Barbara Gordon was the niece of Jim Gordon, police commissioner of the Gotham City Police Department. After her parents died, Uncle Jim adopted her and she quickly started calling him “Dad,” as he’d always been more of a father than her own had been. But despite their close relationship, there were tensions. Barbara showed far too much interest in the activities of superheroes and vigilantes for Jim’s liking and he did not want her becoming a cop. A teenager with gifted intelligence, Barbara graduated college before she was 18 and checked out the police academy and FBI. Although she was skilled in martial arts, had detective instincts and was adept at computers, Barbara was too short for field work and refused to have a desk job. She was determined to work the streets and take down criminals one-on-one, even attempting to contact the hero Black Canary for advice, since she admired the woman.
While attending a costume party dressed as a female version of Batman to annoy her father, Barbara wound up fighting the criminal Killer Moth. The public labeled her “Batgirl” and she decided to begin a career of crime-fighting. Batman watched over her while Robin provided her with equipment, having deduced her true identity. After a few adventures, Barbara proved herself and the Dark Knight revealed his true identity to her, offering her further training. Although she worked with Batman and Robin on many occasions, Barbara considered herself an independent woman and often operated alone.
After a few years, Barbara retired and soon afterward she was dealt a crippling injury by the Joker. Her life altered, she became a different style of hero called Oracle. Years later, the vigilante called Huntress began using the Batgirl identity until Batman put a stop to it, not wishing his symbol to be worn by someone he didn’t approve of or trust. The mantle passed on to Cassandra Cain, a girl trained to be a warrior from birth by one of Batman’s own teachers.
Most recently, Cassandra Cain has left Gotham to pursue a new life. She left her costume with Stephanie Brown, a young woman who had operated as the vigilante Spoiler for years and had even briefly acted as Robin. With Barbara Gordon as her mentor, Stephanie has proven to be a worthy Batgirl in her own right, becoming the one hero in Gotham who emphasizes hope rather than darkness and grim resolve.
This week, DC released the trade The Greatest Batgirl Stories Ever Told. With that in mind, let’s take a look at these different women and the uniforms they’ve worn. As usual, we’re focusing on the mainstream comics and not on alternate Earths and such.
BEFORE BARBARA, THERE WAS BETTY
As far as continuity is concerned, Barbara Gordon was the first Batgirl. But historically, that’s not the case. In the 1950s, a character named Kathy Kane had debuted as Batwoman, often trying to grab Batman’s romantic attentions. In 1961, we met her niece Betty Kane who had a huge crush on Robin and decided to join her Aunt Kathy as a costumed adventurer. That way, she’d actually get to meet and romance the Boy Wonder.
Kathy AKA Batwoman and Betty AKA Bat-Girl were introduced so Batman and Robin could have romantic interests because the crime-fighting duo was facing homophobic accusations at the time. Betty wasn’t a real character, just someone meant to moon over Dick Grayson. So her costume makes sense in that it’s basically a female take on his look, with a couple of the colors shifted. It’s cute, but it has no personality and it’s strange that someone who wanted to be Robin’s partner would call herself BAT-Girl and not Bird-Girl or Sparrow or something.
Betty Kane only appeared in a handful of stories and was then dropped, though she briefly appeared as a member of a Titans West, a California-based branch of the Teen Titans. Years after Barbara debuted as Batgirl (no hyphen), it was said that Betty Kane had moved on with her life and become a professional tennis player. Since Betty included a hyphen in her name, many fans used the alternate spelling as a way to say that Barbara was the first official Batgirl and Betty’s Bat-Girl identity should be considered wholly separate, much in the same way that today Robin and Red Robin or the Hood and the Red Hood are all considered totally separate from each other.
In the mid-1980s when DC Comics revised a lot of its continuity, the new history stated that Betty Kane never even used the name Bat-Girl. Instead, we learned that Mary Elizabeth “Bette” Kane had used the name “Flamebird” to attract Robin’s attention, taking the name from a Kryptonian myth she’d heard Superman talk about.
There have been multiple people to use the identity of Flamebird and many costumes associated with that name, so we’ll save them for another column rather than examine them here. Another fun trivia note, Bette’s cousin Kate became the new Batwoman years later.
HERE COMES BABS!
The live-action Batman TV series starring Adam West was getting to be pretty popular and the producers found that Catwoman gained a lot of interest from viewers. The producers asked DC Comics if there were other fun female characters they could bring into the TV show and editor Julius Schwartz suggested that some new women should be introduced into Batman’s world anyway.
After some discussion among the writers, the characters of Poison Ivy and a new Batgirl were introduced into the Dark Knight’s adventures. It was decided to create a new Batgirl from scratch because Betty as Bat-Girl had been defined by her crush on Robin and the consensus was that her costume didn’t give off a strong enough “bat” impression. This Batgirl was going to be a brand new character, one who chose her life out of altruistic drive and would be independent of Batman and Robin. She would stand on her own as someone male readers could respect and female readers could look up to, even if, like Batwoman, she did have a utility purse (okay, it was called a “weapons bag”, but still).
