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Who is Batgirl? How Barbara Gordon became the heart of the Batman family

Batgirl
(Image credit: DC)

Warner Bros. has cast actor Leslie Grace as the lead in its new DC movie Batgirl, bringing Barbara Gordon to the big screen - and bringing her full circle from her origins as a character created for the '60s Batman TV show.

That's right - before she was a comic book icon with her own legacy and decades of stories under her belt, Barbara Gordon started out as a glimmer in the eyes of '60s Batman TV producer William Dozier, who envisioned a female hero to expand the show's cast and form a trio alongside Adam West's Batman and Burt Ward's Robin.
But DC Comics wasn't out of the picture for long. 

(Image credit: DC)

Recognizing exactly where his bread was buttered, Dozier enlisted iconic DC editor Julius Schwarz to flesh out his idea of Commissioner Gordon's daughter becoming Batgirl. Schwarz in turn brought in writer Gardner Fox and artist Carmine Infantino, who debuted the comic book Barbara Gordon in January 1967's Detective Comics #359, just ahead of her first TV appearance later that year.

As interesting as it is, that story is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Barbara Gordon's importance and legacy in the DC Universe, not just as Batgirl, but as Oracle, and even in her civilian identity as a librarian and computer expert.

True to her nature as a co-creation of comic books and TV, Barbara Gordon has been adapted into numerous other media, including a previous film performance by Alicia Silverstone in 1997's Batman & Robin

Barbara Gordon is also returning to television in HBO Max's Titans season 3, where she'll be played by actor Savannah Welch. But Leslie Grace's star turn as Batgirl will mark one of the character's first leading roles outside of comic books - and definitely her first time taking the spotlight in movies.

At the same time, DC is establishing a new role for Barbara Gordon in comic books as the leader of a whole team of Batgirls, appearing in the Nightwing ongoing title - with near-constant hints at a new title in the works for Barbara and her team.

So buckle up your utility belts, crank up your Batcycle - or if you're more of an Oracle fan, fire up your high-tech hacking and surveillance gear - and get ready to take a deep dive into the history of Barbara Gordon, DC's best known Batgirl.

Who is Barbara Gordon?

page from Detective Comics #359

(Image credit: DC)

Before we get too into Barbara Gordon's story, we should acknowledge that she's actually not the original Batgirl. DC's original Batgirl (or Bat-Girl, as it was often stylized) Bette Kane, was introduced just a few years prior to Barbara Gordon alongside her aunt Kathy Kane, AKA Batwoman. 

The pair were intended as somewhat lighthearted counterparts to Batman and Robin, and sometimes even love interests for the Dynamic Duo (partially to assuage assertions that Batman was in a predatory relationship with Robin made by author Frederick Wertham's infamous book Seduction of the Innocent - we wish we were kidding). 

Though Bette and Kathy were both later revived and reinvented, with Kathy Kane being adapted into the modern Batwoman Kate Kane, they were already mostly absent from Batman's adventures by the time TV executives and DC creators decided to bring in a new, more exciting Batgirl.

With all that out of the way, enter Barbara Gordon in Detective Comics #359's story 'The Million Dollar Debut of Batgirl!', in which Barbara Gordon dons a feminine version of Batman's classic outfit to attend a costume party of Gotham's elite - only to interrupt a robbery by the villainous Killer Moth, starting her on a crimefighting career.

Interestingly, Batgirl's original appearance on the Batman TV show, in which she was portrayed by Yvonne Craig, also pitted her against Killer Moth - though the episode merely wound up being a pilot to sell a third season of the show on the strength of the new Batgirl.

(Image credit: DC)

The footage worked, and Batgirl's popularity on both the Batman TV show and in comic books followed quickly, establishing Barbara Gordon as one of Batman's key supporting characters through the early '70s with her own backup stories in Detective Comics.

Even back in those days, Barbara Gordon was more than just Commissioner Gordon's daughter (a relationship that hasn't always stayed the same over the years - we'll get into it). In fact, she was actually better known to strangers as Barbara Gordon, PhD, the head of the Gotham City Public Library, a prominent citizen in her own right. 

What's more, in a theme that's been repeated in some incarnations of her story, Batgirl originally began her crime-fighting career without Batman's blessing (he objected to a woman fighting crime in Gotham - kinda sexist, for someone usually as egalitarian as Batman), using her own considerable intellect and skill to Batman stay one step ahead of the Dark Knight as well as his many foes.

Batgirl's popularity led to guest appearances across other DC titles, including Justice League, team-up book The Brave and the Bold, and even Action Comics. Her warm reception from fans, owing to her more action-oriented adventures in which she rarely needed saving from Batman, along with her intriguing personality, even led to a boom in titles featuring spin-off characters of well-known heroes.

Then in 1972, DC actually made the then-rare move of having Barbara Gordon retire from being a superhero in a Detective Comics #424 story aptly titled 'Batgirl's Last Case,' in which she revealed her identity as Batgirl to Commissioner Gordon, and was elected to the US House of Representatives (no word on which ticket she ran with). 

Her retirement only lasted as long as a blind date with Clark Kent, which is interrupted by villains, resulting in the two forming a lasting friendship and Batgirl making a string of subsequent appearances in Superman stories alongside both the Man of Steel and, naturally, Supergirl (her Kryptonian counterpart). From there, she went on to form a partnership with Dick Grayson, with the pair appearing as Batgirl and Robin in regular features in the title Batman Family.

None of this was to last, however, as 1984-85 brought about DC's Crisis On Infinite Earths, which collapsed the original DC Multiverse into a single timeline. This in turn meant that many characters had their own individual histories rewritten - and Barbara Gordon was no exception.

