Published on July 23rd, 2014 | by Swamp Thing0
Who’s BatGirl, Running Around With You?
It’s a hard knock life.
As the world (or at least most of the geekier parts of it) celebrates Batman blowing his chance to ever sit on the Canadian senate, I think we should spare a thought for those that have taken on the mantle of Batgirl since she first swung over the streets of Gotham, because frankly they’ve had it pretty damn tough. Their cowl-and-cape clad character has been in favour, out of favour, applauded, derided, discarded, paralysed, been a pawn in the endless game of claim and counter claim about misogyny in comicdom, been held aloft as a feminist icon, and had to suffer the greatest humiliation possible for a comic character. No, I’m not talking about her appearance in Joel Schumacher’s 125 minute big-screen bowel movement Batman and Robin; amazingly there’s an even worse fate than that: Batgirl was once retconned! (and for those that don’t know what that means, keep reading…)
Holy ‘flying mammal persons not of the male gender’ Batman!
Detective Comics introduced Batman to the world in May 1939. He was an immediate success, but his popularity was to double a year later when DC tried to attract a younger audience to the Batman fold and introduced us to Robin. So the Caped Crusader became The Dynamic Duo, and for fourteen years Batman and Robin lived and worked together, fighting crime in wholesome All-American man-and-boy harmony, with only their faithful butler for company. What could be wrong with that?
Well according to German-American psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, there was a lot wrong with it. In 1948 he started making noises about the negative impact of comics on the young, and in 1954 he published Seduction of the Innocent, a treatise on the link between comics and juvenile delinquency. It was a book that was taken far more seriously at the time than the sensationalist content warranted, and amongst the claims he made (many of which were apocryphal, poorly or inaccurately evidenced or in some cases entirely falsified) was that “Batman stories are psychologically homosexual”. “The Batman type of story may stimulate children to homosexual fantasies, of the nature of which they may be unconscious” claimed Wertham, “Only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and of the psychopathology of sex can fail to realize a subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism which pervades the adventures of the mature Batman and his young friend Robin.” It has since been suggested that the idea wasn’t entirely Wertham’s own and that he had spoken to members of the gay community, who had already taken notice of the fact that Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson had been portrayed sharing a bed (nearly). That Wertham’s claim about the harmful nature of Batman’s sexuality should be taken seriously seems ridiculous to the point of absurdity by modern standards, but back then it caused quite a stir. This was the America of the “Reds under the bed” McCarthy witch-hunts, and after communism the next biggest perceived risk to the nation’s security was homosexuality, resulting in the period of paranoid fear and distrust of all things overtly gay now referred to as “the lavender scare”. Being gay just didn’t fit with the ‘American way’, and for a significant percentage of the population at the time the ‘American way’ was the way of racism, paranoia, intolerance and bigotry.
Whilst publicly the comics industry did little more than deride Wertham’s accusations, behind closed doors at DC there were meetings met, discussions discussed and memos memoed. The end result was the introduction of Kathy Kane as Batwoman. She made her debut in July 1956 (Detective Comics #233), and was the first new character of what was planned to be the ‘Batman Family’ – well it had worked rather well for Superman, busily living the American dream with Lois Lane, with Supergirl, Superboy and Superdog in tow, so DC saw no reason not to try and repeat the trick with Batman. Even if this cosy little Bat-Family wasn’t as successful as the Supers had proved to be, it would at least undermine the suggestion that there might be any sinister motive for a wealthy single man choosing to spend so much time in the company of a teenage boy. In a dark cave. In costumes.
Kathy Kane’s Batwoman was sufficiently popular with the fans, both as a caped crime fighter in her own right (though regularly in need of rescuing by Batman) and as Batman’s romantic interest, that in 1961 DC completed their Bat-Family by introducing a love interest for Robin in the form of Betty Kane as…
The First Batgirl
Betty Kane as Batgirl, or Bat-Girl as she was then, first swung into action in Batman #139. Betty was the niece of Kathy Kane, and it was her discovery of her aunt’s secret crime-fighting identity that spurred young Betty into taking up the mask and cape herself, becoming Batwoman’s Robin-esque sidekick. Batwoman’s character had been around for 5 years by now and the romantic interplay between her and Batman had been established as a low-key and undemonstrative affair. They were grown-ups, after all. Betty was younger, and her teenage crush on Robin had her literally throwing herself at him on occasion. Like her aunt, Betty Kane was smart and unfeasibly athletic, and came with her own range of crime-fighting gadgets including the instant-inflate scary-faced balloon and the net-throwing lipstick. The most potentially interesting accoutrement was her Bat-Scooter, but sadly this was talked about but never seen.
