When the Birds of Prey first appeared in Black Canary/ Oracle: Birds of Prey #1 (one-shot) in 1996, it was the beginning of a unique team concept. Dinah Lance and Barbara Gordon (Black Canary and Oracle, respectively) are two of DC Comics most important female characters. They are a natural pairing in that regard, Dinah is one the DC Universe’s most accomplished hand to hand fighters and Barbara in her days as Batgirl, was the first costumed Bat-family character outside the Dynamic Duo themselves to have a lasting impact. Together, Babs and Dinah forged a friendship and a team unlike any other in the DC Universe.
Last week, the line-up for a new Birds of Prey series was first teased and then revealed slowly on social media. Each day, Kelly Thompson, writer of the series set to debut in September 2023, shared a drawing of each member of the team for her first story arc. Thompson asked fans to guess the line up, which was essentially fans giving their hopes for who would be on the team. Fan participation provided a few surprises for Thompson as well, before the final unveiling she shared that there were just as many responses against the inclusion of Harley Quinn as there were hoping for her inclusion. The first to be revealed was Black Canary, followed by Cassandra Cain, Big Barda, Zealot and finally Harley Quinn.
Thompson also admitted the support for traditional Bird of Prey, Helena Bertinelli (The Huntress) surprised her. The reveal of Harley Quinn as the final member also prompted Thompson to share that she knew putting Harley on the team would be divisive. I’ve already rallied against Harley Quinn being a part of the Birds of Prey when the 2020 movie was released. Pondering the merits of the announced line up has taken me from why people don’t want Harley Quinn on the team to being able to pinpoint why Barbara Gordon is essential to the Birds of Prey.
Batgirl to Oracle
Barbara Gordon first appeared in Detective Comics # 359 (January 1967) when she debuted in her origin story as the new Batgirl. Barbara was the daughter of Commissioner James Gordon and worked as a librarian in her day-to-day life. Dressed up as a “female Batman” for a costume party she stumbled onto a kidnapping caper and went into action on the spot. She found she liked it and began rigorous training which led to her permanently taking up the mantle of Batgirl. Over the next two decades, Barbara would feature in stories with Batman and Robin as well as solo tales. The librarian even became a congresswoman in the ’70’s, however, she never carried her own ongoing title. Everything changed in 1988 when The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland depicted the crippling of the character by the Clown Prince of Crime as part of an attempt to push the Batman beyond his limits.
The seemingly impassable obstacle of paralysis was addressed by John Ostrander and Kim Yale in the pages of Suicide Squad #23 (January,1989). Barbara makes her first appearance as Oracle, a technical advisor, computer expert/ hacker and information broker. With Barbara redefining herself after the terrible events of The Killing Joke, she becomes something altogether unique and different. She’s now a true handicapped hero. Unlike Daredevil who isn’t bothered by his blindness because his other senses more than compensate, or Professor Xavier whose skill was always of the mind, Barbara Gordon found a new skillset to develop and use to fight the same criminals that she did as the acrobatic Batgirl.
Oracle to the Birds of Prey
After Ostrander and Yale revealed Oracle as Barbara Gordon in Suicide Squad #38, the character would continue to work with the Suicide Squad and other heroes, specifically Batman. Eventually, Ostrander and Yale would reveal the details of Barbara’s journey from victim back to hero in “Oracle: Year One” from from The Batman Chronicles #5 (1996). She doesn’t give up on her physical abilities. She trains with Richard Dragon, and learns to use eskrima, though wheelchair bound. While training physically, she continues to develop her computer network and information contacts.
It is finally in Black Canary/ Oracle: Birds of Prey #1 that we see Barbara reach out to another character to be her agent on the ground for a situation she’s uncovered that needs to be addressed. In this first issue, we see the core of the Birds of Prey concept- Barbara Gordon works behind the computer running the mission remotely while her operative(s) have feet on the ground and execute the mission. It’s a paradigm that will later be seen in television shows like Arrow and The Flash. Oracle and the Birds of Prey were first!
The Birds of Prey would appear in more one-shots, a couple mini-series before earning their own ongoing series with Birds of Prey #1 (January 1999). This series ran for 127 issues before being relaunched with volume 2 in 2010 as part of the “Brightest Day” publishing venture. This volume was cancelled with the line-wide New 52 reboot in 2011. The next volume as part of the New 52 ran for 36 issues. The Birds of Prey would next appear in their own series in 2016 as part of the “Rebirth” initiative in Batgirl and the Birds of Prey which ran for 23 issues.
