If you’ve been following the television series, Gotham, you’ll know that Barbara Kean is now the leader of a League of Shadows splinter group after losing her title as the Demon’s Head. She’s also a former lover of Ra’s al Ghul. It doesn’t take much Batman knowledge to deduce that this a major departure from her comics lore. Who is Barbara Kean in the comics? Is the Batgirl’s mother or aunt? Does Alan Brennert deserve royalties for her appearing on Gotham? When did she and Gordon split up? Is she alive or dead? Who is Thelma? Is her last name Kean, Eileen or both? Most of the answers are not as clear-cut as you would think.
Before Gotham premiered in 2014, there were some rumblings in the press about Warner Brothers denying royalties to Alan Brennert for Barbara Kean. I was curious, so I had decided to dive down the rabbit hole of Barbara’s history. My findings were very interesting. Although she’s a minor character in Batman lore, she’s had many incarnations and contradictory information.
NOTE: I’ll be calling the character of Gordon’s wife “Barbara Kean” throughout this article even if it was not used as her name in the story I’m referencing. This is being done to avoid confusion with Barbara “Batgirl” Gordon. For most of her history, she was called Barbara Gordon. However, calling her that here will probably make readers think of a different member of the Gordon family.
While Batman/Bruce Wayne and Commissioner Gordon first appeared in Detective Comics #27, we did not learn that Gordon had a spouse until Detective Comics #72. In fact, when Batman and Robin spend Christmas at the Gordon home in Batman #9, there is no wife to be seen.
Detective Comics #72 (1943)…
Fans of Gotham will be amused to learn that the gimmick of this story involves criminals obtaining licenses to conduct certain crimes. Barbara Kean does not appear in this story (although we do get to see her necklace), nor is she named, but the idea of Commissioner Gordon having a wife is now introduced as a concept.
That concept is next fleshed out in World’s Finest #53 (1951). Due to the nature of Golden Age comic storytelling, Gordon had never been fleshed out before this issue. It was here that his first name was revealed, and we meet his family.
Great bits on Gordon’s biography! We also get a flashback to the early days of Gordon’s marriage. The unnamed Barbara Kean looks like a newspaper comic strip housewife from the 1950’s.
We later see more of her in the “present” day…
So we now have met Barbara Kean in person, but she isn’t given any first name. I once showed this comic to Erin Richards, who portrays Barbara on Gotham, and she was delighted. She wanted to know if “Martha” was “Martha Wayne”. The video can be seen below…
If you’re confused about Gordon’s behavior, it’s because this is Batman disguised as Gordon. For some reason, he doesn’t tell Gordon’s family. Gordon’s son Tony is a forgotten member of Batman lore. I previously wrote about him and his disgusting father/son nighttime ritual here.
The unnamed Mrs. Gordon next appears in Batman #71 (1952).
“I look hot”, Erin Richards exclaimed after seeing this page. The sight of Mrs. Gordon getting her cigar lit by Batman before watching a movie together on the couch is really amusing. I’m also shocked to see the Gordon family have their butler, something I’d find it hard to see Ben McKenzie’s Gordon having.
While Tony isn’t seen in this story, he’s not forgotten.
This is the last we see of Gordon’s family for some time. When Barbara Gordon/Batgirl debuts in Detective Comics #359, no mention is made of her brother or mother. Scenes of the Gordon family dining at home would only include father and daughter.
The earliest hints I can find that Barbara Kean/unnamed Mrs. Gordon is deceased was in Detective Comics #492 (1980). If anyone has anything earlier let me know!
Barbara references her mother in Detective Comics #497 (1980).
This seems to imply that Jim became a widower many years ago. This is hard to reconcile with World’s Finest #53 and Batman #71, but at that point, we had multiple Earths in multiple continuities separating different decades of the DC Universe.
The name “Barbara Kean” finally appears in Detective Comics #500 (1981).
Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson have traveled to the past in an alternate timeline. The story was written by Alan Brennert. Like her daughter, she was a librarian with Princess Leia hair. This is the first time the previously unnamed Mrs. Gordon gets a first name. As of May 2018, this is also the only comic to use the name “Kean” for her.
