Review – The Oracle Code: Barbara Gordon Reborn

Oracle Code

The Oracle Code – Marieke Nijkamp, Writer; Manuel Preitano, Artist; Jordie Bellaire, Colorist

Ratings:

Ray – 10/10

Corrina: So Good It Sets a New Standard

Ray: Coming off the heels of Barbara Gordon’s supporting role in Shadow of the Batgirl, it’s time for Oracle’s starring role in The Oracle Code – a brilliant look at healing and rediscovering yourself after a traumatic injury, written by young adult author and disability activist Marieke Nijkamp.

The Oracle Code cover, via DC Comics.

It’s another fantastic effort from DC’s booming young adult graphic novel line, and one of the best spotlights the character of Barbara Gordon has gotten in years. Taking heavy influence from Nijkamp’s own experiences at an inpatient rehabilitation facility twenty years ago and given a heavy overlay of suspense and mystery, it seems to take place in a world where Batman, Joker, and even Batgirl don’t exist. A very interesting twist that boils the story down to its essentials – a newly paralyzed Babs discovering who she’s truly meant to be.

The injury scene at the beginning of the issue is interestingly done, in that it’s the exact opposite of the notorious scene in The Killing Joke. Told in fragments through Barbara’s memory, it takes a while to piece together that Barbara – a talented young hacker – was apparently shot while attempting to help an armed robbery victim. This gives Barbara much more agency rather than being a victim of someone else’s enemy, and it also adds something else – the common cause of teenage spinal cord injuries relating to impulsiveness. Barbara’s heroic instinct is very clear here, but she’s not Batgirl and she wasn’t ready to face a gun. That frustration and element of self-blame adds an edge to much of her storyarc here.

Oracle Code
Gordon falling. Via DC Comics.

As The Oracle Code begins, Barbara is out of the hospital and being dropped off at the Arkham Center for Independence, a state-of-the-art rehabilitation program aimed at teens that happens to be in a crumbling, scary old mansion where the walls seem to talk. Barbara quickly meets other teens in similar situations, along with a stern Professor who oversees their therapy and a charming young physical therapist who pushes her to her limits. But the most significant character she meets in the institute is Jena, a young scarred girl who is the survivor of a horrible tragedy. Jena gets into the habit of visiting Barbara nightly, telling her eerie stories of children who went missing. What does this have to do with Jena’s twin brother, who is supposedly comatose in the same institute?

Manuel Preitano’s art is one of the best selling points of this book, giving us a great depiction of disabled teens of various races, genders, body types, and cultures. He also shifts his art style dramatically for the fantasy segments where his art takes on the tone of a dreamlike horror movie with shades of Tim Burton, Neil Gaiman, and EC Comics. Some of these segments are genuinely disturbing, and up the tension spectacularly for the segments where Barbara prowls the mansion for clues about what these stories mean, and where teens in the institute keep disappearing to. It’s Arkham Asylum, so you know there’s a dark secret under the surface, but I don’t know if the place has ever felt this scary.

It builds to a tense conclusion, as a villain is revealed with a twisted motivation with some horrifying implications that are all too common in the real world. But as good as the plot is, there’s nothing in this book as enjoyable as watching Barbara rediscover herself. So much of this book is grounded in real experiences of disability and the challenges that many newly disabled people encounter – figuring out how to reclaim old hobbies, dealing with friends who don’t seem to be able to handle the changes, overprotective parents who say insensitive things, and people who insist you’re broken. Marieke Nijkamp has written many stories featuring disabled lead characters before – a rarity in YA lit – but she deserves to have this be the book that catapults her into the stratosphere.

Welcome to Arkham. Via DC Comics.

Corrina: There were a few pages in The Oracle Code where my jaw literally dropped open in astonishment. That’s the level of the art in this book. It reminded me strongly of David Mazzucchelli’s work on Batman: Year One. That image of the memories/flashback to Babs being shot, with it’s fragmented segments and yellow and black colors conveys the tragedy of what happened in an emotional punch that never feels cheap or exploitive. (And, yes, the moment Babs is shot in The Killing Joke is as exploitive as it gets, and so are so many of the later references to the event.)

Let’s take the first image we see of Gotham. We are on the rooftops, looking down from above. Much of it is in shadow, save for some orange light that reveals details of the rooftop. In the bottom right center, surrounded by a pool of blue, are two people sitting. The colors draw the eye and the contrasting blue brings you to the people.

By contrast, the last page is very personal. It’s a close-up of Babs’ face, with the warm orange background surrounding her, and while her computer is present, so are  her friends in the background. If the beginning is distant impersonal, the ending is the exact opposite.

On the hunt. Via DC Comics.

Onto the story. I could go on and on about how, as someone who has loved Babs in her Oracle version for literally decades,  this story does her so right. But most people don’t have my history with the character, so I’ll focus on how this book will read to someone who is unfamiliar with Barbara Gordon except in a vague sense, and might not even know about The Killing Joke.

Because the Oracle Code is not only an astonishing work of art, it’s a brilliant exploration of recovery from trauma, emotionally and physically, not just of Babs but of those around her. It contains a stubborn, confused, and heroic teen who, along with the help of other teens dealing with some serious stuff, push back against the idea that because they are disabled, they need to be *fixed.*

And, in the end, the villain of the piece is the one who insists that they’re not worth anything if they’re not completely normal. Because he refuses to confront his own internalized trauma. These kids already know their value. They only need others to open their eyes.

This is, hands down, the best Barbara Gordon story I’ve ever read. It’s also one of the best graphic novels I’ve ever read.

To find reviews of all the DC issues, visit DC This Week.

Disclaimer: GeekDad received this comic for review purposes.

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