Writer: Various, but includes Gardner Fox, Cary Bates, Bob Haney, Frank Robbins, Robert Knaigher, Mike Friedrich
Pencils: Various, but includes Carmine Infantino, Curt Swan, Gil Kane, Bob Brown, Don Heck, Neal Adams
Inks: Various, but includes Don Heck, Dick Giordano, Vince Coletta, Murphy Anderson.
What's it about?
Batgirl, lady crimefighter extraordinare! Barbara Gordon has a PHD, a brown belt in Judo, and she can best just about any criminal you put her in front of her. She's the daughter of police commissioner James Gordon and by day she works as a librarian. When invited to the police masquerade ball she decides to attend in a homemade Batgirl outfit. However, a series of coincidences lead her to take up the superhero mantle.
The closest thing Barbara Gordon has to superpowers is a photographic memory. Mostly, her talent and ingenuity come from her personality and her athletic skill. As mentioned above, she's accomplished at judo and she's inherited her detective father's investigative nature. Using her Bat themed motorcycle to get around, she solves crimes and thwarts evil doers, on her own, without help from anyone else.
Interestingly, Barbara succeeds in hiding her real identity from Batman. In more modern stories Batman is positioned as the most powerful, most knowledgeable of the Gotham City heroes, who knows everyone's business and identities whilst never sharing his. In these older stories, Barbara retains control of her private life, which makes for a different power dynamic and a different way of story telling. She is very much her own hero, driven to it for the right reasons and a valuable character in her own right, not just an add on to the Bat family.
This book reprints, in glorious black and white, 548 pages of her early detective adventures, from her introduction in 1967 to an appearance in the Superman Family title in 1975. Along the way she meets Batman and Robin, the Justice League of America, becomes good friends with Supergirl and becomes Congresswoman in the Unites States House of Representatives.
These are straightforward detective stories, with a few ounces of silliness thrown in. I have labelled these as suitable for children, as they were originally written by kids, but rest assured that adults can get a huge amount of enjoyment out of them.
What's good about it?
Comics have come a long way since the 1960s. In some ways they've improved, in some ways they haven't. Reading this, I am reminded of the joy that comics used to have. This book is full of youthful exuberance. Some of the plots are outright ludicrous. The few bits of science in here are laughable, but dagnabit, they are fun. There is no angsting, very little seriousness, and not a lot of moral quandries. It's good old fashioned superheroics and so it is absolutely perfect for losing yourself in for an hour or so.
To consider the plots, I give you:
Batgirl teaming up with Supergirl to become an expert she-sleuth at the sleuth school to find out how crimes are being committed under hypnosis..
A scheme by criminals to get Batman married and so off the streets at night, leading to a big PR campaign and women demonstrating with placards stating 'Batman Unfair to Gotham Girsl' and 'Down with Batchelor'...
The male members of the Justice League of America are miniaturised and given wings by Queen Zazzala (a humanoid bee queen from bee world) and Batgirl has to track Batman with her 'multi coloured tracking device' and free the JLA..
Her change from civvies to her costume, where the beret becomes the cowl, the ankle boots roll up to her knees, the skirt reverses and becomes a cape and her handbag becomes a utility belt.
Barbara Gordon is a brilliant role model for kids. She's intelligent, she can fight, she's persistent, she is firmly on the good guys side. She doesn't need rescuing by the men and she quite often rescues Batman from an ass-kicking. People say that comics in the 1960s were really patronising and treated the women characters awfully, and yes, there is that inbuilt sexism from the era, but at the same time, a lot of what Batgirl is doing is showing that women are not limited by virtue of being female. She states, quite often, that women are just as good as men, and then she proves it by being as good or better than the male superheros around her. She solves cases, she wins fights, she's a leader. That's a pretty great message for young kids.
What's bad about it?
I mentioned the sexism of the era. There is quite a bit of cringe worthy stuff throughout this book - references to female intuition and recurring discussions among the women characters about romance and fashion. The cover to the volume (the story behind this is revealed and it's not so bad). Yeah, this stuff isn't great. But to be honest, I don't feel that this in any way ruins the book, and there's still plenty of good stuff to balance it out. The opening page shown below, for example, leads onto a very fun story about murder plots in the fashion world.
These comics were originally published in colour, but have been reprinted in black and white, presumably because it's much cheaper. I actually prefer them this way. Even taking into account the variety of pencillers and inkers in the book, there are similarities on the art, a certain style of the era. The lines are crisp, the women strong. There's no (well barely any) escher girls in this book, no muscle monsters. The characters have different faces and body types, and are all easily distinguishable. It's great.
To read more about Batgirl, try Batman Confidential or Batgirl Year One. Batgirl Year One is an extended version of the first story in this book, but it's really worth it. It was released as a trade but is very difficult to get hold of, hence the link to Comixology's digital copies.
Later on her in life Barbara Gordon was shot in the spine by the Joker and lost the use of her legs. She then took on a new code name, Oracle, and ran the superhero team Birds of Prey. Chuck Dixon and Gail Simone wrote very good runs on this title.
To read about a newer Batgirl who is (was) nonetheless carrying on Barbara Gordon's legacy, try World's Finest.
Lastly, DC rebooted their comics last year and Barbara Gordon is now Batgirl again. She is no longer paralysed, but she has been de-aged, so is again in her early twenties (I believe, - in Birds of Prey she was in her early thirties). You can buy the new Batgirl series at your local comic shop or from comixology.
If you like the art and story styles try the other Showcase books. There are lots of them about and usually at least one for every big character DC has. The Supergirl Showcase volumes have a similar feeling of innocence and heroism. Justice League volume 4 and Green Arrow volume 1 have similar feelings of creativity and silliness. For a more grown up book with a similar art feel try Green Lantern/Green Arrow volume 1.