So I read Batgirl number 19. And I mulled over its cultural impact.
Later in the week, my colleague and friend Garret emailed me an article where Daredevil scribe and personal writing hero Mark Waid declared it's not possible to launch a book starring a woman because of sales (this comment was made as part of an online class discussing comics and gender, and Lois Lane's ability to carry her own book; Waid is right that many female-led books aren't selling well, though some are, and one of them is Batgirl).
These items, taken together, gave me pause. On the one hand, we have one more notch on the belt of inclusion. On the other hand, we're told that women can't act as the heroes of their own stories, not without getting cancelled. This dichotomy led me back to the above panel in Batgirl, and the reaction Barbara has to the news, shown here:
Gail Simone has one of those unique character-author relationships with Ms. Gordon; Barbara's voice seems to flow effortlessly from her pen. Back when she helmed Birds of Prey, Simone gave Babs all manner of amazing moments as the wheelchair-bound information hound Oracle. One such moment arrived in the form of giving Barbara back a small amount of feeling in her toes, due to the invasion of a sentient computer virus into her body. This odd little miracle allowed Barbara to weigh whether or not the supercomputer known as Brainiac taking over her body was worth one day walking; going along on that journey with her as a reader was eye-opening. It made me think about what I might sacrifice for the hearing technology I use every day. Meanwhile, those without any disabilities whatsoever, I assume, got to see through the eyes of someone who had tough choices to make. Forget inclusion, that's expansion of one's worldview! (And it led to a totally badass panel where Oracle clenched her fists and demanded the virus be cut from her body, damn the cost of her future ability to walk, dance, or skip.)
My point about moments is this: during Birds of Prey, DC gave Simone time to develop an incisive and difficult exploration of disability, and she's worked very hard in her current run on Batgirl to highlight the complexities of post-traumatic stress. However great those spotlights on minority/unexplored perspectives are, Alysia has barely shown up before now, and her mere presence and big announcement in issue 19 wasn't meant to give her more agency, or allow her a heroic moment to stand up for her truth. It's there to prove what a great person Barbara is, how inclusive and liberal and loving she appears to be. Is basic humanity all we expect from our female heroes? Is that why their books keep getting cancelled?
True, Babs provides a great example for kids who look up to Batgirl, but Simone isn't writing this book for kids; it's far too violent for tiny eyes, and the (company-wide, editorially-mandated) gritty artwork sure doesn't provide much of a crime-fighting-but-still-a-girly-girl conflicted image to justify the brashness of the violence, either. Simply stated, this book's not a triumph of inclusion, not yet; neither Alysia or Babs are allowed to struggle with difference (largely because DC probably isn't letting Simone). And transgender concerns are not spotlighted nearly enough to affect the way anyone sees their transgender neighbor, or reexamine how women perceive the world. And change is the gold standard to which I hold all art purporting to reach out to a "mainstream" audience.
I say all this to urge DC and Marvel and Image and every other company out there to do more, to allow their writers and editors to do more. Impressing people with pockets of inclusion cannot sustain your profits. Inclusion has to have scope and stakes and a long-term voice, in order to be successful. Which is also why I think it would be the best possible thing in the world for DC to stand behind a book starring Lois Lane. Think of it as any old Superman comic, but without the Superman. We could watch as she mentors cub reporters and takes down Luthor-led corporations. We could see her risk her neck undercover for the sake of her country. We could even watch Lois Lane push against the glass ceiling. How novel would that be in a mainstream comic?