Did Ironside inspire Oracle?

Plus, a little more on Spider-Man and comics history

September 24, 2009

By Avi Green

Many comics can draw their inspirations from TV and movies. Some can even be a coincidence. Either way, in the past year or so, I've been led to wonder if the writers for Barbara Gordon, the former Batgirl, who later took up the role of computer whiz and undercover info broker Oracle, drew their inspirations from Ironside, the late Raymond Burr's second most famous TV role after Perry Mason, which he began playing just shortly after the end of the first series.

Ironside was a crime drama about a SanFrancisco police inspector, Robert T. Ironside, who was shot by an assassin while vacationing at a farming community in the suburbs. He survived the attempt on his life, but lost the use of his legs and had to use a wheelchair. But he did not give up his role as a crimefighter. His good friend police commissioner Dennis Randall continued to employ him as a special consultant, and he set up a team of investigators with a few people who'd worked closely with him: Sgt. Ed Brown (Don Galloway), plainclothes officer Eve Whitfield (Barbara Anderson), and Mark Sanger (Don Mitchell), a former delinquent turned law student whom Ironside had helped at one time to regain his footing, who worked as Ironside's bodyguard. Whitfield would later be replaced by rookie officer Fran Belding (Elizabeth Baur) in the latter half of the series' run. Ironside would take up residence in an attic apartment atop one of the precincts he worked at, and got around town in a modified van that either Sanger or Brown would drive. The series ran on NBC from 1967 to 1975 for about 195 episodes, and in 1993, there was a special reunion TV film made that brought back almost all the whole cast for what would be Burr's last performance before his death later that year.

When Babs Gordon was shaped into her later role as Oracle, there were some surprising similarities to what was first seen in Ironside: both were paralyzed from the waist down, and confined to a wheelchair, both took up residence in an apartment building that doubled as an office for their investigations, and both had a modified van in which to traverse the cities they lived in. Some differences, of course, are that while Babs could fight with billy clubs and didn't always need assistance in getting places, Ironside could only really fire a gun.

Still, there were plenty of interesting similarities, and if one helped inspire the other, that is very unique. It shows how some television aspects can inspire comic books to borrow a page or two for their own ideas, and they too can be quite clever.

There was nothing wrong with 70s fashion, but is with the 00s.

I recently found this column in Comics Buyer's Guide from July 2008 (in PDF format), written by one MSMer whom I've long since learned not to be fooled by, and I felt I just had to comment on some of the stupidity featured here. It's from a couple months after Joe Quesada foisted One More/Brand New Day upon Spider-Man, erasing the marriage with Mary Jane Watson, and let me first note that the same person who wrote this, who allegedly hates the One More/Brand New Day story, also loved the Identity Crisis monstrosity of 2004, one of the reasons I do not take anything written here at face value. Let's begin by taking a look at what the correspondent who began this conversation had to say:

While reading your “One Less Day” article in CBG #1635, it had me reflect on what I missed. I’d dropped all the Spidertitles after the Hobgoblin fiasco. Why do writers need to turn every supporting character into a villain? I exaggerate, but it does feel that way. Carol Ferris, Snapper Carr, Jarvis the butler, Alfred the other butler, Happy Hogan, nearly all of Tony Stark’s girlfriends, etc. Reading your capsule summary on “The Clone Saga” certainly makes me happy I didn’t waste my money on 136 issues or, frankly, any since then. Marvel lost me as a Spider-customer 18 years ago. That’s a lot of lost money over that time. I still buy select Marvel titles but rarely buy into those storylines that jump from Amazing to Web to Spectacular to Friendly, etc. That type of stunt just ticks me off, and, instead of buying them all, I drop them all. In retrospect, the mid-’90s was a tough time for comics writing. The ideas were bizarre, and far too many stories stank. Thank goodness the ’00s came along.

I can understand some of the sentiments expressed here, even if Ned Leeds never suffered as bad as later victims of this problem did when he met his end in a Hobgoblin costume in 1987, or as some of the female victims of such derangement did, including, but not limited to, Carol Ferris (he may exaggerate on Snapper Carr, though). And I too often find the crossover stunt even within a specific franchise, including Superman and Batman's books, quite appalling.

Unfortunately, when he says that the '00s came along, that's where he loses me. Excuse me? Even before Avengers: Disassembled and Identity Crisis, there was already enough questionable and lame content in the big two to sink a ship. Where does he get off by saying that the 00s are any better? I hope that's just a joke, and that he's merely being ironic, because otherwise, he's only making a fool out of whatever he claims to stand for.

