In the Shadow of the Shadow of the Bat: Why Batgirl Rocks
[Given the recent uproar over the depiction of Batman and Batgirl in the latest animated DC movie adaptation of The Killing Joke, I thought this piece was worth republishing. A version of this column originally appeared on PopMatters two years ago – hence the dated references. Remember when we only suspected but didn’t yet know that Batman v Superman: Drawn and Quartered was a sloppy, nihilistic hate screed? Ah, the innocence of ignorance.]
The question of who, ultimately, is the ‘best’ superhero has haunted the minds of nerds for generations.
…Well, at least two generations. Three maybe? Four?
It’s why we squee in delight watching Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, seeing our heroes smack each other around a little before they all team up and order bowling league uniforms. It’s why Superman and the Flash keep racing each other around the world just for funsies. It’s why there are still some people inexplicably excited about Zack Snyder’s upcoming cinematic atrocity, Superman v Batman: Drab and Senseless, because at the very least it promises the sight of Supes and the Bat slugging it out – or, more accurately, the opportunity to see Snyder slavishly recreate Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns comic panels without troubling to use any imagination or storytelling craft for himself.
(Speaking of Batman v Superman, if I can just take a brief tangent for a moment: no doubt others have already made this observation, but ‘v’ is actually used to indicate a legal battle, not a physical one. So unless Bruce Wayne is fronting the money for a class-action reckless endangerment suit against Superman for all that carnage he caused in the last film, the title seems to be yet another sign of how little thought Snyder and his writer Goyer are again putting in their next script.)
In many ways it’s a timeless argument – an ongoing rhetorical debate that delights in colliding our greatest pop cultural loves. Immediately preceding comic books every gothic monstrosity from Dracula to Mr Hyde to the Mummy was battling it out for popularity in cinemas and fiction (eventually also appearing in crossover films like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) and House of Frankenstein (1944); the spirit of which continue to this day with the Alien Vs. Predator franchise). In fact, I don’t doubt that there were at least two nerds way back in ancient Greece standing about bickering over who would win in a knock out street brawl between Poseidon or Apollo. (Poseidon. He’d play dirty.)
But no matter how much fun it is to bandy around comparisons and swim in hypotheticals, for a lot of people – myself very much included – the question of which superhero wins the day already has a definitive answer. It’s one of those ‘Who’s the best, not counting…’ kind of inquiries.
Because it’s Batman, right?
That’s certainly the answer I’ve had locked and loaded since I was a child – before I knew any of the intricacies of the Marvel and DC universes. Before I could parse the individual influences of figures like Jack Kirby, Alan Moore, and Steve Ditko upon their medium. Before Christopher Nolan and The Avengers films had rescued the superhero genre from its sad, cheesy stagnation. Even before the glorious Bruce Timm Batman Animated Series and its Superman and Justice League sequels. Before all of that, my mind was already firmly made up.
It’s Batman, y’all.
‘Yeah, but, yeah, but – Green Lantern’s ring can create anything he imagines…’ my invented-purely-for-the-purposes-of-this-example dearest childhood friend would argue.
‘Nope. It’s Batman,’ I would reply. ‘Cause he doesn’t need dumb space magic to fight crime, and he’s not allergic to the colour yellow.’
(…Seriously. He can imagine into being a fully-functioning space ship to travel across the stars, but if someone comes at him with a handful of paint swatches labelled ‘Daffodil’ and ‘Buttercup’ and he crumbles?)
‘Well, what about Superman? He’s got laser eyes and can fly and stuff…’
‘Nup. Cause Batman can swing through the city with grappling hooks, and he doesn’t have any lame McGuffin weaknesses. …Except, you know, for all the crippling psychological despair.’
‘Wolverine’s got claws and fast healing…’
‘Batman’s got a utility belt and a stuffed dinosaur.’
‘What about Spawn?’
‘You’re not even trying anymore, are you?
It should be said that I have heard a stunningly persuasive argument made for Wonder Woman – but still, for me, that same trump card always applied: Batman is ‘best’ precisely because he doesn’t have the powers that the other heroes are gifted with. He punches well above his weight, a mere mortal amongst gods – not only meeting their gaze, but more often than not staring them down. The most human of all super-humans, he exemplifies the virtue of using wit and passion and dogged stubbornness to turn his weaknesses into strengths; to do what he knows is right, even if it’s never easy.
