Gail, Jill and Babs: A Conversation about BATGIRL & ORACLE
From Newsarama.com by Jill Pantozzi
The news of DC Comics’ decision to revamp and relaunch their entire DC Universe of titles with new #1’s was a kick in the pants to the comic book community. As the coming changes continue to be revealed to fans daily, the reaction to the new titles, costumes, and suggested revamps to characters has been varied, but almost always strong and immediate.
One of the swiftest and most passionate responses thus far has been to the news that Barbara Gordon, a character known by her superhero alias Oracle for over twenty years,would be returning to her previous persona as Batgirl in her own solo title, under the guidance of writer Gail Simone.
The alteration to the character is not just in name and costume, of course, but in the fact Barbara Gordon is apparently being given the use of her legs back. As the intelligence specialist Oracle, Barbara spent two decades in a wheelchair after being shot in the spine and paralyzed from the waist down by the Joker in the iconic 1988 story "The Killing Joke" by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland.
Included in that response was the op/ed "ORACLE Is Stronger Than BATGIRL Will Ever Be" by Newsarama columnist/blogger Jill Pantozzi, who has used a wheelchair for 14 years and had a very strong and very personal reaction to the news.
Just hours after Jill’s response was published, she was contacted by Simone to arrange an interview about the new Batgirl title. That conversation follows below. But first...
Due to the sensitive nature of the announcement and the reaction it has received, Jill Pantozzi and Gail Simone felt it was only appropriate to discuss the news as candidly as possible. Simone also asked to begin the interview with the following personal note directly to Newsarama readers.
Dear Newsarama Readers,
Over the past few days, DC readers have been teased and hinted to distraction by the announcement that starting in September, a massive relaunch of virtually the entire line of DC books will begin. With only covers and a few solicit blurbs to go on, the loyal readership is understandably a little shell-shocked. For some, the apparent absence of a favorite character or creator is very sad news. For others, it looks like an exciting and bold move.
But possibly no announcement yet has been quite so polarizing as the reveal that a new Batgirl #1 is coming, with Barbara Gordon in the cape and cowl. In the absence of information coming from DC or the creative or editorial teams, people have naturally taken the images and blurbs as set in stone forever, in some cases meaning the loss of change of characters they have followed since they were kids.
Batgirl, even more so for some. The wonderful and talented Jill Pantozzi wrote a heart-wrenching piece for this website about what the apparent loss of Oracle means to her, a person with Muscular Dystrophy who uses a wheelchair for mobility. I've met Jill, I think the world of her, and it would be a cold heart indeed who wasn't moved by her words.
I asked for, and received, permission to talk to Jill right here, candidly, about the issues raised. I still am not able to give story details yet, so if there's a little fumbling, I apologize, and hope people understand.
I don't want to derail the conversation or invalidate the feelings of readers who have expressed concern or personal disappointment. The facts involved are accurate, but the opinions are my own.
Jill, I thank you for your brave, moving comments. I know for a fact that several of the highest people at DC read your piece, and had nothing but glowing things to say about it. You are as close to a real-life Oracle as anyone I know to my mind.
Jill Pantozzi: Thank you very much Gail. It means a great deal to hear you say that and I’m glad you were able to speak with me one-on-one about this. The comic reading community has been visibly upset by the major news at DC the last two weeks but the news of Barbara Gordon becoming Batgirl again seems to have caused the biggest uprising so far.
Gail Simone: Right, I think that's probably correct about Batgirl. The first part of your question is possibly the only thing I take any issue with, though. It's an odd thing, we've all experienced this, but while yes, we are getting a lot of comments, some very heartfelt and some very angry, I feel odd that all the positive feedback seems to be ignored, as if it didn't count, as if that didn't matter. I have no idea what the percentages are, but I know almost every creator I've talked to has said the same thing, that the response has been overwhelming. Any realistic picture of what's happening, it should include the entire response, if that makes sense...?