Now, what does the reporter have to say:

I’ve long made fun of the ’70s as one of the worst decades in pop-culture history. I was there, and, let me tell you, it was dreadful. Disco, leisure suits, poofy hair, Starsky & Hutch, Leo Sayer — it was a long 10 years! When it comes to comic books, though, the ’90s are certainly in competition for Worst Decade Ever. (Two words: Heroes Reborn.)

Well again, he's right that the 90s are considerable competition for a bad decade, but what's wrong with the 70s? Can't say I really cared for S&H with David Soul and Paul Michael Glaser, but those fancy white suits everybody was wearing at the time were pretty cool! I wish I owned one! If Miami Vice is any suggestion, they lasted well into the late 80s. And disco plus hairstyles? Please. That was hardly the worst. No, the worst thing about the 70s was drug trafficking. Taking out your anger on fashion trends of a particular decade is really avoiding the harder issues, such as whether character development existed, or if it even still does. Fortunately, while the 70s didn't have quite as much noteworthy in the ways of human relations as it could've, it still had some moments, and there were plenty of genuinely fun times to be found there.

Our "intrepid" journalist for CBG goes on to say:

Anyway, I also disliked the Hobgoblin story. Not only was I already bored in the early ’90s with the endless parade of Green Goblin retreads (a trend that continues, and continues to annoy me, today), but also because it killed Ned Leeds. Ned wasn’t that important in the Parker circle, but, by the ’90s, he was just about the only supporting character left whose name I knew.

In the Romita years, Amazing Spider-Man had probably the best cast of supporting characters ever. But by the ’90s most of them were dead: Frederick Foswell, Captain Stacy, Gwen Stacy, Norman Osborn, Harry Osborn — the list goes on. Turning Ned (briefly) into a villain and then offing him was part of a long series of bad decisions that threatened to make Peter Parker the sole survivor of his circle of friends.

Of course, the recent “Brand New Day” leaves the door open for a lot of these characters to return. We’ve already seen Harry Osborn; maybe Ned isn’t as dead as we thought, either. And maybe this time he’ll have a personality.

After reading this part, I hate to tell ya, but I'm wondering if he's really being altruistic about all this. What I find troubling here is that he says all this without actually criticizing any of the writers who were responsible for offing these cast members, not the least being Stan Lee himself. Don't get me wrong, I have some of the highest respect for Stan the Man thanks to his contributions to the comics world, but if he made mistakes, I don't think we should hold back at criticizing him specifically. Alluding only to the characters without bringing the writers into account is silly and actually insulting to the people who went miles out of their way to get them created in the first place.

Also, where does he get off by bringing up Frederick Foswell, the mysterious Big Man who led the Enforcers in ASM #10, the first time Spidey really ended up facing organized crime rackets? When a character is specifically planned from the start to be created as a villain, as Foswell turned out to be at the end of the story, you can't really complain, because that's just good writing. He may have been a recurring villain...but he was hardly what you'd call a supporting cast member.

And the journalist who wrote the above also praised Identity Crisis, so once more, I'm at a loss to understand why he's so bothered by Spider-Man's loss of a supporting cast. What, does he think that because those characters who've bitten the bullet in the DCU since that time are mostly just minor members from minor books across said universe that this makes them insignificant and their loss not worth complaining about? Gimme a break. Such double-think.

Here's something to consider: if it hadn't been for the DC Universe, would there have been a Marvel Universe? If it hadn't been for Superman, would there have been a Spider-Man? If it hadn't been for Elongated Man, would there have been a Mr. Fantastic? If it hadn't been for Atom, would there have been an Ant-Man?

I want to make perfectly clear that, even if I were exclusively a Marvel reader, I would not dare to deride DC. To do so would also be an insult to every DC comics contributor back to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. They had even less fair treatment than Stan Lee ever got, going through many legal problems for years to get their long-denied rights to the revenue made on their famous creation, the Man of Steel, and that's how today's so-called comics fans repay them?

I do think there's a lesson to be learned in how you show your gratitude, no matter what you think of one company, or both, when DC/Marvel are in focus. Today's comic readers, from what I can tell, and that includes even some of CBG's own "contributors" are so far removed from an understanding of what made comics of yore work so well in their time that they have no sense of respect for either company, IMO. And that's something that needs to be changed, specifically, back to what it was earlier.

Copyright 2009 Avi Green. All rights reserved.

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