The story arc at the time had Robin initially rejecting Bat-Girl’s attentions, but then warming to her. Batman even gives his tacit approval for a relationship between Robin and Bat-Girl. But it was not to be. The arrival of Bat-Girl rounded off an extended Bat-Family that already included the mischievous Bat-Mite and Ace the Bat-Hound, and it was a package that was already starting to give at the seams. The Superman family had been an easier buy-in for the readers, possibly because Superman’s own background was heavily family-orientated, both as Superman and Clark Kent, and the character had always been portrayed as squeaky-clean and as wholesome as Mom’s apple pie. Superman having Lois Lane as his ‘girlfriend’ almost from the beginning had also made the transition to a more family-orientated dynamic a reasonably natural progression. For Batman, born of the childhood trauma of seeing his own parents brutally slain, romance and domestic bliss were a bit of a stretch. The Dark Knight’s cape was having Gotham’s grime boil-washed out of it, the sanitized domesticity turning the Batman stories into little more than situation comedy. Sales of Batman titles went into decline: The Caped Crusader was heading in a new direction, and the fans weren’t sure about it.
DC’s new editor was sure about it: he hated it. When Julius Schwarz took over control of the Batman titles in 1964, everything changed. Gone were Batwoman, Bat-Mite, Bat-Hound and Bat-Girl. DC later stated in an open letter to fans in Detective Comics #417 in 1971 “They [Batwoman and Bat-Girl] were there because romance seemed to be needed in Batman’s life. But thanks to the big change and a foresighted editor, these hapless females are gone for good”.
Worse was to come. In 1985, DC ran its 12 issue series Crisis on Infinite Earths. With more than just a hint of desperation at its core, Crisis was an attempt to resolve the mess that was DCs multi-earth continuity, itself the result of the regular personnel changes that saw different writers and editors reworking and reimagining characters and titles, often in seemingly haphazard fashion. The only way to make these wildly incompatible storylines viable was to have them set on different Earths in different universes. Crisis saw the removal of the alternative universes from history, and the eradication of everything that took place in them. The process in comics of changing or erasing the past in order to make it fit the desired present has become known as retroactive continuity (or retcon), and Bat-Girl became a victim of it during Crisis on Infinite Earths. Betty Kane, along with the rest of the Bat-Family, were retconned out of existence, and Batman’s continuity. In essence, Bat-Girl and Batwoman had never happened. Post-Crisis, a new character, Mary Elizabeth “Bette” Kane, popped up in the DC Universe, and thansk to Infinite Crisis in 2005 and Final Crisis in 2008 (will DC never learn?) she’s been the characters Flamebird and Hawkfire, turned out to be the cousin of the new Batwoman, Kate Kane, and had a bit of a thing for Dick Grayson’s Nightwing. So not the same person as Betty Kane at all then. There’s no sign of the original Bat-Girl returning as yet, but who knows what may happen in Absolutely the Last Time we’re going to do this Honest Guv Crisis, because with retconning anything goes. Apart from bringing back the pre-Crisis Bat-Mite. That cannot be allowed to happen in any universe. Ever.
