How DC's 'The Oracle Code' Remakes Barbara Gordon

The Oracle Code Art - Publicity - H 2020
Manuel Preitano/DC
Author Marieke Nijkamp talks about creating a new origin story for the beloved character in the latest release from the publisher's YA graphic novel line.

DC’s The Oracle Code is more than just the latest in the publisher’s line of successful YA graphic novels; written by New York Times-best-selling author Marieke Nijkamp (This is Where it Ends) with art by Manuel Preitano and Jordie Bellaire. It’s also a book that offers a new version of what happened to Barbara Gordon after a gunshot left her spine shattered, leaving her in a wheelchair and rebuilding her life as the hacker known as Oracle.

Recasting Babs as a teenager with an understandable chip on her shoulder, the book offers readers the chance to work through the healing process with the hero, even as she investigates a number of mysterious disappearances inside her rehabilitation center, transforming her recovery from trauma into something akin to an origin story.

The Hollywood Reporter talked to Nijkamp about creating the book, and has an exclusive preview of the project to accompany the conversation.

How did this project come together? Was this something where DC wanted an Oracle book and you pitched for it, or was Oracle a character that you both had affinity for, prior to this?

A bit of both! DC invited me to pitch something for the YA line, and while they gave me the freedom to pitch any character I wanted to explore, they suggested Barbara Gordon as Oracle.

And as a disabled author, bringing Oracle back to the page — even, and if I’m honest, especially, a teen Oracle — was a dream come true!

You’re presenting a very different Barbara Gordon in this book, but one that feels true to the spirit of the original Oracle; she’s more bitter, more angry about her situation, but just as capable and determined — it feels, in many ways, like the origin of the character that fans have never had the chance to enjoy before. What was the thinking behind showing this version of the character, as opposed to the more traditional one?

The YA and Young Readers lines exist outside of main continuity, which meant I had a bit of leeway in creating and recreating the character. I knew I wanted to stay true to that spirit of Oracle. I wanted to craft a young Barbara who would be a good entry point for new readers, but who would also feel familiar to readers who already know and love her. I wanted to respect who she is and where she comes from.

Focusing on this journey, on everything that happens after she gets shot and how she finds herself again, felt like the perfect way to do both. She’s still Barbara. She’s curious, determined, protective of the people around her. But she’s isn’t as polished yet. She’s an angry, grieving teen who lost her sense of normal and her best friend. She’s struggling. She’s lashing out.

And to me it’s exactly that deep humanity — both her flaws and her strengths — that makes her so relatable. It’s how I want readers to meet her. Especially teen readers, who know a thing or two about how difficult it can be to figure out who you are and to find your place in the world.

As strange as it sounds, it’s a book that centers Barbara’s story back on Barbara, by not making it about the shooting that put her in the wheelchair, but on what happens afterwards; obviously, her shooting in “regular” continuity is the result of the Joker, and he’s absent from the book entirely. Was that something that was obvious from the start, or something that you had to work toward?

That was absolutely the intention right from the start! Once I knew I had freedom with Oracle’s origin, I wanted the shooting be the catalyst of the story, but nothing more than that. While it affects the people around her, and there’s time to explore the complexities of their reactions, Barbara is the focus point.

At its core, The Oracle Code is about her journey. It’s about Babs rehabilitating and rediscovering herself. It’s a story about trauma and mystery and friendship. It’s about learning to trust again and figuring out ways to talk about what scares you. And hopefully, at the end of the day, it’s a story about joy and hope too.

Also, because no story with a legacy character ever truly stands on their own: shoutout to Oracle: Year One, which reframed the original origin story and was an inspiration to me when I first approached this novel.

What kind of research went into the book? Obviously, it’s not as if the mystery aspects are rooted in reality, but Babs’ recovery process, the exercises, and so on — how much of that is based on real-life research?

Quite a bit! Part of that research was going back to my own experiences — I was a disabled teen in a rehabilitation facility too, so I could draw on the anger and frustration I remembered. I know from experience how complex the recovery process is and how important friendships and recognition are. And I’ve played wheelchair basketball. Badly.

But another part was making sure we got the technical details right, especially when it came to things like exercises and therapy. I wanted to make sure we didn’t show something that was physically impossible or altogether a terrible idea. At the same time, Manuel and I talked a lot about making those scenes look recognizable and familiar. So in some cases, there’s some poetic license in exactly what type of exercises would be appropriate, for example. Consider those moments a training montage, where we only show snippets of everything Barbara is learning and developing.

And, uh, please don’t take this as actual medical advice!

The book looks amazing, and not just because Manuel’s “regular” style is so attractive — there’s also a number of stylistic shifts where stories-inside-stories are being told, and it’s such a fun narrative trick. Where did that come from, the idea of telling stories in different visual styles?

The different visual styles were all Manuel’s idea! I love writing books that play with the concept of storytelling in one way or another, and when Manuel and I discussed the stories that are being told here, he suggested different visual styles. From there, he just ran with it. All the minute details. The colors. It’s all his work and it’s spectacular.

And you’re absolutely right, Manuel did such a fantastic job with the regular pages as well. I love his style — in combination with Jordie Bellaire’s colors — and he took great care in making sure all the chairs and crutches and assistive devices were portrayed accurately and respectfully.

I’m a very lucky writer with an absolute dream team!

The Oracle Code feels very much like a “first book,” leaving Barbara in a place where there’s a future to be explored. Is that something you’d like to handle, or was the intent to set her up with a new origin story and leave the future for other creators and fans?

To me, The Oracle Code stands on its own, as an origin story. But I would be lying through my teeth if I said I didn’t have ideas for a possible sequel too.

Regardless of whether or not that happens though, I’m incredibly proud of this book. And I’ll always be an Oracle fan. If it so happens that the next time I see Oracle she’s written by someone else — like Sarah Kuhn and Nicole Goux’s Shadow of the Batgirl, for example! — I’ll be first in line to buy it.

The Oracle Code is available in bookstores now.