Ruby Nation

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Friday, June 10, 2011

Gail Simone Talks Batgirl, and why Able-Bodied is Better

In light of the online controversy regarding the new, seemingly able-bodied Batgirl series, Gail Simone gave an interview with Newsarama blogger Jill Pantozzi (who wrote a wonderful essay about the importance of the paraplegic Oracle's merits, as an inspiration for her own life and physical challenges). Simone was nice enough to respond to Pantozzi's article with an interview; however, while Simone was limited by her inability to divulge spoilers about the new title, she made comments that betray her responsibilities not only to represent people with disabilities, but to tell a good story respecting the intelligence of the readers.

While Simone remains civil in the Interview, her arguments for the able-bodied Barbara Gordon Batgirl use the worst tendencies of modern DC Comics as an excuse for retconning Barbara's spine back-- in other words, saying that "everyone else is jumping off a cliff, so I might as well too". She mentions various resurrections and magical "healings" as reasons why erasing the spinal damage done by the Joker's bullet should be acceptable...

"For newsworthiness, well, I just took a look the top sales charts for Marvel and DC, and it's unavoidable...the stories that the readers support in large numbers are nearly all in the middle of storylines that were considered completely unthinkable at one point; Hal Jordon replacing Kyle Rayner, Bucky returning from the dead, Jason Todd returning from the dead, Johnny Storm dying, Dick Grayson as Batman, Bruce Wayne dying, Barry Allen returning as the Flash, on and on and on. To some, these are all stunts, but they have been executed brilliantly and I strongly suspect many will be among the best-remembered stories of their respective runs.'s open to strong debate wether or not these are brilliant stories. Even the ones that were executed brilliantly have their problems; for example, having Batman's death be explicitly temporary from day one undermined what little drama superhero comics retain. But as Simone continues to dodge the issue, she tries to give plot-related reasons to remove Oracle that sidestep the disability issue...

"A lot of readers and a lot of editors had a story problem with Oracle, in that she made for such an easy, convenient story accelerator, that we missed the sense of having characters have to struggle to discover, to solve mysteries. Famously, it helped make Batman less of a detective and more of a monster hunter."

So don't use her as a convenient story accelerator. Just because you can use a character's skills as a deus ex machina doesn't mean you have to. And it gets especially more damning when she tries to divide the opinions of PWD advocates...

"But I want to get this out really quickly, it's about the myth of monolithic opinion. It's been sort of simply accepted that there's this block of disabled folks who are against this idea, en masse, and I do have to say quickly that that's not the case. There has always been a vocal minority of PWD [people with disabilities] who wanted to see Babs healed and out of the chair, always. It started out a tiny minority but it did get larger as the years went on. Again, I don't want those people to be forgotten. Even with some PWD advocacy groups, the response has always been mixed. I feel like I have to represent that group as well, here. It's a much smaller group, as far as I can tell, however. "

I've encountered people, even people with disabilities who want to see Babs healed and out of the chair. I tend not to see them as people whose opinions are worth acknowledging. Their opinion is rooted in escapist wish fulfillment, trying to imagine a world where disabling injuries can be magically healed. That's all well and good, but if you find your own challenges such a curse, escaping in the adventures of a character who does get her legs back isn't going to solve shit. It's just a soma that, instead of letting you contextualize your own experience through fiction and receive a greater understanding, simply gives you a brief distraction from reality.

A major reason many people (myself included) like Oracle is because she's one of the few superhero characters who is legitimately handicapped with no tie-in superpowers. She doesn't have super-compensating senses like the blind Daredevil, or super-powered artificial limbs like the disfigured Cyborg. She is in a wheelchair, and all of her activities have to be done from that chair. The way she negotiates life and ethics from a place of severe physical and societal limitations is inspiring, and as Jill Pantozzi expressed, serves as a role model in the best ways.

But then, this is the straw on my metaphorical hump...

"Role model or not, that is problematic and uncomfortable, and the excuses to not cure her, in a world of purple rays and magic and super-science, are often unconvincing or wholly meta-textual. And the longer it goes on, the more it has stretched credibility."

Of course it's meta-textual, it's a fucking story. If you take continuity literally, you can use said purple rays and magic and super-science to solve all problems. You just pull out whatever deus ex machina you want and erase the conflict, thus erasing the drama. Again, this makes fiction into an escape, not a catharsis. Instead of creating a world to reflect and better understand our own, you're just creating a virtual reality that people can cower to when actual reality is too hard.

Simone goes on to talk about how she's always loved Batgirl, and how she's always wanted to write Barbara as Batgirl, and how being shot by the Joker was her motivation for starting the Women in Refrigerators project. She also says that she was impressed by the writers who made Barbara stronger person from being in the chair, and didn't want to take away the character she became through that adversity. But that appears to be exactly what she's doing, otherwise she wouldn't need to get on the defensive. No matter how great the character became in Birds of Prey, under the hand of Simone, Dixon, and others, it means nothing because the nostalgia for the character in the less-than-serious 60's show is paramount. Yes, Barbara's transition to Oracle came from a Fridging in The Killing Joke, where she was shot by the Joker just to make him look more evil. But does that mean the 20 years of the character since then have been for nothing?

Simone has become an excellent writer not just for her skills, but for her acknowledgement that the world of superheroes is full of perspectives beyond the majority, just like our own. This feels like a betrayal, because it sure sounds like she's erasing one of those perspectives to go back to a fantasy FROM the minority.

It doesn't matter that this is Barbara's first solo ongoing series, because if her mobility is fully restored and her experiences are washed away, she's just yet another supermodel in tights, and tights borrowed from a male character at that. When you remove the adversity, you remove the conflict, and you remove the meaning gained.


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  3. If anybody can pull this off - Gail can - as seen in this issue of SS -