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The Life and Times of Barbara Gordon

Retconning and the effects it has on comic book readers.

The Life and Times of Barbara Gordon


By Joey Esposito

The comic book medium is known for many things. Currently, the general public recognizes our beloved sequential art as the source material for almost every summer blockbuster that comes to pass. Comics are known for their collectible status, as we all just experienced with the Obamania that occured with his recent appearance in Amazing Spider-Man. They are known for their events that transcend the nerd circles and hit the mainstream media: the death of Superman, Batwoman being gay, Batman dying and the return of Barry Allen. But, perhaps most notably, they are known for the one thing that the layman does not know the word for, but is aware of its existence. The thing that allows superhero books, with decades and generations of continuity, to continue being published today. The thing that allows characters to come back to life, to forget things that happened, and to come from different places. That thing, of course, is retconning.

If you are reading this article, you need no explanation of a retcon. We all know the big ones, from Crisis on Infinite Earths to Brand New Day. Sometimes it’s simply an evolution of the universe and it’s characters, but more often than not, it’s a down and dirty cancellation of pages and pages of story that came before it. As of late, the members of the Batman family are in quite the dilemma. Batman is dead (or so it seems), Gotham has erupted into violence, and there is no control of the streets. Each different facet of this immense Bat-empire that Bruce had built is malfunctioning in someway, which puts us smack dab in the middle of the current "in" book, Battle for the Cowl, and it’s various tie-in mini-series and one-shots. Of all of them, perhaps the most interesting to me is this week’s Oracle: The Cure #1, with two issues to follow. Between the hints within this issue and the mysterious June solicits from DC touting a new Batgirl starring in her own series, most signs are pointing to Barbara Gordon.

As we know, Barbara has been in a wheelchair since she was paralyzed by the Joker in The Killing Joke way back when in 1988, and has since been serving the greater good not as the Silver Age Batgirl, but as Oracle, hacker extraordinaire and trafficker of information to everyone on the right side of the vigilante law. Confined to a wheelchair, we’ve seen her grow as a character, fight her way out of tough situations, and out-think just about everyone in the DCU. What I’m getting at is this: should DC decide to miraculously "cure" (read: retcon) Barbara, in a way that surely only a comic book can, how does that then alter our perception of her has a strong, heroic character? More importantly, will removing her handicap alienate any fans that she may have? After all, in terms of superheroes, Oracle is pretty realistic. Like Batman, she is at peak physical condition with no superhuman abilities, simply without the use of her legs. For many fans, this may be the very thing that attracts them to her as a character, the fact that she could exist, similar to the way Batman could, in theory. But inject into that character a miraculous cure for paralysis that is simply impossible in real life, and do you take out that semblance of realism?

It’s a tough question to crack, because it’s a Catch-22 almost anyway you look at it. One could argue that curing Barbara and allowing her to be Batgirl again would simply allow her to do more good fighting crime than she ever could in a wheelchair, but then you look insensitive to the ability and usefulness she has in other capacities as Oracle. Conversely, you could say that removing Barbara from her wheelchair drastically alters her character, but then wouldn’t that indicate that this is a character defined by her handicap? This begs the question of why so many fans adore her: is it because she’s a bold and daring leader that rivals the Calculator in brains? Or is it because she’s all of that, but stuck in a wheelchair? Think about the question, and surely many of you will find an answer you don’t like.

Consider her company: how many handicapped comic book characters can you name? Daredevil is blind. Professor X is similarly wheelchair bound. And that’s it. I can’t think of any more. And guess what? They both have superhuman powers. So why would DC be in such a rush to alter a character back to a state which arguably makes her less interesting as a superhero, but that scales back on what is already a minority in superhero books? Why is it so important to take away what makes this character so unique and thrust her back into a position she was in for the entire Silver Age of comics? To that end, would "curing" Barbara Gordon in fact be a retcon, or is it simply the next beat of her story? These are questions to be raised should the things DC has been hinting at come to fruition, and I think they will ultimately have a great impact on the character’s fanbase.

There are those of us that remember the Barbara Gordon Batgirl, the days before The Killing Joke, before Oracle. But what about the many younger fans of Birds of Prey?  Believe it or not, there are many fans out there who are only familiar with Barbara as Oracle – after all, it’s been 21 years now. Perhaps for these readers, reverting her to a state of non-paralysis is the next step in her evolution as a character, but for many others, it may seem like a step in reverse. And of course, there are others who would suggest that perhaps it’s all just coming full circle.

I look on a situation like this in a similar light to when a character of some minority is killed off – I don’t believe that a character should be getting preferential treatment simply because of something that puts them into a less general category, but do we really need the small representation of diversity that we have in superhero comics to be spread a little thinner? DC especially, always declaring how diverse they aim to make theDCU , yet the majority of it’s heroes remain predominantly white folk in good health. We have a small portion of ethnic heroes, an even smaller group of gay ones, and Oracle. I will always give DC credit for trying new and different things with even their most renown properties, but I’m not sure that in this particular case they can escape criticism on either end of the spectrum.

I suppose this situation is yet another shining example of the fickle nature of the comic fan boy, damning the publisher before anything even happens. So while I would like to stress that making Oracle walk again is purely speculative based on solicitations and subtle hints, I think that the subject is an important one; one that should be made heard by the fans. And for the record, Oracle: The Cure #1 is a great read. The titular "cure" – or at least what they are suggesting could be the basis for it – though not realistic, is actually a great plot device that contributes to the overall genius of the characters of Oracle and her evil counterpart, the Calculator. Plus, it fits in nicely with the post-Final Crisis DCU. Oh, and the cover is smokin’ hot.