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DC Women Kicking Ass

Thoughts, pictures, reviews and other stuff about the women in comics who kick ass. This is a feminist site. Deal with it.
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Aug 11 '11

Guest Post: Batgirl! The Secret Origin

My guest poster today is former DC Comics’ editor and writer Scott Peterson. Scott was at DC Comics from 1991-1998, and WildStorm from 2006-2010. Scott offered to tell the little known story of how DC came to introduce a new Batgirl into the DCU — Cassandra Cain. HIs post on the secret origin of how a second Batgirl came to be follows.

"Create a new Batgirl. Or I will."
So said then DC Universe Executive Editor Mike Carlin in his always cute and cuddly way.

It had been about a decade since there had been a Batgirl, about a decade since Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s amazing Killing Joke had permanently made it impossible for Barbara Gordon to ever again don the cape and cowl. Not long after, of course, Kim Yale and John Ostrander had the brilliant idea to take this beloved character and do the crazy: they had her evolve. Using traits already well-established—her love of knowledge as a librarian, and her outstanding memory—they took Barbara Gordon, erstwhile possessor of spunk as Batgirl, and they turned her into Oracle.

Oracle, who would become not only the most useful of Batman’s cast of helpers, save perhaps trusty Alfred, but ultimately the most well-rounded character in the entire DC Universe. With her eidetic memory, her agile mind, her expansive knowledge, top-notch hacking skills and the fact that she was pretty much always available, she quickly became indispensable for the dark knight, who came to rely on her extensively. It wasn’t long before other characters in the DCU were also turning to her. And in one especially memorable story, master artist Brian Stelfreeze not only designed her watchtower lair, but showed that even without the use of her legs, Barbara Gordon was nobody’s pushover.

Eventually, then fellow Batman editor Jordan B. Gorfinkel had the great idea of teaming her up with another unusually well-rounded character, Black Canary, in the original Birds of Prey special. At the time, any book which didn’t feature the Batman seemed like something of a sales risk. No one except Gorf, and the creative team—writer Chuck Dixon and artist Gary Frank—expected the first Birds of Prey to sell well. Which is why only they were less than shocked when the guy from the sales department burst in the day it went on sale to say it seemed to have sold out, nationally, in the first couple hours.

Seems the readers not only knew what they liked, but had pretty good taste.
By now, all of us Batguys—and by that I mean Batman group editor and mastermind, the legendary Dennis O’Neil, along with Darren Vincenzo, the aforementioned Gorf and me—had fallen madly in love with Oracle, and not just because she made our jobs as storytellers easier…although she certainly did that; having a character who either knew or could find anything out at the drop of a hat was mighty helpful when it came to plotting. And because her memory and skills were so well established, it wasn’t even cheating. (Much.)

And the whole time, the flirtation which had been established with one Richard Grayson way back in the day was getting ever more serious. No longer Robin, now Nightwing, he and Babs seemed pretty much the ideal couple—each understood what the other was going through at any given time better than anyone else in the world could.
So. To our minds, Babs was doing better than she ever had. If you didn’t count the fact that she was in a wheelchair.

But she was in a wheelchair. And that was something we never forgot.
We got a lot of criticism for that. Some people, including people we respected in the company, thought the fact that she was still unable to use her legs, in a world in which Dr Fate or the Spectre or Zatanna existed and could heal her instantly, was a sign of misogyny. And while there was enough evidence to make the quip that “DC stood for Dead Chicks” impossible to completely dismiss out of hand—”I mean, my God, she gets shot *in the uterus!*” we heard more than once—we were the ones getting the mail from disabled fans. We were the ones reading letters about how much Oracle meant to them, how much it meant to see someone in a situation so much like their own, someone who by then had been come such an important part of the DCU, treated with respect and admiration by not only Superman and Black Canary, but by the Batman, a guy who treated pretty much no one with respect. We had librarians tell us how much it meant to have a librarian as a superhero. (As though librarians aren’t superheroes in the real world already.)

