Overcoming trauma with the Birds of Prey

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May 3, 2017, 10:59 AM EDT (Updated)

Trigger Warning: this post contains discussion of physical and sexual assault, psychological trauma and PTSD.

More than 20 years ago, two superheroes came together to form a team that would alter the way fans viewed each hero on their own. Barbara Gordon and Dinah Lance formed the Birds of Prey during a one-shot comic in 1996. They each came to the partnership looking for different things, but over the course of more than ten years would find strength, friendship and an unexpected measure of catharsis, support and opportunities to face down their individual traumas.

Barbara Gordon and Dinah Lance -- known to the crime fighting community as Oracle and Black Canary, respectively -- could not have been more different when they met for the first time. Dinah was lost, broke, aimless and wearing a terrible wig. Babs was self-aware, mission-oriented and stuck in a wheelchair, unable to act on her desire to protect and serve. 

Despite the fact that they were in vastly different places in their lives, the two women had one particular bit of history in common: they were both victims of physical and sexual violence, and their relationship would force each of them to stare down their demons and either come out the other side or drown in fear and self-doubt. To their credit, both women would take the long, hard road to healing.

Hunters and Jokers

The late '80s were not kind to either heroine, as both women would face their darkest moments as the world of comics itself grew darker and more unforgiving, especially for female characters.

In 1987, writer Mike Grell launched the mini-series Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters, a much darker and more violent take on the long-running character. During the three-issue series, Oliver Queen moves from his home of Star City to Seattle, where Dinah is living at the time. Oliver takes his Emerald Archer persona along with him and over the course of the story attempts to take down a serial killer who has been murdering prostitutes in the area. Meanwhile, the Black Canary, herself a well-trained veteran hero, takes up her own mission to infiltrate and dismantle a drug ring. 

Eventually, their two missions collide, but not before it nearly results in Dinah’s death. While attempting to infiltrate the drug ring, Dinah is discovered, captured, strung up and tortured to within an inch of her life. She is badly beaten, stripped nearly naked and sexually assaulted. Oliver kills her assailants and rescues the broken heroine, but her injuries have lasting consequences. As a result of the assault, the Black Canary no longer possesses her ear-shattering Canary Cry, and Dinah Lance is no longer capable of conceiving children.

This was far from the only time the Black Canary had been -- or would be -- kidnapped or otherwise held hostage, but it was the one that had the most lasting, and most haunting, impact on the character.

Not long after the Black Canary lost her cry, Barbara Gordon was about to lose abilities of her own. In January of 1988, a graphic novel by Alan Moore hit the stands, promising a brand-new take on the Dark Knight and his cackling nemesis, the Joker. The Killing Joke was massively well-received by Batman fans, lauded as an essential installment in the ongoing conflict between the Caped Crusader and the Clown Prince of Crime, but while it may have told a side of the Joker's story that few had considered and many enjoyed, the book brought with it dire consequences for the former Batgirl.

Barbara Gordon had retired from back-alley vigilantism some time previously and was enjoying life as a civilian when the Joker decided to pay her a house call. Barbara had barely swung open the door to her apartment when she was met with the Joker's smiling face and the searing pain of a .45 caliber bullet through the spine. 

The Joker had come not to kill Barbara but to kidnap her father and use her agony to drive him insane. To accomplish his goal, he set about injuring her in the most demeaning ways he -- and Moore -- could conceive. He taunted the former Gotham hero as she lay bleeding and broken on the floor before bending down, lifting a camera and tearing off her clothing.

The comic leaves the details of the Joker's torment to the imagination, never stating explicitly what he does to her, but subsequent scenes offer a bleak picture. Barbara wakes up frantic, lying in a hospital bed, bandaged from head to toe and without the use of her legs. Meanwhile, the Joker attempts to break her father's spirit by showing him the photographs he took on the floor of that apartment: a naked Barbara, crying, bleeding and forced into demeaning positions, all for the Joker's amusement.

While fans of Batman and the Joker lauded the book for its portrayal of the two men, fans of Barbara Gordon were left dumbfounded and disgusted and Barbara herself was left traumatized and wheelchair-bound.

