If you have already caught this year’s best movie (to date), The LEGO Batman Movie, you would have noticed how influential Batgirl is to Batman and the Bat Family. Considering the Dark Knight’s grouchiness and Robin’s hyper-enthusiasm, having someone “moderate” like Batgirl (and sometimes Alfred) sure does keep things in perspective.
Anyway, with the focus and hype constantly on Batman (always be Batman!), we should also spare a thought for others in the Bat Family, especially Batgirl, who celebrates her 50th birthday this year! Hence, we are dedicating this week to Batgirl – her highs, her lows, and her alter egos.
Bat-perfectionists will probably point out that 2017 is actually NOT Batgirl’s 50th Anniversary if you factor in that there was actually a Bat-Girl (note the hyphen) introduced in 1961! For the record, that Bat-Girl was not Barbara Gordon but Bette Kane (the niece of Kathy Kane, aka Batwoman), who made her debut in Batman (Vol 1) #139. IF the hyphenated heroine is included, Batgirl is technically 56 this year!
Setting things straight
After Fredric Wertham’s book Seduction Of The Innocent (1954) suggested that there was a hint of homo-eroticism in Batman and Robin’s relationship, DC responded by introducing Batwoman (aka Kathy Kane) in 1956 as Batman’s love interest, followed by the aforementioned Bat-Girl. Completing the family were Bat-Mite and Ace The Bat Hound, which gave Batman a lot of TLC but came at the expense of ste-reotyping the Dark Knight’s adventures as a comedy. While Adam West would have loved this Bat-ty ambience, declining sales prompted then Batman editor Julius Schwartz to put the “Dark” back in the Dark Knight! Hence, bye-bye Batwoman, Bat-Mite, Ace ... and Bat-Girl (and good riddance)!
After the failure of Bat-Girl and prompted by the Batman TV series’ pull to attract more female viewership, Barbara Gordon (daughter of Commissioner James Gordon) was introduced as Batgirl via Detective Comics (Vol 1) #359 in 1967. Legendary artist Carmine Infantino was commissioned to create a new Batgirl and felt that the Bette Kane version had nothing to do with Bats, and was nothing more than a pesky female Robin. In the end, Infantino’s Batgirl turned out to be a female version of Batman! Yvonne Craig’s portrayal of Batgirl in Season Three of the Batman TV series immortalised the persona and permanently sealed the character’s place in the Bat-mythos.
Batgirl and Robin
Contrary to what we have seen in The LEGO Batman Movie or last year’s The Killing Joke animated movie, Batman and Batgirl are NOT meant to be a couple!
Batgirl was originally introduced as Robin’s (Dick Grayson) love interest and together they have had many adventures together and even a few romantic milestones (first date, first kiss, etc) ... that is, until Dick broke her heart by starting a relationship with Starfire.
While the door is always open for a Dick-Babs romantic reunion, the couple’s on-off romance and other distractions have made it tough for them to have a concrete relationship together. Hopefully, this childhood couple will eventually walk down the aisle together.
How many Batgirls are there?
There are about 11 girls who have donned the Batgirl mantle (some more than once), namely Bette Kane, Barbara Gordon (mainstream and a few Elseworlds versions), Helena Bertinelli (who was also The Huntress), Cassandra Cain, Charlie-Gage Radcliffe, Stephanie Brown (formerly Robin), Tiffany Fox (Lucius’ daughter), Harper Row, Kathy Duquesne, Neil Little and Alysia Yeoh.
Most popular of them all
Barbara, by a landslide. Having occupied the Batgirl identity for a good three of the character’s five decades, Babs has been the personification of Batgirl, even when she was not in the cape and cowl. Post-Killing Joke, her role as the wheelchair-bound Oracle has fuelled interest for her to return to the character – which she eventually did, but at the expense of a lot of consequences for the timeline.
Bat-tiest of them all
While Helena was stripped of her Batgirl identity by the Batman for being too ruthless, my vote goes to Cassandra – who is definitely the toughest and most physical Batgirl! She is the daughter of assassins (Cain and Lady Shiva), and trained by Batman and Oracle, making her the most complete operative.
If not for The Killing Joke, Babs probably would have gracefully exited the crimefighting scene via Barbara Kesel’s Batgirl Special #1 (1988). Overwhelmed by the super-powered friends she has, Babs’ “finale” takes place in this one-shot. Unfortunately, Alan Moore had other plans for her...
Not a joke at all
The lowest ebb of (any) Batgirl has to be the tragic Killing Joke event, in which the Joker visits the Gordon household and cripples an unsuspecting Barbara by shooting her in the abdomen, shattering her spine, and then taking gory pictures of her in order to drive her father insane. Honestly, such sickening acts should have never been allowed in a mainstream comic – even Moore eventually expressed regret over his treatment of the character, calling it “shallow and ill-conceived”.
Though she continued her crimefighting adventures as the all-seeing Oracle, it took Barbara a long time to literally get back on her feet (about 23 years!) and reclaim the Batgirl mantle, which happened during the New 52 era.
She did get some form of revenge on the Joker in Birds Of Prey #124 – Barbara fought the Joker with a pair of staffs and took away his biggest asset, his grin, when she broke all his front teeth!
Evolution of Batgirl
It takes a lot of adapting to survive for five decades. Ignoring the Killing Joke stigma, there’s actually a lot of depth and dimension to the character. This is mainly because there have been a few different Batgirls, with every persona bringing a new perspective to the character.
While she may not be gifted with superpowers, her intelligence and self-defence skills have always been her strong points. This, unfortunately, limited her rogues’ gallery to B-listers like Killer Moth, Cavalier, Mirror, Crazy Quilt, etc.
To overcome the lack of colour in her villains, however, she certainly made up for it by dating Clark Kent (!) once, and there’s perennial on-off beau Dick Grayson!
Batgirl was given a new lease of life via a new direction in the New 52’s Batgirl #35 (2014), in which the character was given a youthful uplift that endeared the title to a new generation of readers brought up on social media and the Internet. It generated rave reviews and even influenced other comic creators to do the same (Silk, Spider-Gwen, Ms. Marvel and Spider-Woman) – this sort of facelift was later dubbed “Batgirling”.