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Yvonne Craig, TV’s First BATGIRL: 1937-2015

Yvonne Craig, TV’s First BATGIRL: 1937-2015

The Bat-Family, and popular culture at large, lost a true gem late last night. Yvonne Craig passed away in her California home, after a battle with breast cancer. Craig was an actress with an impressive resume. She starred opposite Elvis Presley, starred as the iconic green  Orion Marta in Star Trek, but she was at the nucleus of the creation of the very Batgirl that we’re all familiar with today. The first female counterparts to Batman and Robin in the comic stories of yore were Batwoman and Bat-Girl, a.k.a Kitty and Betty Kane respectively. Batgirl (not Bat-Girl) on the other hand, as Barbara Gordon, was a created for the screen and was given an introduction in the comic books to precede her live-action debut. It was a unique set of circumstances for the creation of a comic book character, and it was Yvonne Craig who delivered the finished product into the homes of viewers around the country.

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Craig had numerous guest-starring roles in many late 50s and early 60s classic television shows like Perry Mason, Bronco, Hennesy, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Dr. Kildare, and 77 Sunset Strip, and starred on the big screen with Elvis in Kissin’ Cousins. She would go on to feature in other films, but the bulk of her career was based in television right up until the early 80s when she effectively retired from acting. She returned from 2009-2011 to do voice work in Nickelodeon’s Olivia, starring as Grandma.

In Mark Edlitz’s recently released book book How to Be a Superhero, Yvonne was asked what she felt the pros and cons of her Batgirl role were, and went on to elaborate how the role was important, but did not define her career:

Mark: What was the biggest perk and what was the biggest drawback of being a superhero?
Yvonne: The biggest perk is that we’re all still talking about it forty years later. I’ve never experienced one drawback. I know Adam did, and I have a theory about that. I’ve told it to him but he doesn’t listen. My theory is that he did 3 seasons, while I only did 26 episodes. I also had a body of work before that, so I don’t feel that anybody has singled Batgirl out as who I was. [Emphasis ours.]

Edlitz went on to ask Craig what she liked best about the character of Batgirl, and of Barbara:

Mark: In terms of your independence and intelligence, seems like you and Barbara Gordon had a lot in common.
Yvonne:
Absolutely. Absolutely. I graduated really, really early because I skipped a couple of grades in school, probably because all I did was go to study hall. I liked to go there because it was solitary. I joined the ballet when I was sixteen, but I finished high school so it’s not like my education was interrupted. It was wonderful. I saw the United States. I’ve been blessed in that I’ve had different careers where I could do exactly what I wanted to do. 
Mark: How were you like Batgirl?
Yvonne: She was really kick-ass! Can I say that?
Mark: [Laughs] Yes, you just did.
Yvonne: [Laughs] She was independent and was very curious. She just wanted to get in the mix. I always wanted to keep up with whatever was going on and I felt that I could get into the mix. To this day, when I walk down the street, I feel like I can take care of myself. I’ve walked through some very bad neighborhoods and never had any fear at all. Then I have to catch myself and say ‘You may think of yourself as thirty-seven, but you are not, and you may not be able to take on some of these people anymore.’ [Laughs]

Yvonne:I went to a convention and someone asked me “What are Batgirl’s superpowers?” I said, “she doesn’t have any.
Mark: She doesn’t have any but there’s still something that is elevated or bigger than life about her. 
Yvonne: She’s kick-ass! [Laughs]

Yvonne’s Batgirl, created by television producers William Dozier and Howie Horowitz with help from DC Comics editor Julius Schwartz, was both a response to and a product of the 1960’s American feminist movement. Barbara Gordon as Batgirl was unique in her time for being an independent character with agency, free from the expectations and confines of the role of housewife, girlfriend, victim, or “damsel in distress.” Batgirl was anything but a damsel in distress. Barbara was a plucky librarian, an occupation that was socially acceptable for a single woman of the time, and her bookishness was a trait she shared with Yvonne. As Batgirl, Barbara rode solo on her motorcycle (sans sidecar) to and from aiding (and often saving) Batman and Robin. A public service announcement was created with those three characters to highlight the recently passed federal equal pay law of the time:

Yvonne’s portrayal of Batgirl has resonated through the years, even right up to the current costume color scheme of the current comic book Batgirl. The purple ensemble with the gold bat-signia inspired a modern update thanks to writer/artist Cameron Stewart with refinement by artist Babs Tarr. In the 90s, Batgirl from Batman: The Animated Series was voiced by Melissa Gilbert doing what, I think, sounded like an homage to Craig’s vocal affectations. Just this summer, Toys’R’Us debuted a brand new articulated action figure at San Diego Comic-Con based directly on Yvonne Craig’s likeness. Barbara Gordon has evolved considerably over the years thanks to writers like Gail Simone, but Yvonne’s Batgirl still connects with audiences today just as she did nearly five decades ago.

Our condolences to Yvonne’s surviving family members. She’ll always be a hero to us.

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Excerpts from How to Be a Superhero, available now, reprinted with permission from Mark Edlitz.

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