DC's New 52 has landed after months of speculation, controversy, and non-stop publicity. Most controversial of all was Batgirl #1, the title restoring Barbara Gordon to her original role, and turfing Stephanie Brown out in the cold. There's no doubt that Babs was the most iconic Batgirl, with her flowing red hair and feisty personality, but she was also equally iconic in her later role as Oracle.
It's this clash of the icons that has proved the true division amongst Barbara Gordon and Batgirl fans, not least because Oracle was born from Bab's disability at the hands of the Joker: a disability that "confined" her to a wheelchair. While some protest the loss or change of a beloved character, a fairly common event in the world of superhero comics, others are more shaken by the loss of a character they had come to see as a role model for people with disabilities. At times, it can be hard to tell where the lines between these complaints blur.
All the commotion served to push Batgirl #1 pre-orders through the roof, and went to second printing before release. Gail Simone and Ardian Syaf have produced a wonderful and critically acclaimed comic, leaving DC looking very much like the cat that got the (black) canary. But the Barbara's Not Broken campaign is still in full swing, and its important lessons should not be overlooked as "old news".
Almost all the fan trouble with the DC reboot/relaunch was a direct result of DC trying to please everyone at the same time. Early on the New 52 was said to be about increasing "diversity" and welcoming new readers to the medium, but DC later confirmed to retailers that their target audience was still men aged between 18 and 34. Fans in other demographics were understandably upset, having their hopes of diversity dashed. We can see from the fallout of the Batgirl of San Diego that DC definitely made some mistakes, and fortunately came back and admitted their error with a promise to get more female talent behind their books.
The truth is, targeting the 18-34 male market is not necessarily mutually exclusive with welcoming new readers. The majority of the comics buying readership does lie in that existing demographic, and it would be bad business sense to cut them off completely while looking for a new audience that might not yet exist to the same extent. It's a tricky situation, with comic readership declining and DC gambling this last throw of the dice to shake things up a bit and hopefully appeal to some new readers to get the numbers up again.
Diversity is apparently a scary thing: many comic fan message boards will confirm this at a quick glance. When women ask to see more female creators and a greater diversity of characters in their comics, they are accused of taking over and wanting rid of men. When fans of colour wish to see more characters that aren't white, with a greater diversity of personality, they are accused of having a black agenda and seeing racism in everything. And when people with disabilities want to see more characters in comics that reflect their lives, they are accused of being sadists with a cripple fetish. Yeah.
To survive in the current publishing climate, DC has to somehow pacify those kind of readers, along with tempting the many people who could potentially get into comics if they were more accessible. A relaunch sounds like a big shiny event, but in truth, progression has to come at a slower pace in order not to immediately lose readers. And a sudden drop in numbers would certainly put an end to any attempt at progressive storytelling.
The arguments surrounding Babs and her wheelchair were always contentious. Firstly, she was put there by a comic that was never meant to be in continuity (The Killing Joke), editors who seemingly didn't care for her character and said, "Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch" (Len Wein and/or Dick Giordano ), and a writer who later regretted the plot arc calling it shallow and ill-conceived (Alan Moore). In the one shot graphic novel published in 1988, the Joker comes calling and shoots Barbara from the doorway, before taking photographs of her as her clothes are progressively removed. There is an implication that Barbara is perhaps sexually assaulted as well, though this is left to the reader to decide.
In the plot, all this is done not to advance any kind of story for Barbara, but to try and cause her father to give in to insanity. It's a classic case of traumatising a female character as a plot device for a male character (Women in Refrigerators). Horribly, the comic ends with Batman "getting the joke" and laughing along with the Joker. It's a horrible plot, and while it does showcase the utter depravity of the Joker, it's fair to say that Babs is used only as a plot device and not as her own character at all.
Barbara was brought back as a strong character living with her disability by Kim Yale and John Ostrander, appearing as Oracle the next year. Babs became the focus of a highly technical and information rich world, her genius intellect, hacker skills, and photographic memory giving her the edge to become the information broker of Gotham. She learns martial arts, and became a firm favourite with fans through Suicide Squad, Birds of Prey, and her appearances in a huge range of Bat books.
