Hello and welcome to Fandom Heresies, where I talk about all my controversial opinions regarding different fandoms. DC, Marvel, Disney, Nintendo… I have heretical opinions about them all. And, because heretics gotta heretic, I’m going to share them with you.
Today, we’re going to talk about one of the many ways DC has screwed over the original Batgirl, everybody’s favourite redhead Barbara Gordon (we’ll discuss how DC likes to screw over the other two Batgirls, Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown, in a later post and possibly different series. After all, it’s not like DC’s horrible treatment of those two characters hasn’t been a source of fan complaint for what? Fifteen years now? Something like that. Hardly heretical). Specifically, we’re going to talk about how, since the 90’s, DC has continually de-aged and undercut Barbara to serve Dick Grayson and the Dick/Babs romance. We’ll talk about how Barbara started out life as a replacement love interest for two different characters (Kathy Kane’s Batwoman and the Eartha Kitt version of Catwoman, respectively) for Batman, how she evolved into her own character (with some bumps along the way; I’m looking at you, Frank Robbins) and how, starting in the 90’s, DC began undercutting Barbara in favour of Dick. This is part one of three. The other two are here and here.
Join me under the cut!
In The Beginning, There Was Homophobia
To understand Barbara Gordon’s corporate history, we have to go all the way back to 1954 and Seduction of the Innocent. Nobody’s favourite German-American psychologist Frederic Wertham lied through his teeth (a full documentation of his lies can be found here: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/490073) and made a series of ludicrous claims. One of these was that Batman and Robin’s relationship meant they were gay. I’m going to talk one of these days about how the constant jokes over Bruce and Dick’s relationship help normalize the All Gays Are Pedophiles nonsense, but that’s a different topic. What we’re interested in now is how DC (then National Periodical Publications) reacted to Wertham’s claims.
They decided a new love interest for Batman was in order. And, instead of a modern attempt at a love interest where the lover would share in the main character’s adventures and generally pull their weight in said adventures, DC decided to go with a more childish, ‘No Girl’s Allowed’ style of love interest. They created a character whom Batman constantly has to scold, constantly tries to convince to her to give up crimefighting, who only started fighting crime to get in Batman’s pants, who used stereotypically girly items as her gadgets and was a general nuisance.
In short, they created Kathy Kane. Not to be confused with the much cooler Kate Kane, who was developed later.
In spite of that rather cynical sounding write-up, Kathy was not completely useless. She did upstage Batman in her first adventure, and was kind of competent in other stories. However, it did not really matter how competent Kate was. Batman constantly told her to get lost and leave the crimefighting to the boys, which both undermined the character and the whole reason DC created her in the first place. Bruce doesn’t look very heterosexual when he’s running away from the only girl in his stories to hang out with Robin, now does he? I can kind of understand what DC was trying to do here. Their target audience at the time (at least for characters not named Wonder Woman) was boys aged 8-12. At the time, the stereotype for boys of that age was that girls were icky and best avoided (see also the He-Man Woman Hater’s Club from The Little Rascals), so it makes a certain amount of sense that DC would have Batman behave in the same way. Incidentally, these twin assumptions (that only young boys were, or should be, reading comics and that they were juvenile idiots incapable of handling real plots) would form a lot of the wackiness of the Silver Age. The stand-out example would be the Clark/Lois relationship, which would change from a heated but friendly rivalry in the Golden Age, to Superman playing humiliating pranks and Lois being obsessed with exposing his secret identity so he would be forced to marry her. There are others, but that particular running gag would have nigh-on lethal connotations for Lois’ character. Even today, sixty years after that particular characterization for Lois ended, people still think of her as a harpy obsessed with marrying Superman.
Eventually, Kathy (along with her niece Betty, Ace the Bat-Hound and Bat-Mite) would be retired. Newly minted editor Julius Schwartz was given the task to revitalize the flagging Batman franchise (yes, there was a time when Batman was not an instant money maker for DC; it’s shocking I know) and he figured the best way to do that was to clean house. Gone were the silly characters of the early Silver Age! Now they would be replaced by… the slightly less silly characters of the later Silver Age. You see, Marvel had only completely reinvented superhero comics with Fantastic Four #1 four years ago. And while I’ll argue that Fantastic Four #1 was the beginning of the Bronze Age of Comics in general, it would take over a decade for the Silver Age to truly die and the Bronze Age to take over. While Spider-Man was arguably Bronze right from the start, the Fantastic Four would serve as a bridge between the Silver and Bronze Ages for years, while the X-Men would remain fully in the Silver Age until the Giant Size X-Men of 1975. Batman himself would not hit the Bronze Age until 1970.
However, while we’re not in the Bronze Age yet, the elevation of Julius Schwartz to editor on the Batman titles and the deck-clearing he engaged in here would lay important foundations for what came next.
Next week, we will discuss Catwoman, Barbara’s connections to her, and how Batman (1966) redefined one of Batman’s most enduring and endearing allies.
See you guys next week!
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