And that all seemed very persuasive for the longest time. Indeed, for a rabid Batman fan like myself, it offered a wonderfully smug sense of superiority. All other heroes just seemed lazy by comparison.
What’s that Spider Man? You want to complain about how the Daily Bugle doesn’t love you enough? Well why don’t you go cry about your super strength and spidey senses to your supermodel girlfriend. And how about you, Thor? Yeah, it must be tough being a magical, immortal, impervious Nordic prince. Who can fly. With those pecs. And you – shiny guy. What’s your deal? …Silver Surfer, you say? What, you just surf around everywhere? Through space? In the indentured service of a psychotic, galaxy-eating god? …Well, sucks to be you. At least you got a surfboard anyway.
And put some pants on.
But you know what? For all my years of confident self-satisfaction, hand-waving away all debate, the truth I’ve now come to realise is: I was wrong.
It’s not Batman – although I was in the right ballpark. Instead it’s that other hero in the winged-marsupial get up. The one too often swallowed by the big guy’s brooding, omnipresent shadow.
I realised because of the zipper.
IMAGE: Batgirl new costume (MTV News)
See, the past few weeks Batgirl has gotten some press due to her new creative team’s decision to update her costume along with some tweaks to the narrative. For the most part, it appears that the response to the new look has been positive; and personally, although I will always favour the Bruce Timm animated series redesign, I really like the new look too.
Thankfully Batgirl has never been a character over-sexualised in her depiction – no Power Girl cleavage-heavy swimsuits or fishnet anythings – and happily that tradition continues. The new uniform looks sleek and functional. Made up of a leather jacket, detachable cape, Doc Martens combo, it has character, it’s not just some new splash of purples and yellows on a cookie-cutter skin-tight spandex, or that weird goth-gimp mute batgirl they went with a few years ago (who, yes, I know, wasn’t Barbara Gordon).
It’s nice to see her outfit reflect more of her personality. Young, adaptable, stylish and practical. It’s colourful but not garish; chic but not some instantly-dated stab at being ‘hip’ (just go back and look at the original Superboy ’90s redesigns to see just how archaic trying to manufacture ‘cool’ can be). The whole ensemble is a piece of functional fashion that she chose to put on to do her job. And significantly, the Bat-insignia is not some grim shield emblazoning her chest.
It’s got a zip up the middle of it.
And that’s what got me thinking…
It made me realise: perhaps it’s no surprise that I’ve overlooked her for so long. After all, viewed superficially, Batgirl can seem more of an addendum than a protagonist in her own right: she was an addition to an already established franchise; she didn’t invent the whole ‘bat’ motif, she just cribbed it off the other guy. That bat isn’t a symbol of her operatically memorable origin story. She just wears it. She wasn’t even Batman’s first assistant. To those unfamiliar with the lore it might even seem like she’s meant to be lumped in with all the other ‘bat’-prefixed material – like Bat-Mite and Bat-Hound and the Bat-Cycle – as though she were not only subservient to Bruce Wayne’s tortured tale, but merely an accessory in service of it. She’s branded with his story, she doesn’t forge one of her own.
This tendency to disregard Batgirl’s autonomy has always dogged the character, stretching right back to her first ever incarnation. Some critics, such as Bill Boichel in ‘Batman: Commodity as Myth’ (The Many Lives of the Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and his Media, eds. Roberta E. Pearson and William Uricchio, London: Routledge, 1991, p.13) even argue that the initial version of ‘Bat-Girl’ (Betty Kane, who was the niece of ‘Bat-Woman’ Kathy Kane) was only ever introduced to serve as a lazy heterosexual love interest. Supposedly, she and her aunt were to be romantic pairings for Batman and Robin, blatant attempts to assuage the Comic Code Authority’s paranoid fears over a ‘homosexual’ agenda in the heart of the mythos. Sure, she went on colourful romps with the caped crusaders, fighting crooks and aliens and hypnotism and magical genies, but she was ultimately just in it for the chance to win over Robin’s heart – even though he had already pledged his heart to Lady Justice herself (swoon!)
