In late 1966 Barbara Gordon took the superhero universe by storm when she first appeared in Detective Comics #359 as the “new” Batgirl. More than a mere replacement for Betty Kane—the heroine who originally used the name Bat-Girl—Barbara became so popular among readers that she was quickly added to Adam West’s Batman television series, and in turn became a household name. This Batgirl was unlike most heroines of the day, holding her own in a fight, solving mysteries on her own, and even rescuing the Dynamic Duo multiple times.
Batgirl’s adventures continued long after the show’s cancellation. Then in the 1988 graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke, the Joker shot Barbara, leaving her paralyzed. But Barbara would not be kept down, instead reinventing herself as Oracle, the wheelchair-bound tech genius and information broker to all the superheroes of the DC Universe. Now more popular than ever, Barbara/Oracle became the leader of the Birds of Prey, a team of female superheroes, and their self-titled comic became a fan-favorite when writer Gail Simone took over.
Then in 2011 publisher DC Comics decided to re-launch their universe and characters, and this meant Barbara’s return to her roof-swinging roots with a new Batgirl solo series. The new series would start a few years after Joker shot Barbara, with her just healing from the injury, and since Simone had crafted the character’s years as Oracle she was the obvious choice for returning Barbara to the cape and cowl. Now with Batgirl riding a new wave of popularity, the Advocate sat down with Simone to talk about Barbara’s future, her loyal gay fans, and the similar struggles both women and the LGBTQ community face in comics.
The Advocate: DC’s initial announcement that Barbara Gordon would return as Batgirl caused a bit of controversy among fans. Has that reaction changed?
Gail Simone: I would say so, the book is the top selling female solo book in the entire industry right now, and reviews have been great. It's a book about a brilliant, explosive young woman, full of life, who suffered a terrible trauma that changed her entire future. And she gets a chance to regain her mobility, and takes it. That's very, very intriguing to me.
Did you originally agree with DC’s decision to make Barbara Gordon Batgirl once again?
This being comics, where people leap out of the grave with some regularity, the idea had come up every now and then, and I was always against taking her out of the chair. As Oracle, she had become this sort of internet goddess, who ruled countries and destroyed villains from a lofty tower. I couldn't see putting her back in the suit and calling her Batgirl again after all that. It just didn't make much sense.
Then DC did this huge relaunch, where nearly every character has been pushed back, de-aged, set back closer to their original starting point. If there was ever a time to make Barbara Batgirl again, this was it. I still had to be convinced — Barbara was a very inspiring character as Oracle, and there was no immediate character filling that role out there. But it hit me, that she could still be inspiring. There wasn't really any book dealing with surviving trauma as an adult, not in any serious way. Barbara was never portrayed as a complainer when she was in the chair, but in some ways, this is harder for her. She's got some trauma and a bit of survivor's guilt. She asks herself, why was she [healed and] not others? That question haunts her. Almost everyone knows someone who has struggled with the effects of trauma, from crime, or abuse, or even self-harm. There should be heroes who show that you can survive those things.
Even though Barbara Gordon is a character you’ve written for many years in Birds of Prey, were you intimidated to take the reins of a new Batgirl series?
Barbara Gordon is, simply put, the reason I am into comics. She's the reason I'm a writer at all. I grew up on a very isolated farm, with no television, and very few distractions. I was the only redhead in school, and took an endless amount of shit for that. The first time I saw Barbara as Batgirl, portrayed by the wonderful Yvonne Craig on the Batman show in reruns, I just lost my mind. I couldn't believe there was a redheaded woman, who was smart, who had her own adventures, and who could kick the Penguin in the head. That was better than anything. She's important to me, and I know from my travels and conventions that she was important to millions of others around the world. I felt if we were going to walk this high wire, I wanted it to be done tastefully and honestly. I didn't want to have her magically healed [from the Joker’s bullet]. I wanted it to be a process, because I believe that struggling and overcoming is the heart of her character. We've gotten piles of letters from trauma specialists and survivors, thanking us for facing those things head on, and not simply nailing a tarpaulin over them.
What new things are you getting to do with the character?
The reason I got behind the relaunch was because I wanted to read stories where these iconic characters had to struggle again, where not everything was easy, not every path was cleared in advance. It feels incredibly meaningful to give them obstacles that actually seem impossible to overcome, and have them be forced to think and act in new ways.
Barbara can't just do the internet mega-hack thing and solve the world's problems right now. When she's out on the streets, she's using her wits, fists, and batarangs. It's joyful, even as she's stumbling a little bit out of the gate.
Why do you think Batgirl has such a big gay following?
I think the slightly superficial and silly reason for her big gay fanbase might be that she's glamorous, bigger than life. She had a yellow purse she went crime-fighting with in the early days, I kid you not. But the deeper answer has always been, I think, that she represents some qualities that people all over the gender/sexuality scales want in their own lives--she's caring, and tolerant, and fierce, and loving, and stylish, and she never apologizes for being who she is. We either want to be that, or have that in a friend or partner, or both. The whole mask/closet metaphor is active as well, as many queer writers have discussed.
Women and the LGBT community have both struggled for equal representation in comics over the
Years. Do you think that’s changing?
Like most media, we have a lot of catching up to do. For years— decades, even— it was actually forbidden to allude to sexuality of any kind in comics, which made the idea of gay characters completely unthinkable. Then many of the first steps were pure bullshit tokenism. The female and queer readership is growing, and growing ever more vocal. It's lovely to watch. Every year I do several LGBTQ comics panels, and the interest and attendance continue to blossom. I know that a lot of those in the audience are making their own comics. Once those doors are open, it's impossible to shut them again.
Right now, after the relaunch, there are three solo female titles in the top fifteen books at DC: [Batgirl, Batwoman, and Wonder Woman]. That would have been almost inconceivable twenty years ago. The positive thing right now is seeing more and more women who have extraordinary talent entering the field and developing their own fan bases. Artists like Nicola Scott, and writers like Marjorie Liu, we're being assigned top books. It's something previous female creators had to scratch and claw and bite to make happen. I want to see that continue until gender is no longer an issue.
Do you think female creators are more sensitive to LGBTQ stories?
There might be a bit more sensitivity to queer characters and readership among the female creators, than among the straight male creator community as a whole. That's certainly been my experience. But there are many straight white guys who are dead on great with LGBTQ characters. A guy like Greg Rucka cares deeply about this stuff and it shows. It's hard for me to focus on the past, or even the present, with this. I'm always thinking of what we can do to make tomorrow better and more inclusive.
Can we expect to see a Batgirl and lesbian superhero Batwoman team up in the near future?
Pretty sure that's the plan. Batwoman drinks well, and Batgirl's just turned 21. I see a lusty pub crawl in the offing.
Now that you’ve had a few issues to set the stage for the new series, what’s next for Barbara Gordon/
She's got a full and tricky plate. The book has been a phenomenal success, and we have a world of rivers for her to cross; classic and new villains, long forgotten family members returning after abandoning her, even some potential high-flying romance.
She's Batgirl. She'll make her way.