Wednesday, January 23, 2008


In 1988 DC Comics published The Killing Joke, a oneshot comic story written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Brian Bolland. In it Batman's arch enemy the Joker, as part of his plan to try and drive Gotham Police Commissioner Jim Gordon insane, shoots Gordon's daughter Barbara. Barbara Gordon had been Batgirl since the character's debut in 1966, but was pretty much retired when she was shot by the Joker. She survived, but ended up as a parapelegic.

Surprisingly she was not cured by one of the expected comic book methods, like high tech intervention or magic. Rather she has remained in her chair since. However the character didn't fade away due to the work of writer Kim Yale and her husband writer John Ostrander. Unhappy with the way Barbara was treated Yale and Ostrander decided to have her continue to aid the fight against crime despite her disabilities. Building on her backstory as having a doctorate in library sciences and having been Chief Librarian in Gotham they developed a new role for her as Oracle, expert hacker and information source to various DC characters and groups such as Batman and the Justice League. This role was further amplified in Birds of Prey, a comic series based around the idea of Oracle as the brains behinds the field activities of superheroine Black Canary, joined by various other characters. Although some people feel that in a world like DC's she should have been healed by now the character has proven very popular, perhaps even more popular than when she was Batgirl.

The timing of Barbara Gordon's transformation, and the concept Yale and Ostrander came up with, makes me wonder if they weren't inspired by another fictional character. In 1987 the television series Wiseguy first hit the air. The series starred Ken Wahl as Vinnie Terranova, an undercover operative for the fictional Organized Crime Bureau of the US Justice Department. Along with his boss Frank McPike Vinnie had support from Lifeguard, played by Vancouver actor Jim Byrnes. The character, like Byrnes, was a double amputee, and normally seen working in a secure location while sitting in a wheelchair. His role was providing information and emergency aid to Vinnie, making his role very similar to that of Oracle. Given the timing it's not hard to suspect that Yale and Ostrander were influenced by the TV series.

His Wiseguy role certainly helped Byrnes' acting career, leading to his long running role as Joe Dawson on the successful TV spinoff of the Highlander films.

I should also note a bit more of a long shot for the inspiration of Oracle, the character Aaron Kurtzman from the long running The Executioner "post modern pulp" book series and it's spinoffs. Chief of computers for the ultrasecret Stony Man antiterrorist group Kurtzman ended up confined to a wheelchair after being shot during a KGB backed attack on Stony Man Farm, the unit's base. The events that put Kurtzman in the chair predate The Killing Joke and Barbara Gordon's transformation by several years, but Wiseguy as a source for the idea seems more likely.

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