Batgirl has been in the media for all the wrong reasons recently — but this is nothing new. The iconic heroine has long been a source of controversy for DC, thanks to a series of strange decisions. Here's the story of DC's Batgirls, and the controversies that have come to define them.
Barbara Gordon was not the first Batgirl. Okay, technically, she was. But Batgirl as a concept had already existed in a character called... Bat-Girl. There is apparently a difference!
The original Bat-Girl, Betty Kane, was the niece of Batwoman, Kathy Kane. Introduced in 1961, Betty was not entirely popular as a character — several comics scholars believe she and Batwoman were introduced to refute allegations that Batman and Robin were gay, and writers struggled to find much else to do with them. Although Kathy had been around for much longer than Betty, both characters were phased out of Batman comics in 1964.
A few years later however, Batman was a global superstar, thanks to the massive popularity of the Adam West Batman TV show. The show's producers approached DC, asking for a new female character in the Bat family that they could use to help option the show for a third season and attract more female viewers. The producers came up with the pitch of Commissioner Gordon's daughter becoming a superhero alongside Batman and Robin, and DC ran with the idea.
With the hyphen removed from the old character's name, Batgirl was born: As was Barbara Gordon, her alter-ego.
Barbara Gordon enjoyed two decades of great success as Batgirl. Although she wouldn't get her own regular standalone series, the character was liked enough by readers that she branched out, beyond being a supporting act for Batman.
As a regular character in both Detective Comics and eventually the likes of Justice League in the 1970's, Barbara would evolve from the crime-fighting Batgirl to a member of Congress, leaving Gotham behind for Washington D.C., where she would team up with Superman in Action Comics multiple times.
Barbara eventually returned to Gotham and the Batgirl role for good with the 1975 series The Batman Family, teaming up with Robin and other members of the Batman supporting family. The series sold extremely well, often outselling the main Bat-series Detective Comics, but DC took the decision to merge Bat Family into Detective Comics three years later, to avoid cancelling the by-then iconic series.
The deal only lasted 15 issues though, essentially canceling Bat Family and rendering Barbara a supporting character once more.
But by the late eighties, especially after the Crisis on Infinite Earths event that rebooted DC continuity, Batgirl had been relegated to an even more minor character in the Batman pantheon. DC took the decision to retire the character for good with 1988's standalone comic Batgirl Special, which contained a tale called "The Last Batgirl Story," in which she decides to retire. As the Wiki entry puts it, Barbara "decides that while she may still help others fight crime, her own role will not be to go out and put herself in danger anymore."
But then, writer Alan Moore requested to use Barbara Gordon in his then-upcoming Batman graphic novel. DC agreed, and Barbara was set in place for the character's first highly controversial character beat: her paralysis at the hands of the Joker.
In the grand scheme of Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, Barbara's injury is a minor point, but for the character it came to define her for the rest of the century, and well into the 2000s. Trying to convince Batman that even the most morally just can be driven to evil, the Joker knocks on the door of the Gordon residence, and when Barbara answers the door, he shoots her through the abdomen in front of her father, Jim. Barbara isn't killed, but permanently paralyzed from the waist down, meaning that her career as Batgirl over for good. She's later captured and stripped by the Joker's goons, and it's heavily implied that she is sexually assaulted.
All these years later, The Killing Joke is still a hotly debated graphic novel. It's as beloved as a seminal Batman story as it is critiqued for its poor handling of Barbara's maiming as little more than a plot device to advance a story that was not her own. (A criticism that writer Alan Moore has since agreed with.) Feminist critics hold up the sexual overtones of the attack, as well as the depowering of an iconic female hero, as a dark moment in DC Comics history — hence the uproar when the story was used as inspiration for Rafael Albuquerque's now cancelled cover for Batgirl #41, nearly three decades later.
Not everyone at DC was willing to let Barbara's new disability doom the character to obscurity. Shortly after the release of The Killing Joke, writers Kim Yale and John Ostrander were determined to keep Barbara relevant as a character living with a disability, but their plan took a while to come to fruition.
The character of Oracle, a mysterious anonymous hacker and informant who offers their services to Task Force X made a début in Suicide Squad #23 — but Yale and Ostrander kept the character's real identity a secret to readers for two whole years. Suicide Squad #38 revealed that Oracle was in fact the wheelchair-bound Barbara Gordon, who then formally joined the squad ten issues later.
Although traumatised by her shooting, the Oracle incarnation of Barbara Gordon was still as capable a hero as Batgirl was. Trained in the use of Eskrima and firearms to keep herself safe, Barbara is equally useful as a genius-level computer hacker and information specialist, using the rising use of computer technology to aid her allies in the field. As Oracle, Barbara Gordon doesn't just become a useful asset to the Suicide Squad and other DC teams, but a symbol as a positively-portrayed disabled comic book character. For years, Oracle topped lists as the most positive portrayal of physical disability in comics, a topic rarely covered in mainstream comic books, let alone given such a prominent place with a character like Barbara.
