Thursday I Won’t Care About You #15: Barbara’s Not Broken

Columns, Features, Interviews, Top Story

Alternatively: Thursday I Won’t Care About You #15 – A Very Special Thursday I Won’t Care About You

Sometimes I wonder what it must’ve been like to be a comic book fan pre-internet (or possibly a comic book fan on some sort of Earth-2 with all the trappings of our modern world, minus the internet,) to not know not only what wasn’t going to happen in the next issue of your favorite book, but to also not know anything about what was going on behind the scenes.

We live in a blessed time where more than just getting solicitations three months in advance, creators and editors are usually pretty vocal about the choices that go into make certain decisions, even in cases where such vocality winds up being a bad career move.

There’s been a ton of discussion lately about diversity – about the need for more minority heroes in the wake of the Miles Morales unveiling or the Ryan Choi DCnU ressurection – and about female creators in comics thanks to Kyrax2. Still, I think we forget sometimes that diversity involves more than just skin color and gender, it also involves sexual orientation (or lack thereof,) religion and most topically, physical disabilities.

One of the most surprising fan movements I have seen recently in regards to a DCnU reveal of Barbara Gordon shedding off the Oracle title are the very vocal group of fans who are against Barbara Gordon leaving her wheelchair and taking up the mantle of Batgirl once more.

When I sat down at my laptop last week I full intended to write up a column on this fan movement, but then something struck me – it doesn’t really matter what I think – especially not when there are fans out there to whom Barbara Gordon in her role as Oracle meant a great deal.

I decided to sit down and speak with one such fan, Eric Glover, founder of the Barbara’s Not Broken campaign. You may recognize him as the author of the OP/ED Give Batgirl The Chair which appeared over at Bleeding Cool, but dropped originally at The Faster Times (which even got a mention from King Geek himself, Kevin Smith) where you can find more of Eric’s writing.

Jay: Would you mind telling the readers out there a little bit about your background? Both in regards to your history as a comic fan, your involvement in comics journalism and anything else about you that you just might want to share.

Where are you from? How old are you? Etc. I’m guessing you’re not that much older than I am.

Eric:  I was born in DC, but grew up in Maryland, and it took me until I as about 14 to discover the glory of a comic book store. My spirit guide into the world of comics was Superman, plain and simple. And at 24, I’m still as die-hard about him as I ever was.

Jay:  You’d definitely like Supergods if you refer to Superman as your spirit guide, hahah. Eric and I did some geek chatting before the interview, covering such topics as Supergods (which you should all read) and Dark Knight Rises & Avengers images which we’ve both been trying to avoid)

Eric:  You’ve pretty much sold it. The comic book journalism thing, if you can call my writing about the medium anything so formal, came about by accident, really.
I’m a huge advocate for equality in entertainment, and when I first started writing about the subject, I was mostly coming from the perspective of a film and TV fan.

I wasn’t opposed to writing about equality in comics, but when I heard about the Barbara Gordon situation, I felt compelled to start writing about it.

Jay:  I noticed that in some of your writing, your piece about the white-washing of aliens in particular. We definitely have a lot of the same views on issues of equality.

What was it in particular that compelled you to throw your hat into the ring of this issue? It’s not a stance that a lot of fans are so ready to adopt

Eric:  I’m sure some comic book fans are sick of hearing about this by now, but honestly, it was Jill Pantozzi’s op-ed on how Oracle was stronger than Batgirl. It just moved me. I don’t think I was particularly attuned to just how many lengths creators have gone to sidestep dealing with disabilities in comics, but after reading Pantozzi’s piece, it just felt natural to understand how comics had approached the issue before if I was going to start writing and ranting about it.

The truth of the matter is, the decision to make Barbara Gordon Batgirl again is a culmination of a long-time habit of “de-representing” people with disabilities, if that makes sense. Pantozzi’s op-ed made me consider that issue for the first time.

Jay:  It makes plenty of sense. Just looking at the list you run through in your op-ed of characters, usually male, who have been recovered from disabilities and dismemberment through extra-normal means really seems to reveal a lot about how disability is viewed in popular culture

Eric:  You got it.

Jay:  But given that, one has to ask, and I know it’s something you’ve faced in criticisms of your piece, don’t you think it’s a little unfair that Barbara has had to survive with her disability while other characters have gotten a pass?

