BORN OF HOPE: Barbara Gordon as Oracle
The Barbara Gordon I know and love is Oracle. I am not writing about Batgirl. I am going to tackle the complicated, contradictory mess of a wonderful character that is Oracle, DC’s proverbial phoenix from the ashes.
Through Babs herself, writers John Ostrander and Kim Yale, in their absolutely fantastic “Oracle: Year One” story in The Batman Chronicles #5, articulate the outrage they and many fans felt when DC targeted Gotham’s female vigilante for victimization by the Joker:
“The doctors tell me I was “lucky”. The Joker was using a doctored bullet. Half the grains of a normal .45. Had he been using a regular bullet, I would’ve been dead before I hit the floor. And he didn’t want that. No, he wanted me alive. Not because I have an intrinsic worth or meaning to him, of course.
“No, shooting me . . . kidnapping my Dad . . . it was all just a way to get at you.
“Do you understand how humiliating, how demeaning, that is? My life has no importance save in relation to you! Even as Batgirl, I was perceived just as some weaker version of you!”
It takes years after the DC editorial team decided that Barbara Gordon was the perfect “expendable” victim for maiming by the Joker for someone to stand up and tell her story. John Ostrander and Kim Yale’s story was published in 1996, almost a decade after The Killing Joke. Two year earlier, in the midst of Prodigal, Babs gets a story in Showcase 94 #12, a story of her physically confronting people who have targeted her as an easy mark, who attack her in her own home. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s exactly the same story--minus a few humorous asides--that Chuck Dixon tells in the first issue of the ongoing monthly Birds of Prey, in 1997.
Why does the same story keep being told, over and over again? Possibly because TPTB over at DC keep forgetting. A trend I’ve noticed is that Oracle cannot take a step forward without getting dragged two steps back. She and Dick Grayson haven’t had a serious relationship since her Batgirl days, and yet he keeps popping up in her love life and all over the early issues of Birds of Prey, and they were engaged toward the end of Infinite Crisis and mysteriously unengaged OYL. In early Oracle canon, every time she fought someone physically, she had the same realization of “Oh, yeah, I can take care of myself!”, despite every other similar story in which she already had that realization.
So why don’t I just throw up my hands and give up on DC ever getting her right? Because there is good news--Oracle truly is a phoenix, if one who has somewhat more trouble getting up out of the ashes that Marvel’s (who does it with dependable regularity). As Birds of Prey progresses, and as that version of her character becomes dominant in the DCU, Oracle finally gets a chance to be the strong, smart, ruthless, caring woman portrayed in those pages.
Oracle was forged out of Barbara Gordon’s drive to be a hero. In the early months after the Joker crippled her, Barbara despaired over the loss of her former life. She felt victimized and terrified, angry and helpless--rightfully so. Barbara has always been a very complex character, and writing her at any juncture in her career as Oracle requires one be aware of all internal and external influences in her life at that given moment. In the beginning, she is searching for a new way, and finds it in a dream wherein the oracle at Delphi tells Babs, who is dressed as Batgirl, that “You have lost nothing that matters. You have everything you need.” The oracle reveals that she, too, is Barbara, and a legend is born. The only aid or even contact received from the Bats at this point is Bruce clandestinely pointing Richard Dragon in her direction. It is Richard Dragon who teaches her escrima. Dick is not present, since he’s off gallivanting around the universe with the Titans, Bruce is in the midst of his post-Jason debacle, and there is, of course, either no Robin or one in the very early stages of training. Except for her father, Babs is on her own.
Barbara Gordon as Oracle is a rougher character than Babs as Batgirl. She’s more cynical, after everything she’s been through. She never answers the door without checking first--some mistakes you only make once. She is more suspicious, less willing to trust, and a giant control freak. I suspect the control freak came out when she was a librarian, but now she can do things like change traffic signals and pay for plane tickets with a drug lord’s money. The power hasn’t gone to her head--she is too aware of her own and other’s mortality for that--but she does have a tendency to want her fingers in every honey pot in existence. Good for Oracle the information guru. Bad for slipping down the slope of lacking-due-process and right to privacy. Though I doubt anyone who is both important to Babs and a vigilante thinks that she doesn’t have them under surveillance 24/7. The stalkerish mode comes with being the woman who knows everything, whether or not she should know it.
It might have come about because everyone in her life besides her father has neglected or betrayed her at some point in her life, but Babs’s loyalty is complete and everlasting. She will use all of her considerable power to help any of her operatives, or those vigilantes whom she works with regularly. She will cross lines she doesn’t like to cross, recruit dubious people, work with bad guys and the morally ambiguous if it keeps her people safe. She can, of course, outthink the nasty people she teams up with in desperation, but the fact remains that she will team up with just about anyone and anything if her people are in danger.
