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The Eschatology of Barbara Gordon, Part 2
by The Old Maid

(This essay was originally posted to World's Finest May 2004; revised July 2006.)

In “Batman Beyond” we meet Commissioner Barbara, a cynical lawman some forty years removed from her younger self. This commish resents the new Batman, and it shows. Twice her policeman open fire on Bats Junior ("ATOC," "Disappearing Inque") and Barbara neither reprimands them nor disapproves. Then again they're just following her example. Four times in the series ("Splicers," "Eyewitness," twice in "ATOC") Batman prevents the murder of Barbara's husband, D.A. Sam Young—and three of those four times Barbara's response has been to flash her badge, or her weapon, in Terry's face. (We can almost hear poor Sam saying, "Um, honey? I realize it's a turf-war thing, but really, it's okay with me if having this Batman around makes me a little less dead.")

Commissioner Barbara ready for battle
("Eyewitness" [I think], “Batman Beyond”>)

Every now and then Hollywood proposes a Batman musical. If such a musical came to be created for “Batman Beyond”, this little duet for Old Man Wayne and Commish Barbara would be a good opener :

(with apologies to Shirley Temple)

"On the good ship Status Quo
I like my seat, don't wanna go!"

As the BB series begins and Terry McGinnis lights a fire under Old Man Wayne, the latter concludes that maybe this boat deserves to sink. That leaves the commish alone on the Good Ship Status Quo. Her mindset cannot easily adjust. Suddenly the villains who have been in business for years or decades—Derek Powers, Mad Stan, Curare, Inque, etc.—are Batman's fault.

As a result, Terry/Batman gets blamed not only for his own mistakes, or even for the actions of the villains he "attracts"—but he is also held responsible for Commissioner Barbara's difficulties in coping with them.

Here's an example from the thread I won't have vigilantism in MY town :

This brings up the question of why characters define "vigilantism" differently depending upon whether or not they derive personal benefit from it. The example that has been gnawing at me for some time is the “Batman Beyond” episodes "Shriek" and "Babel."

In "Shriek" Bruce Wayne is minding his own business—going to the office, walking down the street, visiting historic ruins—when the title villain Shriek decides to murder him. The new Batman sees Shriek busily murdering Old Man Wayne and stops him. Now a fugitive from both Batman and the police, Shriek makes another attempt on Old Man Wayne through a nurse proxy. Batman traces Shriek to his new lair and a running firefight ensues. Batman disables Shriek to save his own life, but Shriek is injured. Specifically, Shriek is injured in a way that compromises his ability to perform his chosen work. [Note : the character is a sound engineer.] He loses his hearing, but he refuses to inform on the loan shark (Derek Powers) who sent him to murder Wayne to pay off a financial debt.

One year later Shriek tells Commissioner Barbara Gordon that he wishes to murder Batman and believes he has this right. Barbara never challenges his logic. Neither does the city. Quoth the ungrateful construction worker and the zookeeper whose lives Batman just saved, "Batman got us into this mess and now he's got to get us out of it. Why should we all suffer for a private dispute? Shriek just wants a little justice."

Batman is abandoned and blamed (even by Barbara) solely because he is Batman. But is Batman the real problem here?

For the sake of argument, let us say that Shriek is busily murdering Old Man Wayne, when they are surprised by a policeman. Since it is the policeman's duty to stop a murder in progress, he challenges Shriek. Let us further posit that the policeman shoots Shriek and kills him. Did the policeman deprive Shriek of justice? Was he wrong to save Old Man Wayne, or to shoot to save his own life? In all likelihood Barbara would not have a problem with it.

Alternately, let us consider "Babel" as it would play if Shriek survived. If he demanded that Commish Barbara must hand over the policeman who shot him, so that Shriek could murder him, would Barbara surrender her man to Shriek? I do not think so.

Ah, but you say, the policeman was appointed by society to protect and to serve. He was authorized to do what he did. This is certainly true. The problem is that it doesn't absolve non-policemen from fighting crime to the best of their ability.

As Sir Thomas More observed during his show trial, English common law declares that "silence implies consent," especially during murder cases. "Silence" includes both an absence of words and an absence of deeds. If you don't help, the law regards you as an accomplice. [snip] And the law is (or ought to be) compelled to defend the person who does the rescuing.