I'm not really a good apologist. I like DC, and I love the DC Universe, it's a source of never-ending joy to me. But I myself was not on board the relaunch at first and it caused some real friction. I had to be sold. I've always said my whole career that I wanted to write by the improv credo, "don't negate," which means, even if you didn't care for something, you try to make it work, you don't say, "Oh, that particular story didn't happen." To top it off, it's a very bittersweet day for me as my last Birds of Prey issue ever comes out today. It's an emotional day, and I do understand the skepticism.
But absolutely, I think that's correct so far, Batgirl has been the one that caused a lot of hurt feelings and upset.
Pantozzi: All that being said, what can you tell us about the background behind DC's decision?
Simone: I believe there are several reasons, but I think most of them pale in comparison to what I think are the three biggest reasons, which I believe are creative potential, newsworthiness, and sheer commercial reality.
One thing I saw over and over, not just on Batgirl but from many, many people, is the idea that their personal favorite books or characters are somehow being targeted. It's understandable, it really can feel that way. But the relaunch is massive, it's enormous. It's not going to leave any books completely unaffected. Which is both the scary and exciting thing about it.
Taking my points backwards, and I'm not speaking anything but my opinion here, someone above my pay grade may have a completely different answer, and the decision was final long before anyone approached me. I've seen a lot of armchair analysis about the numbers involved on Batgirl and some other beloved titles, like (if I may), Secret Six, but the whole plan hasn't been revealed yet, and frankly, the name Batgirl absolutely should be an iconic title.
For newsworthiness, well, I just took a look the top sales charts for Marvel and DC, and it's unavoidable...the stories that the readers support in large numbers are nearly all in the middle of storylines that were considered completely unthinkable at one point; Hal Jordon replacing Kyle Rayner, Bucky returning from the dead, Jason Todd returning from the dead, Johnny Storm dying, Dick Grayson as Batman, Bruce Wayne dying, Barry Allen returning as the Flash, on and on and on. To some, these are all stunts, but they have been executed brilliantly and I strongly suspect many will be among the best-remembered stories of their respective runs.
Finally, creative potential. Again, if you think of this as a Batgirl reboot, it's a pretty narrow focus. This is a huge wave going through the DCU, and part of that wave is that most of the Bat-verse, and the DCU at large, are going to be shown a bit earlier in their careers, a bit less experienced. We don't want the characters to already knoweverything. As time goes on, at both DC and Marvel, characters notch up so many victories that we often start to think of them as infallible, which is kind of death for adventure fiction.
A lot of readers and a lot of editors had a story problem with Oracle, in that she made for such an easy, convenient story accelerator, that we missed the sense of having characters have to struggle to discover, to solve mysteries. Famously, it helped make Batman less of a detective and more of a monster hunter.
But beyond that, there are so many stories that can be told with Barbara that are hard to tell with other characters, even great other characters. He connection to the Bat-family is immediate and direct. Her skills, which have been used in a lofty tower for a quarter of a century, once again will be used in the field, right where the action is. She's going to be using that eidetic memory while dodging bullets and acid-squirting flowers.
She's been removed from the action and danger for a long time. 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, drawn by some wonderful artists. The DCU in September is going to be about exploration for a while, and it seems remarkable, but this is the first time in DC history that Barbara Gordon has had an ongoing solo book.
Pantozzi: I think a lot of fans forget the business aspect of comics and think only of their personal feelings. You have a very personal connection to this character, not just as a fan of hers yourself for years but also as a person who has written Barbara extensively for DC. Were you on-board with the decision immediately or did you have reservations? Did you fight against it at all?
Simone: Right, look, I've said this a lot of times, people are probably sick of it. But we all have our spirit guide characters into comics, and Barbara Gordon was mine. When I was bullied at school for being the only redhead in my class, Barbara Gordon on the syndicated reruns of theBatman show was like pure crack. I couldn't believe she even existed, and in both the comics and the television show, she wasn't just tough, she was smart. She was whip smart.
