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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

New 52 Batgirl #1 Review: Wasn't That Paralysis Just A Hassle?

The new Batgirl comic is finally out, and it's simultaneously not as repellent as I expected, yet still inherently repellent.

In all fairness, the story is still unfolding, and it's well-told. I'm not objecting to the abilities of Gail Simone as a writer or Adrian Syaf as an artist. It's the fact that the team involved is so talented that makes this book so galling. They should be able to do something better, and avoid the pitfalls.

Because at this point, it looks like the new Barbara Gordon was still shot in the spine, but got better. She says that she was in a wheelchair for three years after the Joker attacked her, but then " a miracle" happened. We don't hear what that miracle is, and I imagine we'll find out. But I don't see how it could be anything more than a quick Phlebotnium fix. The way Barbara's narration frames the miracle, it sounds like she spent the three years without her mobility just sitting on her ass moping in a dark room, but then she found this cure and she's back in the game.

Credit should be given to Simone for at least making Barbara's "recovery" believable, in that she's not recovered from the psychological aspect. She still knows what it's like to have been in a wheelchair, and finds herself bothered by ablist remarks people make without thinking ( such as the whole "being in a chair is worse than death" bullshit). She still has nightmares about the shooting, and she's very nervous on the battlefield after the incident. The cliffhanger even has Barbara freeze up and fail to save someone thanks to a PTSD flashback from a criminal pointing a gun at her just the way the Joker did.

However, the fact remains that Barbara can walk now, and she's used that opportunity to go back to being a more famous character's distaff counterpart. The theory that she wouldn't be able to walk without her new armored costume is debunked by the images of Barbara walking around in her civvies. Perhaps the costume helps her with mobility, since her legs would've atrophied in the three years of paralysis. It could be similar to Old Snake's Octocamo suit in Metal Gear Solid 4, adding a slight boost in strength to help with her impairments but not actually making her superhuman. Of course, wacky textures on costumes are everywhere in the rebooted DCU, so it might just be Barbara jumping on this "HR Giger meets Victoria's Secret"* bandwagon.

The disability aspect is present, but it's a past-tense motivator, a handicap used to make her able-bodied self look stronger. But the things Barbara accomplished as Oracle, without leaving her chair, were much more impressive and meaningful. The comic is interesting enough and well-written enough that I'm going to keep reading it for the time being, but I sincerely hope the representation of disability goes beyond "Origin Story Tragedy". It's a deeper handling than most writers would attempt, but it's not enough to compensate for the semiotic ableism inherent in "fixing" Barbara Gordon.

* A description I saw in a ComicsAlliance comments thread, which seems especially apt when looking at the new Batgirl.


  1. Gail Simone? How did they manage to get her to accede to this? Pretty wry.

    Still... if anyone manages to get something good out of this, IMHO, very poor executive decision, it's her.

  2. I agree that Batgirl #1 was well-written and illustrated, and that Gail Simone showed as much sensitivity to Barbara Gordon's controversial situation as any writer could have been expected to. I also agree that the issue fails to compensate for the loss of Oracle as a great comic book character and icon/role model for the disabled. Here's why:

    Referring to her three-year's spent in a wheelchair, Barbara says, "The Joker didn't beat me. The bullet didn't beat me." Judging only from the information provided in this story, I'm not so sure.

    Since Barbara describes her recovery as a "miracle," I can only presume that for most of the time she was paralyzed, she had no reasonable expectation that she would ever regain the use of her legs. Despite this, I also gather from her recapping of her past that in this rebooted reality, Barbara never adopted her Oracle persona or important tactical role in the DC Universe. That would mean this Barbara Gordon showed far less resilience and adaptability than her pre-rebooted counterpart who, as I put it in a post on Comic Book Justice, refused "to let a little thing like her inability to walk get in the way of her passion for justice." The previous Barbara Gordon was paralyzed less than a year before "she reinvented herself as a new, and far more efficient crime-fighter geared for the 21st century."

    But perhaps we'll eventually learn that Barbara did spend some part of her three-year break from being Batgirl using her brilliant mind and computer skills as Oracle. If so, why when she was able to walk again would she choose to give up her wholly unique and frankly indispensible niche as a master intelligence-gatherer and tactician for the entire superhero community to go back to being one of four "bat" beings--along with Man, Woman, and now Wing--patrolling the same mean streets? This would seem to be making the less-than-well-thought-out decision that, as I put it in my post, "beating up one Gotham City psychopath at a time" is a better use of her talents than inventing "a new paradigm for crime-fighting on a global scale that allowed her to apprehend far more evildoers and protect far more innocents." Even if she wanted to go out occasionally as Batgirl for old-time's sake and to get some exercise, I would hope she wouldn't abandon the greater good she could do as Oracle.

    So whether she was ever Oracle, or she wasn't, this Barbara Gordon seems just a little less heroic than her predecessor.

  3. thanks for commenting, Richard! I strongly recommend that anyone interested in my blog (or not interested in my blog, for that matter) check out Comic Book Justice. You're right about Batgirl being superfluous in the era of Batman, Inc. You're also right about the removal of Oracle from the backstory, if that is indeed what's going on, being a tremendous reduction of the character's integrity.

  4. I'm not really a DC reader so I'm not familiar with the context, but why didn't they heal Barbara with a Lazarus Pit or something like that in the first place?

    That's the problem with writing stories where characters become disabled or suffer from illnesses like cancer or HIV in a fantastical universe-namely, it begs the question as to why some of this fancy scientific or magical phlebotinum doesn't just heal them. Obviously you can't cure an inherited condition like autism, but if someone ends up getting cancer or is crippled by an outside factor, what keeps them from simply being healed or working around the problem?

    For obvious reasons, Barbara might not be able to access a Lazarus Pit. So why doesn't Batman or somebody else with enough engineering savvy simply rig up some sort of cybernetic limbs or battle-harness that she could use to allow her to walk?

    Otherwise, you end up having to resort to what TV Tropes calls the Idiot Ball to make stories like this work-the heroes who are capable of all sorts of otherwise amazing feats can't solve real world problems that seem mundane by comparison.

    Just look at the sheer lunacy that One More Day needed to be able to work in the first place-Doctor Strange has saved the friggin' universe on multiple occasions and Elixir is capable of all kinds of spectacular medical feats, but neither they nor anyone else can treat an otherwise ordinary gunshot wound and Spidey ends up having to make a deal with Mephisto to save Aunt May's life.

    How do you write stories like these, where the characters are confronted with real-world situations that they end up having a lot more trouble with than the much more epic menaces they otherwise confront on a monthly basis?

  5. Ehh, I'm still pissed over Stephanie.

  6. Jared - You can easily avoid all those problems. Marvel Divas did this - Firestar has cancer, she goes to Henry pym and he tells her that in her case standard therapy is the least dangerous option, all supernatural ones may do more harm. Here, problem solved.