Eric:  I think what’s unfair is that that it’s more likely for women in comics to sustain those kinds of disabilities (or even outright deaths) than men. There’s no getting around the “Women in Refrigerators” stuff; the permanence of her paralysis is completely absurd when compared to the often generous “get out of jail free cards” given to male characters. But my reaction to that isn’t, “Well, because DC has a history of healing its male characters, the same rules should be applied to Barbara.”

I think Barbara’s paralysis–as horrendous and misogynistic as its origins are–has actually been an opportunity to pioneer a new kind of future for the DCU. When someone is disabled, male or female, maybe DC shouldn’t be so quick to lean on magical/super-scientific fix-its to reverse what happened. Although Barbara was kind of offered up as a sacrificial lamb first, and unfairly, she kind of created this new age of disability representation, and I feel that’s something to keep exploring, to keep mining for story gold.

What if this relaunch had brought with it a new realism, in which characters stay dead, stay amputated, stay paralyzed, stay permanently changed by whatever adventure they just went through? Wouldn’t that be the kind of universe that reflects our own, and that also shines a light on the sacrifices our heroes make to save the day?

So when people ask “Isn’t it unfair…?” etc., I think it’s a bit limited in scope. If DC considers to do the same thing, like maim/kill/disable women and keep healing men, then yep. But if DC takes this opportunity to learn from what makes Barbara great in the wake of her tragedy, and equally applies a more “real-world” approach to women and men alike, then we’d have a bolder, braver, new 52.

Jay:  Very well put. Given all that Barbara has come to represent in her role as Oracle, primarily as character that displays all challenges and horrors can be overcome and can make us better, what do you think was DC’s specific motivation in returning her to the role as Batgirl, in lieu of say, keeping Stephanie Brown or even returning to Cassandra Cain?

Personally one of the things that irritated me about this move was that despite Barbara’s long history, she’s once again merely going to be Batgirl, rather than Batwoman or I dunno, Owlwoman? (I’m reaching here, obviously)

Eric:  That’s a great question, because it touches on exactly where misunderstandings tend to pop up between people screaming about how wrong this is and those who don’t want to be accused of ableism. In designing the Barbara’s Not Broken campaign against DC’s decision, I’ve tried to be extremely careful not to use the word “ableist” or “ableism” when referring to DC Comics as a company. It’s certainly true that DC has made it incredibly easy to use those words, given how often characters with disabilities are seen as less important and less “usable” in the publisher’s line of work. But honestly, I think it just comes down to a business decision on DC’s part.

I can’t say there isn’t some ridiculously privileged crap going on that certainly may have made that decision easier, because it’s possible that’s exactly what’s going on. But when we’re talking about what’s consciously afoot among DC’s higher-ups, it’s about the money. According to Dan DiDio, Barbara is more “accessible” as an abled-bodied woman (an awkward word to use given the circumstances, by the way). And DC in general, I think, is under the impression that an able-bodied Barbara Gordon will sell better because that name is still the most popular one that pops up in media.

The thing is, that IS true. DC is actually exactly right that Barbara Gordon’s had a ton more exposure than Steph and Cass. But a friend of mine, @TomatoSurprise–a blogger/screenwriter/poet/amazing person who happens to have a disability–has aptly pointed out that no one has really given Oracle the chance to BE a presence in the media outside of comics. Barbara has shown up in a wheelchair in what–one episode of a Batman cartoon? She was in the extremely short-lived Birds of Prey series, and pretty much heard but not seen in the Arkham Asylum game.

So yeah, when you compare that to Yvonne Craig and the Bruce Timm animated series and Barbara’s core role as able-bodied in “The Batman” (and throw in the shudder-inducing Batman and Robin pseudo-Barbara, if you want), then of course you’ve got a more popular version of the character as a walking one. Because, as far as I can tell, DC has thrown virtually zero muscle behind making Oracle just as cool, just as inspiring, and just as visible in a wheelchair.

Oracle could have been and can be an excellent “product” for DC as she is, but you’ve got to pave the way for that, first. You’ve got to let her show up on screen, on lunch boxes, in games as a disabled and capable heroine, and own that. Be proud of that. Hiding behind the excuse that she’s not “accessible” as she is comes off a bit weak. And there’s no way that’s an impossible task. Look at Professor Xavier. He’s a man in a wheelchair, and he’s plenty accessible to cartoon watchers and movie-goers.

