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Why Batgirl of Burnside brought out the best in Barbara Gordon
While more than a few people have taken on the mantle of Batgirl over the last few decades, Barbara Gordon is perhaps the most well known. Barbara made her first appearance as Batgirl, Batman's occasional sidekick, all the way back in January 1967 in #359 of Detective Comics. She was a Bat-family crime-fighting fixture until the late '80s when she retired from crime-fighting, was shot by Joker, and took on a new role as Oracle.
Barbara held the role of Oracle until 2011's Flashpoint series reset the universe, and Gail Simone picked up the pen to write the New 52's solo Batgirl series. Simone was no stranger to Barbara's world, having written her in her role as Oracle for years before her triumphant Batgirl return, and there's no arguing that she had a deep understanding and love for the character. I love Simone's interpretation of Batgirl with my whole heart, but there's a darkness to it that can't be denied.
This was not the same innocent, light-hearted Batgirl that snarked and fought alongside Batman for years. This was a Barbara Gordon who was recovering from her paralysis and re-learning how to walk. This was a Barbara Gordon who was still dealing with the trauma and PTSD resulting from her injury and sexual assault at the hands of the Joker in Alan Moore's Batman: The Killing Joke. Simone, in her infinite skill, managed to strike the right balance of recovery, trauma, and levity required to create an entertaining and audience-pleasing book.
However, no amount of levity and entertainment can completely obscure the fact that this was a Barbara Gordon forged by fire and the trauma she faced at the hands of a brutal man. This was a woman who had suffered a terrible assault, one that left her injured both physically and mentally and took years to recover from fully.
This is why I was so pleased when Batgirl of Burnside debuted in 2014, and we were given a chance to see once again a Batgirl that was strong without the trauma, a Batgirl that was more than just Batman's sidekick (or even Batman's sidekick's sidekick).
Batgirl of Burnside saw Babs ditching Gotham proper to move across the river and settle into the hip Burnside neighborhood. Here she settles into her new life where she balances school, a social life that doesn't revolve around the Bat (or Dick Grayson) and fighting crime her way. She leaves the sidekick role behind.
She's able to strike out on her own and discover who she is both in and out of the purple cowl. In Burnside, she's ready to start a brand new chapter of her life, and it's doesn't hurt that it's one where practically no one knows that Barbara Gordon is Batgirl. She's free to develop her approach to solving crime, working with what she's got, not depending on others, but also not being forced to work within the parameters that were set by someone else.
It's in Burnside that Barbara truly grows and evolves beyond the sidekick role that she long embodied. She learns how to balance her civilian life with her superhero life, and it's there that she finds the friends she's always needed.
Stepping out on her own left Barbara without the built-in support system that she's relied on for so long, and for a while, she struggled to get by without help. Barbara has always been focused and driven, but this has often resulted in her being headstrong and stubborn. It's a negative headspace, but like most of us, once she's in it, it isn't easy to pull herself back out. She needs the right people around her to help her re-focus, look at the bigger picture, and know when it's time to rethink her strategy. That's where the friends she's made in Burnside step up to the plate. Frankie, Dinah, Steph, and Harper Row are all people she can count on to watch her back and help her save Burnside.
And she's the one who is leading them. She's the one inspiring them to do the right thing. She's found her team, and they're all equals. These women are no one's sidekick, but they are each other's backup, support, and ride or die crew. In stepping away from her role as sidekick, Barbara found her place with her friends and became a better hero because of it.
While Batgirl has never truly been just a sidekick, she's long been defined not by who she is, but by her relationship to the men in her life. For too long, Barbara has lived in the shadow of her father, Commissioner Jim Gordon, while Batgirl has lived in the shadow of Batman and Robin. In Batgirl of Burnside, it was refreshing to see her solely defined by who she is and what she can do. She's always been more than just a sidekick, but now she knows it too.