Friday, August 14, 2020
Aug. 14, 2020

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‘Oracle Code’ unlocks Batgirl

Bestselling author Nijkamp focuses on Barbara Gordon

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The cover to "The Oracle Code" conveys the major themes of the story with minimal information.
The cover to "The Oracle Code" conveys the major themes of the story with minimal information. (Cover art Manuel Preitano, DC Comics) Photo Gallery

Fans of Barbara Gordon, Commissioner Gordon’s daughter, know the strengths of the character. Her determination, tough-mindedness and eidetic memory led her to be effervescent Batgirl in 1967, and then, after being shot by The Joker and confined to a wheelchair, the omniscient Oracle in 1989. She’s back to being Batgirl in current DC comics, but the time in the chair is still part of her history.

She’s an extraordinary character. You may have admired her, as I have. But you don’t really know Barbara Gordon until you read “The Oracle Code.”

“Code” is written by Dutch author Marieke Nijkamp, a longtime advocate for the disabled who co-founded the We Need Diverse Books kids’ publishing organization. She’s also a New York Times bestselling author (“This Is Where It Ends,” “Before I Let Go”) — despite her own autism.

As a longtime Babs fan, I was stunned by “The Oracle Code.” Despite being a young adult graphic novel, it hits home with insight and power to any age group. How can someone I have never heard of know this character better than a fanboy who has been reading Gordon’s adventures since she debuted?

There was only one way to find out, and that was to do an interview.

How did you come to write this book?

A few years ago, DC invited me to pitch something for their new young adult line, and specifically suggested that I take on Barbara Gordon as Oracle. And as a disabled person, writing such an iconic disabled character was a dream come true! Plus, a really good excuse to go back and read every single issue of “Birds of Prey” and every Oracle story I could get my hands on.

As a longtime Barbara Gordon reader, I assumed there were some hard times between The Joker’s attack (in “The Killing Joke”) and when she appeared as Oracle (in John Ostrander’s “Suicide Squad”). But the official canon doesn’t show much of them. In “The Oracle Code,” you write this unwritten story.

One of the reasons why I wanted to tell this particular story is exactly because main continuity doesn’t really show this side of Babs’ journey. There’s a bit of it in the wonderful “Oracle: Year One: Born of Hope,” written by John Ostrander and Kim Yale and illustrated by Brian Stelfreeze (“Batman Chronicles” No. 5). But even that story doesn’t necessarily engage with the disability side of things; it focuses more on her fear and her need to be useful. I wanted to be able to show the whole journey, all sides of it. The joy, the hope, the anger, the pain.

In the early going of “Code,” Babs’ pain, anger and depression are written so vividly that sometimes, as a fan of the character, I had to put the book down to recover. It nearly brought me to tears. How did you achieve this verisimilitude with such conviction?

I think it’s important to make a distinction between the emotions themselves and actual mental illnesses.

When it comes to emotions like anger, fear and sadness, everyone deals with them. I certainly have, and I will again. They’re not always comfortable but they’re part of what makes us human, as much as joy and love and hope and trust are. I think it’s important to recognize that.

So when I write these emotions, I try to allow room for them, to not shy away from potential negativity, but be honest about the experience. (Especially too in the knowledge that when you’re a teen, like Babs, any of these feelings can be all-encompassing. And when you’re a disabled teen, like Babs, those emotions aren’t always part of the traditional narrative, which makes them all the more important.)

Of course, when it comes to mental illnesses like major depressive disorder or anxiety disorder or PTSD (which Babs deals with to some extent), there are additional facets to it. Clinical. Cultural. Societal. That requires more research, even when you share those experiences yourself. But at the core of it, it’s the same: approach it gently, truthfully and respectfully.

What were you trying to say about trauma/recovery in those scenes?

Trauma changes you, and the journey to recovery isn’t always easy, and that’s OK. It’s OK if you’re feeling angry, sad, afraid. It’s OK if you’re struggling to find yourself again. It’s OK if it takes time. But it’s important to keep going, and to find the people who will help you along the way.

Barbara is often written too good to be true, sometimes even a borderline Mary Sue. But your Barbara is anything but perfect; her raw emotion spills over to insult her father and drive away people who want to help. This may be the most imperfect Babs I’ve ever seen. Naturally she rises to the occasion anyway, but were you setting her starting point so low to emphasize her victory?

I didn’t necessarily write her as flawed to emphasize her victory, but more to emphasize her humanity and the fact that she’s a young girl who dealt with major trauma. Underneath it all, she’s still the same curious, loyal Babs, but she isn’t on solid ground and she has to rediscover who she is.

It’s interesting too, because I never really considered the climax of the book as Babs’ big victory. To me, the victory lies in many steps along the way, like reaching out to her friends, finding and setting her boundaries, standing up for herself. The climax is where all the victories come together as a validation of who she is — and who she can be — once she’s found herself again.

Your CV shows lots of stories spotlighting kids with disabilities. Did you see that as a need that should be filled, or was it just a natural outgrowth of your own experiences?

Both. Mainly the latter, but with full awareness of the former. When I grew up, there were very few books or comics (or media in general) that featured positive disabled role models. More often than not, disabled characters existed to be villains … or to be cured once they discovered kindness. Disabled characters couldn’t achieve any sort of happily ever after while they were disabled, and for some that happily ever after could only be death. “Rather dead than disabled” is still a common trope — and in fact a common sentiment.

So I saw a need for inclusive, positive disabled role models. I share that need. And I knew I could do a small way to addressing it, based on my own experiences. Though it bears saying that I’m only one of many people doing that work, and disability representation needs to be inclusive across races, cultures, genders, before it’s realized.

No discussion of “The Oracle Code” can ignore the contribution of artist Manuel Preitano, whose ability to communicate emotion and internal life through faces, body language and blocking is a major part of the storytelling.

I was impressed from the very beginning, when I realized how Preitano had framed the cover to achieve maximum impact with minimum information. You see enough of Barbara’s face and red hair to intuit that the Oracle in the title is who we think it is. The tight slit of her mouth indicates her determination, while the clenched fist transmits her rage. And there’s just enough of the wheelchair showing to bring it into play, explaining much of the rest.

How did he become involved, and what was your collaboration like?

Our wonderful editors connected the two of us, and we hit if off immediately. We’re still emailing each other on a very regular basis, sharing book recommendations, and chatting about random things.

We went back and forth a lot. First, when I wrote a page-by-page outline and he worked on his character designs, then when the script started coming together and he created the page layout, then when his inks came in and I went back to edit the script as necessary. We didn’t co-plot, but we did share a lot of ideas, a lot of “what if you do X so that I can do Y” things. Basically, we were constantly looking for ways in which the art and script could strengthen each other. And credit where credit’s due: Manuel’s art is absolutely stunning. We really had the same vision for the story right from the start!

Lastly, and just for the fanboys among us: Gordon’s injury comes by an attempt to stop a street robbery, not The Joker, right?

Yes, that’s what happens. We purposefully didn’t go into too much detail, because while it’s the catalyst, it isn’t the story (and trauma does weird things to memory too), but I wanted to make sure we told the story in such a way that Babs is the focus point and she has the agency.

Which sounds like a good idea to me, since the Clown Prince of Crime tends to grab the spotlight whenever he appears.

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