There have been many iterations of Batgirl over the years, though one of the most enduring and treasured versions of the character is Oracle. Barbara Gordon's Oracle days took place after her encounter with the Joker left her in a wheelchair and unable to walk, though as we learned Babs was no less deadly or efficient as a hero as Oracle, and perhaps had an even bigger effect on Gotham's heroes in this new role. Now fans can see a whole new take on Barbara's Oracle days with DC's Middle-Grade novel The Oracle Code by writer Marieke Nijkamp and artist Manuel Preitano, and we recently had the chance to chat with both creators all about it, including why they decided to focus on Oracle as opposed to Barbara's days as Batgirl.
"For me, Babs has always been strongest as Oracle," Nijkamp said. "I think we could get into a fun argument as to who is the best Batgirl and why. For me, Barbara has always been the strongest and in a way most unique as Oracle, because it's so rare to see disabled superheroes who are unapologetically disabled. Who don't get any superpowers to negate their disabilities, but who find their strength in being who they are. I think that's an amazing message for both disabled readers and non-disabled readers alike. I'm a disabled author, so when I got the chance to play around with Barbara Gordon that was something I really wanted to focus on as well."
We've seen people tackle Barbara's recovery and eventual return to Batgirl in other stories, but Oracle Code goes a different route, focusing on the character of Barbara over her superhero alter-ego, and as a result, it feels powerful and extremely authentic.
"I think what I mostly wanted to do is, honestly, just get as close as possible to that sense of authenticity, because I think often when we see stories of recovery, they're presented very often as inspiring stories, as stories of hope, as stories of overcoming," Nijkamp said. "I know from my own experience and seeing the world around me that human emotions aren't that. They're slightly more complicated than that. They're slightly messier than that."
"This whole story of Barbara going from feeling like she lost everything to finding herself again is one where there is going to be a lot of messiness, there's going to be a lot of anger, there's going to be a lot of grief because that's how it would be in the real world too," Nijkamp said. "I didn't want to shy away from that. I wanted to have a place for the messier emotions as well, because I feel like oftentimes we hesitate to really delve into anger, into grief, into sadness, into all those darker emotions that, just speaking from my own experience, I don't necessarily enjoy going through. It's not always something that I feel like people are comfortable spending a lot of time on."
That wide range of emotions was key, letting the reader feel as if they were truly with Barbara on this challenging journey. "I think it's important to have that entire spectrum of emotions so that it isn't just about keeping your chin up high, plastering a smile and going on," Nijkamp said. "It's about like raging and taking a bag full of clothes and tossing them all through the room because you suddenly don't know how to do the simplest things. It's about going through that entire process of what leads to acceptance. It was mostly not even necessarily wanting to avoid any tropes. I certainly wanted to avoid magical cures. But it was mostly just giving and giving Barbara the space to experience all of it."
The book also doesn't spend a lot of time with Barbara before the injury and also keeps things concise in regards to how she was hurt in the first place, a sequence that Preitano shows through the visually inventive and symbolic broken shards of glass.
"Marieke had a very clear idea on what she wanted the story to focus on, so the script goes right to that point," Preitano said. "The page with shattered glass shards worked in that way, giving readers all the information to understand what happened but made sure the story quickly jumps to what happens next. The glass shards concept was in the first draft of the script I read, so the page was designed that way from the beginning."
The relationship between Barbara and her father Jim Gordon is also a key aspect of the book, and again Nijkamp wanted to be authentic to what going through this sort of trauma not only does to the person who experiences it first hand but also to the family and friends that surround them.
"What her dad is doing in terms of trying to push her to just accept, 'This is who you are now. Just listen to your doctors and you'll be fine.' It's very well-meant," Nijkamp said. "It's his own way of coping with everything that is going on and the aftermath of Babs getting shot. But it doesn't leave a lot of room for all of those emotions I just spoke about."
"What it boils down to for Barbara is that she's trying to find a point where she knows what her own boundaries are again," Nijkamp said. "She knows who she is again and she knows where she can find a sense of agency. I really didn't want her to have a super understanding father who just guided her to this perfect way of being. because I didn't feel like that was truthful to either of the characters. Obviously, he's going to feel responsible. He's going to worry about his daughter and that makes a lot of sense. Also, there isn't any empowerment in Babs not struggling."
