Preface: Having read Shadow of the Batgirl, which really introduces Barbara Gordon to the DC Ink/Zoom line and lays the foundation for Oracle, I was hoping to see a continuation of that incarnation; an incarnation that looks at several aspects of Barbara’s character. Unfortunately, DC Ink continues to defy my expectations and places The Oracle Code in its own universe. This is something that is rather puzzling to me, as it seems at least the Raven and Beast Boy graphic novels will be set within the same universe. Could this not have been the same for Shadow of the Batgirl and The Oracle Code? I have a few answers that could explain that, however much I may disagree with it.
As a Barbara Gordon acolyte, I read and analyzed this work closely and perhaps unfairly so. That is why my review will be divided into two parts: one as a new reader and one as a Barbara Gordon fan and historian. Read one or both, depending on your preference. I will also include some thoughts that bridge between the two and will ask some rhetorical questions that either I am “still chewing on” or desire you, the reader, to consider. Now let’s get into it.
Synopsis (provided by the publisher): The #1 New York Times bestselling author Marieke Nijkamp (This Is Where It Ends) and artist Manuel Preitano unveil a graphic novel that explores the dark corridors of Barbara Gordon’s first mystery: herself.
After a gunshot leaves her paralyzed, Barbara Gordon enters the Arkham Center for Independence, where Gotham’s teens undergo physical and mental rehabilitation. Now using a wheelchair, Barbara must adapt to a new normal, but she cannot shake the feeling that something is dangerously amiss. Within these walls, strange sounds escape at night, patients go missing, and Barbara begins to put together pieces of what she believes to be a larger puzzle.
But is this suspicion simply a result of her trauma? Fellow patients try to connect with Barbara, but she pushes them away, and she’d rather spend time with ghost stories than participate in her daily exercises. Even Barbara’s own judgment is in question. In The Oracle Code, universal truths cannot be escaped, and Barbara Gordon must battle the phantoms of her past before they swarm her future.
Analysis (spoilers ahead): Themes-Something that DC has done exceptionally well is tackling social and mental health issues that are not always discussed. We have seen anxiety/depression (Raven), domestic abuse (Catwoman), the trials and tribulations of middle school (Black Canary), difficulties with language processing (Cassandra Cain/Batgirl), and now we look at someone who has a physical disability, which from here on I will term “differently-abled.” The Oracle Code has its greatest success here because we finally see the representation of the differently-abled portrayed by the one character who brought that representation into mainstream comics (thanks to John Ostrander and Kim Yale). Nijkamp does a fantastic job with this, in showing not only Babs’ physical struggles but also filling nearly every ensemble page with several other forms of differently-abled representation. Pages are filled with characters, and Manuel Preitano does a wonderful job incorporating them seamlessly, using colors to focus on our main characters but never ignoring the others in the scene. As John Ostrander and Chuck Dixon did so long ago, Nijkamp also shows specific details or a “day in the life” of someone training to be differently-abled in a world that is not always conducive to it. Should this story continue to another graphic novel, the challenge will be to see how Babs (and perhaps others of her fellow residents) transition to the outside world and deal with the new struggles therein.
The other theme that runs throughout is this “code.” What is the Oracle code? Yes, Barbara is a hacker (hacker-in-training?), but that is too literal here. We get a clue from a conversation she has with her father where he tells her to not give up, saying, “I know you. There’s not a code you can’t crack, not a puzzle you can’t solve. There’s nothing you can’t do if you put your mind to it.” Babs responds “I couldn’t stop that bullet. I can’t solve this puzzle because I’m the puzzle now. I can’t crack the code because I’m the code.” Preitano’s art reflects this, with disorganized puzzle pieces creating disordered images. Then the puzzle starts to come together as Babs begins to break the “code,” coming to terms with herself, that she does not need to be “fixed,” that this is who she is now. Perhaps more apt of a title would have been The Babs Code.
The art by Manuel Preitano is different than most comics I have read, but I think that it fits the tone, style, and youth of the story. I especially like that the art style changes with the different stories that Jena tells, and how clever that the final story looks as if it were drawn on lined paper. The puzzle theme and heavy use of yellow all fit with and are emblematic of, this Barbara Gordon’s story. And, as I said before, filling the background with a diverse group of people without having them detract from the main players by using a lack of color was a clever idea.
Choose Your Own Review
For the new reader: As previously asked, one wonders why The Oracle Code does not continue the same continuity of the recently released Shadow of the Batgirl. A possible explanation of this is that the latter is Cassandra’s story, not Babs, though Babs does play an important role. The Oracle Code seeks to establish Barbara as the main character in her own story, and in so doing, we must see her at the beginning of her heroic career and thus equal to the age of the intended audience.
