The character of Barbara Gordon has been through quite a lot since her first appearance of Detective Comics #359 in January of 1967. The creation of Babs was one of necessity; the producers of the ABC Batman series wanted another female character due to the on screen success of Catwoman. When Carmine Infantino and Gardner Fox were charged with this task they developed not only Barbara but Poison Ivy and another character named the Grey Fox. The producers loved the concept and Batgirl and there was plenty of cross-promotion to take advantage of. Barbara Gordon was not the first Batgirl; Bob Kane had created a Batwoman and Batgirl that existed for a short time in the 1950’s. Those characters, in the words of a DC Comics open letter to the fans at that time “were gone for good”. This meant that Barbara Gordon was going to be a central character to the Bat-family moving forward.
In the late 1960’s the Batman TV series cast Yvonne Craig as Barbara Gordon. There was a tremendous amount of buzz at the time for this move, and helped to seal the order for a third season of the show. Craig did various photo shoots dressed as Batgirl and promoted “The Million Dollar Debut of Batgirl” as her “favorite comic of all time”. Clearly this was a move to generate female interest in the character and subsequently the TV series as well as Detective Comics.
The origin stories for the character were basically the same. On the TV series Barbara was daughter of Police Commissioner James Gordon who was a graduate student working at the Gotham Public Library who moonlighted as Batgirl. The comic origin was slightly different, going into more detail for Barbara’s motivation to be under the cowl. At a very young age Babs and her friend Marcy would design costumes and secret identities for themselves; this would lay the groundwork for Babs becoming Batgirl later on. Living in suburban Ohio, Barbara’s parents were killed in a car crash and she went to live with her Uncle, Cpt. Jim Gordon at age 13 who promptly adopted her. Living in Gotham City, Babs became infatuated with the city’s nighttime protector Batman. Becoming obsessed, she learned everything that she could about the caped crusader. One evening she snuck into her father’s home office, where he was having a conversation with Batman. Not knowing until now that Batman and her adoptive father worked together, this made her obsession with the Dark Knight grow even stronger. The following morning Babs insisted that she should be enrolled in martial arts classes. Although he was reluctant, Jim thought that the daughter of a police Captain could benefit from self defense classes. Barbara quickly obtained a black-belt while excelling in her training. Having realized that Batman was not only a perfected martial artist, but a super intelligent detective as well, Barbara committed herself to excelling in academics. She had a photographic memory which helped her to graduate at Gotham Heights High School at the age of only 16. This enabled her to earn a scholarship to Gotham State University, where she was one of the youngest students. Barbara graduated GSU before she was even a legal adult. Barbara had become friends with Katarina Armstrong who we now know as “Spy Smasher” in the DCU. This friendship was ended abruptly at GSU when Kat and Babs were in a track & field race where Kat tripped Babs and won the race. It was several years before the two would cross paths again. Now 16, she had accepted a job at the Gotham Public Library as a research assistant. Her training was not forgotten however, she learned Jujitsu under a sensei named Dragoncat. By this time Barbara had decided she wanted to work in the field of law enforcement. She asked her father about joining the police academy, but James laughed at her, claiming that she didn't even meet the height requirements. She attempted to join the FBI as well, but was not accepted for the same reason.
It wasn’t but a few nights later that Barbara’s life would change forever. The GCPD was having a masquerade ball. Many of Gotham’s elite would be there, including Bruce Wayne. Babs designed and sewed a feminine looking Batman costume for the party, one that resembled her designs from when she was a child. Her intentions were to spite her father by crashing this party as “Batgirl”. Once arriving at the party things quickly changed. A costumed criminal named Killer Moth” had raided the party and was holding hostages for ransom. This was her chance and she took it, not realizing that Bruce Wayne was Batman she tackled Killer Moth who had taken Bruce as his prize hostage. This allowed Bruce to escape and slip away to change in to Batman joined by Robin. By this time Killer Moth had overpowered Batgirl and she needed some help. Killer Moth was allowed to escape so that Batman could save Batgirl. Batman scolded Batgirl for being so reckless. This was a shock for Babs, but despite his disapproval Batman sent her a set of batarangs via Dick Grayson who had subtly revealed himself to be Robin. When Babs solved the mystery of Robin’s identity Batman “swore her in” with an oath and revealed his own identity.
For years Batgirl was used in the comics less and less, losing much of the attention that the TV series had brought to the character. Various storylines had her placed as a love interest for Robin. She eventually retired as Batgirl after being less fulfilled by her role as Batgirl.