Superman Family #211 (1981) featured the Earth-2 version of the Gordon family attending Bruce Wayne’s wedding to Selina Kyle.
The name “Barbara” has stuck, although this woman looks more like she did in those two Golden Age appearances.
In Detective Comics #512 (1982), a faded out of focus picture in Batgirl’s possession is our next look at Barbara Kean.
We get a better look next issue with Detective Comics #513 (1982).
We have a better look at Barbara’s mother here. Her look is a bit different than what we saw in Batman #71 and World’s Finest #53. This woman is the spitting image of her daughter, just like Detective Comics #500.
Get ready for your heads to hurt…
In “Who’s Who” Volume 1 #2 (1985), Batgirl got her own entry. Her mother was listed as “deceased” and given the name Thelma. Special thanks to frequent Batgirl to Oracle guest host Shagg Matthews for finding this image for me.
One could assume that Thelma was Gordon’s wife on Earth-1, while Barbara was on Earth-2, or the writers forgot that “Barbara” was the accepted name. Detective Comics #500 did imply that Barbara Kean was the name of Gordon’s Earth-1 wife, even though it was an alternate timeline.
Should we assume Thelma is a separate character? Maybe her full name is Barbara Thelma Kean Gordon? Whatever the case may be, Thelma later became a separate character Post-Crisis, when Barbara Kean underwent another makeover.
Batman continuity changed when history was altered Post-Crisis. Jim Gordon’s wife Barbara appears prominently in the Batman: Year One storyline. She’s now a brunette and shows no signs of being a librarian. We first see her in part 2 in Batman #404 (1987).
Barbara learns of the existence of Batman before her husband does…
She deals with the stress of learning that her husband had an extra-marital affair with Sarah Essen during the pregnancy in Batman #407 (1987).
She also see’s an unmasked Batman and it’s left ambiguous how good of a look she got at his face.
This is the version of Barbara Kean (although her maiden name was never given) that we would see from 1987-2011. This story formed the basis for many people on how they would write the one time wife of Jim Gordon.
According to DC editor Bob Greenberger, Frank Miller did not have Detective Comics #500 in mind when he used the name “Barbara” for Mrs. Gordon. He named her after Barbara Randall. The fact that Alan Brennert had already established Barbara as her name was a big coincidence.
She’s pregnant throughout the story and towards the end gives birth to a baby boy named James. Tony seems to be forgotten. There are a few inconsistent stories that suggest Frank Miller had intended on making the baby be a Barbara (future Batgirl) but it was vetoed because the age of the baby would have timeline implications.
This led to subsequent stories with the responsibility of answering a few questions; If the baby was named James, then what happened to Barbara “Batgirl” Gordon? Where are baby James and his mother now? Funnily enough, the task of explaining the fate of Batgirl fell to the previously mentioned Barbara Randall.
In Secret Origins #20 (1987), she explained that Barbara “Batgirl” Gordon was not seen in “Year One” because she was living elsewhere and was not Jim and Barbara’s biological daughter. She was Jim’s niece who was adopted by the couple after her parents died. The name of her biological mother was Thelma. It was a great way to tie up the “Thelma” oddity. The fact that there were two women named “Barbara Gordon” living in the household was touched upon.
Decades later, a Devin Grayson story suggests that Barbara “Batgirl” Gordon may be Jim’s biological daughter after all due to an affair he had with his sister-in-law Thelma.
The question of where Barbara Kean was in modern continuity was not always given a consistent answer. As in the Bronze Age, Gordon makes musing about his late wife. Other sources suggest that she left Jim and took their son James with her. Batman Annual #13 (1989) can’t even keep it straight.
The lead story has Jim and Barbara Jr visiting Barbara Kean’s grave…..
….while the backup Who’s Who pages state she’s still alive.
THIS IS THE SAME BOOK!!
Her cause of death isn’t given, but we’re told she was a victim of crime and she died six years prior. Jim confuses the issue when he looks at some photos in Batman #450 (1990)…
While the photos don’t necessarily mean that she’s dead, it’s very rare for somebody to have framed photos of their alive ex-wife.