With Bat-Girl and Batwoman gone, the Dynamic Duo were able to return to their vigilante non-gay crime fighting ways without any pesky females interfering or needing rescuing. It wasn’t to last long though. Three years after Bat-Girl’s ‘retirement’ a new kid appeared on the Bat-block in a classic example of…
The Tail Wagging the Dog
In 1966 the wonderfully camp Batman TV series hit the airwaves. Initially a hit, by the middle of the second season the novelty had worn off and there were suggestions that ABC wouldn’t pick up the option of a third season. William Dozier, executive producer of the series (and the voice of the narrator) approached Julius Schwarz and asked him to develop a new female character for the comic who could then be introduced into the TV series to try and attract a larger female audience (it was felt that changes to the TV series would have more credibility if they seemed to be driven by changes to the comic, rather than the other way around). Dozier suggested that the new character to be Commissioner James Gordon’s daughter, and she would call herself Batgirl. But a missing hyphen wasn’t to be the only difference between this Batgirl and her predecessor. Dozier was familiar with the short-lived Betty Kane character and wanted a very different version of Batgirl for the TV series. He didn’t need a love interest – Adam West’s Batman was busily making romantic overtones to Julie Newmar’s Catwoman at the time, and Dozier has admitted that he created the character of Aunt Harriet to introduce more of a family dynamic “entirely to prevent Bruce and Dick from looking like gay lovers” – but he did need a strong female character who could fight alongside the Dynamic Duo.
Barbara Gordon and alter ego Batgirl debuted in Detective Comics #359, “The Million Dollar Debut of Batgirl”, in 1967. For the origin story, Barbara Gordon is driving to a costume party dressed as a female Batman when she has to intervene to stop the kidnapping of Bruce Wayne by Killer Moth, setting Gordon off on her crime-fighting career (and making her Batgirl costume and persona something of an accident).
The new character was enough to secure Dozier a third season for the TV series, and Yvonne Craig’s portrayal of Batgirl was popular enough with the fans that when Batman was cancelled in 1968 a spin-off Batgirl series was suggested but never materialized. The same was true of the fourth season of Batman which NBC would supposedly have made in 1968 had the original sets not already been demolished. The end of the TV Batgirl did not mark the end of her comic counterpart however. She remained popular enough with the fans to remain as a regular backup feature in Detective Comics as well as making guest appearances in several other titles during the 60s and 70s. For a while she leaves Gotham and moves to Washington, managing a blind date with Clark Kent and fighting alongside Superman along the way. By now her father is aware of her secret identity (she tells him, though he has already worked it out for himself), but some retcon meddling during Crisis on Infinite Earths alters Barbara Gordon’s history; she’s still Batgirl, but now she’s James Gordon’s niece and adopted daughter.
Women in Refrigerators.
DC officially retired Batgirl in June 1988 with the one-shot Batgirl Special #1, but later that same year she would make her most controversial appearance to date. Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke was ostensibly a story about The Joker taking his revenge on Commissioner Gordon. As part of this revenge, he tries to drive Gordon insane by shooting Barbara, the bullet hitting her spine, and leaving her permanently paralyzed in the process. He then forces James Gordon to look at pictures of his seriously injured daughter, stripped naked for The Joker’s camera. It seems likely that the purpose of Batgirl Special #1 was to set Batgirl up for the fate Moore had in store for her. She had only a minor part in Killing Joke, but the impact on the Batgirl character was huge. Alan Moore has since stated that he regrets what he did to the character in Killing Joke, describing it as “shallow and ill-conceived.” He’s also gone on record as saying that he initially spoke to Len Wein (project editor) at DC about his plans for Barbara Gordon, to confirm that DC would green light the story. When Wein called him back he allegedly told Moore “Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.”
The overtly sadistic treatment of Barbara Gordon in Killing Joke set a fire under the already heated debate on misogyny in comic books, and in particular the way in which female characters were treated differently to their male counterparts when it came to injuries. The obvious comparison here is with the Batman: Knightfall story arc. Batman’s back is broken in a dramatic fight with Bane – no without-warning shots in the spine here – but within a year Batman is fully recovered. The damage to Batgirl was planned to be permanent. Writer Gail Simone, who wrote for Barbara Gordon’s post-paralysis persona, described the violent treatment of major female characters as the “Women in Refrigerators” phenomenon (in reference to a story where Green Lantern finds his mutilated girlfriend in his fridge). Until Killing Joke, Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl had been seen as an above averagely positive role model for a female comic character. In her early career she’d had links to the Women’s Liberation movement (and in the early 70s Yvonne Craig reprized her role as Batgirl in a public service announcement advocating equal pay for women). She had a doctorate. She was a damn fine librarian. Perhaps most importantly for her female fans, and unlike her predecessor, she wasn’t there to be window dressing or anybody’s girlfriend or faithful sidekick, though detractors are quick to point out that she was created as an unimaginative female copy of Batman. Still, Batgirl was a complete character in her own right and she could kick ass with the best of them, so it’s no surprise then that discarding her so callously as a plot device in a story she’s barely in should cause a backlash from both fans and critics.