Let us then extrapolate further. Suppose that a bank clerk, a used-car salesman, or high school student Nelson Nash see Shriek busily murdering Old Man Wayne. If one of these saves Wayne's life (and had to hit Shriek with a brick to do it), would Shriek have any right to demand their lives? Would Barbara collect the good Samaritans and deliver them to him? What if a troop of Boy Scouts observe Shriek busily murdering Old Man Wayne? They cry "stop, evildoer!" and push him down a flight of stairs. Shriek is injured and loses his hearing. If Shriek reappears in the episode "Babel" demanding the Boy Scouts' lives, should the city surrender the boys to him?

[snip] To listen to all the bellyaching going on in "Babel," the people of Gotham (and Barbara as well) speak as if Shriek should have been allowed to murder Old Man Wayne.

Next we observe Barbara's interactions with Curare ("A Touch of Curare"). The commish sets a trap for Curare, but it snares Batman instead. If Barbara had placed a vidcam in the building, she would have seen that Curare already suspected a trap and refused to even enter the room. Instead Curare spears the bait from a safe distance. (Also, the snare itself is flawed. The control panel should not have been installed where the prisoner could disable it.)

If Terry/Batman had never existed, the odds are excellent that Curare still would not have tripped that trap. Curare still would have been spying on the commish from the beginning of the episode to the end, tapping Barbara's communications, and checking her at almost every turn. Yet Barbara speaks as if this is Terry's fault. She even threatens to throw him and Wayne in jail if she sees them again. (If she had no Batman to yell at, would she have taken out her frustration on one of her policemen? One hopes not.)

Curare and Commissioner Barbara are a lot alike, which is why they keep pressing each other's buttons. Both have to be the best, and they are willing to cut down an innocent man and/or their old colleagues to achieve it. In contrast Terry, whose grades in school have tagged him as a bottom feeder, is more open-minded to the possibility that other people can be smarter than him. This is a concept that Barbara, in any incarnation, has always found a little hard to grasp.

Of course we have to visit the puppetmaster, the Spellbinder of "Eyewitness."

The "Animated Batman" [URL=""]review[/URL] of the episode brings up several Babs points worthy of further debate.

Barbara Gordon [is] cheated of development. Here she expresses a willingness to reveal her own past (and that of Wayne) if that's what it takes to bring McGinnis to justice, but the story comes nowhere near to forcing her to drink from that bitter cup. Nor is she revealed as anything but a conscientious enforcement officer (something we knew already). Had something of an obsession or vendetta against Terry been revealed in her the story might have had some drama, but she's one of the good guys, and so that's not going to happen.


Barbara Gordon sees Batman killing Mad Stan; more relevant still, we see it too. So who are we (and Gordon) gonna believe, McGinnis or our own lying eyes? But not for an instant do we doubt Terry, and it's all too easy to guess the solution to the conundrum. But Gordon doesn't make the guess because then there wouldn't be a story.


Instead of putting its characters under a microscope it gives us the story of a misunderstanding that simply doesn’t go anywhere. One gets the feeling that not only are Terry and Barbara willing to forgive and forget it ever happened, they and everyone else have forgotten it before the end credits even roll.

Goes back to the issue of "there is such a thing as being too subtle." By now we may wonder if Commissioner Barbara does harbor a bias against Terry's Batman. Certainly we shouldn't be surprised if Terry shrugged off her perfunctory apology because he knew this was as good as it would get.

As to how Barbara is cheated of development, let us count the ways. Barbara is skunked (again) by a hypnotic villain, yet she demonstrates she has failed to learn anything from the Scarecrow and her nightmare journey "Over The Edge." Barbara doesn't even recall that she arrested the Spellbinder in his first episode. (Surely he has a grudge against her.)

Now is it reasonable to expect Barbara to always know when she is being skunked? Not really. The hypnotic villains are good at what they do. The problem is that if Commissioner Barbara saw someone she liked or trusted "killing" Mad Stan (say, her own husband, or maybe a rookie cop she had mentored), she would have moved heaven and earth to make sure he was really guilty. She would never rest until she could find an explanation, extenuating circumstances, anything. But Barbara's angry at Terry for ruining her sting operation, so she doesn't even check the surveillance footage, or even notice that she "lost" Mad Stan's body.

(Compare this to James Gordon's refusal to join the manhunt in “Mask of the Phantasm” even though more than twenty people "saw" Batman kill someone with no mind control involved. Anyone have a comment on that?)