When Sarah Essen (Jim Gordon’s former co-worker and former extra-martial affair) returns in Batman #458 (1991), he also mentions Barbara Kean being deceased.
The inconsistency is wrapped up as best as it could be in Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight Annual #2 (1992). First we see her alive (in a non-flashback story)…
Then Jim gives an explanation…
Gordon’s explanation is weird, and it doesn’t explain the gravestone in Batman Annual #13, but we’ll take what we could get.
The next bit of Barbara Kean confusion. Now that we know she’s alive, it does raise the question of when she and Jim divorced. Due to many writers wanting to do their own sequels to “Year One”, various flashbacks stories are inconsistent regarding her departure. Batman: Night Cries (1992) has Barbara leaving in Batman’s seventh year when their son is a six-year-old boy.
Batman: Turning Points #1 (2001) has Barbara leaving almost immediately after “Year One”.
Sharp eyed fans will notice that her name is listed as “Barbara Eileen Gordon”. Whether “Eileen” is her middle name or maiden name hasn’t been stated. One Wikipedia entry said that it was retconned that her full name was “Barbara Eileen Kean” but that was never backed up by any DC source. After this story, many fans would call her “Barbara Eileen” to differentiate her from Barbara “Batgirl” Gordon. Other fans, who remembered Detective Comics #500, would continue to refer to her as “Barbara Kean”.
Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #161 (2003) has them separate while James Jr. is a toddler. Interestingly enough, in this version it’s implied that Jim was the one who initiated the separation because he was angry at her for selling out their niece. This story also named Batgirl’s mother as Jennifer instead of Thelma.
The best explanation seems to be suggested in Batman: Dark Victory #5 (2000). Barbara had left Jim, but later returned. Perhaps they had a few separations before divorcing for good.
Flashback stories also were inconsistent on how active she was in the upbringing of Babs Jr. The original Secret Origins story from Barbara Randall shows that they had a mother/daughter relationship for years, while other stories suggest that Babs Jr didn’t live with Jim until after Barbara Sr had departed.
In Batman: Haunted Knight (1994), Babs Jr feels comfortable enough to call her “mom”.
Unless there was some mother/daughter bonding happening in “off-panel land”, Barbara “Batgirl” Gordon never seems to interact with her adoptive mother after she leaves for Chicago. Many comics throughout the 1980’s-2000’s go inside her head, yet it never shows her mother being there for her. There isn’t even an indication that Barbara Sr visited Barbara Jr after she was shot and tortured by the Joker and that’s pretty messed up. When you adopt a child, be prepared to make it a lifetime commitment. Be there for them emotionally.
Most of Barbara Kean’s appearances were relegated to flashback stories about the early days of Batman’s career. She doesn’t do much aside from setting the stage for Jim’s home life. There’s Batman Annual #14 (1990).
Batman and the Mad Monk (2007)…
She also has an extended role in Batman: The Long Halloween (1997) where she forms a bond with Harvey Dent’s wife Gilda.
The mini-series Batman: Gordon of Gotham (1998) showed Jim Gordon’s days as a Chicago cop before “Year One”. We see Barbara as a nagging wife.
In Detective Comics #875 (2011) we see her and Jim as a divorced couple co-parenting in a flashback.
The timing of the flashback is weird. Jim and Sarah are married, but Barbara Jr hasn’t been shot by the Joker yet. Jim and Sarah didn’t reunite and marry until after Barbara had already become Oracle. He was also promoted to Captain before Barbara Sr had left him. Later on in the storyline, James Jr says that it was Sarah and Jim who took Barbara Jr in as opposed to Jim and Babs Sr. The story and art were awesome, even if the continuity was dubious.
The storyline in Detective Comics had Jim and Barbara’s son James become a psycho killer villain. In Detective Comics #880 (2011), James Jr injects his mother with Joker venom. Jim is able to find and save her before too much damage has been done.