As Will Brooker points out in his exceptional analysis, Batman Unmasked: Analysing A Cultural Icon (London, Continuum, 2000, pp.101-70), the truth of Bat-Girl’s introduction and her contribution to the text is far more multifaceted than this, but these marginalisations – whether real or imagined – have continued to occur throughout the character’s history. She’s considered decorative: a heterosexual disguise; an ingredient for a love triangle; a bone thrown to female readers. Indeed, sometimes it feels like people only bother noticing Batgirl when she’s got a snazzy new outfit, or the gossip media is making pissy comments about how ‘fat’ Alicia Silverstone looks in her rubber suit.
Indeed, such dismissals are why I have a problematical relationship with one of the most universally acclaimed Batman graphic novels of all time: The Killing Joke, by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland (DC Comics, 1988).
IMAGE: From The Killing Joke, by Alan Moore and Brian Bollard
Wait – was that the sound of angry mob torches being lit? Hold on. Hear me out.
I’m not saying that The Killing Joke is a bad story. It’s rightfully considered one of the great Batman tales: a brief, harrowing glimpse into the perpetual conflict of Batman and the Joker, and the carnage that their entwined obsession leaves in their wake. For those who haven’t read it, it’s well worth seeking out. If for no other reason than that it introduces greater depth and complexity to the Joker, a character that had frequently been depicted as little more than a colourful buffoon. It has indelibly impacted every presentation of the clown prince since, even being directly cited as an inspiration for both Tim Burton and Heath Ledger in their iconic characterisations in cinema.
Briefly, the story concerns the Joker making one final, sociopathic statement about how frail the human psyche can be. He decides to show Batman how ‘one bad day’ can unhinge a previously moral, upstanding person, hoping to fracture the divide between hero and lunatic. To do this he decides to destroy Commissioner Gordon – Batman’s ally and the most upstanding man in Gotham – by surprising him in his house and brutally, savagely assaulting his daughter – going on to create a gruesome exhibition of her torture and pain.
And at this point you can probably predict what my issue with the story is. In order to tell a story such as this there had to be a real casualty – someone to symbolise that the Joker had finally gone too far. The Joker had to step over the line from killing random strangers (figures we, as readers, we can feel horrified about, but ultimately forget) to permanently, violently impacting one of the principle characters. In service of the plot, Moore selects Batgirl, now Barbara Gordon, to become that sacrificial lamb, turning her into another frustratingly familiar example of the ‘woman in a refrigerator’ trope since her suffering is used to cause Commissioner Gordon – and by extension Batman – the most acute possible pain. She gives them a reason to fight harder, to brood deeper, to feel even more.
Sure, in subsequent stories Barbara transformed into Oracle, rescuing herself from victimhood by proving to be all the more extraordinary – continuing to fight crime in spite of her disability – but for the span of Moore’s narrative, in service of the specific tale he was telling, she was reduced to the role of victim: shot, stripped naked, photographed (and as some have inferred, perhaps even raped). She’s not even shown being Batgirl. Her only actions throughout narrative (aside from squirming in agony) are to serve her father a cup of tea and nag him about getting his clothes dirty. In fact, to make the act even more arbitrary, the Joker doesn’t target Barbara because she’s Batgirl – he knows her only as Gordon’s daughter. So in a twisted irony she is punished not because of her crime fighting alter ego, but a quirk of fate in her parentage.
It reduces her, even if momentarily, to just another Bruce Wayne loved one to be savaged and tortured, to twist the knife of guilt into Batman’s gut just a little further. And that’s a shame, because this kind of chance brutality is a story trope that can, and has, been utilised well in the past – in the Batman universe, no less.
In the Batman Animated Series episode ‘Over the Edge’, written by Paul Dini, Batgirl is killed by Scarecrow while on patrol, thrown from a building to land with a sickening crunch onto the roof of Jim Gordon’s car. But she’s not just arbitrarily slaughtered to make everyone feel bad – it’s shown to be the natural, unfortunate result of this weird, self-destructive campaign that the entire Bat Family are all on. It sends Bruce and Jim Gordon into a death spiral of mutual annihilation, with Gordon blaming Bruce for his daughter’s death, and Bruce, wracked with guilt, refusing to let his crusade end. Both men are shown finally broken, both having betrayed the moral fortitude that they maintained for so long in the wake of abject despair.