Similar to Black Canary: Ignite, we see a young woman struggling to come to terms with herself, and in this case, the person she is has changed dramatically. An adolescent’s ability to cope with trauma varies depending on the person and situation, and it is inappropriate to say that one reaction to trauma is “better or worse” than another. As we see at the beginning of the story, Barbara Gordon is a fun and intelligent young woman who loves investigating and cares deeply for her father. She is capable and seems to want to be a master of herself and her circumstances. When the ability to be master of herself is taken away from her in an instant, it is conceivable that she acts negatively, becoming morose, apathetic, and full of attitude. Thus Barbara’s greatest challenge is breaking away from that self-destructive behavior, fully accepting herself as, changed, yes, but also still whole. Babs begins to regain her wholeness once she sets out on a mission, finally distancing herself from her inward contemplations and looking outward towards helping others. In helping Jena and the others from the basement, she reconnects with her lost friend Ben, makes new friends, finds and understands her new capabilities, and perhaps becomes a stronger person than she originally was.
New readers will be able to easily digest this story without fear of a complicated backstory. All you really need to know are Babs and her father Jim Gordon. A new universe has been created for both of them, and hopefully, that universe is expanded upon for the future.
My main question/concern, even as a new reader is this: how is this character distinctly Barbara Gordon? What prevents me from taking this story and having the character be named “Kimberley Rockmore?” I want new readers to come away from this story with an understanding of who Barbara Gordon is and why she is so important (and she is objectively one of the most important characters) to the DC Universe. This Babs may have some of “my” Babs’ characteristics, but I’m not sure she has her spirit. If someone asks a new reader, “who is Barbara Gordon?” what sort of answer can we expect using The Oracle Code as source material?
For the seasoned Barbara reader: The issue with crafting a story with a tweenage Barbara Gordon at the center is that you do not have the years necessary to include all aspects of her past. With this story, we lose Babs’ history as Batgirl and only show her as a youthful hacker on the rise. As many argue that Barbara loses something in not being Oracle, I argue that the same is true of her not being Batgirl. Without that aspect of her journey, we do not see the Babs who is a champion of the people, selfless, heroic, and one who so loves and respects her father that she wishes to emulate him. Here we see a selfish Babs and one who, while she does love her father, does something reckless without considering the repercussions for herself and someone else. This is where we get to the core of my problems (as a historian): this is not Barbara Gordon. While Babs certainly was ornery after the events of The Killing Joke and through much of the “Birds of Prey” run, she still gave herself a purpose and helped people. Here we see Babs actually roll away from someone in need of help and is a touch more than ornery – I would even call her a brat. It was difficult for me to read this character, and it took until the second act, when she finally has a mission, for her character to stabilize and be close to recognizable as Barbara Gordon.
Devil’s advocate here: these graphic novels are intended for a younger audience than myself, thus making it necessary for the main character to reflect the age of the reader. Therefore, Nijkamp had really no choice but to discard the Batgirl history, as it would be difficult to argue that Babs was Batgirl at age 9 or so.
Does tragedy/trauma irrevocably change a person? Is that something we explore here? Should we allow the poor characterization at the beginning in order to make way for her metamorphosis? Then again, does she really change, or does she just go back to how she was (all but physically) pre-trauma? What is her purpose, her drive? We see her use the computer handle and symbol of Oracle, but what does it mean besides childish games and hacks? How will she take what she did in the institute and transfer it to the outside world? Finally, and a slight detail, but if Babs has changed by the end, should not her wheelchair change as well and go handle-less, which is a detail that carries a great deal of symbolic weight?
The trauma is another major part of this story which is not explored. It is only vaguely alluded to in image and conversation. Due to following her father’s activities, she got in the way of a bullet. As much as I do not care for The Killing Joke, it is difficult to say what Oracle would be like without that story given her run-ins afterward with the Joker. Showing the trauma could be nothing, but it could also be everything. More explanation is necessary, especially since it has such an effect on Babs that she is clearly suffering from PTSD as well.
A key component to the Barbara Gordon mythos is her relationship with her father. While I was pleased to see him in this story, there is not much development between the two to show them as distinct among many familial relationships in comics. I was disappointed to see some tension enter into the comics when her father mistakenly says her injury was her fault. “This is not one of your puzzles,” he says on the phone when she talks about Jena, “and now is not the time to go chasing ghosts. That’s what got you into this situation in the first place.” To have Jim portrayed as anyone but a compassionate father who fully supports (and yes, has concern for) his daughter does an injustice to both characters and is symptomatic of the current comics looking to shake up the status quo with unnecessary strife.
Finally, longtime Babs’ fans may think they will find some fun Easter Eggs in this story, as several previous DC graphic novels have employed, but I’m afraid you will be disappointed. Her cast of characters is all new and has no previous connection to Barbara’s history. One would at least hope that the friend she goes hacking with would be someone we could recognize. A possible explanation of this is that this is early in her life and she has yet to meet those people who will be an influence on her life and career as a hero.
Final Thoughts: Try as I may, it is difficult to have anything but a split mind about this book. It is an important and necessary story that brings representation to a group that has been without representation for so long. My main concern is that this is Barbara Gordon in name only, and the literal and symbolic importance of “Oracle” is not explained.
Editor’s Note: DC Comics provided TBU with a review copy of this title. You can purchase your own copy by heading over to Amazon.