Throughout the nineties, Barbara's operations as Oracle expanded far beyond the Suicide Squad, becoming Batman's most trusted source of information (putting the character on an equal pegging with the Dark Knight, something she rarely, if ever, had as Batgirl) as well as a founding member of the female team Birds of Prey, which began a long running series focusing on Female DC characters. In the late '90s. She even helped mentor the new Batgirl, Cassandra Cain. Speaking of which...
But while Barbara was Oracle, a new character took on the Batgirl name: Cassandra Cain. Originally a mute who becomes Oracle's ward after working as an agent for Barbara, Cassandra regains her ability to speak at the expense of her ability to read body language. Batman retrains the young girl and she becomes Batgirl. But she's still illiterate, and apparently never learns to read.
And in fact, despite the character having been around for almost 40 years at that point, Cassandra became the star of Batgirl's first ever monthly comic series, when it launched in 2000. At the time, Cassandra was well-received. Although her background and association with the League of Assassins (to make a long story short, she was raised by her father as what was meant to be the perfect bodyguard for Ra's Al Ghul) informed a radically different approach to the Batgirl character, Cassandra's run as Batgirl proved popular, making Batgirl one of DC's most consistent selling comic series at the turn of the century.
But as controversial decisions had dogged Barbara Gordon, soon enough they would dog Cassandra as well. In a 2006 event called One Year Later — which, as you might guess, jumped the entire DC continuity one year ahead into the future — Cassandra was revealed to have become the head of the League of Assassins, casting down the Batgirl name.
As the Mary Sue explained, "Writing Cassandra Cain as a murderer and assassin, or someone who had become "disillusioned" with Batman's mission really leapt miles away from the core character." After years of building up a storyline about Cassandra's penitence over her past as a killer, DC threw that away for a shocking reveal that she had gone on a killing spree — showing a huge disregard for one of their most popular female characters.
There were fan campaigns to get DC to undo Cassandra's turn to villainy, but the damage was already done. Later, her killing spree was retconned as Cassandra having been drugged by the villain Deathstroke — which did not assuage the anger of fans who were annoyed that she had been abruptly turned into a villain, and then shoved to the side in order to put the focus on Tim Drake as Robin. Cassandra later returned to the role of Batgirl briefly, before handing the mantle over to Stephanie Brown — and then vanishing into obscurity.
Cassandra would return as the new reformed Batman character Black Bat, fronting Bruce Wayne's operations in Hong Kong as part of the Batman Inc. storyline. But for the most part, fans felt that Cassandra Cain was tossed away, first by being turned into a villain and then by being shunted into the background, where she's remained ever since.
Despite a lack of the controversy that both her predecessors had gone, Stephanie's period as Batgirl didn't resonate with comic readers, and the series was cancelled after 24 issues.
The infamous continuity reboot known as the New 52 in 2011. DC overhauled their range of comics, discarding much of the previous continuity to shape a new DC multiverse beginning with 52 new ongoing comic series (hence the name). There were many shakeups, but one of the most controversial was the return of Barbara Gordon: not as Oracle, but as Batgirl.
Retconning her past and the injury she received in The Killing Joke as something Barbara recovered from following experimental surgery, Gordon had returned to the role of Batgirl transformed by the incident, but fans and critics were decidedly mixed about the news. On the plus side, the most iconic iteration of the Batgirl character was being given a major place in the new DC continuity (and was being written by the popular writer Gail Simone), a boon for the presence of more women in the main roster of comics.
But on the other hand, people were dismayed that the character's 20+ years of being Oracle and an icon for the disabled community were being erased almost entirely (in the New 52, Barbara's stint as Oracle only lasted for four years, the time in-universe between The Killing Joke and her recovery in Batgirl #1). People argued that DC was removing a crucial piece of diversity from its lineup, and while there had been other Batgirls who could replace Barbara, no one stepped up to replace Oracle as a prominent disabled character. Even today, no one really has.
But despite the controversy over the reboot, Batgirl was one of DC's most popular ongoing series in the New 52, consistently finding itself in the top 30 best selling comic books each month.
Last year, Batgirl went through yet another major upheaval. Although this time it was not as character defining as The Killing Joke, the shift was still a big change. DC decided to perform a tonal reboot on Batgirl, replacing the creative team with a new one spearheaded by Babs Tarr, Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher starting with Batgirl #35. Barbara moves to the hip Burnside district of Gotham (just before all of her belongings are destroyed in a fire), adopting both a new lease on life and a new costume, balancing fighting crime with her studies. The ethos of the reboot was to make the book's tone much more light-hearted and appealing to younger readers, after the New 52 reboot of the character was much more tonally dark.
The lighter tone and new costume for Barbara proved to be incredibly popular upon its introduction in October of last year, but even then the ongoing run has been the subject of controversy in its 5 months of existence. Aside from the recent Variant cover echoing back to The Killing Joke, Batgirl #37 came under fire for a cross-dressing villain whom many believed to be an offensive transphobic stereotype, prompting several statements of apology from DC and the creative team.
It seems that for her stature as one of the most iconic female characters in DC's long history, Batgirl, regardless of the incarnation, will almost be as often defined by the controversies she finds herself in embroiled in. She's certainly had one hell of a career in crime-fighting so far.