The story sidesteps the confusion of having two Barbara Gordon’s by calling them “Babs Jr” and “Babs Sr”. Whatever mother/daughter relationship Babs Jr and Babs Sr once had, in this story there isn’t much emotion between them. Barbara Jr has little reaction to the near death of Babs Sr and refers to her as “Barbara” instead of “mom”. That would change in mere months.
After reality and continuity were changed again in Flashpoint, the DC Universe reset with the New 52. The Gordon family history was altered again. Barbara “Batgirl” was once again the biological daughter of Jim Gordon and Barbara Kean. Barbara Kean surprises her daughter with a Christmas visit in Batgirl #4 (2011).
As you can see, the “Year One” character design was dropped in favor of making her look identical to her daughter. This was also done in the Bronze Age. At the time Jim Gordon had also regained his red hair, so when James Jr’s red hair was added to the equation we had a family of four redheads. This made flashback tales look interesting.
The new backstory for Barbara Kean portrays her as a woman who abandoned her family. She reunites with her estranged husband in Batgirl #7 (2012).
She does have a lot to answer for…
Her leaving “9 years ago” didn’t entirely jive with the “New 52” timeline that DC was trying to establish at the time. There were a few flashback stories being published which showed her still with her family during the early days of Batman’s career. This was in contrast to DC editorial saying that Batman had only been active for five or six years. Thankfully “Rebirth” has swept some of that under the rug.
In Batgirl #8 (2012) we get an explanation for why she abandoned her family…
It is very hard to distinguish between mother and daughter in the art for these pages. It’s difficult for me to feel sorry for Barbara Kean here. She was the parent and the child was a ten-year-old boy. Even if she thought he was a danger, wouldn’t leaving your husband and daughter ALONE with that danger be worse? At least Barbara “Batgirl” Gordon calls her out on it.
She also didn’t contact her daughter when the Joker shot and tortured her. Real scummy parenting. This didn’t stop Batgirl from revealing her secret identity to her in Batgirl #19 (2013).
When and where did this reveal happen? It’s never explained. It’s never even followed up on. It almost makes me wonder if Barbara Kean is bluffing to throw James Jr. off his game.
The battle between James Jr and Batgirl results in his body being lost at sea. Jim Gordon blames Batgirl for the murder of his son and launches a manhunt on her. Due to continuity shifts and retcons, Jim Gordon no longer knows that Batgirl is his daughter.
Barbara Kean witnessed all of this. So what does she do? Batgirl #21 (2013)…
There is so much wrong with Barbara’s behavior here. I’m not even sure where to begin.
a) She is leaving, despite vowing earlier in the run that she was back for good. Despite her begging her family to give her another chance and forgive her.
b) She is leaving WHILE her husband and daughter are at each other’s throats! While her husband is HUNTING their daughter! Both of them need her right now.
c) She’s lying when she says she saw “nothing”. She saw that James Jr was killed (although still alive unbeknownst to everyone) accidentally in self-defense. Her testimony could save her daughter.
d) She blames the failure of their marriage on Jim for loving the city too much. You’re abandoning your family during a crisis and it’s not the first time.
Interestingly enough, the artwork doesn’t make it clear if she’s at Jim’s place or if Jim is at a temporary place for her. The placement of the furniture and photos being left behind leads me to believe this is Jim’s house. This means that after her return she and her estranged husband were sharing a home and perhaps more.
Aside from flashbacks, this version of Barbara Kean hasn’t been seen since. I asked Gail Simone, who had written the relevant issues of Batgirl about this on Twitter.
For such a minor character in Batman’s history, Barbara Kean has lived many lives. She’s been inconsistently dead or alive. The timeline of her divorce has fluctuated as well as her parentage of Batgirl. Even her name hasn’t been consistent.
Despite me calling her “Barbara Kean” for the duration of this article, the name “Kean” has only appeared in the pages of Detective Comics #500. Even though it was only used in one comic, online fandom has used it when referring to the character in the decades since. It used on the Gotham television series instead of the name “Barbara Eileen”.
What’s next for Barbara in comics and on TV? Will the comics version become a better parent? Will the TV version lead the League of Shadows into greatness? Give us your best guesses in the comments below.