Barbara's been in my heart since I was a kid. She's been such a part of my life. She was the main reason I created the Women in Refrigerators page. She was the reason I came to DC. And she's been looking over my shoulder for nearly every story I've written at DC in one way or another. When this idea has come up before, I have fought against it. I thought it was wrong to take the person Barbara had become and put her back in the spandex.
I still think that.
It's nearly happened anyway a couple times.
But I want to get this out really quickly, it's about the myth of monolithic opinion. It's been sort of simply accepted that there's this block of disabled folks who are against this idea, en masse, and I do have to say quickly that that's not the case. There has always been a vocal minority of PWD [people with disabilities] who wanted to see Babs healed and out of the chair, always. It started out a tiny minority but it did get larger as the years went on. Again, I don't want those people to be forgotten. Even with some PWD advocacy groups, the response has always been mixed. I feel like I have to represent that group as well, here. It's a much smaller group, as far as I can tell, however.
I've made no secret of the fact that I think The Killing Joke was a classic Women in Refrigerators moment. It's beautifully executed, but for a Babs lover, it is an incredibly painful book. It's been discussed to pieces, but I did actually quit comics for a while after reading it. Babs might have been essentially sidelined forever if not for the wonderful work of two of my heroes, John Ostrander and the late Kim Yale. Because of them and the writers that followed, Babs' recovery actually meant something, not just to people with disabilities.
And finally, there was another consideration, that the current Batgirl book is damn good stuff. Not everyone knows this, but I was offered that book and turned it down. I liked Steph, but she hadn't really clicked with me enough to carry the Batgirl mantle. Then along comes this new guy, Bryan Q. Miller, and he absolutely knocks it out of the park. Not only is it a great Steph book, he made me a Steph fan.
So yes, this was not an easy choice to make at all.
Pantozzi: So what was it that changed your mind? What made you finally decide this was a worthwhile story to tell versus continuing to tell compelling stories about Barbara the way she is?
Simone: Well, that wasn't the choice that was available, you know?
The decision to roll back the experience clock on the characters, to show them as learning and growing and exploring again, which is a concept that I heartily endorse. In theory, I think it's the most exciting thing in the world. In practice, it means some hard choices and some surprising twists and turns that take a while to adjust to.
But the two elements that gave me most pause were decided whether or not I was on board. Bryan's run was ending, sadly, and Barbara was going to be the Batgirl again. The first part was heartbreaking, and the second, well, honestly, the thought of writing Babs-as-Batgirl stories is one of those dreams a writer holds in her heart, like the hope of writing the Marvel Family, or Plastic Man, or Spider-Man, or any of the other things I'm not sure I'll ever really get the chance to do. But before I would ever come on board, it had to make sense, it had to have a purpose. I have other books I can write, and DC could find someone else to write Batgirl.
But here is the key decider for me. It's the relaunch.
That really moves all the goalposts, Jill. I could never really get behind, taking the Babs that's been running the Bat-verse, toppling countries, helping herd the JLA, all those things...I could never see, even with the very heartfelt and passionate words of many people with disabilities who asked for it, putting that Babs back in the cape and cowl. I don't think I could ever have done that.
The most persuasive argument to put Babs back in the boots has always been one that I would argue against vehemently for story reasons, but that was impossible to argue with ethically. And I have heard this question a million times...why is it that virtually every single hero with a grievous injury, or even a death, gets to come back whole, except Barbara Gordon? Why? Why was Batman's back broken, and he was barely in the chair long enough to keep the seat warm, and now it's never even mentioned?
Arms and legs get ripped off, and they grow back, somehow. Graves don't stay filled. But the one constant is that Barbara stays in that chair.
Role model or not, that is problematic and uncomfortable, and the excuses to not cure her, in a world of purple rays and magic and super-science, are often unconvincing or wholly meta-textual. And the longer it goes on, the more it has stretched credibility.
But now, everything has changed. If nearly everyone in the DCU, not just Batgirl but almost everyone, is now at a much earlier stage in their career, then my main objection no longer applies, because we are seeing Barbara at an earlier starting point.
When they relaunched the Star Trek series recently, it only made sense to start near the beginning, and suddenly we had a fresh, new, compelling version of everything that made us fall in love with Star Trek. Suddenly, there's all this new possibility. I do find that very exciting. The essence of Kirk and Spock and McCoy is all there, but it's new and fresh and lively and modern. People comparing thirty-year-old comics code-approved Batgirl back-up stories to the very best Oracle stories from the current Bat-writers, I think, are comparing apples and oranges, a little bit, if that makes sense.
As much as I love writing Oracle, and I do, I could write her forever, I do feel as a storyteller, and I think anyone who writes will back me up on this, whether it's big budget screenplays or beloved homemade fan fiction...characters are not supposed to be preserved in amber. Even our favorite characters, ones that mean a lot to us.
For many years, Babs has had to shoulder the responsibility of being one of the very few heroes with a disability, one of the few in a wheelchair who doesn't psionically get up and go for a stroll every few years. That is also a problem that needs addressing. And I promise, we are working on it, we have some catching up to do.
The relaunch is a much bigger thing than even has been shown so far. This is the biggest seismic reconfiguration of what we do since the advent of the Direct Market. We are going to be putting books in front of as many new faces as possible. Showing them issue #758 of a comic, which is part three of a seven-part crossover, is going to baffle and annoy a lot of people. I believe that's why graphic novels are the growth market of the industry...a newbie can read and enjoy them.
But we also have a responsibility to the readers, retailers, creators both past and present, and even to the characters, to succeed in a tough market. And creatively, any writer will tell you, comfort is death in adventure fiction.
Pantozzi: Well let's get to the meat of it then. Because personally, the pass/fail aspect of Babs relaunch in my eyes is whether or not she is actually being cured. All we have right now is a cover to Batgirl #1 and that Barbara is the woman on the cover. Is she being cured of her paralysis, or is it simply as you said, that she is being shown at an earlier time in her career, pre-“Killing Joke?”
Simone: Jill, that's a fair question, and one I have some difficulty answering, to be honest, because as a reader, I think everything is in the execution. I'm also not allowed to spoil things at this stage. I will say I've always resisted the idea of something like Zatanna or a Green Lantern suddenly snapping their fingers and poof, she's suddenly breakdancing.
We dealt with this a little bit a while ago in Birds of Prey, after the death of Christopher Reeve. As you know, I'm sure, he went from a total lack of movement and feeling below his neck, to being able to move one wrist, and regained some feeling in his legs, through hard work, therapy, and medical assistance. The whole story is so inspiring and heroic that I talked with some people at his foundation, and we did the story where Babs regained some feeling in her toes. That story meant a tremendous amount to a lot of people with disabilities, I still hear about it all the time. Not everyone will ever be able to do that, we know that. But between surgery and therapy, some people's conditions can be improved.
I hope I'm answering this correctly, is the question that any cure at all would be a problem for you?
Pantozzi: Well, I think that’s the more controversial change. In the Batman: The Returnone-shot, we saw a blueprint of sorts for a very fancy Batgirl suit and cycle. Will that play a part in your Batgirl story, perhaps assisting Babs to do things she couldn't do previously?
Simone: I really can't say one way or the other right now. I'm sorry.
Pantozzi: Okay, besides her being in a wheelchair, a lot of people say that Barbara is better as Oracle simply because she's not just another "Bat-child," with Oracle she has her own identity. We've seen that Dick Grayson is going back to being Nightwing but not back to his youthful, Batman attached, persona as Robin. Would you say it's a step backwards for the character to go back to "Bat-girl?"
Simone: I have heard people say that first thing, it's true, it struck me very oddly the first time, and I realized it's because I never thought of Babs that way. I don't think she was ever presented, or consistently presented, as a female Robin, for instance. I got a few tweets from people saying, "Oh, man, she's going back to being a sidekick!"
And my honest, gut reaction was, "What are you even saying?" I just don't think she was ever presented as a sidekick. She was always smart and usually independent. To me, it was more like she was more like a non-Hal Green Lantern. She shared a name and a motif, but was nothing like a sidekick. She can have an identity and still be Batgirl. She's Barbara Gordon. People adore her. I don't think that changes when she puts on a cowl.
About the girl thing, if she's thirty-plus years old and been in the JLA and run the Birds of Prey and been in a tower for a couple decades, yeah, it's a little weird and wrong. But I keep seeing comments as if the word, "Girl" is in itself toxic, or insulting. And that is a weird piece of business in itself, far bigger than this comic book. All I can really say here is that the name makes sense to Babs in the story, for reasons we can't say yet. But I think it will make sense to readers, too, in context.
I also think that, to girls of a certain age, the idea of a Batgirl is very welcoming, very comforting and inspiring. That's a big plus for me.
Pantozzi: What would you say to readers then, who are so appalled by the decision that they aren't going to pick up your new book on principle? And conversely, what would you like to say to readers who are looking forward to seeing Babs pick up the mantle again?
Simone: I would say, I hope you give it a look. For the last few days, I've been hearing from readers who are thrilled and delighted, but I've also been listening to readers who take this as a punch in the heart. I've read some truly moving articles about why this shouldn't happen. I'm listening, DC is listening. I promise, we didn't take this lightly.
A lot of the things people are certain of though...we haven't stated at all. We haven't said she was never Oracle. We haven't said there won't be an Oracle. We haven't said she'd be a sidekick. We haven't said what age she'd be. We haven't said if “The Killing Joke” remains canon or not. But I've heard all of those things stated as gospel over and over.
I know people are worried about Cass and Steph. All I can say is, I cannotimagine that those characters won't have a role in the new DC. It just seems very unlikely. If no one else is using them, don't be surprised if they show up in Batgirl in the near future. They are awesome.
Steph, though, is a perfect example of why I hope people give Barbara a chance. It's a funny thing, but in some ways, our memories are very short. When Steph was announced, I don't know if you remember, Jill, but there was a massive outcry from the readership. Massive. They felt that it was a betrayal that an Asian character, Cass Cain, who was much beloved and tremendously popular as Batgirl, was being replaced by a blonde-haired white girl. There were angry letters and threats of boycotts, the whole thing.
A year later, look at the love so many people have for Steph. For them, she is the Batgirl, and she's not replaceable. All of that is attributable to Bryan Q. Miller. But the point is, it's execution. Is the story sincere, is it meaningful and honest, or is it cheap exploitation? The readers know the difference. I believe that, I've seen it again and again. And I also think that people who know me and my work at all know I would rather quit than do something with these characters that I felt was evil. I've walked off books before for that reason, more than once.
I think Barbara as Batgirl will win over some hearts that are doubting right now. The stories are fast-paced, lively, and there is something primally powerful about seeing Barbara as Batgirl, using that intellect and grace face-to-face with the bad guys again. The first issue, writing Barbara facing these genuinely awful, awful people in the very first few pages, protecting innocent people, using her brain and speed and power...it's special, is what it is. Indescribable.
I'm sorry for going so long, but I felt like we owed this to everyone. I know it's not going to allay all concerns or fears, but hopefully it will shed some light on what we're trying to build, at least a little bit. I do want to thank everyone who reached out to me and to DC about this. It's been extremely emotional, and people on both sides of the question have shared deeply personal things, reasons why Barbara means so much to them. I am honored and moved to have been the recipient of letters like that, and reminded again what an amazing group of people comics readers are.
It's Barbara as Batgirl. We have big shoes to fill for a lot of different reasons. I can promise you, we are doing our very best to make it a story to be proud of.
Thank you for listening, everyone, and thank you for the questions, Jill.