Commissioner Barbara also assumes that if Terry spent three months in Juvenile Hall, then he must be capable of any manner of abomination, crime or cruelty. We know that Terry was locked up for breaking-and-entering (cf. "Big Time"). He also did a little shoplifting, breaking windows, and other petty crimes for which he was never caught. It should concern us that Barbara assumes Terry must be capable of murder ... all the more so because the animated Tim Drake probably committed as many misdemeanors (if not more so) stealing food and trying to provide for himself after his father disappeared. (Tim even lifted some loose cash from Bruce Wayne's desk.) Young Barbara lets Tim off the hook solely because she likes him. Commissioner Barbara makes no allowance for Terry because she dislikes him. She simply concludes Terry is incapable of reform.

As noted in "The Pros of Batman Beyond" :

In the end Barbara because so emotional that she wouldn't even speak with Bruce. She could have killed an innocent man before she calmed down. [snip] Why did she think Wayne called her? To chat about the weather? Perhaps he had new evidence. Perhaps he agreed Terry was guilty and had a plan to encourage his surrender. Either way, Barbara didn't know and didn't care. Spellbinder gloats as much as if he had won. It's clear he is being grandly entertained.

What makes "Eyewitness" more disturbing is that Commissioner Barbara becomes a creature she once feared. In "Over The Edge" young Barbara dreams that her father has it within him to become a bloodthirsty manhunter. Yet in "Eyewitness" it is Barbara who becomes the bloodthirsty manhunter, and when she empties her weapon at McGinnis, reloads and opens fire again it is not "dream" anything. She even hangs up on Old Man Wayne when he calls her to plead for a cease-fire.

In a dramatic twist, Barbara once thought her father was capable of this kind of violence, but when she talked to him, she learned he wasn't. Meanwhile the Barbara who started out sweet and winsome proves to be not just capable of it, but mighty good at it. Surely this deserved some kind of exploration. Sheesh!

So when Commissioner Barbara tells the Batmen, "I'm not my father," it doesn't have quite the effect she intended. Has Jim fired a weapon? Of course. However Commissioner Barbara has fired more rounds in a 52-episode series than her father did in a 109-episode series plus three movies. Is Barbara a war veteran, of sorts? So is Jim Gordon and it is not "of sorts" anything. (In the comics Jim Gordon went to war when he was 20.) After surviving the brutality of war, Jim voluntarily fights a war on crime in his own town, for decades. Have the supervillains played Barbara like a piano? So they've done also with Jim—from Joker's fondness for abducting Jim and tormenting him on live television, to Two-Face's machiavellian assaults on Jim's good name, career and bank accounts. Has Commissioner Barbara suffered? Has she had nightmares? Commissioner Jim Gordon can match her, suffering for suffering, nightmare for nightmare, grief for grief, and year after year.

What separates Barb from her father is attitude. The animated Jim's early exposure to violence deeply stamped his character as a nonviolent person. (He fights when he must, but he clearly hates it.) Jim's revulsion for lethal force made him receptive to the Batman. Batman's presence gave Jim nonlethal options. Additionally, we have seen these two men give their enemies more compassion and more second chances than we've seen Commissioner Barbara show to anybody.

In contrast, Barbara Gordon grew up as sheltered as a policeman could shelter her. Thus the world of crime seemed from the start mysterious—and to the innocent, mysterious things can seem glamorous, grown-up, sophisticated and exciting. And perhaps it set up Babs to crave adrenaline, to expect constant entertainment and excitement.

When Barbara was a little girl, the Batman was one of ten thousand other big-city attractions that her protective father would not let her play with. However Babs had seen the Dark Knight. Who else in school could say the same? And for a while that was enough.

One day it's not enough anymore. Barbara dresses up as a Bat (comics version) or works with Batman in the "Heart of Steel" storyarc. It's a thrill, and for a rookie she's good at it. And for a while that was enough.

One day it's not enough anymore. Batman and Jim Gordon want her to stay out of danger in "Shadow of the Bat." In the past Barbara would have trusted Batman to handle it his way, but now her way has to be the right way, the only way. At some level Barbara still knows Batman is pretty smart and that Batman cares about her dad. But suddenly Batman doesn't care "enough" and isn't smart "enough." Otherwise he would do things her way. Batgirl rises as "a figure of righteous wrath" to save her father her way. Jim then praises her in public. And for a while that's good enough.

One day it's not enough anymore. She fights crime in "Batgirl Returns" simply to put off studying for a math test. Then that's not enough and she leaps at the chance to become Batman's partner in "Old Wounds." Then even that's not enough : Barbara wants Batman to make her romantic fantasies real. If he complies, perhaps this won't be enough either. She might want marriage. Then maybe children. Then maybe Batman should quit his job. Then he should please her by, well, whatever she thinks up next. But addictions don't build healthy relationships : the more Babs gets, the more she wants. So from an early age Barbara has become habituated to an attitude that no one and nothing is enough for her. Denial, and needing more and more "fix" to get the same "high" are common behaviors in addictive personalities.