If Oracle was seen as more accessible by DC, then Steph or Cass may have had more of a chance to take/keep the Batgirl mantle in their comics.

Jay:  My editor and I had a similar discussion last night. He was saying that most comic fans on the street would recognize Barbara as Batgirl more easily than Cass or Steph, but it’s not as if either of those characters, or Oracle for that matter, have gotten a big mainstream push. The argument of name/look recognition is a bit weak when you consider it’s DC that chooses what to advertise and what people will recognize and connect with

Eric:  Exactly. You hit the nail on the head.

Jay:  So this is kind of my big bombshell question.

Eric:  Hit me.

Jay:  Given that your campaign is based around ideas of representation  – how would you respond to the criticism that calling for a boycott of one of those rare superhero books being published by the big two starring a female character and written by a female creator isn’t really the best way to fight for visibility?

Eric:  That was actually something I had to think long and hard about. And let’s break that down a little bit. Gail Simone is taking on the new Batgirl series, and she’s a bit of an oasis in this sea of male creators. I’d be remiss to dismiss the significance or the triumph of that particular bit of information.

To clear the air here: We need Gail Simone.

Much like Barbara, she’s been, and continues to be in a lot of ways, an incredible pioneer in a male-dominated business. I personally have a ton of respect for her, and I hope she
finds nothing but success at DC Comics. She deserves it, and again, female writers are conspicuously missing in the comics medium. So especially given the criticisms DC received at this year’s San Diego Comic Con about its lack of female creators and characters, it would have been absolutely crazy to say that this disability issue “trumps” the female representation issue. There’s no way.

All that said, I might be giving you a very different answer if Gail weren’t such an incredible writer. But the thing is, she is. She’s proven time and time again that she has the chops and the ideas to sell books more often than not. She is absurdly talented. And comic book fans have caught onto that. You’ll find that a lot of readers say “Thank God it’s her writing this book.” Because few others could have taken on Batgirl with the sensitivity or smarts that Simone will. It’s just obvious.

So when you take that into account and take a second look at that question of whether this boycott’s a good idea, a different kind of answer pops up. Gail Simone isn’t going anywhere. She has sold too many books, and written too many quality stories for DC to dump her with the failure of one title.

If Batgirl happens to fail–and, let’s face it, there won’t be any way to tell until well after the luster of the relaunch has worn off–she has earned such recognition and acclaim at DC that her job won’t be in danger. You can choose to drop Batgirl and pick up The Fury of Firestorm, which she’s co-writing, if you’re feeling particularly on edge about female creator representation. But I think Gail’s done such a great job at DC that this one book won’t make or break her career.

On the flip side, if no one made ANY noise about Barbara walking again, I think readers with disabilities would stand a ton to lose, and quickly.

As for the fact that Batgirl stars a female hero, well, Oracle’s a female hero too.
And if DC happens to change its mind about how valuable Oracle is, then the Barbara’s Not Broken campaign will be throwing all of its energy into supporting a comic with that character in it.

Jay:  Brilliantly said, Eric. Now, given your own campaigning and the work done by Kyrax2 at SDCC, and even that meme of heroes posed like Wonder Woman, we seem to be seeing a rise in fans speaking up and telling the comic companies what you want. What advice would you give to others out there who have similar concerns about representation in the comic book industry?

Eric:  I would say that there won’t be change until we demand it. I’d say to raise some serious hell about whatever you’re passionate about–and keep in mind that it’s not a necessarily futile mission.

Kyrax2 proved that DC is capable of change, and we also have to remember: DC wants to please us. DC needs us to buy their books, and they want to make the right decisions that keep us coming back for more. And we fans want to read comics that resonate with us, that speak to us. I’m convinced that there’s potential for a wonderfully thrilling overlap, there. There’s room for a relationship. But first we’re going to have to show them that fans who care about minority representation are HERE. A little pissed off, maybe, but here. And willing to read. We just need to have a reason to do it.

Jay:  Once again, well put. Thank you very much for all this Eric, both your time and your passion. The comic industry needs more fans like you

Eric: Thank YOU, Jay, for shining some light on this subject.

Don’t forget to check out the Barbara’s Not Broken campaign page on Facebook and support the cause by NOT picking up Batgirl this September!