Babs spent 21 years as Batgirl, and 22 years as Oracle. It is unknown whether her disability was ever meant to be permanent, and the arguments for and against a "cure" are not new. It has long been argued that in a comics universe where almost every male character has been healed from life threatening or disabling injuries, that keeping Babs in her chair was a further sign of sexism in comics. But restoring her legs would have led to accusations that DC did not take disability seriously and was reducing diversity in their comics. The longer Babs stayed in her chair, the more divisive the argument became. (Compare with Charles Xavier who has been in and out his wheelchair a few times now which seldom causes a fuss.)
Diversity is often conflated with realism. How can you have a character in a wheelchair in a universe where everyone can be fixed? Because it's fiction: it isn't real. The same reason Bruce Wayne can run a multimillion empire while out every night beating up poor people, Superman can put on glasses and be completely disguised, and people come back to life on a regular basis. In comics, whatever the writers want to happen, can happen. Realism or lack thereof is a red herring, those rules simply don't apply. DC could have given Babs a suit that amplified the small tingle she once felt in her toes to give her mobility in her crime fighting persona. DC could have got Zatanna to fix her up but with conditions. And so on. They could have done anything.
Babs had become an icon for people with disabilities. What I think about the issue is really of no consequence because I do not have physical disabilities. A disability is more than something that affects your body, it can affect your very identity, your whole life experience, and this is something that many abled people overlook; they cannot understand why people would want their beloved character to stay "crippled" when she could be cured. It isn't a matter of walking, it is a matter of identity. By taking Babs out of her chair, they are stripping her of her Oracle identity, the one that so many people identified with.
Comics are full of abled people, much like the vast majority of our entertainment. Those with physical (or neural) disabilities are very rarely depicted in films, television, games, or even books. They are made invisible, something we apparently don't want to see. This isn't a problem native to comics: much like institutionalised sexism, racism, and homophobia, ablism is a societal problem. Taking Babs out of the chair has caused anger, not for the action alone, but for the continuation of that erasure.
Barbara Gordon was a very popular and central character in a fairly mainstream form of entertainment. DC may introduce other characters in lesser roles with disabilities and this would of course be welcome. But fans know from other occasions of regressive storytelling, that losing a main character has far more impact than gaining a side character. You can not simply fix or regress one character and then introduce another and have it be okay: that is tokenism at its worst.
While many fans are justifiably upset, there are many who have jumped on the bandwagon and been less than honest with their complaints. Being upset about losing Oracle as a character, or Stephanie Brown as Batgirl is a legitimate argument, but does not require the appropriation of the ablist issue. It can be hard to separate love for a character with outrage at decreasing diversity and representation.
So why did DC finally make the decision? Babs is the most recognisable Batgirl to the general public, and therefore the most marketable. The relaunch is also de-aging a lot of the characters in order to bring them back to a younger and more accessible version. True some characters are changing more than others, but it can't be denied that the relaunch has worked: pre-orders and sales for the New 52 are through the roof, and there are certainly more people trying out comics than before. I'm one of them, having previously only stuck to trade collections.
The decision has been made, and the comics are out.
Get over it? It's just a comic? Old news? Many said the same about the issue of women in the New 52, yet because that argument was pushed at Comic-Con, DC have turned around and addressed the issue. It's true that comics survive by changing and reimagining their universes and characters every few years, infuriating fans and reinvigorating their readership at the same time. But as society progresses, comics perhaps have a more pivotal role than many other forms of media. The directness of comics, their near instantaneous delivery for an entertainment format, and perhaps even their ability to influence society at large, gives them a huge responsibility.
Diversity in comics is increasing, not least due to an increase in awareness. That can only come about by discussion, argument, and supporting those writers and comics that listen. So what does a campaign like Barbara's Not Broken hope to achieve now? Perhaps an awareness of characters with disabilities or the lack thereof. Perhaps encouraging writers to introduce characters that happen to have a disability but are not created as tokens. Perhaps comics set in the period before the current continuity when Babs was still Oracle and in her chair. Perhaps an understanding that this issue came about partly because a highly visible character with a disability is almost unheard of. And perhaps, maybe, a more diverse comics universe.