Whether Barbara had a relationship with Bruce and he wouldn't give up the cape to keep her, or whether Barbara merely had unrequited feelings, the result is the same : this may be the first time someone has said No to her and made it stick. This is the first time she has not been able to maneuver, wiggle, or spin her way out of it. And people who quit Cold Turkey can take it rather badly.

Barbara's speech in "A Touch of Curare" was carefully phrased to give the impression that Babs made all the decisions in all her relationships.

Barbara : "[Dick Grayson and I dated] In college. Puppy love. Later on we just never talked about it .... Dick finally got fed up living in Batman's shadow. He decided to leave. He was hurt when I chose to stay behind, with Bruce .... On the street, it was like ballet. We were the perfect duo. But for Bruce (harder) Batman, there was nothing but the street. (briskly) Time comes when you gotta hang up the cape. But Bruce wouldn't. Or couldn't. (confidently) So I left, and never looked back."

("A Touch of Curare" Act II)

Her tone suggests that Dick was "hurt" in the way a fourth-grade boy would be hurt if he was not invited to his favorite fourth-grade girl's party. This belittles the profound emotional anguish Dick and Bruce inflicted upon each other partially on her behalf. Barbara also speaks as if she should have had enough leverage to bend Bruce to her will had he been a better man. That is, only a bad man would refuse her wishes. Therefore if Barbara could not "save" Batman he must not be salvageable. This neatly sidesteps the questions of whether Batman actually needed to be rescued and/or whether she had the right ingredients to do so.

Individually, each of these incidents and each of Barbara's speeches can be minimized or explained. Collectively the picture is rather different. Nothing in Commissioner Barbara's life is ever her fault. So Curare spanked her (and Terry, BTW) in front of her troops? Well, it can't be Barbara's fault (because she has to be the best), and it can't be Curare's doing (because that would make her the best, or at least an equal). It must be Terry/Batman's fault. So Shriek and Spellbinder have played Barbara like a piano? That's Batman's fault. It rained on the Thanksgiving Day Parade ; no doubt that's Batman's fault too. And when Barbara speaks of her past, she does not say that she got involved with one man, waited until he was heavily invested in the relationship, and then pulled the rug out from under him—and then got involved with another man, waited until he was heavily invested in the relationship (to the best of his ability, anyway), and then pulled the rug out from under him too. No, the fact that she left a trail of bitter male recluses behind her has nothing to do with her actions or decisions. She was just unlucky ; she had a string of bad boyfriends. That's very convenient.

Now before you all warm up your flame buttons let us hasten to add that Barbara is hardly the worst person in the world. Poison Ivy is a nutcracker. Inque is a nutcracker. Barbara just seems oblivious to the effects of her behavior upon other people. She incorporates just enough of the narcissist, the addict, the histrionic, and the indulged little girl to mess up her day, but not enough to mess up her daily functioning. And one quality all Bats have in common is their ability to rationalize their behavior. If only one of the animated characters would call her on it, her development might have been very different.

When we look at the intelligent but innocent Babs of BTAS and the BB Barbara with her long memory and short fuse, the question arises : How can we get there from here?

Appearances suggest Commissioner Barbara embodies (and broods upon) ancient arguments.

One : when the commish tells the Batmen "I'm not my father," it suggests she has issues with Jim she didn't have before. She still loves her father—we see his picture on her desk in some episodes—but something has been lost. Barbara once respected her father so much that she put Batgirl's fate in his hands (TNBA "Over the Edge"). Something must have happened to that respect. It could be that she got tired of sharing him with the city and the politicians and the supervillains and the Batman. Or it could be something else. We don't know. All we know is that she thinks differently of him now that she is doing his job. When she says "I'm not my father," she seems to be saying she thinks he made the wrong choice.

Two : Barbara has more in common with Dick Grayson/Nightwing than either of them will admit. Both have a touch of the DSM-IV Histrionic Personality : they are uncomfortable when they're not the center of attention ; their emotions appear to others to be rapidly shifting, shallow and superficial ; and they're both overly suggestible. In Dick's case (as in TNBA's "Old Wounds"), we can add "tending to be overly dramatic or theatrical in expressing oneself." In Barbara's case (“Mystery of the Batwoman:) we can add "frequently acting in a sexually seductive or provocative way that is inappropriate to the situation." Even after young Dick and young Barbara separate they still have a lot in common. Perhaps Barbara, like Dick, went into Dad's line of work for the same reason as Dick : to prove she could do the old man's job better than he could do it himself. And both Dick and Babs have a most unpraiseworthy tenacity for holding grudges. Finally, Barbara married a man who is a lot like Dick, or rather what Dick was before he blew a gasket. So what if she can beat him at arm-wrestling? Sam Young is funny, with a comfortable self-deprecating sense of humor. He obviously adores Barbara. And he doesn't take any of her guff. ("This is my night off. Call my office and make an appointment, Commissioner." Sam, you da man!)

