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Barbara Gordon soars high in ‘The Oracle Code’

Barbara Gordon soars high in ‘The Oracle Code’

Barbara Gordon soars high in ‘The Oracle Code’
March 18
12:00 2020

“The higher you fly . . . the harder you fall.”

After surviving a gunshot wound that leaves her paralyzed from the waist down, Barbara Gordon is placed in the Arkham Center for Improvement to rehabilitate herself. As she struggles to adjust to her new disability in an unfamiliar environment, she reluctantly befriends some of the patients and becomes suspicious about voices that seem to float in the night.

“The Oracle Code” is the latest project from the former DC INK, now simply DC YOUNG ADULT (DC INK has simply undergone a name change). The last DC INK book I reviewed was “Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass,” a coming-of-age story involving drag queens, the evils of gentrification and the broken juvie system. What I said about DC INK carries over to DC YOUNG ADULT here, but just to restate — these are books, telling standalone tales that deliver fresh takes on familiar characters and do not require any knowledge of any previous continuity.

The main character this time around is Barbara “Babs” Gordon, who in the main comics became the information broker Oracle after her career as the first Batgirl was ended when the Joker shot her in the spine in the seminal “Killing Joke” graphic novel. As one of the very first prominent disabled main characters in American comics, she broke major ground, providing an underserved community with a strong voice and power you didn’t really have comics and still don’t. When she was made Batgirl again in the New 52 reboot, her disability basically erased, there was a lot of backlash and for good reason. There still hasn’t been any such major disabled rep in either of the Big Two since, which brings us to now.

The shepherds behind this particular story are Dutch writer Marieke Nijkamp and Italian artist Manuel Preitano. Nijkamp has written books like “This Is Where It Ends,” ‘Before I Let Go” and edited the disabled fiction anthology “Unbroken,” so they have experience working with disabled people. Manuel Preitano, according to the author blurb in the end, is “the co-creator of the Destiny, NY series. He has worked on a wide range of toy designs, book covers, illustrations, and comic books, both in the U.S. and in his home country.” Going by online results, this is the first major comic book project for both and it is definitely a success.

First, the boldest choice here isn’t just to bring back Oracle, it’s that this version of Barbara Gordon becomes Oracle without ever having been Batgirl. In fact, ignoring some cameo merch, the setting and gothic themes, the book is largely free of much of the trappings of the Batman mythos. The only recognizable characters are Jim Gordon and Babs herself, with Batman and friends being completely absent. This means that Nijkamp and Preitano get to focus on Babs empowering herself through her disability free of all of the baggage she had in the main continuity. Barbara becomes Oracle solely through her hardships, free of any hero to play second fiddle to. This is entirely Oracle’s story.

Barbara Gordon as Oracle really does get her due here. You see her at her lowest, angry and overwhelmed by her new situation before you get to see her at highest, in control and finding new power when she takes back control of her life. You really feel for her as she tries to come to grips with reality and move forward. This is accomplished through both Nijkamp’s skillful writing and Preitano’s equally adept illustration skills.

Nijkamp instills a lot of empathy for Barbara in the reader, showing her at her highs and lows. She also bounces well off her supporting cast — her bickering sports-oriented friends Yeong and Issy, the melancholic storyteller Jena Newton, the testy Dr. Lachlan and the ominous Dr. Maxwell. Each get a distinct personality and characterization, thanks to both creators at work.

As for Preitano, this is a fantastic debut for him. The characters get distinct designs and colors, with the usual monotone colors of these books switching with the mood. In the daytime, Arkham is a warm blue, while at night it takes on an uneasy purple, alluding to something very wrong going on behind the walls. The facility itself feels like it could have come from any great Gothic literary tale like “The Castle of Otranto” or “The Haunting of Hill House.” Preitano also shifts the artwork three times during abstract Grimm-style sequences, in which the book becomes incredibly moody and positively macabre. Another great piece is a puzzle motif that comes in whenever pieces of the mystery begin to fall into place. The color palette is diverse and despite seemingly limited facial work, Preitano gets to show the full range of emotions in the characters.

“The Oracle Code” is a fantastic story for disabled representation and for a superhero I’d thought we’d never see again. Nijkamp weaves a wonderfully gothic coming-of-age tale brought to life by Preitano’s colorful and atmospheric artwork, working in conjunction to deliver the best kind of superhero tale — one that develops and empowers a champion for the marginalized.

Final rating: 4/5

Featured Illustration: Olivia Varnell

About Author

Will Tarpley

Will Tarpley

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