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The History of Batgirl: Comics and Beyond

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BY April 28, 2020
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Batgirl, particularly these days, is kind of the forgotten Batperson. Of course she doesn’t have the cultural cachet of Batman, but she’s not talked about even as much as Batwoman. (And no, Batwoman is not Batgirl when she grows up.) It seems strange, especially with the popularity of the Bat mythos and with the fact that she was once played by 90s icon Alicia Silverstone. The fact is, though, that most people just don’t know about her. But they should. So here’s the history of Batgirl, from the peculiar reason she was created to her character today.

It begins in 1954 when psychiatrist Fredric Wertham wrote the book Seduction of the Innocent. (Please don’t fall asleep.) Now if I gave you 3 guesses, I’m not sure you could predict what exactly Wertham blamed for seducing the poor 50s youth. Rock and roll? Television? Cool leather jackets? We could keep going, but it was comic books. Little cartoon drawings, with their cartoon violence and hidden naked ladies (maybe), were leading American youth to ruin.

In the Beginning: The Early History of Batgirl

history of Batgirl Batman #139, image via DC Comics

One of the most egregious offenders, according to Wertham, was Batman and his uncomfortable relationship with his ward, Robin. It was the kind of relationship that would later be spoofed by Saturday Night Live in its “Ambiguously Gay Duo” shorts. But that was decades later. In the 50s, DC just got Batman a girlfriend.

In 1956, Kathy Kane made her debut as Batman’s love interest and the original Batwoman. 5 years later, in 1961, her niece Betty Kane, the original Batgirl, also showed up. The Batman comics then turned more toward 60s situational family comedy, with Bruce and Kathy as the Batdad and Batmom, respectively, and Robin and Betty as their kids. They even had a Bat-dog, Ace the Bat-Hound, and an imp called the Bat-Mite.

The popularity of Batman comics waned, though, in the early 60s to the point that DC almost killed him. So when Julius Schwartz became the Batman editor in 1964, he reinvented the brand and the story by scuttling the extraneous Bat characters. Batman comics went back to being about a rich crime-fighter. As for Betty as Batgirl, the Crisis on Infinite Earths storyline in 1985 retconned her into non-existence. (Betty Kane herself didn’t disappear, though. A twist on the original character, the character Mary Elizabeth “Bette” Kane, is one of the women who has taken on the Flamebird mantle.)

Barbara Gordon Becomes the Batgirl

History of Batgirl Detective Comics #359, image via DC Comics

In the mid-60s, when the Batman TV series had taken off, the show’s producers tasked Schwartz with developing a female character to appeal to lady viewers. William Dozier, an executive producer, proposed that they make the new character both Police Commissioner James Gordon’s daughter and the new Batgirl. Artist Carmine Infantino created the concept artwork for the character, which Batman producers used to sell the show for the third season.

On the TV series, Yvonne Craig played Barbara Gordon, librarian by day and crime-fighter by night. Together with Batman and Robin, they became the “Terrific Trio.”

Meanwhile, Barbara Gordon made her comic debut in Detective Comics #359, “The Million Dollar Debut of Batgirl.” On her way to a costume party–dressed as a lady Batman, of course–she runs into the man in Bat himself. Specifically, she interrupts the Killer Moth attempting to kidnap Batman and that’s enough for her to catch crimefightin’ fever. Batman tries to dissuade her, because of her delicate female sensibilities, but she ignores him.

Batgirl was a featured player in Detective Comics issues throughout the rest of the 60s and the 1970s. She also made appearances in other series, like Justice League of America. She briefly retired, after being elected to the US House of Representatives, but it didn’t take. After a year, she was back out there, teaming up with Superman.

Batgirl Survives the Crisis on Infinite Earths

Beginning in 1975, she had a starring role in the Batman Family series, which focused on the adventures of the extended characters in Batman’s universe. In Batgirl’s case, that meant partnering up with Robin most of the time, although she does meet Batwoman in Batman Family #10. The series ran through 1978, while Batgirl continued to make appearances in Detective Comics issues.

By the 1980s, DC had a massive number of characters and storylines. In order to pare everything down to one DC Universe, they launched the Crisis on Infinite Earths series in 1985. Although Gordon is barely a blip in the series, it did retcon the history of Batgirl. No longer was she Jim Gordon’s daughter, but she was, instead, his niece, born to Jim’s brother Roger and his wife Thelma. Orphaned at 13, Barbara moved to Gotham, where Jim and his wife, also named Barbara, adopted her. And that, of course, is where she caught bat fever. (Villainy is the only known cure.)

2 years later, in 1987’s Secret Origins #20, Gordon’s past would be explored once again, with slight changes. For example, this time, her father doesn’t die in the car accident that kills her mother. Instead, he succumbs later to alcohol-related illness.

Retirement Wasn’t Enough, Apparently: Barbara Gordon Meets The Killing Joke

History of Batgirl image via DC

A year later, it wouldn’t really matter, because in 1988’s Batgirl Special #1, DC retired Barbara Gordon. Despite her retirement, though, she appeared a few days later in Alan Moore’s landmark Batman: The Killing Joke. The graphic novel tells an origin story for the Joker. One of the most controversial aspects of the story, however, is when the Joker shoots and paralyzes Barbara Gordon. Just in case that wasn’t enough, the Joker and his goons then photograph her naked body, so Joker can use the photos to torment Jim Gordon.

