While news has focused on this week's reboot of Superman, a less publicized change by DC Comics has eliminated one of the most beloved disabled heroes in comic book history.
Oracle, the brainy, tough-as-nails paraplegic heroine who works from a wheelchair, is gone.
And not everyone is happy about it.
As part of the publisher's line-wide relaunch this month, DC Comics executives announced that they believe Oracle will work better for the publisher by returning to her former superhero name of "Batgirl," and that means she needs to get out of the wheelchair and start wearing spandex again.
As a result, the newly "healed" character appears today in Batgirl #1 as a woman who can walk again. That is thrilling Batgirl fans, but the move has angered advocates for the disabled.
"[Oracle] is about as ideal a disabled character as you can find," said Neil Kapit, who writes about disabled issues and comic books on his Handi-Capeable blog. "I have the suspicion that it was an executive decision to bring Batgirl back, as these characters are meant for franchising first. They likely believe they can sell more T-Shirts, statues, graphic novels, etcetera, with an able-bodied character than with a character in a wheelchair."
James B. South, chairman of the Department of Philosophy at Marquette University, who examined the Oracle character for the book Superheroes and Philosophy, said the change from Oracle to Batgirl seems like a backward step."We are losing a major example of an adult woman in comics as well as an example of someone who can be a string leader while finding herself physically incapacitated in certain ways," South told Newsarama. "It does seem to be sending the message that DC thinks readers of comics are more interested in traditional superhero activities and are not able to handle a strong, disabled woman doing things in her own way."
Perhaps anticipating the anger from some fans, DC has incorporated Barbara's former disability into the new Batgirl comic. For example, Barbara Gordon will still have to undergo physical therapy, and she'll deal with her recovery within the story.
Plus, DC has tapped writer Gail Simone for the new Batgirl title, which even blogger Kapit admitted to Newsarama is a good thing, since Simone was instrumental in developing the Oracle character while she was disabled.
"Believe it or not, this was the more difficult choice to make for us, because we saw what the benefits of the Oracle character were, we saw what the challenges of making this change were going to be," DC Co-Publisher Dan DiDio told Newsarama. "What we needed to do was to continue to make Barbara Gordon one of the strongest characters possible, in or out of the wheelchair. And we felt that this was a strong direction for us."
So why all the outrage? While other comic characters were maimed and killed over the last 20 years, why did Barbara Gordon endure as such a beloved icon for DC?
To understand the controversy and Oracle's endurance, it's important to review Oracle's history. After all, it was controversy that birthed Oracle in the first place.
The character's switch today to the "Batgirl" mantle is actually a return to her roots. Barbara Gordon was introduced as Batgirl in 1967, both on television's campy Batman show and in the comics, to provide a female counterpart to Batman. She was the teenage daughter of police commissioner Jim Gordon, but she secretly dressed up as Batgirl to patrol Gotham City.
Twenty years later, that all changed with the 1988 story by Alan Moore,Batman: The Killing Joke. After Barbara Gordon had become an adult and retired from crimefighting, Moore's story showed her being shot by the Joker.
While The Killing Joke was critically acclaimed, it was controversial — particularly among female readers — because it victimized a female character in order to forward the story of male heroes. That controversy moved two writers to transform her into the hero known as Oracle."My late wife, Kimberly Yale, and I were not crazy about how Barbara was treated in The Killing Joke," comic writer John Ostrander told Newsarama. "Since the Batman office had no further plans for her at the time, we got permission to use Barbara in Suicide Squad, [another DC title at the time]. We felt that the gunshot as seen in Killing Joke would leave her paralyzed. We felt such an act should have repercussions. So... we took some of her other talents, as with computers, and created what was essentially an Internet superhero — Oracle."
Because Barbara had been established as having a PhD in library science, Ostrander made her a genius at accessing computer information. She adopted the secret code-name "Oracle" as she used her intellect to assist heroes throughout the DCU.
Dennis O'Neil, a Batman editor for DC at the time, said Ostrander's respectful treatment of Barbara, allowing her to continue fighting crime despite her disability, made her a beloved character almost immediately among DC fans. "I think it was a real inspiration on John's part to come up with Oracle, and she became one of my favorite characters in the whole Bat-stable. She was unlike anything else," O'Neil said.
