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This week, in Batman Inc. #8, we saw what it is likely, after twenty two years, the final appearance of Barbara Gordon as Oracle in DC Comics for the foreseeable future.
In the New 52, Barbara Gordon will be a young woman just out of college who is once again Batgirl. She will, according to what DC has told us, still have been Oracle. She is, of course, still Barbara Gordon and she may still do some of the things that Oracle did. But she won’t be the same character she’s been. This post and the others in this series are not to debate Barbara Gordon’s becoming Batgirl again. These posts are to pay tribute to her persona of Oracle and give the character a send-off into the next phase of her existence.
Oracle has been written by many of DC’s writers over the past two decades. I asked a few of her creators and editors to share some thoughts about the character. The first piece is by former DC editor and writer Scott Peterson who wrote the very first standalone Oracle story 17 years ago in Showcase ‘94. (Scott recently wrote about how Cass Cain became Batgirl) The team he worked with would later help develop Birds of Prey, Oracle’s primary title over the last decade and a half. Scott tells the story of how he came to write that first Oracle story and, shares for the first time, some of the thumbnails for the story drawn by artist Brian Stelfreeze. Scott’s story begins below.
So I was talking about Batman and Bat-related things with fellow Batguy Jordan B Gorfinkel, as was not unusual back then. It was early 1994 and pretty much the entirety of my week was spent working on and thinking about all things bat. In this case, we were talking about the lead story for the final issue of Showcase ‘94, the monthly anthology edited by Neal Pozner. It was designed, as some other iterations of Showcase had been, to introduce new characters, or new creators, to a new audience. In order to score as many eyes as possible, the lead character in each Showcase ‘94 main story was always a Batman character, and usually written and/or drawn by an established Batman creator.
But after having used the Joker and Scarecrow and the Huntress and Man-Bat and so on, it seemed like anything approaching marquee Batcharacters was running low. “I mean, who’s left?” I asked. “Oracle? I mean, sure, I love her, but who’s going to want to write an Oracle solo story?”
"I would," Gorf replied.
"Oh," I said. "Huh. Yeah. Actually, so would I. In fact, now that I’m actually thinking about it, I can’t think of another character I’d rather write."
It’s true. There aren’t many characters or stories I wish I’d created or written. I love the Batman, but I don’t wish I’d created him. (Well, I wouldn’t mind the money…) I love Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing, but I don’t wish I’d written it. (I wish I were good enough to, of course.) But the first time I read an issue of Suicide Squad, written by John Ostrander and Kim Yale, with Oracle in it? THAT. That I wish I’d written. I wish I’d been the one to think up Oracle.
Oracle. One of the great characters in comic book history. As Batgirl, Barbara Gordon was usually portrayed as light-hearted and free-spirited. She was a superhero not because she saw her parents murdered, but because it seemed like it’d be a hoot. Which worked great at the time—it sure made me fall in love with her as a kid. But by the late ‘80s, as grim-and-gritty became the order of the day, she didn’t seem to fit quite as well. But as Oracle, she was not only a perfect fit for the times, she was something of a groundbreaker for comics, a computer whiz at the moment when still a tiny percentage of the popular had even heard of the internet or email or websites. Yet far from being a gimmick or a fad, as comic character created to fit the changing times often seem to be, Barbara’s backstory—both as Batgirl and the Killing Joke events—gave her an unusual amount of depth for a character.
So. I kicked myself for the rest of the day. Why had I said something so stupid, beyond the fact that it was (and, unfortunately, remains) a distressingly common habit of mine? Fortunately, Gorf did me a mitzvah. At the end of the day, Neal Pozner stopped by. “So,” he said. “A little birdie tells me you want to write an Oracle story. Great. Get me an outline by the end of the week.”
Whoa. I had never written a comic book story before. Sure, I’d edited dozens by then, and assisted Dennis O’Neil on a few hundred, but I’d never actually written one, at least in part because although editors were allowed to write, even encouraged, in order to get firsthand experience, the avoidance of the appearance of nepotism was of paramount importance. So I’d never written a comic. Could I do it?
Turns out I could. But even if I couldn’t, it wouldn’t have mattered all that much. Not when I had the artist I did. “Oh,” Neal mentioned, after he’d read my outline. “Brian Stelfreeze wants to do the art.”
(“You’ve GOT to be kidding me,” Kelley Puckett said, when I told him about Brian illustrating the story. “That is NOT the way it’s supposed to happen. You’re supposed to get some teenager who’s never worked in comics before to draw your first story. Stelfreeze? Come on. That’s who you get after you’ve won an Eisner.”)
Brian Stelfreeze. Oh MAN. He’d been one of my favorite artists since the very first time I saw his work. His draftsmanship, second to absolutely none in the industry—the guy could simply flat out draw like nobody’s business. But his design sense, his angular style which somehow had such fluidity to it, his flawless storytelling, so exciting yet so clear. Yeah. I could live with him watching my back.
So Brian and I talked. We talked about the story and about storytelling. We discussed philosophies and techniques. And we talked about Barbara. About Batgirl, about Oracle, about her personality, what she went through, her character and intelligence and strength of will. Where she’d come from, where she was at the beginning of this story, where she’d be at the end. With most superhero comics, you can’t have a real story, not going by the classical definition.
Your hero, be it Superman or Wonder Woman, Storm or Wolverine, can’t really change at the end, not in most stories—not when he or she is going to need to be featured in dozens or scores or even hundreds of comics over the next decade. You can sorta nibble around the edges of change a tiny bit—provide “the illusion of change,” as Chuck Dixon used to put it. But except for the very occasional huge story—your Dark Knight Returns, say, or an origin story retelling—you can’t actually change your character significantly.
But that didn’t go for Oracle or this story. She was new enough that we could actually change her. We could help establish a new status quo for her, that of a true hero who’d been through some horrific experiences but found the strength and confidence to move forward, to accept, even welcome, any challenges thrown her way.
Did Brian design her clocktower? I can’t recall—although I certainly remember seeing the first time he drew it, the unbelievable thrill of witnessing a master really dig in. I know we didn’t come up with that little Batgirl doll was by her computer, but it was such a beautiful touch that we made sure it was there.
But there was one thing we came up with. This was, after all, a superhero comic book, so we needed some action. And Babs had been a superhero with the capes and the tights and the mask and all that, and it just seemed to us that someone with the kind of drive to do what it took to be a superhero would do whatever she could, even without the use of her legs.
So we talked to Kelley Puckett, a black belt, about what kind of fighting techniques someone in her situation could master. Escrima, he said. A Filipino martial art, one of the features of escrima is using sticks to fight, sticks which rely more on speed than sheer strength—although we figured her arms were probably stronger than ever by now. So an escrima master she quickly became. And in one of my favorite twists, her skill with the sticks was so impressive, so cool, that when Nightwing’s costume was redesigned a few years later—by none other than Brian Stelfreeze—young Dick Grayson also started to make prominent use of the escrima sticks.
Although Brian and I continued to work together, that was the only story we did together as writer and artist. But it was always great to catch up, on the phone or at a convention, or recently at a very, very long brunch with my wife Melissa Wiley, and Brian’s girlfriend, artist Stine Walsh. At Wondercon this year, I slipped Brian my wife’s sketchbook—Lissa loves sketches but is always too shy to ask her friends to do for free what they normally get paid for. Brian showed up a few hours later at dinner and sat down. He handed her the sketchbook. I had told him to draw whatever he wanted.
“So,” he said. “I drew my all time favorite character.”
So. Thanks to Oracle, for showing many of us just what a comic book character is capable of.