Batgirl is the name of several fictional superheroes appearing in American comic books published by DC Comics, depicted as female counterparts to the superhero Batman. Although Betty Kane was introduced into publication in 1961 by Bill Finger and Sheldon Moldoff as Bat-Girl, she was replaced by Barbara Gordon in 1967, who later came to be identified as the iconic Batgirl. The character debuted in Detective Comics #359, titled "The Million Dollar Debut of Batgirl!" (January 1967) by writer Gardner Fox and artist Carmine Infantino, introduced as the daughter of police commissioner James Gordon.
Batgirl operates in Gotham City, allying herself with Batman and the original Robin, Dick Grayson, and other masked vigilantes. The character appeared regularly in Detective Comics, Batman Family, and several other books produced by DC until 1988. That year, Barbara Gordon appeared in Barbara Kesel's Batgirl Special #1, in which she retires from crime-fighting. She subsequently appeared in Alan Moore's graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke, where, in her civilian identity, she is shot by the Joker and left paraplegic. Although she is reimagined as the computer expert and information broker Oracle by editor Kim Yale and writer John Ostrander the following year, her paralysis sparked debate about the portrayal of women in comics, particularly violence depicted toward female characters.
In the 1999 storyline "No Man's Land", the character Helena Bertinelli, known as Huntress, briefly assumes the role of Batgirl until she is stripped of the identity by Batman for violating his stringent codes. Within the same storyline, the character Cassandra Cain is introduced. Cain is written as the daughter of assassins David Cain and Lady Shiva and takes the mantle of Batgirl under the guidance of Batman and Oracle. In 2000, she became the first Batgirl to star in an eponymous monthly comic book series and became one of the most prominent characters of Asian descent to appear in American comics. The series was canceled in 2006, at which point during the company-wide storyline "One Year Later", she is established as a villain and head of the League of Assassins. After receiving harsh feedback from the readership, she is later restored to her original conception. However, the character Stephanie Brown, originally known as Spoiler and later Robin, succeeds her as Batgirl after Cassandra Cain abandons the role.
Stephanie Brown became the featured character of the Batgirl series from 2009 to 2011. DC subsequently relaunched all their monthly publications during The New 52 reboot. Barbara Gordon recovers from her paralysis following a surgical procedure and stars in the relaunched Batgirl series as the titular character in the revised continuity. These changes were retained as part of the 2016 DC Rebirth event. As Batgirl, Barbara Gordon has been adapted into various media relating to the Batman franchise, including television, film, animation, video games, and other merchandise. This factored into the decision to return her to the comic book role, as Dan DiDio, co-publisher of DC Comics, expressed that she is the best-known version of the character.
Detective Comics, Batman Family and other appearances (1961–1988)
Following the accusations of a homoerotic subtext in depicting the relationship between Batman and Robin as described in Fredric Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent (1954), a female character, Kathy Kane the Batwoman, appeared in 1956 as a love interest for Batman. In 1961 DC Comics introduced a second female character as a love-interest for Robin. Betty Kane as “Bat-Girl,” arrived as the niece of and Robin-like sidekick to Batwoman, first appearing in Batman #139 (April 1961). The creation of the Batman Family, which included Batman and Batwoman depicted as parents, Robin and Bat-Girl depicted as their children, the extraterrestrial imp Bat-Mite and the “family pet” Ace the Bat-Hound, caused the Batman-related comic books to take “a wrong turn, switching from superheroes to situational comedy”.
DC Comics abandoned these characters in 1964 when newly appointed Batman editor Julius Schwartz judged them too silly and inappropriate. Schwartz had asserted that these characters should be removed, considering the Batman-related comic books had steadily declined in sales and restored the Batman mythology to its original conception of heroic vigilantism. Bat-Girl, along with other characters in the Batman Family, were retconned out of existence following the 1985 limited series Crisis on Infinite Earths. However, even though Bat-Girl did not exist in the post-Crisis continuity, a modified version of the character, Mary Elizabeth “Bette” Kane, introduced as the superhero Flamebird, appears in DC Comics publications.
Schwartz stated that he had been asked to develop a new female character to attract a female viewership to the Batman television series of the 1960s. Executive producer William Dozier suggested that the new character would be the daughter of Gotham City’s Police Commissioner James Gordon and that she would adopt the identity of Batgirl. When Dozier and producer Howie Horowitz saw rough concept artwork of the new Batgirl by artist Carmine Infantino during a visit to DC offices, they optioned the character in a bid to help sell a third season to the ABC television network. Infantino reflected on the creation of Batgirl, stating, “Bob Kane had had a Bat-Girl for about three stories in the ’50s, but she had nothing to do with a bat. She was like a pesky girl version of Robin. I knew we could do a lot better, so Julie and I came up with the real Batgirl, who was so popular she almost got her own TV show.” Yvonne Craig portrayed the character in the show’s third season. Barbara Gordon and alter ego Batgirl debuted in Detective Comics #359, “The Million Dollar Debut of Batgirl” (1967). In the debut story, while driving to a costume ball dressed as a female version of Batman, Barbara Gordon intervenes in a kidnapping attempt on Bruce Wayne by the supervillain Killer Moth, attracting Batman’s attention and leading to a crime-fighting career. Although Batman insists she give up crime-fighting because of her gender, Batgirl disregards his objections.
