throwback thursday

Throwback Thursday: “But Sometimes They Hurt”: The Disability Representation of Barbara Gordon as Oracle

“But Sometimes They Hurt”: The Disability Representation of Barbara Gordon as Oracle

Despite backlash arguing for her cure, comic book writers John Ostrander and Kim Yale persisted in their portrayal of Barabara Gordon as the superhero Oracle, being the first to revive her character after her apparent death in the story The Killing Joke, wherein she was paralyzed (Ostrander 1990). They let her find independence, leadership, and more freedom and respect than she had ever had as Batgirl, her previous superhero identity, from her wheelchair. Barbara Gordon’s transition from Batgirl to Oracle normalizes nuance in a relationship with one’s disability, without narrowing her down into either a devastated girl desperate for a cure, neither a perfect pillar of strength who is unaffected or uncaring about the major change her disability brings to her life. Becoming Oracle allows Barbara Gordon to come to terms with what her disability brings, both for better and for worse. 

Looking specifically at the story Oracle: The Cure, readers can see Barbara genuinely grapple with the change in her identity, without being lessened by it. Oracle: The Cure, does not romanticize Barbara’s experience, taking place early enough in her time as Oracle for her to be comfortable and confident in her abilities without the use of her legs, while still working through the trauma of how she came to be disabled. Becoming Oracle, a by-product of her paralysis, let Barbara grow as both a person and a hero, despite both fans and characters within the comic doubting her ability to continue being a strong hero after her paralysis. Barbara grows to accept her new identity as Oracle. She grows as a hero, begins to understand what it means to take responsibility as a leader rather than being Batman’s occasional sidekick, but also grows to understand how to use and accept her new physicality. Oracle as a superhero identity is largely defined by Barbara’s paralysis, and the violent end to her career as Batgirl. When Barbara was paralyzed, she was left for dead, and her alias of Batgirl has died with her paralysis, even as she has been given a second chance at heroism through the identity of Oracle. Oracle represents new responsibility and new physical abilities, as Barbara moves from Batgirl’s front lines fighting to Oracle’s often computer-based and behind-the-scenes work. This change in her physicality does not erase Barbara’s physical abilities that she possessed before becoming Oracle. For example, Barbara still fights crime, not always behind a computer screen, using a combination of weapons and martial arts, despite being paralyzed from the waist down.

Barbara’s use of her new physicality is shown in her training regime in this story arc, as she trains with escrima sticks (a weapon of choice for a fillipino style of martial arts). Superimposed on her training regime, and throughout Oracle: The Cure, is variations of the phrase “but sometimes they hurt,” which can be seen in figures two and three, with figure two showing her physical strength during her training (Vanbrook 2010). The narration follows a common topic for Oracle: her phantom limb pain, which is exacerbated by her PTSD when she feels as if her skills as Oracle are falling short of Batgirl’s. Her phantom limb pain is a deferral of her mental pain; the questioning of her ability, and by extension her identity, is expressed as physical pain. There is an attempt to reconcile two identities which manifests itself as pain, because being Batgirl, as much as she misses it, also ended in tremendous pain. 

This contrasts with scenes in which she is actually fighting, not just training. As seen in figure five below, Barbara fends off would-be rapists by using upper-arm strength, as well as their own bodies, using anatomical knowledge to manipulate one rapists legs into kicking another’s, in order to knock them out and escape (Vanbrook 2010). She berates herself for not paying attention, for assuming rapists wouldn’t come after a girl in a wheelchair, and for getting into the situation, but she never doubts her ability to fend for herself, as shown in figure four (Vanbrook 2010). Barbara is confident and competent, able to disarm and immobilize the three men who attack her with ease; her disability does not erase her identity as a competent black belt and trained fighter. This scene in figure five is especially telling, as this is not a scene in which she mentions the pain in her legs. 

The pain in her legs is largely psychological, a fact acknowledged in figure two, as the narration acknowledges there is no physical neurological basis for her pain. Her pain is largely a manifestation of fear, and uncertainty. She is scared of being as weak as she was when she was first shot and paralyzed, even as she has learned to live and fight with her paralysis. Her ability to fend off the rapists without thinking of the pain in her legs is an example of the way she, not only has thrived in her new physicality, but how far she has come with her mental acceptance of her new identity. 