Staring down the devil

Thankfully, other writers picked up where Moore and Grell left off, bringing these women out of obscurity and giving them the chance to shine as the stars of their own series: Birds of Prey. While the series would offer both Black Canary and the newly minted Oracle an opportunity to break free of their male counterparts and strike out on their own, it would take some time before Black Canary was offered the chance to deal head-on with her insecurities.

Oracle, on the other hand, almost immediately approached hers.

Perhaps because Oracle's trauma was more visually apparent or because The Killing Joke was more widely publicized, Barbara Gordon's personal trauma was never too far away. It becomes a point of some contention between Babs and her potential flame Dick Grayson when the two embark on their first date in Birds of Prey #8, as Barbara insists that she is okay and wonders why Dick and Bruce continue to believe she needs to talk about what happened to her.

Her next opportunity to confront her past would come just eight issues later when she interrogates a newly recaptured Joker, coming face to face with the villain for the first time since the shooting. In Birds of Prey #16, Barbara stands down the Joker in an issue set up much like the confrontations between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter. In this scenario, Babs has the upper hand. She can see the Joker, but he cannot see her.

"It's really a battle of wits," recalled editor, Joseph Illridge during the Birds of Prey 20th Anniversary panel at SDCC 2016. "It's really her closing a circle emotionally, facing the sum of all your fears and walking away from that with a position of emotional strength."

Victim no more

Several years later, a brand new writer would join the Birds of Prey team and would immediately set about healing some of the deeper wounds in Dinah Lance's Black Canary.

Gail Simone was sick of seeing Dinah play the victim and hostage and wanted to put her into a situation where she would never again allow herself to be in that position. Naturally, she made her a hostage. 

When Dinah falls into a trap set by the villain Savant, she is forced to find a way out despite dire circumstances. During her capture, Dinah suffers two broken legs and is tied to a bed. Instead of waiting for rescue (which was coming), Dinah chooses to find her own way out. She breaks her thumbs to loose herself from her restraints and fights her way free, despite multiple broken bones.

"I just came at it from the point where, first of all, I was sick and tired of Black Canary always being a hostage," explains Simone during that same 20th Anniversary panel. "Now, she will become a hostage again, because other writers will write her, but not if they've read that story. If you read that story and keep that in mind, she can never be a hostage again."

The next few issues would see the fallout of that kidnapping and injury, as Dinah, intent on never becoming a victim again, tracks down the best fighters in the DC Universe and convinces them to teach her everything they know. She forces herself to become a fighter of even greater skill, eventually earning a spot as one of the most talented fighters in the entire DC Universe.

Healing continues

The two women shared more than a friendship, a team and a traumatic past, however. As those who suffer from PTSD will tell you, the struggle is ongoing, the fight to regain control never ending. So too was it for Black Canary and Oracle. 

While each woman had easy-to-identify, singular moments of confronting those deeply-held fears and painful memories, neither would completely overcome them by story’s end. 

Canary’s newfound determination to keep from being a victim meant continued study and training in marital arts. It also meant that she tired of crime fighting much faster than many of her colleagues. Though she never really retired, she was more willing than other members of the Birds to make major life changes, including briefly considering becoming a parent to an eight-year-old girl named Sin.

Barbara Gordon, meanwhile, would discover that facing your fears doesn't stop the nightmares. Several times throughout her publication history, Oracle — and then Batgirl — have to deal with being haunted by the events of The Killing Joke. In one issue of the mini-series Oracle: The Cure, Babs panics when she mistakes a cup of tea for a camera.

Thirty years on, these characters have finally, and hopefully fully, moved past their tragic backstories and toward trauma-free lives. Though Barbara's demon still walks around in the world wreaking havoc on Gotham City, she no longer finds herself dwelling quite as often on the violence he inflicted upon her. 

Though both women have finally been given the chance to move on with their lives, to find new friends, new allies and new enemies, their personal tragedies remain a part of who they are, part of the fabric of their character. And while they would likely gladly erase them from their memories, those experiences, and the steps they took to move past them, made them stronger characters, stronger women and stronger role models.

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