This suit is pretty effective. It definitely makes us think of Batman rather than Robin. The style is the same, but enough is different to distinguish her as someone who emulates Batman but isn’t a direct copy-cat. The gold gloves and boots give her a slightly brighter look and also match the belt nicely. The gold bat silhouette over a black costume is a nice contrast and another noticeable difference from Batman’s dark gray uniform that is decorated by either a black bat silhouette or one stylized in a yellow circle.
But that utility purse has got to go. It didn’t work for the original Batwoman and it doesn’t work for Barbara. Its red color also clashes greatly with the rest of the suit’s look. What’s more, the bat symbol on it makes Barbara’s look over-the-top with its repetition. She has the bat symbol on her chest and a bat design on her boots. That works. But then she also has it on her belt buckle. That’s a bit much. And then on top of that, she’s got it on her purse? Really? Does Babs have such little confidence that people won’t be able to tell that she’s Batgirl just based on her cowl and cape alone?
By the way, that cover above is just sadly hilarious. It’s amazing how a character intended to be a powerful, liberated woman would have stories where she lamented her “feminine weakness” of vanity and decided that faking a run in her tights was a valid distraction technique against criminals as opposed to smoke bombs, kicks to the face or something more bad-ass.
Fortunately, Babs got rid of the purse and shrunk her belt buckle a bit so it wasn’t as in-your-face. These two touches definitely made it a stronger costume. Now, some have criticized Barbara as not being as intimidating as Batman is but hey, that’s not her character. She wasn’t driven to the life because of a traumatic childhood and she didn’t spend years isolating herself from love and friendships in order to train around the world. She was driven simply by a desire to help other people in a way that seemed effective to her.
So we should take her seriously, but she’s someone who also enjoys her life and can laugh at herself. The shorter bat-ears, exposed hair and yellow areas all give a sense of lightness and youth. It works for this character. And in a way, it’s a small compromise between Batman and Robin’s color schemes.
One interesting thing about Barbara was that she would sometimes make normal clothing that could alter into her uniform when she needed. A beret folded out to become her mask, her skirt doubled as her cape, her boot flaps could be folded up to reveal a bat-shape, and even her handbag could alter into her utility belt. An interesting idea and more imaginative than simply wearing the uniform beneath normal clothing.
The live-action version of Batgirl had a cape with a golden interior and the version of her that showed up on Batman: The Animated Series followed the same style. For this reason, some artists, when showing Barbara as Batgirl in flashback stories, have given her cape a yellow or gold interior. Some artists have also included the purse again, but re-colored it to match the utility belt.
Normally we don’t get into how a hero is interpreted in other media, but we’ve got some space to spare and hey, some of these outfits had design elements that later appeared in the comics, so why not take a gander, hmmm?
In the Adam West live-action TV show, Barbara Gordon was played by Yvonne Craig. Rather than sticking to dark colors with just touches of gold like her comic book counterpart, Craig’s suit was an all-purple number with a yellow-interior cape that was clearly separate from the cowl.
It’s a cute look. The shine and color definitely fit in well with the bright, tongue-in-cheek atmosphere of the TV show. Most interesting is that Batgirl is a redhead, like the comics, but Yvonne Craig was a brunette. In the TV show, the Batgirl mask had a red wig attached in order to help disguise her identity, giving people a false impression of her hair length and color. Black Canary had been doing a similar thing in comics for years. And decades later, the new Batwoman employs a similar trick.
In Batman: The Animated Series in the 1990s, Barbara showed up in this outfit. Basically, just Batman’s costume but with a gold bat, no shorts, and no scallops on the gloves.
As the show progressed and altered its designs, she got this darker colored version that more closely resembled her comic book uniform, but with gold on the inside of the cape just like Craig.
In the more recent series The Batman, Barbara was actually Batman’s partner BEFORE Robin. In this show, she wore this purple suit that no doubt meant to give a nod to Yvonne Craig. It’s cute, but a little too “teenage girl” and not enough “crime fighter” for me. The skirt could work and the long boots could work, but both with purple leggings as well? Not sure I like that. And the gloves seem very pixie-ish. She’s supposed to be a fun character, but I’d like there to be a bit more Batman emulation here other than just the mask and symbol.
Back to the comics…
FROM HELENA TO CASSANDRA
During the epic saga of “No Man’s Land,” where Gotham City was cut off from the rest of the world for about a year, lots of Gothamites had to rethink how they lived everyday just to ensure survival. For some time, Helena Bertinelli had operated as the Huntress, constantly lectured and chewed out by Batman because she was too reckless and bloodthirsty for his tastes. With Gotham’s new state of affairs, the Huntress decided to change tactics and became a new Batgirl.
It had been eleven years since Barbara Gordon had stopped operating as Batgirl, so this was a pretty big deal to have a new woman taking on the name. Helena’s first attempt at this was to basically wear a female version of Batman’s then-current uniform, much in the same way Barbara had done in the 1960s. The only real difference was that her outfit involved a uniform color of black as opposed to a gray bodysuit with black gloves, boots and cape. Very quickly, she personalized the outfit to have her own version of the bat symbol, an outline rather than a silhouette.
