after long discussions it was agreed that Oracle had become such a strong character, there was no sense going back.
This past week DC Comics changed its mind and announced that Barbara Gordon would definitely become Batgirl once again. Why did they decide to do this? We’ll have to wait to find out. But the fact remains, 45 years after her first appearance and 22 years after her last appearance, DC is making Barbara Gordon wear the tights once more.