For all the negatives associated with Barbara Gordon’s treatment, one good thing did come out of it all: Oracle. Rather than shelve Barbara Gordon’s character, writer/editor Kim Yale and her writer husband John Ostrander felt strongly enough about the distasteful events of Killing Joke to give Barbara a new lease of life as wheelchair-bound character Oracle. Positive depictions of disabled characters is rare in all walks of life but especially so in comics (and no Marvelites, Matt Murdoch doesn’t count). Barbara Gordon remained in her chair as Oracle until 2011, when with the launch of DC’s ‘New 52’ she underwent experimental surgery and regained her mobility. Physically recovered but still suffering mental trauma from her past ordeal, Barbara Gordon is once more swinging over the streets of Gotham City as Batgirl. The fans were clearly happy to see her back – even prior to release, Batgirl #1 sold out the more than 100,000 copies printed in its first run. The return of Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl hasn’t been universally applauded though: disabled fans and disability groups have voiced their displeasure at DC undoing more than twenty years of good work with regard to disability stereotyping by both curing Oracle and setting the new stories only three years after the events in Killing Joke, thereby eradicating most of the time Barbara Gordon was paralyzed.
Whilst Barbara Gordon was confined to a wheelchair, others assumed the mantle of Batgirl. Helena Betinelli (Huntress) had a short stint, as did Stephanie Brown (Robin, Spoiler) and Charlie Gage-Radcliffe (Misfit), but it was Cassandra Cain who held the position of Batgirl for the longest in Barbara Gordon’s absence. Indeed it was Gordon, as Oracle, who, along with Batman, passed the Batgirl title and costume over to Cain in 1999’s No Man’s Land. At this point in her history, Cain cannot speak or write and communicates through gestures and drawings. She’s also unusual in that she’s become a crime-fighter not for its own sake but to atone for a past murder she committed. The daughter of assassins David Cain and Lady Shiva, Cassandra was raised to be the world’s deadliest assassin, but after her first kill she vows never to do so again.
In 2000, Cassandra Cain’s Batgirl became the first to have an eponymous comic book title, also making her the most prominent character of Asian descent then appearing in American comics. Batgirl was cancelled as an ongoing series in 2006, and relaunched in 2009. In the first issue of the new series, Cain, seemingly disillusioned by the apparent death of Bruce Wayne, hands Batgirl duties over to her friend Stephanie Brown. Cain vanishes, later returning to the Batman fold as Blackbat. Stephanie Brown keeps the Batgirl identity from 2009 to 2011, when Barbara Gordon returns.
So there you have it. Betty Kane, Barbara Gordon, Cassandra Cain, Stephanie Brown, Helena Bertinelli and Charlie Gage-Radcliffe. The complete list of ladies who have taken up the Batgirl cowl. All of them. There’s nobody else. Nobody at all.
Oh, alright, you got me. There’s one more Batgirl.
Barbara Wilson. There, I said it.
Barbara Wilson is Alfred Pennyworth’s niece, and on a surprise trip from England to visit her sick uncle at Wayne Manor she discovers the Batcave, and with her uncle’s help creates a crime-fighting persona for herself: Batgirl. This particular Batgirl, played by Alicia Silverstone, appears only in the movie Batman and Robin and as such is unlikely to be seen again. If recent interviews with him are to be believed, even Joel Schumacher would retcon that film out of existence given the chance.
So whilst your raising a glass to the Caped Crusader on his 75th Birthday, spare a thought for Batgirl. She may only be 53, but for every one of those years she’s had to fight to prove herself worthy of her position in a male dominated multi-verse.