Becoming Oracle

cover of Birds of Prey #100

(Image credit: DC)

Following Crisis on Infinite Earths, Barbara Gordon's past was altered to fit the new timeline of the unified, singular DC Universe. 

Though her story wasn't rewritten nearly as much as some DC heroes, such as her friend Supergirl who was erased from existence entirely, Barbara Gordon was de-aged to her college years and her post-Batgirl career as a congresswoman was rolled back, returning her to operating as Batgirl in Gotham City as an ally of Batman and Robin.

Moreover, her relationship with Commissioner Jim Gordon was changed, as he was also made somewhat younger. Now instead of being Jim Gordon's biological daughter, Barbara Gordon is his sister's daughter, who Gordon adopted (this explanation has gone back and forth a few times over the years as different writers have referred to them with different relationships).

Batgirl's origins were also slightly revamped, giving her an interest in Batman, superheroes, and fighting crime from a much younger age, and reestablishing her Silver Age rivalry with the villainous Killer Moth in the story Batgirl: Year One, which retells her earliest adventures.

However, Barbara Gordon's superhero career was almost cut short entirely in the controversial landmark story Batman: The Killing Joke. In that story, Barbara is ambushed in her home by the Joker, who assaults and shoots her, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down, necessitating her use of a wheelchair for mobility.

Though Barbara's final appearance as Batgirl before The Killing Joke also involved retiring from being a costumed crime-fighter, her assault at the hands of the Joker reinvigorates her drive for justice leading her to prioritize her intelligence and detection skills under a totally new identity. She takes up the codename of Oracle, positioning herself as the greatest information broker in Gotham City, and the hub of information for heroes in the DC Universe.

(Image credit: DC)

Despite the physical limitations incurred by her paralysis, Barbara fluidly transitions into a totally new career as a superhero, this time organizing other heroes around her as her operatives and agents - the fabled Birds of Prey. Originally consisting of Huntress and Black Canary working alongside Oracle as their guide, the Birds of Prey have gone on to include numerous members over the years as their own fully-fledged superhero team, even getting their own movie (sadly without Barbara Gordon, though a different Batgirl, Cassandra Cain, was included in her civilian identity).

Along the way, Barbara solidifies her role as Oracle, earning a place among the top heroes of the DC Universe and even joining the Justice League as the team's coordinator - all thanks to the strength of her mind (though, as she's never been shy of demonstrating, her body remains tough-as-nails, thanks to specialized wheelchair combat training).

Meanwhile, as Barbara was cultivating her career as Oracle, a new character came along to take up her old mantle, with Cassandra Cain, a warrior raised from birth to be an assassin, becoming the new Batgirl. Cassandra stayed in the role for a few years but was eventually replaced with another Batgirl, Stephanie Brown AKA Spoiler, an ally of Tim Drake/Robin.

But about a decade ago, in 2011, DC rebooted its continuity again, this time re-creating the Multiverse in the story Flashpoint, giving rise to the era known as the 'New 52.' And with this change came even bigger shifts for Barbara Gordon.

Batgirl Beyond

cover of Batgirl #1

(Image credit: DC)

The dawn of the 'New 52' brought Barbara Gordon back to the role of Batgirl after two decades as Oracle in a new Batgirl #1. Though some elements of DC continuity were once again reworked when the timeline was split back into a Multiverse (now once again evolved into an Omniverse), Barbara's modern history was left mostly intact - including her retirement as Batgirl, her paralysis, and her subsequent time as Oracle. 

Rather than erasing these developments, it was explained that Barbara had been given a spinal implant which would allow her to walk, fight, and acrobatically dash around Gotham City once again - a device which remains part of her life in her current status quo (we'll get to that momentarily).

Barbara resumed her life as Batgirl, taking up with some fellow college students and eventually moving into a neighborhood near Gotham University, establishing her own territory and reputation as the so-called Batgirl of Burnside. She quickly branched out of her home turf, embarking on a journey around the world to rediscover her roots in the identity in the Batgirl: Rebirth era.

She's now appearing as a regular cast member of Nightwing alongside Dick Grayson, with whom she's had an on-again-off-again romantic relationship over the years.

(Image credit: DC)

Additionally, Nightwing features something of a new spin on Barbara's old crew the Birds of Prey, teaming her up with Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown as a trio of Batgirls. Barbara herself recently got a fresh costume design as Batgirl - though she's also relying on her Oracle identity again, splitting time between her cape and her computer to prevent the implant that cures her paralysis from burning out. 

While Barbara and her Batgirls have been making their way to Bludhaven with Nightwing, they've also been jetting around Gotham in the Batman title, with DC consistently positioning the team as likely candidates for an upcoming ongoing title of their own - though nothing official has been announced … yet.

It's that "yet" which is doing the heaviest lifting there, as they say. With the world of comic books and movies constantly becoming more intertwined in terms of how the individual properties are cross-promoted, it's unlikely DC will let its next big-screen leading lady Barbara Gordon go without her own starring title for long. 

In the meantime, DC is once again keeping Barbara Gordon's adventures going the way they traditionally did it back in the day, through numerous guest appearances and supporting roles in other titles - creating more and more demand from her biggest fans to see her once again in a title role, while simultaneously establishing just how important she is to the DC Universe as a whole.

Barbara Gordon's changes from Batgirl, to Oracle, and back again have had their share of controversy. Writer Jill Pantozzi spells out why she believes Oracle is stronger than Batgirl will ever be in this essay from the time of Barbara's return as Batgirl.

George Marston

I've been Newsarama's resident Marvel Comics expert and general comic book historian since 2011. I've also been the on-site reporter at most major comic conventions such as Comic-Con International: San Diego, New York Comic Con, and C2E2. Outside of comic journalism, I am the artist of many weird pictures, and the guitarist of many heavy riffs. (They/Them)