When DC gave the okay for writer Alan Moore to paralyze Barbara Gordon—the original Batgirl—in 1988’s The Killing Joke miniseries, then-editor Len Wein famously said “Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.”
In what’s considered a legendary scene in Batman comics, Barbara was shot by the Joker while at home and out of costume. Following the injury, she stopped being Batgirl and, over the years, assumed the mantle of Oracle, a hacker extraordinaire, mentor to troubled young women, and leader of the crime-fighting team Birds of Prey. Despite her use of a wheelchair, Barbara Gordon has remained a fierce and formidable member of the DC pantheon of heroes. (Here’s a great history of the character.)
Now, DC is rebooting its universe and making some major changes. One of them? Babs will be walking—and will reassume the mantle of the bat. While healing a feminist role model and restoring her original powers seems, in theory, like a great reparation of wrongs, this decision actually says a lot about ableism, that is, prejudice against those with disabilities, as a part of the comics space.
There’s been a lot of chatter about this issue, but Jill Pantozzi, AKA the Nerdy Bird, sums the changes up in a wrenching op-ed for Newsarama about her personal love of Barbara Gordon as Oracle—and why the character is necessary for the DC universe.
Pantozzi has muscular dystrophy and has used a wheelchair for the past 14 years. To Pantozzi, Oracle is a powerful symbol that represents a commitment to all kinds of diversity:
…People being disabled is part of the real world, it is essential it be part of the fictional world as well. Especially if DC is dedicated to a diverse universe. And I don’t mean, “You have to keep Oracle around because I’M in a wheelchair,” I mean for everyone. Are there people of every race, religion and sex in the world? Yes, so let your comics reflect that as well as many other diverse subsets there are out there.
I side with Pantozzi on this issue. (And Pantozzi’s follow-up interview with comic writer Gail Simone is worth a read as well.)
Oracle has become one of the few characters that I’ve seen in any genre of nerd fiction that was not confined to tokenist tropes. As Oracle, Barbara Gordon was a fully developed person. As Andy Khouri writes at Comics Alliance:
[Oracle’s] adventures over the last 20 years, particularly in Birds of Prey (written primarily by Chuck Dixon and Gail Simone), have depicted a handicapped person – a handicapped woman – not only with basic human dignity, but also with a mental, emotional and indeed a physical capableness that's made her the hero of her own stories as well as invaluable asset to other heroes in the DC Universe.
While DC seems to be sticking with their decision to bring Babs back as Batgirl, I hope that other complicated, diverse characters are given the opportunity to shine. If the industry is in as much turmoil as everyone seems to think, perhaps making a commitment to telling diverse stories that appeal to a wide spectrum of readers from a variety of lifestyles would be a wise strategic move. We can only hope.
Erin Polgreen is a staff writer for Campus Progress.