If you are interested in reading some of the silver age stories involving Batgirl you need to prepare yourself for a different social culture. Women in the silver age were often depicted as weak and even simple minded. The stories are good, but it’s hard sometimes to get past the Bat-lipstick and utility purse that were commonplace of the time. You may even find that her origin has some differences as well. The mega event “Crisis on Infinite Earths” which took place in 1985 restructured the DC universe and many characters back-story. The origin I have talked about is based on the corrections to continuity that Crisis was designed to correct for the whole universe.
One of the significant changes to the DCU post-crisis was grittier and darker universe our hero’s were living in. Barbara Gordon was no exception to this rule. Having retired as Batgirl, Barbara’s life was about to take a 180 in the Graphic Novel “The Killing Joke”. The story itself revolves mostly around Batman and the Joker, who believes that any man could be driven insane if he has a “bad enough day”. Jim Gordon and Barbara become lab rats in the Jokers sick experiment. The Joker knocks on the door of the Gordon’s house and shoots Barbara in the midsection effectively paralyzing her from the waist down. He then takes her bloody body and snaps countless pictures of her in various states of undress. The Joker then leaves to kidnap James and torture him with the gruesome images of Barbara. This is a fantastic story that I hate to spoil if you haven’t read it. The story as it relates to the Gordon’s however still is having aftershocks in the Batman titles today.
Barbara goes through a deep depression after having her spine severed by the Joker’s bullet and her father as well as her sometimes boyfriend Dick Grayson is left grief-stricken. This causes Barbara to develop an intense obsession with everything to do with the Joker. She begins to develop some remarkable computer hacking skills and regularly taps into the prison surveillance cameras to keep an eye on the Joker. Dick Grayson and Barbara argue that an exception should be made to kill the Joker.
Barbara is able to find a very useful way to put her high intellect of information technology to good work. She develops the Oracle after the Greek figure of the same name, who was an all knowing woman. To this day Barbara has been irreplaceable as Oracle serving as an information broker for Batman, the Justice League, and countless other heroes’ in the DCU. She even develops her own team of female crime fighters known as “the Birds of Prey”. But Barbara does rely on her mind alone; she trains with a martial arts master by the name of Richard Dragon to develop her upper body and a fighting style that she can use while still in her wheelchair.
The birds of prey series ran for 10 years and was written by a handful of notable writers. It was announced that in 2010 Gail Simone will be taking back the title after having worked on the series earlier in her career.
Oracle was instrumental in the 2008 event “Final Crisis”, where she and Mr. Terrific attempt to shut down the internet due to the plan that Darkseid has to spread his anti-life equation. They are not successful and fall prey to Darkseids plan.
Barbara has appeared in various media as well, many of the Batman animated series had appearances of both Batgirl and Oracle. The movie Batman & Robin showed us a different interpretation of Barbara/Batgirl being the niece of Alfred Pennyworth.
If you are interested in reading some batgirl stories as I mention earlier, there are many trades out there to get a “Batgirl/Oracle fix”. By reading any of these you are bound to have a greater appreciation for Barbara Gordon and her unrivaled value to the DCU. The trade series “Batgirl: Year One” is a great place to start to really get a feel for despite her different motivations than Batman, she is a very complex character well deserving of her long history in the DCU.
- Showcase Presents: Batgirl, Vol. 1 ISBN 1401213677; collects early Batgirl appearances (1967–1975) (Release date 2007) Softcover
- Batman: Batgirl (1997) ISBN 978-1563893056
- Batman: The Killing Joke (1988) ISBN 0930289455
- Batman: Thrillkiller ISBN 1563894246; collects Thrillkiller: Batgirl & Robin and the '62 special (1998)
- Elseworld's Finest: Supergirl & Batgirl (1998)
- Birds of Prey (1999) ISBN 156389484X
- Birds of Prey: Old Friends, New Enemies (2003) ISBN 1563899396
- Batgirl: Year One (2003) ISBN 140120080X
- Birds of Prey: Of Like Minds (2004) ISBN 140120192X
- Birds of Prey: Sensei & Student (2005) ISBN 1401204341
- Birds of Prey: Between Dark & Dawn (2006) ISBN 1401209408
- Birds of Prey: The Battle Within (2006) ISBN 978-1401210960
- Birds of Prey: Perfect Pitch (2007) ISBN 1401211917
- Birds of Prey: Blood and Circuits (2007) ISBN 9781401213718