Later, she altered the mask to fully disguise her features, so none would suspect she was really the Huntress and Batman would have to judge her on how she operated as Batgirl rather than on past experiences. But Helena still didn’t do the job in a way that Batman approved of and after a massive failure on her part, he revealed that he knew who she’d been the whole time and told her to stop using the Batgirl costume.
When she wore this, Helena was living in an abandoned city that was operating under a feudal system. While I normally prefer more contrast, wearing all black in such an environment makes sense to me in that context. She wasn’t just fighting crime, she was fighting to survive on a daily basis. Likewise, I usually like clearer ways to show expressions when the character is sassy or sarcastic, but considering how much she was trying to hide who she was, the full mask makes sense as well.
The same suit was then given to Cassandra Cain, who had been working with Batman and Barbara Gordon for some time now. Cassandra was raised to respond to body language rather than spoken language. She couldn’t speak really and she didn’t understand words as we do, but she knew your intentions and feelings by looking at you. This also gave her the ability to foresee how opponents would attack her.
The full face mask worked to keep Huntress’s identity secret from readers and people who did not have Batman’s detective skills. Cassandra is basically a ninja and doesn’t rely on language, so covering her entire face is interestingly symbolic now rather than simply practical.
The all black look, I’m torn on. I prefer to have a bit more contrast usually. But certain characters, I don’t mind seeing in one single color with only a belt or symbol for decoration. Black Widow fits into that category since she’s a spy primarily. And Cassandra, she’s a warrior and a ninja. So with her, I’m mostly okay with this single color look. The real challenge is for the artist to make sure there’s still some shading, that her mouth piece is distinguished rather than seeming flat, and to make the interior of the cape a light shade of gray. Otherwise, she can look rather flat.
After a few issues, Cassandra gained the power of speech. But she was still very soft-spoken and so focused on the job that she wasn’t much for conversation. That, added with the fact that she, like Batman, tried to seem like a “creature of the night” rather than just a girl superhero, makes the full mask still work for me.
For a while, Cassandra altered the symbol to be solid gold rather than an outline. I think this is a good change. It’s a stronger nod to Barbara’s outfit, giving a sense of legacy. And it’s easier to see sometimes than a thin outline. I don’t mind the gold outline, mind you, I’m just saying that the solid gold bat is more striking. It also emulates Batman’s idea of providing criminals a target on the chest, where there’s better armor, so they don’t think to try for head shots.
Cassandra was very interesting as Batgirl, both as a character and from a design standpoint. Even if she’s done using that identity, I hope she begins operating in Batman’s world as a regular character again sooner rather than later.
STEPHANIE STEPS UP
When Cassandra left Gotham, she gave her costume to her friend Stephanie Brown, who was feeling a bit shaky about her life. Steph decided to become the new Batgirl, wearing Cassandra’s mask with the lower half of her face now exposed. This isn’t a bad suit, but it’s not really right for Steph. It’s too dark and the eye-less look is a bit creepy on her.
After convincing Barbara Gordon to help her, Steph got a brand new, specially tailored suit that offered her better protection and had an extra leg-belt for weapons. The extra belt was similar to one of the accessories she’d worn as the Spoiler and likewise this new Batgirl costume incorporated the same color of purple.
Stephanie is not a dark avenger. She’s suffered and she’s seen darkness but, like Barbara, she initially became a vigilante for purely altruistic reasons (she’d wanted to stop her father, a villain called Cluemaster). The extra bit of yellow on her thigh belt, the purple, the mask that displays her eyes and face, and the free-flowing hair all let you know that this is a brighter character in personality. She’s not a ninja and she doesn’t need blank white eye-lenses or a full-mask so she can pretend to be a creature of the night. She takes her job seriously, but not herself necessarily.
This costume looks a bit more real-world than a lot of superhero outfits. The seams and padding let us see how this outfit might be constructed in the real world. I don’t need my costumes to be too realistic, but if it still looks good in the world of comics, I’m all about it. And an interesting thing here is that the purple is a nice nod to Yvonne Craig and the recent incarnation of Batgirl in The Batman cartoon series.
A really fun redesign for a very fun character. As much as I liked Cassandra, I’ve come to really enjoy watching Stephanie develop into a new, stronger character and seeing what she brings to the Batgirl role. And now that Batwoman is back as a dark, somewhat tortured vigilante, it’s nice to see at least ONE hero with the word “bat” in her name who is more about adventure and optimism.
Well, that wraps it up, folks. Hope you enjoyed this look back on the Batgirls. Take care! Until next time, this is Alan Kistler, Agent of S.T.Y.L.E., signing off.
Alan Kistler writes the comic book history/fashion column Agent of S.T.Y.L.E. He is an actor and freelance writer living in New York who has been recognized by Warner Bros. Films and major media/news outlets as a comic book historian. He is also the creator/host of the web-show “Crazy Sexy Geeks: The Series.” He knows entirely too much about the history of comics, Star Trek, Doctor Who, time travel, and vampires that don’t sparkle.