IMAGE: Batgirl sketch by Bruce Timm
Mercifully, the entire thing is revealed to be a Scarecrow-induced paranoid hallucination – ironically one dreamed by Barbara herself, thus, ultimately making it her story – but the message that the episode explores, and the unspoken bond it reinforces between Barbara, her father, and Bruce, is quite touching, and handled with an elegant subtly that Moore’s more vicious tale, for all its philosophical gesticulating, lacks.
But that’s just personal opinion (and perhaps it’s not fair to compare the two anyway – they are, after all, different narratives, in different mediums, for two different audiences). I can completely understand why Moore’s tale is such a beloved and respected work; but it’s a bugbear that gnaws at me whenever I return to it. Batgirl is stripped of agency, made subservient to Bruce’s story. And I don’t like seeing that, because, as I’ve come to realise, in truth, she transcends him. She always has.
After all, Batgirl fills the full Batman checklist, but she does far more besides. The vigilante crime fighting? Check. The detective skills? Check. The acumen to juggle an impossible double life? (Without just slapping a pair of cheap glasses on her face and calling it a day – I’m looking at you, Clark Kent.) Check. She’s tenacious. Brave. She’s a brawler, a gymnast, a thinker. And she does it all without Bruce Wayne’s Scrooge McDuck pile o’ money, his indentured slave Alfred, or the Martian Manhunter on speed dial. There’s more than a little bit if that old truism about Ginger Rogers in Batgirl: like Ginger Rogers with Fred Astaire, she does everything Batman does – only backwards, and in high heels.
More significantly though: Bruce needs trauma to be Batman. Even Moore’s story is just piling further pathos onto the narrative’s gloomy foundation. Having lost his parents to random injustice Bruce needs sorrow and guilt and despair to focus him. Fighting crime is the only way that he can channel his self-loathing and guilt. He uses it as a crutch. Same with Dick Grayson. Both seething orphans, their devotion to justice is a way to manifest their personal demons as an obstacle they can punch.
Bruce is compelled to become Batman as a form of self-preservation. Just as Harvey Dent becomes Two-Face, or Oswald Cobblepot becomes the Penguin – because they are all traumatised souls who have to lose themselves in an alternate persona lest they go loose themselves utterly to madness. Bruce’s false face is a hero, but his is still a disassociation motivated by fear.
In contrast, Barbara Gordon didn’t need her parents to die to spur her into action. She didn’t need to be personally effected or disenfranchised to feel compelled to serve her fellow citizens. She doesn’t have to stare into an abyss of despair and horror each night to feel a duty to act.
Maybe that lack of specific motivation is the product of narrative laziness on behalf of her creators. Maybe her original inclusion was merely a heterosexual romantic distraction. Maybe there was some patronisingly antiquated design about how a woman couldn’t be burdened with a dark origin story, that she needed to be fun and perky and fresh. I don’t honestly know. But whatever the reason she was created, the result is a character far more worthy of regard.
And that’s what brings me back to that new outfit, and that playful new zip-up bat logo…
Because, sure, it would be nice if she didn’t have to wear someone else’s symbol (even Robin got a private visit to the graphic designer for his upper-case R). But that in itself is indicative of how remarkable her character is. She chose that image. It wasn’t inflicted upon her by some personal terror or driving tragedy.
She takes that bat insignia – a symbol of one man’s mad, blind crusade – and redeems it, drags it out of the shadows and into the light. For Bruce, the bat is a dark alcove to hide within, to redirect fear upon those who would inflict fear upon others; Barbara, meanwhile, is leaping around in yellow. She takes a crusade born from, and mired within, fear, imbuing it with courage and selfless generosity.
Batgirl did something far more remarkable and far more heroic than being ‘chosen’: she chose for herself. She saw people suffering. She saw greed and cruelty and injustice. She saw some weirdo in a cape trying to do something about it, then did the most extraordinary thing of all. She decided she could help.
She’s Batman – only better. She does it with style.
IMAGE: Batgirl new costume (MTV News)