The book also explores how Babs reacts to others around her, who don't and can't understand what she is going through.
"I think something that everyone with a disability knows, and especially a physical disability, is that it can be difficult for non-disabled people around you to deal with that,' Nijkamp said. "It can be scary. It's a process for the people around you as well, in a different way, but still no less valid. I wanted to give both of them the space to do so. Especially, put Babs in a situation where she could find how she related to all of that, what it meant for her and how that then ties into her finding a sense of self-acceptance and agency."
This is also why I was important to have some characters understand Babs' feelings and challenges, and that's where Yeong and Issy come in, two absolutely delightful characters that Babs meets once she moves to the Arkham Center for Independence.
"In terms of who inspired those characters," Nijkamp said. "Like Babs, when I was a teen, I spent a year in a rehabilitation center. I also definitely struggled with adjusting to suddenly living among a whole group of teens. Giving up my own space and dealing with all of my own issues, I was definitely very angry too. I found some amazing friends there who were like, 'We're here. We've gone through those motions. We've struggled to adjust as well and we know that you need friends to deal with all of this. You need to talk to someone who gets it.' I really wanted Babs to have something of the sort as well."
Throughout the book, Preitano illustrates Barbara putting the pieces of herself and the mystery at hand together through the assembling of puzzle pieces, and that was something in place from the very beginning.
"I believe it was always a puzzle piece theme, at least from the first version of the story that arrived on my drawing board," Preitano said. "I keep saying it, but I love how the script was very clear on these recurring themes, giving me a solid direction to work on. Marieke had built a puzzle and scattered the pieces all around the story, slowly building up to the great finale."
The Oracle Code is full of visual storytelling, with Preitano's gorgeous artwork finding inventive and clever ways to tell the story.
"I love these characters. I want to spend as much time with them as possible. I think one of the most interesting things we did with this particular book, and it's a massive credit to Manuel who did an amazing job portraying all the different disabilities and assistance devices. Babs in the rehabilitation center finds herself in a place where disability is the norm. For me, that was a lot of fun to play with because it allowed me to, at least on some level, not really care about how that interaction with a non-disabled world would be. This is a far safer place and this is a far more accepting place. In that sense too I'd be super interested to explore the story of Barbara after this experience, settling in back home and figuring out how to deal with the rest of the world because that's still out there."
"I love writing scripts that focus on emotion, feeling and not so much on description, because I'm definitely not a very visual thinker," Nijkamp said. "So I wanted Manuel to have the freedom to explore what he felt fitted the story, see how we could find each other there and work off each other. For me, it was this utter joy of every time pages came in seeing where he took it. There were definitely elements that I knew needed to be in the story and we talked about that. Like portraits, the puzzle pieces and small details where I was like, 'I want to make sure that this is here because this is how I envisioned this particular scene.' But other than that just like, 'Have at it.' And surprised me in the best of ways, which he continuously did. It was such a joy."
That includes the way the art style changes in the dream sequences and those were a personal favorite for Preitano.
"When Marieke suggested we could change the art style in the stories-in-the-story sequences, I was very happy," Preitano said. "I previously worked on cartoonish-styled books, so it was a real surprise and I was able to use that experience here. I went wild on those pages, changing styles (both arts and colors) on each sequence according to Marieke’s recommendation. The fact that I was also able to color the dream sequences allowed me to experiment even more to create a significant contrast between the dream sequences and the rest of the book (which features the incredible colors by Jordie Bellaire)."
While Preitano loved the change in art style, there is one particular sequence he loved more than others, though it is quite difficult to pick faves.0comments
"I have so many! While I loved to draw the stealth pages, I think my favorite is the wheelchair basketball game splash page," Preitano said. "It’s a smaller moment within the story, but also a very big, important one for Barbara and her friends. My second favorite is the double spread page with Barbara trying to put all the mystery pieces together. That one was great fun to draw!"
Do yourself a favor and check out The Oracle Code, which is in stores now, and let us know what you thought of the book in the comments. You can also hit me up on Twitter @MattAguilarCB for all things comics!