Over the years, the core membership of the team has been Oracle, Black Canary and the Huntress. This developed over the years chiefly under the pens of Chuck Dixon and Gail Simone. Simone plays with the line up with guest stars and even adds fan favorite, Zinda Blake, Lady Blackhawk as the longest lived fourth member. Through it all, Barbara, Dinah and Helena are the center of the book. Even in the New 52 run that begins with Black Canary putting an entirely new team together, Barbara Gordon with a miracle cure of her spinal column shows up as Batgirl within a few issues and it’s not long before Dinah and Barbara are at the center of the book, again. Batgirl and the Birds of Prey sees Barbara and Dinah welcome Helena to the team in the New 52 continuity. Writers Julie and Shawna Benson find the spirit of the team as they integrate the New 52 version of Helena and capture the magic of the relationship between the three women that Gail Simone had developed in her time with the characters.
Who Are the Birds of Prey?
I have no problem saying that the Birds of Prey are Barbara, Dinah and Helena. The core concept is rooted in the friendship and camaraderie between these three women. Barbara as Oracle (and sometimes Batgirl) is almost always working the mission from behind the scenes while Dinah and Helena are the agents taking the physical fight to the bad guys. It’s easy for me to die on this hill, but there have been other characters on the team- Poison Ivy, Starling, Big Barda, Strix, Hawk and Dove to name a few. And, of course, in accordance with Birds of Prey, the misnamed Harley Quinn solo film, Harley was forced into two different comics that were released around the time of the film. Like the movie, these comics (Harley Quinn and the Birds of Prey, Birds of Prey (2020)) leave Barbara out, suggesting that she was not an integral part of the team, despite the fact the entire history of the comic demonstrates the exact opposite. The Birds of Prey ARE Barbara’s team. It was her idea to find a way to make a difference by recruiting agents to execute the missions she identified, planned, designed and ran behind the scenes as Oracle. Taking Barbara off the team is the first step in rebranding the concept as simply a group of female heroes. Interestingly, on more than one occasion the team has included men, but it’s always been Barbara’s team.
Upon reflection, there is something even deeper than the in story reasons that Barbara is important to the team. As already mentioned, Barbara Gordon as Oracle is a handicapped hero. It’s not simply representation, her journey after the events of The Killing Joke are an inspiring example of how to face adversity and overcome seemingly devastating personal obstacles. Her depression is real at the beginning, but she perseveres and reinvents her identity and becomes even stronger. The Birds of Prey, the team that Barbara founded and led are part of this journey. In fact, the Birds of Prey are inextricably linked to Barbara’s journey because the Birds of Prey are the end result of Barbara moving beyond the assault by the Joker and subsequent physical, emotional and mental trauma. The team is a symbolic manifestation of her healing and getting back into the world. When Barbara is removed from the team it diminishes the significance of her healing journey. When the team is no longer hers, it minimizes the journey her character has been through. It takes all her hard work and effort away from her character and gives her success either to someone else or it simply eliminates her significance as a handicapped hero.
Barbara Gordon IS the Birds of Prey
I don’t think for one instant that either Kelly Thompson or DC Comics are doing this on purpose. But, often there are unintended consequences. It’s difficult to imagine the Birds of Prey concept without Barbara as the leader of the team. It even becomes difficult to consider this line up of characters as the Birds of Prey without Barbara. The team IS Barbara’s, to see it as “just” a group of female characters demonstrates a real misunderstanding of the core concept of the Birds of Prey. Would DC launch a title called Superman if it starred Martian Manhunter, Lois Lane, Snapper Carr and Lex Luthor? Perhaps, the line up that Thompson has assembled would be a better fit for a different title, because without Barbara Gordon in her role behind the computer leading the team, the Birds of Prey concept ceases to be recognizable. A group of canaries is an opera. Perhaps, Black Canary’s Opera would be a more fitting title for the forthcoming comic.
It didn’t take Barbara long to be included in the New 52 version of Birds of Prey. She reclaimed her identity of Oracle in Batgirl and the Birds of Prey. The two titles that tried to shoehorn Harley onto the team in lieu of Barbara didn’t go anywhere, and the movie that spearheaded the move failed to garner a sequel or develop the concept further in any other projects. It’s not because Harley isn’t a popular character, there’s no doubt about that. Does she sell comics? That’s debatable. She certainly doesn’t seem to sell movie tickets. She also doesn’t inspire fans of the Birds of Prey. That’s what Barbara Gordon does. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it here again, Barbara Gordon may be the iconic Batgirl, but Oracle is the iconic Barbara Gordon. And, Barbara Gordon cannot be separated from the Birds of Prey because the team is the culmination of Barbara’s journey from crippling injury to heroic rebirth. To take Barbara away from the Birds of Prey is tantamount to erasing Barbara’s entire courageous and inspiring triumph over the mental and physical injuries inflicted by the Joker in The Killing Joke.