O'Neil eventually made it official in the comics that Oracle was Batman's sole source of information. "It was logical for her to be there in Batman's world," O'Neil said. "Batman would need someone like that."
The editor said he believes she has endured because with her change to Oracle, she gave the DC Universe a new type of hero.
"We had hoards of people in spandex beating up criminals," he said. "We didn't have anybody like Oracle, who overcame a disability and was just as valuable and just as effective in a way that didn't involve violence."In the 20 years since then, Oracle has been depicted in comics and other media as a super-intelligent yet anonymous hero who supplies information and guidance to superheroes, including the Justice League. Oracle also starred in the long-running Birds of Prey comic, where she was the leader of a group of female superheroes.
"When Barbara Gordon became Oracle, she went from a character who was of neutral worth to one utterly priceless to the DCU," Kapit pointed out. "From her chair, Barbara has formed connections with the entire DCU, revolutionized the technological infrastructure of crimefighting, and helped found the all-female Birds of Prey, a team which has been consistently high-quality and beloved by men and women alike."
O'Neil said that he never considered changing Barbara Gordon back to Batgirl, despite there being the technology in comics that could have explained it. "Giving her her legs back, in addition to being a kind of deus ex machina, would have subtracted from the uniqueness of Oracle," O'Neil said. "And at the same time, I didn't see anything to be gained by bringing back that version of Batgirl. Even in the stories I wrote, Batgirl was usually just a pale carbon copy of Batman and didn't have any of that mythic back-story that gives the whole thing resonance, like Batman's, which has lasted what.. 72 years now."
Professor South agreed that Oracle's back-story as a hero who overcame disability gives her a strength that Batgirl never had."[Barbara's evolution] shows her developing her own way of being a superhero," he said. "While she seems to develop her own style of fighting as Batgirl, she's still basically following in Batman's footsteps. Once her life is shattered in The Killing Joke, she has to become, in some ways, a more independent woman who uses her own native skills and intelligence to develop a way of fighting crime that complements Batman's rather than copying his way. In Birds of Prey, we see Barbara Gordon as a team leader and her transformation from a girl into a woman."
But that strength isn't going away in the new Batgirl series. In today's new comic, no explanation is given for her miraculous recovery from paraplegia, but her disability is not forgotten.
But some of the character's age and years of experience are being erased with the reboot, according to writer Simone. "We are seeing Barbara at an earlier starting point," Simone explained to Newsarama when the change was announced.
"She's been removed from the action and danger for a long time," she said. "With this relaunch, she is still very much Barbara, but she can reclaim a part of her history and legacy with modern stories, in her own book and elsewhere."
DiDio said the decision to change Oracle was because, while other people had taken up the mantle of Batgirl, Barbara Gordon was the strongest character for that title with the relaunch. "When you talk about Batgirl, whether it's with a casual fan or even to somebody who just knew the Batman character, Barbara Gordon is always the one people default to as 'who Batgirl is,'" DiDio said.
O'Neil said he can understand that the icon of "Batgirl" is most associated with Barbara Gordon. "You can't ignore things like that," he said. "But it comes down to is, are we making this change because we see a brilliant way to reinvent this character? Or is it just that this is the one that we loved in the past? But Barbara Gordon's perception in the mainstream public as Batgirl would be a very valid consideration."
Even Kapit can put aside his role as an advocate of the disabled and see the business side of the decision. "I can understand, but that doesn't mean I agree even slightly," he said.
And even O'Neil admitted that, "from a fan standpoint, I'm kind of sorry to see her go."
Ostrander, who created the character, said he believes Simone will do a good job with the task of reintroducing the former Oracle as a new, younger Batgirl. "I've been quoted as saying that I think Barbara was a stronger and more effective character, a more important part of the DCU, as Oracle than she ever was as Batgirl," Ostrander said. "Do I still feel that way? Well, of course. Kim and I created Oracle.
"Times change and characters and people evolve. I changed things when I wrote characters, including changing Barbara to Oracle. Others do the same for this era," he said. "Gail Simone is a good friend and a wonderful writer and I'm sure her work will be wonderful."Got a comment? There's lots of conversation on Newsarama's FACEBOOK and TWITTER! More 'Why They Endure' articles: