"To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best night and day to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting. The world needs you. It doesn’t need you at a party having read a book about how to appear smart at parties – these books exist, and they’re tempting – but resist falling into that trap. The world needs you at the party starting real conversations, saying, ‘I don’t know,’ and being kind."
E. E. Cummings
Continued from parts 1 & 2 & 3:
The decision to add the Barbara Gordon incarnation of Batgirl to the New 52's continuity brought a series of considerable challenges. Beyond the headline ethical dilemma that we’ve already touched upon, there was also the quandary of how to make her something other than a minor player in an already crowded line-up of costumed “friends of the Bat”. So many of the typical reasons-to-be associated with secondary versions of line-leading superheroes had already been allocated to others in Bruce Wayne's supporting cast. The attitude-saturated Damian Wayne obviously had pole position where the role of young crimefighter-in-training was concerned, while several somewhat more experienced characters previously associated with the role of Robin could serve as younger crime-fighters finding their way in the wider world Even more problematic was the fact that a relatively new take on Batwoman now not only now carried her own title, but featured in stories which touched upon issues associated with sex and gender. There were even the likes of Harley Quinn and Catwoman standing as morally ambiguous and contentiously sexually charged women at the edges of the franchise. Whatever choices Batgirl's new line-managers and creators were to make, the world in which their take on Barbara Gordon was to feature seemed fated to be a densely populated one from the off. Ensuring that she didn't begin her new life as nothing more than a nostalgia-triggering collection of traits already associated with her fellow Gothamite crime-fighters could hardly have been a straight-forward, back-of-an-envelope exercise. Furthermore, the fact that the project had to take place within the context of the frequently homogenising storytelling priorities of the New 52 must surely have made the situation all the more testing.
But in Batgirl's case, quite the opposite is often so. Yes, she's operates according to well-intentioned precepts such as do as little harm as possible and show as much kindness as you can. And yet Batgirl's consistently been used to show how hard it can be to understand events when they're viewed through the prism of ill-considered points of view. Even her basic principles rarely manage to survive a scuffle with a protagonist without being called into some kind of doubt. Put simply, the Gotham of the New 52 is such a capricious and brutal environment that old and well-worn world-views rarely prove up to the task of making sense of it. In that, it's the harm that can be caused by supposedly self-evident truths that Barbara Gordon's adventures seem designed to discuss. Through Batgirl, Simone presents us with the idea of the superhero whose virtues aren't rooted in any kind of surety beyond the desire to make things better for both herself and others. As such, it's Batgirl's endless struggles with distortingly one-dimensional views of good and evil, right and wrong, necessity and opinion, which define her. The costumed crimefighter sub-genre tends to present the doubting of generally-held, ill-defined core values as a disadvantage if not a sin. Batgirl, by contrast, is practically alone in continually stressing that the asinine over-simplifications associated with superhero fiction - and all too often contemporary politics too - have to be scrupulously avoided. In that, the almost constant presence of her doubt matched to her ferociously capable intellect is what marks out Batgirl as unique amongst her costumed peers.
For Batgirl at her best is not just a character who’s formidable enough to face off against the likes of the Owls and Grotesque. More importantly, she's usually able to approach each new situation in its own terms rather than according to the givens of left and right, radicals and reactionaries, frontier justice and dovely restraint. At times, that means a well-planned superheroic punch-up can serve as the best possible way forward, as occurs when Batgirl plots to belatedly rescue Ricky from Knighfall's private torture chamber. Her immediate opponents have shown themselves to be "three pissed off metahumans" who are exceptionally unlikely to respond to reason, and so violence tempered with whatever restraint is possible becomes the only option. Elsewhere, violence becomes something to more purposefully restrained. When preparing with Batman to end Gretal's campaign of revenge, Batgirl asks him to remember that their opponent is the product of a particularly dehumanising experience. "Try to be kind," she asks him, and in doing so makes the point that it's easy to mistake a vulnerable - if profoundly dangerous - human being for a stereotypical "super-villain" who deserves nothing more than a jaw-breaking thrashing. It's a refusal to behave according to the more dubious traditions of the costumed vigilante comic which Batgirl regularly condones. As such, Barbara Gordon is even willing to suffer a painful beating without retaliating if and when the circumstances demand, as they did during her fractious first encounter with Batwoman.
Batgirl's willingness to listen to and act upon her doubts can lead her into serious mistakes, as the costs of her choices as well as the quality of her intentions are examined. (Simone's stories are very much not right-on polemics suggesting that the most liberal intentions will automatically inspire the most virtuous of outcomes.) But then, in a chaotic world without certainty, mistakes are simply inevitable. And so, Batgirl irresolutely backs down when faced with the dubious authority of Charise Carnes' private security force, and the consequences of that indecisiveness for the young thief who she leaves behind are undeniably tragic. Yet elsewhere, she ends up investing faith in characters who might have more typically been cast as irredeemable rent-a-thugs suitable only for a heroic beating. With both Danny The Weasal and a timelost Talon, the strategy of mercy turned out to be the very best option, with both characters eventually responding positively to Batgirl's example. In that refusal to perceive a conflicted opponent in the terms of the irremedial Other lies a deliberate challenge to the least appetising conventions of comic-book vengeance-porn. (Self-interest is rarely entirely incompatible with generosity in Batgirl.) In that, Batgirl was anxiously choosing faith over fear in the light of the knowledge she had, rather than behaving as a folk-devil of a tree-hugger, practising kindness because of the ludicrous conviction that it will always, inevitably work.
The central challenge for Barbara Gordon hasn’t been to overcome her doubts so much as to maintain them. As such, the greatest danger that she's faced has been the return of The Joker, whose psychotic behaviour has succeeded in provoking an unsuppressibly violent and eventually murderous response in her. The positive reinforcement created by social-minded role modelling is obviously never going to influence such a profoundly damaged psyche, and Batgirl never once imagines that it will. Yet this most disturbing of threats has - understandably - provoked an extreme and brutal reaction in her, and it's this tragic corruption which helps illuminate how different a "conscience" Barbara Gordon is. The righteous if on occasion reluctant rage of the cruelly-provoked crimefighter has often been used to promote the virtuous necessity of hyper-violent solutions. But in Batgirl, the title character's descent into rage and cold-heartedness is used to illustrate how fragile and compromised any of us can become. For in allowing the Joker to determine her emotional response to their conflict, she’s handed over to him the one power that he most craves, namely, the ability to determine how others perceive their own existence. From the moment that Batgirl felt compelled to ignore “the voice” inside her which demands she pay attention to mercy as well as survival, her fight with the Joker was effectively over. It’s the psychopath’s triumph to force victims to accept that the universe is a cruelly meaningless place, and the menace that the Joker poses isn’t merely a physical one. Almost uniquely in the superhero comic, Batgirl’s struggles with him don’t cause the reader to hope she puts a definitive end to his menace, but rather to hope against hope that she doesn’t. As such, the reader cares at least as much for the survival of Batgirl’s doubt as they for the survival of the character herself.
For younger superheroes in particular, doubt has often been the mark of an uneasy adolescence whose passing – if correctly negotiated – may well result in a far greater sense of self-identity and assurance. For members of the cape'n'chest-insignia brigade in general, doubt has repeatedly been used to indicate a hero who's lacking the will to sacrifice in the name of the greater good. In short, doubt is regularly defined as a quality that's a serious disadvantage, if not actually a sin, and it's one that's traditionally required purging before the hero can return effectively to action. Yet Barbara Gordon’s doubt is the expression of her very finest qualities, and it inspires rather than undermines the generosity and determination which marks her out as a uniquely compassionate superhero. To have her doubts displaced by a conviction that there’s only one possible way of dealing with the Joker is to see the very qualities which make Batgirl so important and inspirational disappear. The illusion of certainty is Batgirl's Kryptonite. It destroys her ability to function as an ever-questioning, forever-adapting protagonist, and reduces her to little more than yet another brutal and brutalised costumed brawler. Though comics are full of characters with exceptional intellects and water-tight memories, there are few if any headlining superheroes who tend to use their grey matter with as little ego and prejudice as Barbara Gordon tends to. As such, the sight of her finally abandoning all but the most vicious and final methods is a deliberately disconcerting one. For if the message of so many of today’s super-books is by all means necessary, then that of Batgirl is, as we've discussed, winning through monstrous means is anything but a victory..
Barbara Gordon’s mission in the New 52 has been to create meaning for herself and safety for others, and to do so without papering over the essentially absurd nature of her own existence. The attack which left her paraplegic for years also took her already limited capacity for taken-for-granted thinking. (She was far too bright to hold an excessive tolerance for untestable hypotheses anyway.) As such, Simone's Batgirl can't fall back on any kind of received wisdom which claims to make sense of her precarious and often intensely anxious existence. As a consequence, she's burdened not with the choice between doubt and action, but with the truth that the latter without the former means inevitably squandered opportunities, the perpetual threat of despair, and the probability of moral corruption. Doubt matched to a determination to create her own sense of things is what drives her, and it's what makes her seem so utterly infuriating to the various antagonists she faces. For nearly all of them are unable to perceive any alternative way of making sense of the world, beyond the baleful pseudo-certainties which their disturbances and disorders create for them. Only the Joker has succeeded in imposing something of his world-view upon her, testing her humanity in exactly the way that the fear of the unrestrainably savage and disordered Other tests all of ours.
to be continued.