Babs is a prickly creature. She is also a witty, hilarious, wonderful friend. She can be coy, joking, and loving with the people she cares about. Dinah and Jim Gordon see this side of her the most, and the most truly, but she maintains a host of casual and more-than-casual relationships with people with whom she can be all of herself. She sees the light in all situations, never gives up, is always ready with banter via comm., and few things please her more than the people she loves. When Babs hurts people emotionally, it tends to be by accident. Not always--she’s cut people like Dick and Bruce to the bone deliberately, and only sometimes does she regret it. She always regrets it when she hurts people by accident.
Barbara is also, more than ever, her father’s daughter. I’m going to say something here that is more my belief about this character than canon. Canon tells me that, like the Bats, she adheres to a no-kill code. However, not all her operatives do, especially in current canon. Helena has and is willing to kill people, Zinda is a soldier, Barda is a Female Fury, and even Dinah has blood on her hands. It would take extraordinary circumstances, but Babs’s father is a cop. Sometimes you don’t have a choice.
Whatever your canon for how she and Jim Gordon came to be family, there is no doubt that this is one of, if not the, most important relationship in Babs’s life. My personal canon is one that has gone in and out of favor over the years: that he is her uncle, who adopted her when her parents died when she was very young. They must have had to forge that relationship, but their individual drives to be honest and do right by Gotham have bonded them together in what is probably the most healthy, normal parent-child relationship in the DCU. In current canon, she has told him that she’s Oracle and that she was Batgirl--he hadn’t guessed the first, but knew the second all along, something that has been tacit canon for years.
Forming the Birds of Prey (which, trivia! has only recently been known by that name in-universe) is, I think, the defining moment of Babs’s career as Oracle to date. She searched out and found another soundly editorially-abused woman and teamed them up. The miniseries and the early issues of the series that stemmed from it are rife with the tensions between Babs and Dinah, the differences in how they work and perceive their relationship. Babs initially goes into this thinking of herself as “management”, which is a notion Dinah pounds out of her early on. They’re a fractious pair in the beginning, extremely rough around the edges, and they get angry with each other on a fairly regular basis. It takes a number of missions, and the advent of Dinah knowing Oracle’s identity, for them to become the steady best friends they are in Simone’s run on Birds.
Meanwhile, DC writers and editors can’t seem to leave her and Dick alone. I’m aware that there are people for whom this is an OTP, and I respect their opinion. The Babs that I perceive is aware that she loves Dick, may always love Dick, but is keenly aware that love isn’t enough. In her mind, he will always see her as Batgirl, and she simply isn’t that person anymore. She couldn’t be with him, knowing that he loves someone else: the girl she used to be. She thinks he is too caught up in not caring about whether or not she can walk that he’s missed the ways becoming Oracle has made her grow as a person, and still treats her like the girl she was as Batgirl. Regardless of whether or not that’s true about Dick (I think it is, but this isn’t about him), it’s what she thinks about him. And it makes anything other than a very close friendship, tinged with regret, impossible.
Speaking of Batgirl, her relationship with her successor to that title has been very spotty in canon. Initially, she found, trained and helped Cass through NML and Cass’s early Batgirl days. She passed down her legacy willingly, and with every blessing. Unfortunately, I have read very little of the canon from this period, and so can’t say much about it. I think that while passing down her legacy was important to her, once it became clear that Bruce was willing to take care of Cass in a way he’d never taken care of her, Babs concentrated on the Birds and left the new Batgirl to her own devices. Someone who knows the canon better than I is free to correct me.
One of the relationships that gets lost in the shuffle is her relationship with Robin. Tim’s a geek, so is Babs, and he shows up on a regular basis in early BoP. They work together on electronics, he swings by the help, and while he knew who she was, there was a time she didn’t know his identity! They joked, laughed, and she introduced him to Ted Kord, a fellow tech geek whose relationship to Babs can be described as “maybe-kinda-almost” romantic. There’s definite potential there. Ted shows up occasionally throughout BoP, right up until his unfortunate death (which is still unfortunate, even if it gave us Jaime Reyes, who is awesome and also kinda gets along with Oracle).
As for the rest of the Batclan, Babs and Bruce tend to get along smashingly, except for when they argue. Bruce has a bad habit of underestimating Babs, or treating her as though she works for him--which might have been true in the beginning, and no longer. Oracle works with the Batman, and if he wants more consideration than that, he shouldn’t dismiss her operatives, try to butt into her cases, attempt to bug her Tower, or otherwise harangue her. That being said, when they’re on good terms, they make a fantastic team. He is aware of her value and protects her secret more strictly than he does even his own, because frankly, she’s more important. He has people who will pick up his fight. Oracle has pissed off too many dangerous people, from organized crime families to fascist dictators the world over to risk the work she does for the superhero community on a slip. Batman has backed off Huntress for the first time ever because she proved herself to Oracle.
