Tuesday, December 13, 2011

On Barbara Gordon's recovery (preliminary thoughts)

(This was originally posted on Tumblr, but it seemed substantial enough to repost here as well.)

I was going to wait until issue #4 comes out tomorrow - or possibly even until issue #7 in March, as based on the solicitation text it sounds like it’s going to be a big one - before writing anything about Barbara Gordon’s recovery from her spine injury, but since a lot of people are already reacting to the feature and preview in USA Today (and Gail Simone has reacted to some of the reactions), I want to share a few thoughts.

First, let me just say that this is an ongoing discussion about an ongoing story. While I understand where the kneejerk reactions from fans are coming from, I think it’s important to acknowledge that we only have small pieces of the puzzle. Until the full story of Barbara’s recovery has been told, we need to be careful about jumping to conclusions based on the little bits and pieces we’re getting. Gail Simone has stated many times that Barbara’s recovery is going to be explored in depth over a long story arc. Let’s just all keep that in mind, because otherwise it really undermines some of the very valid points that people are trying to make when the discussion gets derailed into an argument about whether or not we know the full story.
So here’s what we do know:

  • In the New 52, Barbara was shot by the Joker, spent three years in a wheelchair, then went to a clinic in South Africa to get some kind of procedure done to repair her spine, regained the use of her legs and is now adapting to being Batgirl again and dealing with a little bit of post-traumatic stress disorder in the process.
  • “Miracles” have been mentioned a lot in Batgirl, hinting that there is more to it than “just” a clinic in South Africa. It remains to be seen how that factors in, though.
So it’s a scientific/medical explanation, but the door is still open for a little bit of comic book fantasy “miracle” to play a part in it.

I’ve noticed that a lot of the discussion and controversy around the issue of Barbara’s recovery has focused on HOW she recovers. This is what Gail Simone herself has often emphasized in interviews, stating that treating that story of recovery with respect and a certain amount of realism was important to her as well as to her readers. (I’m paraphrasing from memory, so please forgive me if those are not her exact words.)

Now I don’t doubt that this aspect of the story is important for some people, and I’m glad that Gail Simone takes it seriously. But personally I don’t understand how this has become the central issue in the discussion. Granted, if we were given some really lazy or awful explanation for how Barbara recovered, it would probably make things even worse. But I don’t see how having a realistic and respectful portrayal of her recovery really makes things “better” for anyone who was hurt and upset by this change. At best, we can be thankful that insult is not added to injury.

As I’ve said in a comment on Barbara’s Not Broken, what it comes down to for me is very simple: There used to be Oracle; now there isn’t.

The important question which has so far been left unanswered (and is not even being asked, for the most part) is this one: What was Barbara Gordon up to during the three years she spent in the wheelchair? So far, there has been absolutely no mention of there having ever been an Oracle in the New 52 continuity. There is not evidence that Barbara was involved in crime-fighting in any capacity during those three years. Now, I’m sure we’re going to eventually find out more about what happened during that time, but it’s looking increasingly likely that Oracle will not be part of that story.
And for me, that is what’s upsetting. That is the real loss that I feel when I think about the fact that Barbara Gordon is back in the Batgirl costume. There used to be a character in DC Comics who was both disabled and a hero. Simultaneously! Now we have a character who was once a hero, then was disabled, and now is a hero again.

When we first found out that Barbara would be Batgirl in the New 52, one of the fears people had was that her whole history of having been disabled would be wiped out of continuity. (And that the almighty Alan Moore’s Killing Joke would be wiped out of continuity in the process.) But this, DC assured us, would not be the case. We were told this would be a story of recovery and survival and that everybody felt it was important to keep the disability in continuity.

But what DC seems to have missed is that it wasn’t just the fact that Barbara was in a wheelchair that made her such an important and inspiring hero for a lot of people - it was the fact that she was also a hero. Keeping the disability but removing the heroic part of it seems even more problematic to me than simply wiping it out of continuity.

And that’s what I’m worried about and what I’m waiting to find out about as I continue to read Gail Simone’s Batgirl series. Sure, the story of how Barbara recovered is interesting. But there are other (in my opinion more important) questions that I hope will be answered in the story.

2 comments:

Debi December 13, 2011 at 3:27 PM  

I agree with everything here, and add that it wasn't the removal of the Killing Joke from continuity that I was about, but the removal of all the character development done in Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey.

It's not just that Barbara was disabled and a hero (though it certainly was that), but that she was someone who had suffered a traumatic event and made significant progress in her recovery.

What makes the current Batgirl unreadable for me isn't just that they 'fixed' her spine (though that doesn't help), it's that they've reverted her psychological progress.

This is a little divergent, and I apologise for that, but it continues to bother me.

Yan Basque December 13, 2011 at 3:29 PM  

No, it's not divergent at all. Thank you for your comment.

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