Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Unearthed: The Batman Chronicles #5

Today has been International Women's Day and I hope your day was... womanly...?

To that end, leave us take a look back one of comicdom's greatest female characters and a beloved woman comic writer; neither one is with us today, yet the legend lives on.

Alan Moore originally didn't intend for his Batman: The Killing Joke one-shot to be part of DC Comics' continuity, much less for it to be considered one of the definitive works in the Batman mythos - yet, it certainly has been since its publication in 1988. Even then, the comic elicited a strong reaction over the scene in which Barbara Gordon was shot by the Joker. It brought an end to her career as the costumed hero Batgirl. At the time, DC were certainly determined to pare Batman down to the status of a loner as he'd likewise lose his sidekick Robin (only Nightwing was spared as he wasn't considered a Batman character then, but was instead a Teen Titans character). Many fans felt the offhanded way in which Batgirl's career ended was unworthy of her.

Among those fans were John Ostrander and his wife Kim Yale. In the pages of Suicide Squad they introduced a mysterious computer hacker named Oracle who began assisting the Squad and, over the course of about two years, was finally revealed as the wheelchair-bound Barbara Gordon. This new identity proved a clever one as in the 1990s the internet's usage spiked dramatically, making Oracle's mastery of computers all the more relevant. She was soon welcomed back into the Batman family as an indispensable ally, led her own team the Birds of Prey and joined the Justice League! Pretty gratifying for a character who could have easily been kicked to the curb. Through it all, she remained a heroine despite her circumstances which helped inspire many fans who were themselves dealing with one form of disability or another.

And then in the 21st century DC Comics went, "Whoa! Look at my navel! Why have I never realized how amazing this navel is? Check it out, everyone!" And so, Babs went back to being Batgirl. Pity. But I'm not here to talk to you about that; in 1996, Ostrander & Yale finally gave Babs a proper origin story to detail how she went from the hospital in Killing Joke to becoming the mistress of information. It's called "Oracle: Year One - Born of Hope" and appeared in The Batman Chronicles #5, an anthology comic with various creators offering tales about Batman characters. This was one of three stories in that issue. The cover above was drawn by Howard Victor Chaykin & Tommy Lee Edwards, while the story itself was drawn by Brian Stelfreeze and Karl Story.

The story opens with Barbara in the hospital shortly after The Killing Joke. Batman visits Babs, but she's not particularly happy to see him. You see, Batman knew all of her secrets as Batgirl but had never told her he was Bruce Wayne and there was some lasting resentment between them due to this (something which also came up in Ostrander & Yale's Suicide Squad). Babs sums up what the Joker did thusly:

"Shooting me... kidnapping my Dad... it was all just a way to get to you. Do you understand how humiliating, how demeaning, that is? My life has no importance save in relation to you! Even as Batgirl, I was perceived just as some weaker version of you!"

The Killing Joke ended with Batman and the Joker laughing together. Babs remarks: "I heard how you two stood there, laughing over some private joke. Tell me -- was it me?" Batman exits the hospital. "Good. I hope I've hurt him." Babs states. When she finally leaves the hospital with her father her first attempt to enter her Dad's car is shown in great detail as it takes more than a page for the task to be done, Babs' first taste of how complicated her new life will be. Of the next six months she concludes: "Worst of all was the fear I felt -- of being physically helpless, unable to defend myself, of having no sense of self, of feeling that I meant nothing, that my life was now over." She also worried that if her father died in the line of duty she would be left to live on charity.

Deciding to revisit her old investigative skills Babs puts together a computer lab with some financial aid from the Wayne Foundation (and thus, Batman secretly repays part of his debt to her). With her computers, Babs becomes engrossed with the internet. One day, her father mentions the trouble the department is having with a computer-based felon called Interface (a villain from Ostrander & Yale's Manhunter) who has the metahuman ability to link herself to computers. Babs tries to use the internet to dig up information on Interface but is noticed by the villain, who catches up to Babs one day in the street and shoves her wheelchair in front of a car. Babs survives, but now finds she has the determination to see this investigation through to the end.

Returning to the internet, Babs looks for someone to teach her a new form of self-defense to avoid another episode like the one with Interface. Batman, using his identity of Matches Malone, directs Babs to Richard Dragon, the 1970s DC martial arts hero. Dragon teaches Babs how to fight using the escrima method, learning how to wield twin batons as weapons. One night, Babs has a dream in which she appears as Batgirl and confronts the oracle at Delphi; the oracle turns out to be Babs as well and this gives her the idea for her new identity. Now disguised as Oracle, she contacts Interface and sets a viral trap in Interface's own computer so that when she attempts to link to it it causes Interface to be caught in an unending loop. To win her freedom from Oracle, Interface agrees to admit all of her crimes to the police.

The story ends with Babs taking again to the streets, now more confidant than before. "I am no longer a distaff impersonation of someone else. I'm me -- more me than I have ever been. My life is my own. I embrace it, and the light, with a deep, continuing joy."

One year later, Kim Yale died of breast cancer. She is still survived by her husband, John Ostrander.

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