(To tie Barb's issues with her father together with her issues with Dick, both Dick and Sam are the kind of husband her father would have chosen. Sam is even relatively unappreciated in his hometown for all the incredible work he does—just like her father. Anyhow, let's hope she fares better with this one.)

Three : Barbara's feelings for Bruce still dominate her thinking to the point that, when she tried to persuade Terry McGinnis to stop working for Old Man Wayne, she recites what was most hurtful to her, instead of what might be most hurtful to Terry.

First, she introduces him to office politics. (Ever notice … the one who issues an ultimatum e.g., “you’re fired; I’m leaving you; next time, Terry, you’re going to jail” always maneuvers the rejected party into doing most of the eating? This has the effect of making the dumped person look faintly piggish, thus making the rejection easier. Seriously, Terry, when someone invites you to eat, then won’t eat with you, you are about to be hosed!)

Next, she portrays Bruce in a darned-with-faint-praise sort of way. (She's smooth enough not even to qualify for the actual expletive.) A large number of viewers took Barbara's message as, "Do you want to end up like him? He doesn't have time for life or love, so what makes you think he has time for you?" That's when the fun starts.

For starters, "has Barbara turned into such a petty gossip?" Yes and No. If "little pitchers have big ears," then we should keep in mind that Barbara doesn't know Terry well enough to push his buttons. He *might* listen to lurid love stories, but he might not grasp that this has anything to do with him. For example, he might conclude, "Barbara left because she wanted Bat-sex with the Bat-boss. I, Terry, do not want Bat-sex with the Bat-boss, so I think our relationship won't have that problem." Alternately, Terry might look at Barbara and think of his own demanding girlfriend. (As the series progresses, he will have two teenage girls clamoring for his time.) Terry might decide that the lesson of Bruce-and-Barbara is that Dana might be a problem as he devotes more time to his "career." (This is not the lesson Barbara wanted him to learn!)

The Commissioner and Old Man Wayne do know enough to push each other's buttons. This quickly brought up the question of motives. If Old Man Wayne can replace his former partner with "so unready a piece of material" as Terry, Barbara will smart at the implication that, in her day, she was no better. The added implication is that Wayne taught her everything she knows ... to the best of her brain's ability to learn it. That kind of subtext cannot end well.

For his part, Old Man Wayne thinks Barbara does not think things through, which is why in three episodes he does not fill her in on his plans or ideas and simply instructs Terry to go around her. (As it happens, he’s been right three out of three times, but still … one of the surest ways to make a divorce worse is to spring surprises on people.)

The first of these incidents (“A Touch of Curare”) sets the tone for the rest. Old Man Wayne’s eloquent silence can be interpreted in multiple ways. As viewers commented, if Old Man Wayne is trying to rub her nose in it—that he made the “old” partner and he can make a replacement for her just as easily—then he would do exactly as he does and send the kid to help her. However, if Old Man Wayne truly fears for Barbara and Sam’s safety and wants to protect them, Wayne would do … exactly the same thing.

Since adults in divorce situations tend to parse every word and deed for ulterior motive and meaning, this is one of the few situations in which Old Man Wayne can’t win even if his intentions are good. But it also means that Terry, whose intentions truly are good, cannot win either.

Commissioner Barbara is more concerned with portraying Wayne as a sad, sorry human being. (Terry already feels like one, so that won't work.) Next, she tries to impress Terry with the thought that Wayne is not right in the head. (Terry already feels desperate, so that won't work either.)

It never occurred to Barbara to tell Terry that Wayne won't replace the dad he lost. If she had told Terry about the way that Bruce treated Tim and Dick, it might have had the effect she desired. But Barbara cannot deal the emotional fatal blow to Terry because she does not know him. She won't make an effort to get to know him later, either. It is arguable that, far from luring Terry away from Old Man Wayne, she may have solidified their relationship. She has shown him that women can be nice if they're nice to you, but there will be times when girlfriends are more trouble than they're worth.



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