Batgirl

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Legends of the DC Universe #11 © 1998 DC Comics. (Cover art by Kevin Nowlan.)

Batgirl

(pop culture)

Batgirl was primarily created to attract a specific demographic. The ratings of ABC-TV’s Batman series were slipping during its second season (1966–1967), and the show’s producers brainstormed “Batgirl” to lure young girls (and lustful men) to the show for its third season. Dancer/actress Yvonne Craig was hired for the role, clad in a form-fitting, purple-and-gold Batsuit, and while her high-kicking antics may have ignited some amorous awakenings in the young boys watching, she couldn’t save the series: Ratings continued to slump and Batman was canceled in 1968, after its third season.

During the program’s run, DC Comics (publisher of the Batman comics franchise that inspired the TV show), attempted to imitate its success by adding camp humor and pop-art sound effects to the comic books. When DC’s higher-ups caught wind of a Batgirl joining the show’s cast, they gave Julius “Julie” Schwartz, editor of Batman and Detective Comics, the mandate to create an all-new Batgirl for the comics (a teenage heroine calling herself Bat-Girl [alter ego Betty Kane] had premiered in Batman #139, in April 1961, and made a few scattered appearances before fading into oblivion). The result was “The Million Dollar Debut of Batgirl!” in Detective Comics #359, January 1967. Behind the bat-eared cowl was Barbara Gordon, a stunning redhead whose good looks and shapely figure belied the physical stereotype of her profession: librarian. The daughter of Gotham City police commissioner James Gordon, Barbara was headed to the Policemen’s Masquerade Ball, wearing a black-yellow-and-blue Batgirl costume of her own design, when she by chance encountered a kidnapping attempt. Killer Moth, one of the more outrageous villains to harass Gotham City, was abducting millionaire Bruce Wayne when this masked “Batgirl,” energized by an adrenaline rush, burst onto the scene and rescued Wayne. Thrilled by this exploit, Barbara maintained her Batgirl identity and continued to fight crime, ignoring the protestations of Batman, who feared that Batgirl’s inexperience would bring her harm on the dangerous streets of Gotham.

Through a number of guest appearances in DC comic books in 1967 and 1968, Batgirl was portrayed in a manner considered sexist by contemporary social standards: Much of her arsenal was carried in a Batpurse attached to her utility belt, a Detective cover depicted her distracted by a run in her tights, and she even got into a cat fight with Catwoman! But by the early 1970s Batgirl had matured, using her keen intellect, athletic dexterity, and burgeoning detective skills to solve petty and not-so-petty crimes. Soon, Barbara Gordon relocated to Washington, D.C., as a congress-woman, occasionally appearing as Batgirl in the nation’s Capitol and even teaming with former Boy Wonder Robin (with the hint of a romance between the two). But as Batman comic books grew grimmer throughout the 1970s and 1980s, it was felt that Batgirl’s existence weakened Batman’s, and Barbara Gordon hung up her cowl—although the character continued to be merchandized by a variety of toy manufacturers still craving the girl demographic.

By the time Gordon resurfaced, in 1988, in the one-shot comic Batman: The Killing Joke, retroactive continuity revisions had now made her the niece—not the daughter—of Commissioner Gordon. In that story, the Joker, Batman’s most maniacal foe, exacted revenge on his enemy by rampaging against those close to him. The Joker shot Barbara, leaving her a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair. Some readers at the time accused DC Comics of misogyny, as this brutal attack on Batgirl closely followed the poignant but violent death of Supergirl in DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths. But this tragic moment actually heralded Barbara Gordon’s reemergence. In Suicide Squad #23 (January 1989), Barbara became Oracle, a behind-the-scenes crusader whose development of a vast computer information network, along with her photographic memory and her uncanny hacking abilities, enabled her to ferret out information to help other heroes. In addition to aiding the Suicide Squad, Batman, and others, Oracle ultimately joined with Black Canary and the Huntress to form the Birds of Prey.

A new Batgirl was introduced in Batman #567 (July 1999), when a mute teenage drifter was befriended by Barbara Gordon. It was soon disclosed that this girl was actually Cassandra Cain, daughter of the notorious assassin David Cain, who had expertly trained his offspring in martial arts and other modes of combat. The intervention of Oracle and Batman helped reshape Cassandra’s destiny, and now she heroically prowls the streets of Gotham as the new Batgirl. An Asian American, Cain has since adopted the new costumed identity of Blackbat.

The newest Batgirl is Stephanie Brown, who first appeared in Detective Comics #647 (August 1992), and is the daughter of one of Batman’s adversaries, the Cluemaster. Stephanie became a costumed crime fighter called the Spoiler and briefly became Batman’s protégé as the new Robin. Eventually, Cassandra Cain gave her Batgirl costume to Stephanie, who took over the role in Batgirl #1 (August 2009).

In tandem with, but contrary to DC Comics’ print continuity, Barbara Gordon as Batgirl has continued a mainstream profile on the small and large screens. In animation, Batgirl appeared in several shows, including The Batman/Superman Hour (1968–1969), The Adventures of Batman and Robin (1969–1970), and The New Adventures of Batman (1977). She didn’t reappear on television until Fox’s second season of Batman: The Animated Series, where she made her debut in the two-part “Shadow of the Bat” (September 13-14, 1993), and became a semi-regular on that series and its later incarnations, The Adventures of Batman & Robin (1994-1997, Fox) and The New Batman/Superman Adventures (1997–1999, the WB). She arrived on the big screen in summer 1997’s live-action film Batman & Robin, in which Alicia Silverstone played the superheroine (albeit altered to Barbara Wilson, the niece of Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred). Batgirl also appeared in the direct-to-video animated films Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero (March 1998) and Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman (October 2003), as well as in much older form in the futuristic TV spin-off cartoon Batman Beyond (1998–2001). Actress Dina Meyer was cast as Barbara Gordon/Oracle (with flashbacks to her Batgirl career) in the short-lived Birds of Prey live-action series, on the WB network from fall 2002 through early 2003. The Barbara Gordon version of Batgirl also appears in episodes of the animated TV series Batman: The Brave and the Bold.

No longer crippled, Barbara Gordon triumphantly returned to her costumed identity in the new Batgirl series that began in September 2011, written by Gail Simone, with art by Ardian Syaf and Vicente Cifuentes. —ME & PS