Character Study: Barbara Gordon

Dedicated to the late Yvonne Craig

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It’s a shame how much Barbara Gordon/Batgirl is perhaps one of the most underrated characters in comics and pop culture. Not surprising that many dismiss her as little more than a “female Robin” or a lesser spinoff character of the caped crusader.

But the astute observer will note that by being tied to the Batman mythos, Barbara Gordon has arguably made more appearances in mainstream media than any other comic book super heroine, including Wonder Woman, thus perhaps making Batgirl the most publicized comic book super heroine to date.

After all, she’s appeared in every Batman cartoon and has starred in two live action series and has appeared in the Batman films.

I know what many may ask, what about Catwoman?

In number of appearances, Batgirl may edge out Catwoman by virtue of Batgirl being a member of #TeamDoGooder.

All the same, Catwoman is a unique case. She’s hands down the most iconic comic book super villainess but she has also established herself as an amazing anti-heroine as well. She’s unique (and a most complex character) in that she blurs the line between good and evil. While she’s one of Batman’s greatest foes (more-so in that she’s one of the few that is capable of corrupting him and seducing him to the dark side), she’s also proven time and again that she’ll do the right thing and aid Batman when push comes to shove. Catwoman is the femme fatale who plays by her own rules and depending on adaptation, she’s a thief, an anti-heroine, a criminal mastermind, or an unlikely Batman ally.

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The anti-Catwoman in a lot of respects, Batgirl is the virtuous ingenue through and through.

Little known fact, it was actually Batgirl (and by extension actress Yvonne Craig) who got me into the Batman mythos. To this day, most of my favorite Batman stories (specifically tv episodes) are the ones that feature Babs.

I was first captivated by Barbara Gordon as a kid when I watched the campy 60s Adam West Batman series. She had this mystique about her. She was demure, graceful, feminine and had a high kick that could not be denied. I always thought it was cool that she took most of her foes out with kicks rather than punches. Much love to Craig (who I also enjoyed on Doby Gillis) for her iconic portrayal of the dynamic dare doll. And I will argue to this day that Batgirl had the one of the most stylish costumes of all time. The purple and yellow ensemble just screamed one thing: FIERCE!!!!! Yeah I said it. I apologize for nothing.

Obsessed with this extraordinary heroine, I wanted to find out more about her. So when I got into comics, research went into overdrive. I picked up as many issues I could about her and voraciously read each of them. The Batman Family title was a constant favorite just so I could see Batgirl.

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I was astonished at the history I learned about her past. What impressed me most was that she was a brain with a photographic memory, a world class gymnast (this quickly scored points with me, having a brief gymnastics background myself), and an accomplished martial artist. In some stories, she possessed a phD. In others, she was a congresswoman. While many are quick to dismiss her as a mousy ingenue, Babs possesses heart and guts that rival any webslinger.

What amazed me about Babs was that depending on adaptation or story, she often worked independently of Batman (often out of her bedroom or apartment) and even though she lacked Bruce’s resources (his wealth, his gadgets, his more extensive training, and a partner to boot), she still managed to hold her own as a more than capable crime fighter. And even when working as a member of Bruce’s crew, she still proved herself to be an invaluable asset.

Babs is very similar to Spider-Man in that regard (and I even mentioned once those two would be the OTP). Though a working class super heroine with resources limited to a librarian’s salary, Babs continuously proved herself to be a force of nature.

And speaking of the constant evolution of the ingenue heroine, many parallels can also be made to her and Kitty Pryde (who Joss Whedon credits as an inspiration for Buffy) and even heroines like Sarah Jane Smith and Willow Rosenberg (if she had been the slayer).

I always got a kick out of the fact that this petite geek was regularly underestimated as a little girl playing dress up by enemies and even allies alike. And while constantly outmatched and outgunned, Babs would figure out a way to do the impossible and emerge victorious. Whether pitted against the Joker, the Penguin, Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, Catwoman (who she had a longstanding rivalry with in certain adaptations), Batgirl was constantly the underdog who emerged victorious against would-be unstoppable badasses.

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It was little wonder to me that she eventually became a valuable member of the Justice Society.

One of the things that bugs me about many Batman adaptations, is that Batgirl often gets excluded, despite how popular she is. It’s like they try to reduce the Batcave to a boys club. They’ll include Batman, Robin, even Nightwing but Batgirl is often excluded.

I was most very upset when she was retired (editorial mandate) and owned her “final issue as Batgirl” for many years. But not as upset as I was when they attempted to fridge Babs in the Killing Joke when the Joker shoots Barbara Gordon and leaves her a permanent paraplegic. I was also heartbroken as this meant we wouldn’t see someone don the Batgirl mantle for many years to come.

But as a testament to her character, Babs made a comeback with a vengeance. She reinvented herself as the Oracle: the premiere info jock of the DC Universe. Her hacking Kung Fu makes one Thomas Anderson look like a newbie. You know you’re a badass when you’re working for Amanda Waller’s Suicide Squad as well as the Justice League.

Babs also became another kind of trailblazing character in that she’s one of the few superheroes in comics with a disability. And that’s representation we need more of whether it’s Daredevil, Professor X, Geordi LaForge or Misty Knight.

Oh but my girl Red did not stop there. She would make another splash in the game with the Birds of Prey, penned by my good friend Gail Simone.

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For me, this awesome series hit its stride when Huntress and Zinda joined Black Canary on the team. I like the sisterhood dynamic that plays out with these extraordinary women. I also enjoyed the live-action reimagining of Birds of Prey.

Although paralyzed, Babs was by no means helpless. A master martial artist of eskrima, she has laid the smack down to Calculator so many times I’ve lost count (though I never get tired of seeing her do it). She’s delivered payback to the Joker by knocking out his teeth. But one of my biggest OH HELL YES moments came when Babs squared off against old rival Spysmasher when she attempted to take over the Birds. Not only did every ally of Babs roll 30 deep as backup (half the DC Universe) but Babs made good on her words (points up to the pic) and let Spymaster know why Red is not the one to test.

Of course something truly extraordinary happened many years later. Barbara took in a special young girl by the name of Cassandra Cain who would later inherit the mantle of Batgirl. Cain managed to make the mantle her own in a very different way from Babs. It was also amazing to see Babs take on a maternal role in mentoring Cass. And that’s one of the reasons why I’m very protective of the Batgirl mantle. Because more than Batman’s cowl, to be a Batgirl you have to be gifted, extraordinary and transcend the mantle itself as both Cass and Babs have proven time and time and time again. For you see the Batgirl mantle has produced two of the greatest characters in comic book history.

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It was only a matter of time before Barbara returned to the mantle that she made famous and when the New 52 universe relaunched, sure enough she was Batgirl once more.

For you see Babs is also a trailblazing character in that she made being geek tres chic. Young girls got to see that is possible to be smart, virtuous, beautiful and powerful and that girls can kick butt just as hard as the boys. But just as important, young boys like me ALSO got to see that girls are smart, virtuous, beautiful and powerful and can kick butt as hard as we can.  Barbara Gordon, Oracle, Batgirl, a rose by any other name…..

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Here’s looking at you Red.

And to Ms. Craig, take a bow:

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3 comments on “Character Study: Barbara Gordon

  1. Pingback: Character Study: Barbara Gordon | thenerdsofcolor

  2. Reblogged this on Pop Rocking Culture and commented:
    In light of Yvonne Craig’s death, I was going to write a blog post. But I read this post by Dennis R. Upkins, and realized that he said it much better than I could have. A great tribute!

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