The Babs-runs-for-Congress arc in 1972′s Detective Comics #422-424 is absolutely fascinating to me. The first story begins with Babs reconnecting with a former flame — a one-time conman who was sent to jail by Batgirl, and was recently released on bail thanks to Babs’ sponsorship. He claims to be completely reformed. He’s lying, of course, and when Babs (as Batgirl) uncovers his deception, she’s livid — and, to my bemusement, she starts loudly sobbing while she’s beating him up.
Ugh, great, I thought, Now she’s crying mid-fight-scene because her former sweetheart double-crossed her. Wonderful.
I was wrong.
In fact, it turns out that the reason Babs is so upset by this particular bit of villainy isn’t because of any feelings she might have once had for the villain — it’s because she sees his return to crime after completing his prison sentence as damning proof that she has “failed as Batgirl”. What’s the point in patrolling the streets and bringing criminals to justice if the justice system is broken? What’s the point in sending offenders to prison if the prisons aren’t providing effective rehabilitation? Babs takes this in, and she concludes that the place where she can make the biggest difference isn’t on the streets as a vigilante — it’s in Congress, as a legislator.
So Barbara Gordon runs for office, launching a grassroots campaign centred around reform and progressivism – giving “the Boot” to the establishment – successfully inspiring and mobilising young voters and ultimately storming office despite the efforts of the corrupt career politicians to shut her down.
And of course, the stories are all pretty silly and the villains are all over-the-top caricatures, but they’re good fun and the idea behind them is intriguing. They directly confronts an issue that cape comics frequently gloss over. The same question Babs is driven to ask about her small-time conman foe, could just as easily be applied to Batman and his rogues gallery — What good is Batman really doing, fighting the Joker and sending him to Arkham, if Arkham is neither able to rehabilitate nor contain the Joker, and inevitably he’s just going to break out, hurt people and provoke another fight? Batman may be saving lives in the immediate and short-term, but is he actually succeeding in stopping crime in Gotham in the long-term?
These questions do get asked in Batman comics, but I don’t think they ever really get resolved satisfactorily — in large part because the writers have a status quo to maintain. Babs, in these stories, confronts the issue head-on and comes to the conclusion that she needs to change her approach.
What I particularly love about this development is that it’s in a way reflective of Babs’ post-Crisis evolution from Batgirl into Oracle. In both cases, we have Babs re-evaluating her role as a crimefighter and reaching the realisation that she is capable of effecting change on a much larger scale. The difference is that, where post-Crisis Babs decides that she can best achieve this by working outside of the system as the hacker-infojock-vigilante Oracle, pre-Crisis Babs chooses to work within the system, becoming a congresswoman in the hope of achieving legislative reform and fighting political corruption from the inside.