And in case it wasn’t clear, Barbara Gordon–Batgirl–is only important to the story insofar as an object. Her feelings and her thoughts don’t matter–at least, not as much as Batman’s or her father’s. She’s just a tool, an emotional cudgel. Unsurprisingly, this storyline, notorious in Batgirl history, didn’t sit well with a lot of readers. In fact, today, even Moore regrets it, telling Wizard magazine: “It was probably one of the areas where [DC] should’ve reined me in, but they didn’t.”

But Barbara didn’t stay down for long. Comic writer Kim Yale and her husband, fellow writer John Ostrander, did not care for the storyline and wrote a new one, making Barbara the Oracle, an information broker who provides intel to other DC characters. Her most important alliance would be with the Birds of Prey, DC’s all-female superhero team. She would also be part of “The New 52,” DC’s 2011 relaunch of its most iconic characters. With that, she would return to being Batgirl.

In Gail Simone’s series, Barbara regained the use of her legs thanks to an experimental surgery, but she’s hardly all better. She struggles with both PTSD and a form of survivor’s guilt. She’s a real person again, though, with her own ambitions and agency.

Batgirl Goes to Burnside and Returns to the Birds

In 2014, that idea would continue on with yet another reboot of the Barbara Gordon story. This time, she was a hipster PhD student living in the Brooklyn-alike Gotham borough Burnside. That storyline would continue even as Batgirl (the series) was included as part of DC’s 2016 “Rebirth,” aka yet another excuse for them to reboot their properties. This version of the Barbara Gordon Batgirl continues to this day.

At the same time as the Rebirth, Batgirl resumed her previous alliance with the lady Birds in Batgirl and the Birds of Prey. Launched in July 2016, the series ran through May 2018.

More Than One Batgirl with History

History of Batgirl Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown Images via DC

First appearing in 1999’s Batman #567, Cassandra Cain is the child of assassins Lady Shiva and David Cain. For comic book reasons, they deprived her of normal conditioning in order to shape her into a world-class assassin. You know, villain parenting. That worked about as well as you might imagine, in that she’s a fearsome fighter, but can hardly read, communicate, or socialize.

For 1999’s “No Man’s Land” storyline, Cain assumes the mantle of Batgirl under the aegis of both Batman and Oracle (Barbara Gordon). She is actually the second Batgirl in the storyline; Helena Bertinelli briefly became Batgirl first. However, after her style clashed with the original Batperson–the Batman–she went back to being Huntress.

Cassandra Cain, on the other hand, is probably the character most associated with Batgirl history after Barbara Gordon. After her appearance in the “No Man’s Land” series, she would then go on to be the first Batgirl to have her own monthly series. She was also the first Asian Batgirl, as well as one of the most significant Asian comic book characters period.

In the Batgirl series, Cain actually gives up her cowl to go undercover. Stephanie Brown, the first female Robin, then takes on the role. After Cain returns, Brown gives it up and returns to her vigilante alter-ego, the Spoiler.

After Cain assumes her father’s persona, Orphan, Charlotte “Charlie” Gage-Radcliffe becomes the blink-and-you-might-miss-her next Batgirl. Recognizing her talent, but knowing how vulnerable she is as a young girl, Barbara talks her out of being the Batgirl. Charlie fights as Misfit, instead.

Note: These are the canon Batgirls and claimants in the history of Batgirl. This list does not include alternate timeline/history Batgirls like Lucius Fox’s daughter, Tiffany. Or the vigilante group of Batgirls in DC Comics Bombshells. Or the version of Barbara Gordon in that series who’s apparently a vampire Batgirl.

The Film History of Batgirl

History of Batgirl Yvonne Craig as Batgirl, image via 20th Century Fox

Outside of Yvonne Craig, TV Batgirls haven’t usually been live-action. While Barbara Gordon has been a character on several shows, her Batgirl persona doesn’t usually come with her. There are references to it in some shows, like Birds of Prey, which featured flashbacks of Gordon (Dina Meyer) as Batgirl. In addition, the Titans episode “Dick Grayson” seems to imply that its Gordon has been Batgirl. However, on live TV, Gordon typically works only as the Oracle.

Batgirl is a much more prominent character in animated TV. She’s never had her own show, but she’s been a featured player on many Batman-focused series. She’s also been an important character on DC shows about female superheroes, like the webseries Gotham Girls and DC Super Hero Girls.

In the movies, Alicia Silverstone played Barbara Wilson, a young woman who becomes Batgirl, in 1997’s Batman & Robin. Along with the name change came a family change. In the film, she has no relationship with Jim Gordon. Instead, she’s Alfred Pennyworth’s niece.

As with TV, many more animated versions of Batgirl have appeared in films than live-action versions. The Barbara Gordon Batgirl has been part of animated movies like The Lego Batman Movie and the movie version of Batman: The Killing Joke. In the animated adaptation of Moore’s classic story, the first half of the film establishes Batgirl’s history in that corner of the DC multiverse. The storytellers made some questionable character decisions, specifically a scene in which Batman and Batgirl hook up. She has not, however, had her own stand-alone film, animated or live. But that’s due to change.

Warner Brothers is planning a Batgirl movie. While they have not yet settled on a (likely female) director, they have hired a screenwriter. Christina Hodson, who’s written the films Bumblebee and the upcoming Harley Quinn vehicle, Birds of Prey, will be taking on Batgirl. Obviously, we have no idea what the story will be, but there are some hints that it will tie in with The Batman. So almost 60 years after the dawn of Batgirl history, she will finally be ready for her close-up. And it’s about time.

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Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. She now splits her time between the Appalachian wilds (of Alabama) and the considerably more refined streets of New York City. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf.

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