Once Barbara and Dinah work things out, they have a friendship on the level with Hal and Ollie’s as far as best friends are concerned. They are still fallible people, even with each other, but there is no one and nothing that could get between them if one needed the other. Babs would move heaven and earth for Dinah. They don’t lean on each other in the sense of crutches, but rather, have helped each other mature and become stronger people. Babs had confidence in Dinah when no one else did, and Dinah never lets any of the things that throw off other people--Babs’s standoffishness, pride, occasional cruelty, and arrogance--get in her way. They have a wonderful vibe when hanging out together, exchanging food tips and banter about everything in the universe, and ask each other the hard questions they wouldn’t face on their own. They tease each other, and apologize when necessary. Dinah’s importance to Babs is possibly equal to that of her father.
Babs’s relationship with Helena, on the other hand, has come a long way in a few years. After Oracle reluctantly added Huntress to her list of primary operatives when Dinah was in very serious trouble, they clashed--clashed some more--and broke up at least once, after Helena figured out that one of Babs’s secondary missions as Oracle was a “rehabilitation programs for female vigilantes.” It takes some doing on both their parts to get over that giant mistake of Babs’s. Huntress and Oracle have a very different relationship than Dinah and Babs. Babs was a different person when she recruited Helena than she was when she recruited Dinah, and Helena is a very different person than Dinah. Dinah is the consummate superhero, founder and current head of the JLA, while Helena is the woman who keeps getting kicked off teams for being too vicious and too impulsive. Oracle has tempered that--not in any way “taming” Helena, but in coming to the point where they trust each other to make the right call from their position. Helena listens to Oracle far less than Dinah ever did, though she is also devoted to leading the Birds and working with the team and Oracle in a way Dinah never did. Helena is still impulsive and vicious, but she’s matured working with Oracle and Black Canary. And Oracle has come to trust her new primary operative’s instincts and morality.
As of most recent canon, Barbara has her roots in the Bats, but she has broken away from their family structure to fly on her own. She was always the oldest Bat besides Bruce, to the point where in some canon continuities, she and Bruce had a thing rather than she and Dick. She has graduated from being a supporting hero to being the leader of a family much like Batman, Superman, Green Arrow or the Flash--she leads the Birds, and is on the same level of importance and respect as the gen-two heroes who make up the traditional League. She trusts her people and her people trust her, even when they or she step wrong, which happens on the same kind of regular basis that it does with normal people. Babs gets arrogant, Helena gets angry, Zinda gets old-school violent, Misfit gets teenagery, and things fall apart. But Babs has a strong enough bond with her team and the people she loves to be able to put things back together, generally stronger than they were before, though there are bridges that she has burned--such as Power Girl.
She is also no longer subject to the siren call of Gotham, having moved her headquarters twice recently. The first time, it was because she was again forced to make a terrible sacrifice for the Batman--to save his life, she blew up her Clocktower, with no time to get anything she valued out. Not her original photographs, not her keepsakes, nothing. So she moved herself and her operatives to Metropolis. Very recently, they’ve relocated to Platinum Flats.
Most of all, and the thing that I think comics forget too often and a fanfic writer never should, is that Babs is Oracle now. Not the former Batgirl, not a woman who despairs over losing her ability to walk, but a woman who sees her new life as one in which she is whole, and in which she makes a difference in a way she never could have as Batgirl. Does she miss flying? Yes. Does she wish the Joker had never crippled her? I can’t imagine she doesn’t. Do these things define her? NO. Babs is defined by her will, her heroism, her mistakes. She should never be underestimated, because there is quite simply no one as good as she is at what she does. Some of the things she’s good at are pushing people away, playing god, slipping and falling all over the line between hurting criminals and justice, and not telling people important things. Other things she’s good at include outmaneuvering bad guys, giving people what’s coming to them, trusting her team, taking care of her own, never letting herself be limited by what other people think she can and cannot do, and loving and trying to take care of people even when it’s not the smartest thing she could do.
Barbara Gordon as Oracle is a different animal than Barbara Gordon as Batgirl. She’s sneakier, more ruthless, smarter, and far less limited. Fighting crime in Gotham with a brown belt in Judo does not compare to fighting merciless dictators worldwide with all the power in her computers and her partners’ fists. The mistakes she makes stem from her good qualities taken too far, and what she does right, she can do right like no other character in the DCU. She’s a complicated character, whose evolution may have had a series of setbacks, but has never stood still. I hope I’ve done her a little bit of justice here.