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Batgirl’s career is on an upswing.
The news that Joss Whedon is in talks to write and direct a Batgirl movie for Warner Bros. is just the latest piece in a career renaissance that has included appearances in this year’s Lego Batman Movie, a high-profile (if controversial) role in last year’s Batman: The Killing Joke animated feature and two fan-favorite comic book series as part of DC Entertainment’s Rebirth line-wide relaunch. Not bad for a hero who, up until 2011, had been sidelined for decades after being crippled by the Joker.
Curiously, the Batgirl that audiences are most familiar with — Barbara Gordon, daughter of Commissioner James Gordon — wasn’t the first hero to claim the name. The original Batgirl (or Bat-Girl, as she was referred to) debuted in 1961’s Batman No. 139 as a sidekick to Batwoman, a then-love interest to the Dark Knight. As such, Bat-Girl — secretly Betty Kane, socialite and tennis ace — was a potential love interest for Robin the Boy Wonder, although he rarely showed much interest in her beyond her crime-fighting skills.
Barbara Gordon took on the role in 1967’s Detective Comics No. 359, in a story called “The Million Dollar Debut of Batgirl!” The cover for the issue made a big deal of her debut; she ran toward the reader in the center of the page while excited cover lines read “Meet the new Batgirl! Is she heroine or villainess? What is her startling secret identity?” The reason for this push wasn’t just an attempt to introduce a comic book character — plans were already afoot to introduce this second Batgirl into the popular Adam West TV show in its third season. She was played by Yvonne Craig.
The new Batgirl was a hit, graduating into her own stories in the back of Detective Comics as well as appearances across the DC line, including Superman, Justice League of America and World’s Finest Comics. She’d form temporary teams with both Robin — “the Dynamite Duo!” — and Supergirl and enjoy a loyal fan following throughout her crime-fighting career until it was cut short in the mid-80s by the combination of the Joker and writer Alan Moore.
1988’s Batman: The Killing Joke was an attempt to highlight the relationship between Batman and the Joker that saw the Dark Knight’s supporting cast used as props to increase the tension and advance the plot, and little more. Commissioner Gordon is kidnapped and drugged to act as the bait in a trap the Joker sets for Batman, but a worse fate was given to Barbara, who was shot and crippled during the attempt. Moore would later distance himself from the story he wrote, telling Wizard magazine in 2006 that he was given the go-ahead by his editor for the plot with the phrase “Yeah, OK, cripple the bitch.” But the damage was done: Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl days were over.
That wasn’t the end of Gordon’s crime-fighting career, however, nor that of Batgirl. Across the next two decades, DC would revive the Batgirl identity three times, with different heroes under the cowl each time, while Gordon would adopt the identity “Oracle” and become a hacker-turned-information-broker to the good guys midway through the 1980s Suicide Squad comic book run. (The writers of that run, John Ostrander and Kim Yale, reportedly created the new identity for Gordon after being upset at the sidelining of the character in The Killing Joke. Oracle’s unmasking as Gordon was published less than two years after the Alan Moore title.)
As Oracle, Gordon became a mainstay of DC’s comic book universe; in addition to regular appearances in the Batman line, she would show up in JLA, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow and a whole host of other titles, as well as headline her own team book Birds of Prey (itself adapted into a short-lived TV show in 2002). But, as fate — and comic book editors — would have it, Gordon wasn’t done as Batgirl just yet.
The 2011 New 52 reboot of DC’s entire superhero universe brought Gordon back as Batgirl in her own comic book — only the second time Gordon had ever headlined her own solo comic in her decades-long existence. Already a fan-favorite title under the guiding hand of writer Gail Simone, the popularity of the series exploded in 2014, when a new creative team of Brenden Fletcher, Cameron Stewart and Babs Tarr took over and gave the character a makeover in a storyline that would become known as “Batgirl of Burnside.”
With a more practical costume and a new focus on the woman under the mask — Barbara would go back to school to study for her PhD, juggling relationships and crime-fighting with as much skill as any of us could manage — the Batgirl title brought critical acclaim and, more importantly, a new audience and excitement to the series, and to DC’s comic book line as a whole. Fletcher, Stewart and Tarr stayed with the title through early 2017, when the series was relaunched as part of the line-wide Rebirth promotion, with a second series, Batgirl and the Birds of Prey, added to accompany it.
The success of the “Burnside” era — and her subsequent appearances in movie projects — have cemented Gordon as an important figure in DC’s superhero mythology. She’s undergone countless trials and tribulations, but she remains exactly what editors described her as in an early 1970s editorial from Detective Comics: “a capable crime-fighter, a far cry from [a] Batwoman who constantly had to be rescued [by] Batman” — in other words, ideal fodder for a Joss Whedon project.
Indeed, Batgirl may offer Whedon a chance to explore familiar themes — a woman’s place in a male-dominated society (and genre); complicated family dynamics, both in terms of birth families and those we build for ourselves; the need to establish one’s identity for oneself, as opposed to relying on legacy or others’ suggestion — in new ways, while building on the approach to superhero movies he explored in his two Avengers movies. In many ways, it could be the most Joss Whedon project yet: Buffy meets Avengers, if you like.
Or, perhaps, Whedon could turn against expectations and start over. After all, following more than half a century of makeovers and new beginnings, that’s part of the Batgirl DNA as well.
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