In her civilian identity, Dr. Barbara Gordon Ph.D. is depicted as a career woman with a doctorate in library science, as well as being head of Gotham City public library, “presumably one of the largest public libraries in the DC Comics version of reality.” She was given a regular backup slot in Detective Comics starting with issue #384 (February 1969), alternating issues with Robin until issue #404, after which she had the backup slot to herself. Frank Robbins wrote nearly all of these backups, which were penciled first by Gil Kane and later by Don Heck. Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl exceeded the earlier Bat-Girl and Batwoman characters in popularity, and readers requested for her to appear in other titles. Although some readers requested that Batwoman also continue to appear in publication, DC responded to the fan-based acclaim and criticism of the new character in an open letter in Detective Comics #417 (1971), stating: “I’d like to say a few words about the reaction some readers have to Batgirl. These are readers who remember Batwoman and the other Bat-girls from years back ... They were there because romance seemed to be needed in Batman’s life. But thanks to the big change and a foresighted editor, these hapless females are gone for good. In their place stands a girl who is a capable crime-fighter, a far cry from Batwoman who constantly had to be rescued [by] Batman.”
Batgirl continued to appear in DC Comics publications throughout the late 1960s and 1970s as a supporting character in Detective Comics, in addition to guest appearances in various titles such as Justice League of America, World’s Finest Comics, The Brave and the Bold, Adventure Comics, and Superman. In the early-1970s, Batgirl reveals her secret identity to her father (who had already discovered it on his own) and serves as a member of the United States House of Representatives. She moves to Washington, D.C., intending to give up her career as Batgirl, and in June 1972 appeared in a story entitled “Batgirl’s Last Case.” Julius Schwartz brought her back a year later in Superman #268 (1973), in which she has a blind date with Clark Kent, establishing their friendship, and fights alongside Superman. Batgirl and Superman team up twice more in Superman #279 and DC Comics Presents #19. Batgirl also guest-starred in other Superman-related titles such as #453 of Adventure Comics and Superman Family #171, where she teams with Supergirl.
The character is given a starring role in DC’s Batman Family comic book, which debuted in 1975. The original Robin, Dick Grayson, became her partner in the series, with the two frequently referred to as the “Dynamite Duo: Batgirl & Robin”. Batgirl meets Batwoman in Batman Family #10 when the retired superhero briefly returns to crime-fighting (before the Bronze Tiger murders Kane). The two fight Killer Moth and Cavalier and learn each other’s secret identities. Batwoman retires once again after the story, leaving Batgirl to continue crime-fighting. Although this series ended after three years of publication, Batgirl appeared in backup stories published in Detective Comics through issue #519 (October 1982).
Crisis on Infinite Earths, a limited miniseries published in 1985, was written to reduce the complex history of DC Comics to a single continuity. Although Batgirl is a featured character, her role is relatively small—she delivers Supergirl’s eulogy in issue seven of the 12-part series. The conclusion of Crisis on Infinite Earths changed DC Universe continuity in many ways. Following the reboot, Barbara Gordon is born to Roger and Thelma Gordon, and she is Jim Gordon’s niece and adopted daughter in the current canon. Post-Crisis, Supergirl does not arrive on Earth until after Gordon has established herself as Oracle, and many of the adventures she shared with Batgirl are retroactively described as having been experienced by Power Girl. In Secret Origins #20 (1987), Barbara Gordon’s origin is rebooted by author Barbara Randal. Within the storyline, Gordon recounts the series of events that lead to her career as Batgirl, including her first encounter with Batman as a child, studying martial arts under the tutelage of a sensei, memorizing maps and blueprints of the city, excelling in academics to skip grades, and pushing herself to become a star athlete.
Batgirl Special and Batman: The Killing Joke (1988)
DC officially retired the hero in the one-shot comic Batgirl Special #1 (July 1988), written by Barbara Kesel. Later that year, she appears in Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke. In this graphic novel, the Joker shoots and paralyzes Barbara Gordon in an attempt to drive her father insane, thereby proving to Batman that anyone can be morally compromised. While the events in The Killing Joke greatly impact the character, the story has little to do with her. She is deployed as a plot device to cement the Joker’s vendetta against Commissioner Gordon and Batman. In 2006, during an interview with Wizard, Moore expressed regret over his treatment of the character calling it “shallow and ill-conceived”. He stated before writing the graphic novel, “I asked DC if they had any problem with me crippling Barbara Gordon—who was Batgirl at the time—and if I remember, I spoke to Len Wein, who was our editor on the project”, and following a discussion with then-Executive Editorial Director Dick Giordano, “Len got back onto the phone and said, ‘Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.’”
Although there has been speculation as to whether or not editors at DC specifically intended to have the character’s paralysis become permanent, Brian Cronin, author of Was Superman A Spy?: And Other Comic Book Legends Revealed (2009), noted that DC had hired Barbara Kesel to write the Batgirl Special specifically to retire the character and set her in place for The Killing Joke. Gail Simone included the character’s paralysis in a list of “major female characters that had been killed, mutilated, and depowered”, dubbing the phenomenon “Women in Refrigerators” in reference to a 1994 Green Lantern story where the title character discovers his girlfriend’s mutilated body in his refrigerator. Following the release of the graphic novel, comic book editor and writer Kim Yale discussed how distasteful she found the treatment of Barbara Gordon with her husband, fellow comic writer John Ostrander. Rather than allow the character to fall into obscurity, the two decided to revive her as a character living with a disability—the information broker, Oracle.
No Man's Land (1999)
Batgirl and other appearances (2000–2011)
The New 52: Batgirl, Birds of Prey and other appearances (2011–2016)
DC Rebirth: Batgirl and Batgirl and the Birds of Prey (2016–present)
Batgirl has officially been represented by four different characters - and two candidates - beginning with her introduction in 1961.