Panel Prattle #2: Leave Poor Babs Alone!
Okay, I don’t read a whole lot of comic books, which is to say that I don’t read comics beyond a few random ones that I pick out. I do, however, keep tabs on what’s moving and shaking in the world of popular culture with regards to comics. So this Panel Prattle is more of a question than anything else.
Recently, there was a bit of controversy about an unpublished cover for Batgirl where the Joker was behind her with his arm draped creepily around her, gun in hand, and the girl looked scared out of her mind. Yeah, she might be in costume, but heroic is the last adjective I would use to describe her as portrayed on this cover: she looked terrified, vulnerable and weak. The Joker was never a villain that known for besting anyone with his physicality, but he clearly has this poor girl in his control here. Most importantly, the cover was meant to pay homage to the Killing Joke graphic novel, which changed Batman comics, as well as Barbara Gordon forever, as that was the issue where the Joker shot her and crippled her. It was among the most notorious things any villain has ever done to a hero.
I was wondering what the reactions were to this cover, but even more interesting was finding this article, appropriately titled “The Long and Terrible History of DC Comics Mistreating Batgirl” (link) which examines how DC has always kind of degraded Barbara in the context of their stories. Since I don’t take the time to read them, I can’t say whether or not this is accurate, but – truth be told – I was actually thinking that this was a case, just from what I’ve seen. So, the question is: do the powers that be at DC hate Barbara Gordon?
They make her out to be a pretty capable girl in pretty much all continuities and timeframes -or so they like to imply. In fact, I’m going to make this quick, and I’m going to skip around a bit. Got it? In Batgirl: Year One (2003), she takes down a boy in sparring match. Yes, she’s a teenage girl, a petite one at that, and she took down a boy a in a one on fighting contest. So there’s that.
What else is there? Throughout her history, from what I can tell, her abilities have been marginalized so that she seems much weaker than the press releases and biographies would tell us. In the Batman: Batgirl one shot from 1997, she was held at bay by a regular, older man who thought of her as a burglar. She was in costume and we are led to doubt if she could have fought him off. Later in that issue, she is captured by the Joker (this might have been her first chronological encounter with him), strapped to a spinning so he can throw knives at her, and in need of rescue by Batman.. and it is here I should point out that this was her issue, not Batman’s.
Jumping ahead (randomly) to few years ago, Batwoman appeared in her series as a guest, adn the two are shown fighting on the cover, If you check the actual issue, Batwoman takes Batgirl down very quickly and Batgirl cries “uncle” within one page. She’s not even able to put a good fight before Batwoman had caused her to admit defeat. This was a defeat at the hands of a guest-starring, less popular character who is a female.
Barbara Gordon stopped being Batgirl after her incident with Joker.. all the way up until the New 52, and a few other girls took the mantle, including Cassandra Cain. Cain – who has an uncanny ability to predict what moves someone she is fighting will make next – is (along with Lady Shiva) the best martial artists in all of DC.. she’s a girl that could (all things being equal) defeat Bruce Wayne in a hand to hand fight. In Batgirl: Secret Files and Origins (2002), Cain finds herself training on a holodeck (and yes, it works exactly like one of Star Trek’s holodecks) that is programmed by Barbara (who at the time was the wheelchair-bound Oracle). Oracle programs Cain’s next opponent: her version of Batgirl. Since this is the holodeck, Batgirl is in top health, and could move and fight as if the paralysis never happened. Even with this being the case, certainly we can all agree that the holodeck version of Batgirl could not beat Cass, but let’s look at what actually happened.
Cass crushes Batgirl. Repeatedly. The computer resets the combat each time, so if Babs hologram was “injured” after being knocked down in one fight, those injuries would not be a factor when the program was reset for the next match. Yet each match, Babs version of Batgirl is pounded into the ground in under a second.. and instead of improving, the matches go quicker. The final match ends with a panel that simply shows Cass’s foot as she stands over a wounded, vulnerable-looking Batgirl.
That’s not really how it ends. After Cass points out how pathetic her fighting abilities are and asks how she managed to survive as Batgirl, Bab’s Batgirl manages to ensnare her ankles with a Batarang. This was the point of the little short: that what Batgirl lacks in strength and fighting ability, she makes up for in resourcefulness and patience. Whatever. Cass didn’t even trip from having her ankles tied up. All she had to do was unwrap the batarang form her ankle before Babs can even get to her feet, and then continue to finish Babs’ Batgirl with a light kick. Babs might not be able actually beat Cass, but she should be able to put up a fight. Right?
It seems, scrolling through issues at random, that Batgirl is portrayed as someone who is often defeated. I can’t remember ever seeing her portrayed as being someone who could take on Selma Kyle (Catwoman) in a fair fight. There Batgirl #4 from the new 52 (2012), in which she has been punched to the ground by a female villain named Gretel – right on the cover.
Even the television show from the 60’s was filled with scenes where Batgirl was captured or in need of help. I remember her getting nearly bested by a female villain just before the villain’s henchman took her out of the fight instead. And in that human knot episode, the only reason Batman, Robin, and Batgirl got into that predicament is that the female villain in that episode got the jump on Batgirl, sneaking up on her and grabbing hold of her. She might have had a knife or a needle to Batgirl’s neck, but it was still done in such a way to show that Batgirl was powerless against a more formidable villain.
Batgirl’s an iconic DC character all on her own, and yet I can understand that female superheroes with no superhuman powers might run into tight spots. But it just seems to me that the powers that bee are just willing to treat her more like a damsel – or worse – despite her reputation as on of DC’s greatest. I just wish she was nearly as great as her reputation would like us to believe. I don’t think it’s a good idea to make a “strong” (and not just physically strong.. but strong as a character) female character and have her seem so ineffective at being the hero she should be on such a consistent basis.