She’s Batgirl! (Shadow of the Bat)

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It’s September 13 and 14, 1993, the two days immediately prior to “Mudslide,” so see that post for charts and news.

On Batman the Animated Series, something that’s been a long time coming finally arrives with “Shadow of the Bat,” the debut of Batgirl. (No relation to Batman: Shadow of the Bat, a comic book series which debuted a year prior but had no distinct identity of its own, being just a way for DC to cram more Batman stories into a month.)

This is a deeply atypical origin story, and so helps define, in this fledgling ideaspace, what a typical origin story actually is. If Batman and Robin are both inside the lines, and Batgirl outside, that helps us determine where the lines might be.

The most obvious difference here is that Barbara Gordon still has parents, or a parent at least. (Her mother is never named; she presumably died or left at some point prior to the series, but this is not explored.) She is not motivated to fight crime out of a desire for revenge, as Batman and Robin are, but to protect others and to assert her own power.

This, perhaps, is the most intriguing part of “Shadow of the Bat, Part I”: the degree to which the first half of the episode plays out like a “sympathetic villain” origin story. Barbara’s frustration is depicted clearly, and the continual dismissal she receives from other characters is emphasized repeatedly. In her first scene, she comments that her father has barely stopped treating her like a child, and he’s “already trying to marry me off.” It’s a playful response, her tone gently teasing her father in response to and recognition of his attempt to help his daughter find love and happiness with a man he likes, but at the same time it’s a firm drawing of boundaries, establishing that her life is her own.

But even as she tries to establish her independence, her life is falling apart around her. By the middle of the first episode, Commissioner Gordon is in prison, the evidence against him strong enough to convince the DA Barbara assumed would be an ally, and the one person she was absolutely certain would help, Batman, is chasing “something bigger.” When she vows that Batman will come to the rally “one way or the other,” her fist clenched, the entire DCAU hangs in the balance.

Imagine not knowing that Barbara Gordon is Batgirl in the comics and past Batman television shows. Imagine, too, that you don’t notice that the title card shows the titular silhouette, a slim, feminine figure that, except for the bat cowl, looks exactly like Barbara’s pose in this moment. Surely this is her great moment of decision, before she picks a theme, puts on a costume, and stages a crime that forces Batman to come to the rally and her father’s aid, yes? The beginning of her fall, the tragedy of a woman who wanted to help and was denied the chance, so she turned to crime. We are coming off of an episode about Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn, after all!

But no. She does something else. Batman will not come, will not help, so she becomes Batman.

Or, rather, Batgirl, because she remains an atypical hero. Lacking the defining trauma, the Bat is not something that lives inside her; it is a costume she puts on, a deliberate performance through which she is able to express her power. Barbara Gordon becomes Batgirl, and changes the world into what she wants it to be–one where Commissioner Gordon is free and the people who hurt and betrayed him are in comas or imprisoned. Batgirl is not Barbara Gordon’s compulsion, not her true self; it’s a power fantasy she acts out.

Which is itself curious. Batman, as we have touched on briefly before, is not a power fantasy. He’s a trauma victim, constantly reliving his parents’ deaths, a cowering child hiding behind two false personae, millionaire playboy philanthropist Bruce Wayne and Batman. This is not a figure that we want to be! (Not even those of us who have experienced trauma. The power we fantasize about is not the power to remain traumatized while fighting evil; it’s the power to erase or escape the trauma.) Rather, he represents the fantasy of a protector, that someone might both possess power and understand pain, and so choose to protect us from all the things that frighten and hurt us.

Batgirl, by contrast, is a power fantasy. Which is one reason (the others, of course, being that they’re two separate characters in the comics, and also the sexism underlying calling an adult woman a girl in contexts where a man would never be called a boy) that she’s Batgirl, rather than Batwoman. Adults, you see, rarely have power fantasies about being superheroes, because superheroes defend the status quo, and when adults have power fantasies, it’s generally out of frustration with the status quo. We have already seen the characters that represent these fantasies: Poison Ivy is a fantasy about having the power to punish the people making the world a materially worse place to live, while Clayface is a fantasy about having the power to avenge ourselves on those who’ve wronged us. Other examples abound throughout the DCAU.

Generally speaking, it’s children for whom superheroes represent a power fantasy, though there are of course exceptions (one of which we will be exploring in some depth in a few years’ time). So by creating Batgirl as a power fantasy, Barbara Gordon marks herself as being still somewhat childlike; she is an innocent, jumping into a world she doesn’t understand. As Batman says, “It takes more than a costume and an attitude to do this job.” It takes a fragmented identity, a tortured past, an obsessive need to protect society and pursue crime; it takes, in short, trauma.

Barbara Gordon is, simply put, too psychologically healthy to be a superhero long-term. She can and will continue to grow and mature; her adult self years from now will not be any variant of Bat, but Commissioner Barbara Gordon–and if her adult self is not a Bat, it follows that the Bat version of her is not an adult. She is Batgirl, not Batwoman, even if she and Renee Montoya are pretty blatantly flirting with one another in the police station in Part I.

But all that lies in the future and in her name. Right now, she’s as resourceful as ever, sneaking a peak at a book of mugshots or, when Robin shuts her out of hearing Gil Mason’s phone call, using binoculars to read the pad where he wrote down the meeting address. She’s not up to Batman’s level in martial arts, of course, nor does she possess his array of toys, but she’s got gymnastics skills that make her mobile and unpredictable, and a surprisingly effective arsenal assembled from what she could get her hands on. She’s not Batman’s protege or ward, not a minion or a student or a damsel in distress; she’s able to stand as his equal.

Just for a moment, at the end there, we saw the reification of the alternative to hierarchy “Harley and Ivy” offered us: a team. The Bat Family is born.


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3 thoughts on “She’s Batgirl! (Shadow of the Bat)

  1. I agree totally about Batgirl, but I have to disagree about Shadow of the Bat not having a unique identity. As I understand it, the point of the book was that Batman wasn’t really the main character. That’s what the title meant; every month the “shadow of the bat” would fall upon a villain or supporting cast member, and Alan Grant would explore their psyche as they reacted to Batman. I don’t know if it entirely stuck to that, especially once it started getting caught up in the never-ending Bat-crossover that started with Knightfall, but that was the idea.

    Certainly, I remember having a much better idea of what made something a SOTB story than what made something a Detective Comics story.

    (Of course, you could look at Grant’s earlier Detective work and say that another way of putting that is “it was the comic Alan Grant happened to be writing”. Which is fair.)

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  2. Yes, that was the general idea behind Shadow of the Bat (the comic) for the first dozen issues or so, but alas – poor thing never did recover from the hole Knightfall put it in. For a while Alan Grant was able to keep up the “Shadow of the Bat falls on…” titling, but around “Prodigal” or so he just plain gave up (that, or editor Denny O’Neil made him stop).

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