The thing is, as Denny used to say, the Batman is like Hamlet: there are a million different approaches, and none of them are wrong, per se—they’re just varying degrees of successful. And our vision of Batman was that he was a loner. In fact, our preferred approach was that he was an urban legend, never photographed, no actual proof of his existence. That this was hard to square with the Batman who was in the Justice League was undeniable. As was the fact that by the late 90s, he’d assembled quite the crew. He had Nightwing, Robin, Alfred, and of course, Oracle. Not to mention, sometimes, Catwoman, the Huntress, and even the Spoiler. For a loner, it sure seemed he’d have a hard time swinging a dead bat without hitting one of his gang.
But Batgirl? That chapter was closed. For one thing, as already discussed, there was simply no way we were going to “cure” Babs and put her back in the costume. And having someone else take her place just felt…well, it felt wrong. It felt disrespectful to Barbara.

Even in the offices, our feelings were misconstrued. A lot of the people thought I, in particular, hated Batgirl, because I was the one who most often said that we’d never have a Batgirl again—at that point, I was, among other things, the Batoffice’s designed heavy, the guy tasked with saying “no” to people who wanted to use Batman or one of the other Batcharacters. My job title was Editor/Batman Group Liaison, which meant that as the liaison, I was the guy who looked at everything from toothbrushes and lunchboxes to posters and novels and beach towels and, yes, the scripts and pencils when other editors borrowed a Batcharacter. The feeling was that even a character as great as Batman could be overused, so that most requests had to be turned down. Which meant I said “no” a lot. You can guess how popular that made me.

But the thing is, I was insane about Batgirl. I’ve often said Yvonne Craig is the first woman I ever loved, and I remember being so happy whenever she’d be in an episode of the Adam West show. I loved when Batgirl and Dick Grayson Robin teamed up back in the late 70s. I loved, loved, loved her. I loved being able to feature her in The Batman Adventures. I loved forcing a grumbling Kelley Puckett to write Batgirl stories in The Batman Adventures, and I loved making him admit, afterwards, that he’d loved writing her.

Even so—no, ESPECIALLY because of all that—we were of one mind: no Batgirl in the Batman books.

But an edict is an edict. For years, Mike Carlin was politely, gently suggesting every few months that we should think about a new Batgirl. Eventually, he laid down the law—there WOULD be a new Batgirl. We could create it, in which case we could decide her backstory, her character, her motivations, her strengths and weaknesses. Or he would, in which case we’d be stuck with whatever he wanted. Faced with such a reasonable argument, we went away and bitched—okay, I ranted and they patiently waited for me to finally be done—and talked about what a terrible idea it was.
And then somewhere on the way back to my office I had this crazy vision of a new Batgirl. She was young—late teens, I thought—and Asian, because, well, at the time we had an awful lotta white faces in the DCU, and I thought, if we’re creating a brand new character in the DCU, why on earth would we make her white when other races are under-represented? And in my vision, she was cheerful and chipper and always up and good-natured and she had a complete and total death wish.

This did not seem like a good idea. In fact, it didn’t seem to even make any sense. But it wouldn’t go away.

So I called Kelley Puckett. And I said, “Hey, new Batgirl. Young—late teens, I think—and Asian. And cheerful and chipper and always up and good natured and she has a complete and total death wish.”
"But," he replied reasonably, "that doesn’t even make any sense."
"I know."
"That’s completely contradictory."
"I know."
"How…how is that supposed to work?"
"Got me," I said. "And it’s not my problem anymore. It’s yours. Go!"
I’m pretty sure I could hear him, after we hung up, clear on the other side of the continent, still saying how stupid this idea in particular, and editors in general, were.
The next day he called. “I know how to do it,” he said.
And as we all know, he did.

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    Fascinating read on how Cassandra Cain came to join the Batverse as Batgirl after Barbara Gordon hung up the cape. I...
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