Juxtaposing the physical competency she still possesses while paralized with her subconscious questioning of the same physical ability, demonstrates the nuance in how Barbara feels about her disability. The comparison between her mental trauma and her physical trauma pops up multiple times, with the question of “which was worse”, asked sometimes in jest, and sometimes in seriousness, putting her physical trauma (being shot through the spine and paralyzed) against her emotional trauma (being kidnapped and assaulted by the Joker, after being shot, and then being left for dead), which Barbara struggles to answer, and never fully does (Moore 1988). Barbara convinces herself her pain is imaginary, as she cannot feel anything below the waist; but while she has adjusted physically to her new reality, her mental adjustment is not a linear process, and will take time for her to be fully at ease with her new physicality, which is never portrayed as a weakness or discredit to her ability. While she feels no need to find a cure, nor does she regret becoming Oracle, it is still a major adjustment and identity change; there is no timetable for adjustment nor for grief. Barbara, as capable as she is as Oracle, still grieves her identity as Batgirl. Because trauma has no concrete answer, it is not about being okay or not okay with her disability, but how she grows, changes, and comes to terms with the change, and being a fully satisfied person while still being allowed to grieve the change in her identity.

One specific comic panel that shows Barbara’s embrace of her identity as Oracle is in the story Black Canary/Oracle, Birds of Prey (note, publication years do not necessarily correlate with story chronology as many comics follow nebulous and shifting timelines). As Barbara guides Dinah Lance (Black Canary) to be her hands in the field, Barbara uses Batgirl as an example to motivate Dinah to continue fighting despite her pain, which is especially difficult for Barbara, as Dinah at this moment is as of yet unaware of Oracle’s connection to Batgirl. After this comes figure one, a page detailing a nightmare of Barbara’s, depicting her own pain. In this fragmented nightmare are different scenes: Batgirl standing with Batman and Robin, the Joker aiming his gun at her, herself lying in a hospital bed. But along with these nightmare images is Batgirl speaking to Oracle; in response to a memory of Commissioner Gordon saying “you should have listened to Batman,” Batgirl tells Oracle “Don’t listen to them…I need you” (Dixon 1996). Barbara is subconsciously telling herself that Oracle is just as valuable as Batgirl is, a fact made more prominent by Dinah’s cry, bleeding through into Batgirl’s words in her nightmare on the bottom right of figure one, of “Oracle, I need you” (Dixon 1996). Barbara is coming to understand that she is not a lesser hero in her new role, which is a difficult, but nonetheless valuable, transition for her. 

Through her 20-odd year portrayal as Oracle, Barbara Gordon has been an example of how to write a complex disabled character, whose disability is neither entirely hindering for the sake of replacement of a character, nor the source of superpowers, but is grounded in realistic portrayal. An important aspect of the nuance of Barbara’s disability is that her paralysis is never used as a shorthand for her loss of a fight or any other character weaknesses. Ostrander and Yale took great care in creating Oracle as a positive, nuanced example of disability, giving her real limitations alongside her successes: she cannot, for example, run across rooftops in her wheelchair. They even took fans suggestions for improved wheelchair designs, and invited criticism of unrealistic portrayals of her disability (Birds of Prey: Manhunt #2 1996). By showcasing the nuance of Barbara’s disability, including both the physical and mental realities of her paralysis, the capability and complexity of being in a wheelchair is normalized to an audience. Barbara is a character who normalizes this nuance to both those who are in a wheelchair who may not have other characters with whom to identify, and to a wider audience which may infantilize, or otherwise mourn or discredit, wheelchair users for their disability. This nuanced representation allows for the normalization of disabled characters of all kinds in comics, paving the more for more nuanced disabled characters, and giving writers an example and standard to uphold in representing different disabilities in comics. 

Works Cited:

Dixon, Chuck, and Jordan B. Gorfinkel. Black Canary/Oracle, Birds of Prey. DC Comics, 1996.

Dixon, Chuck. Birds of Prey: Manhunt. DC Comics, 1996.

Moore, Alan, et al. Batman: The Killing Joke. DC Comics, 1988.

Ostrander, John, Kim Yale, and Geof Isherwood. Suicide Squad Volume 1 #48. New York: DC Comics, 1990. 

Vanhook, Kevin. Oracle: The Cure. DC Comics, 2010.

Appendix: Images

Fig 1: Dixon, Chuck, and Jordan B. Gorfinkel. Black Canary/Oracle, Birds of Prey. DC Comics, 1996, p.47.

Fig 2: Vanhook, Kevin. Oracle: The Cure. DC Comics, 2010, Issue 1, p. 9.

Fig 3: Vanhook, Kevin. Oracle: The Cure. DC Comics, 2010, Issue 1, p. 16.

Fig 4: Vanhook, Kevin. Oracle: The Cure. DC Comics, 2010, Issue 2, p. 3.

Fig 5: Vanhook, Kevin. Oracle: The Cure. DC Comics, 2010, Issue 2, p. 5.

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