Arts & Culture News

The Dallas Origins Of Batgirl, the First Superheroine on Screen

Steve Hunter's mural on Bishop Avenue is an homage to one-time Oak Cliff resident Yvonne Craig.
Steve Hunter's mural on Bishop Avenue is an homage to one-time Oak Cliff resident Yvonne Craig. Michael Amonett
If you need further evidence that corporations are firmly in charge of the future of entertainment, just look at the shenanigans at Warner Bros. The prized film studio recently merged with Discovery, and the new CEO David Zazlav is certainly being ruthless in his new leadership. In the wake of the merger, several projects that were in development were axed, including the ambitious new streaming service CNN+.

What’s even more disturbing is that Warner Bros. Discovery has also pulled several nearly completed projects from release; animators claimed that the animated sequel Scoob! Holiday Haunt was “90%” completed, and active projects such as new seasons of Gentlemen Jack, Close Enough, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Raised by Wolves, Made for Love and several Looney Toons projects were halted. However, Warner Bros. could surely find a new path for the original film Batgirl, which was set to be released on HBO Max later this year, right?

That’s not the case. Warner Bros. Discovery made the call to cancel the film altogether, claiming that it was “irredeemable” and could dilute the brand. That’s right. No theaters, no HBO Max, not even a half-hearted VOD release. Although Batgirl may very well have been a disaster, canceling a project on which people worked hard is a fairly depressing move for the industry right now. It’s also worth noting that Warner Bros. is still planning to release The Flash next year, despite the fact that lead actor Ezra Miller could be facing 26 years in prison for burglary charges.

The move is also a disservice to one of the greatest heroines in the DC Comics’ universe. Batgirl was created in 1961 as the character Betty Kane, but the modern characterization didn’t debut until Detective Comics issue 359 in January of 1967. The new Batgirl’s alter ego was Barbara Gordon, the spry young daughter of Commissioner Jim Gordon, Batman’s only friend on the Gotham police force. Batgirl has grown even more popular since, appearing in popular storylines such as the controversial 1988 graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke.

Although Batgirl’s best adventures were in the comics, she has been brought to the screen several times. Alicia Silverstone may have won a “Razzie” award for Worst Supporting Actress in 1997’s Batman & Robin for her role as Barbara, but the versions of Batgirl that debuted in 1992 on Batman: The Animated Series in 2008's Batman: The Brave and the Bold and 2018's Titans were better received. However, it was actually a Dallas actress who first brought Batgirl to life, and she remains an integral part of the character’s legacy.

Although Yvonne Craig was born in Illinois, she moved with her family to the Oak Cliff area in 1951 when she was 14. She attended Greiner Middle School and Sunset High School. As Craig told the Observer's Robert Wilonsky in 2011, she "didn't have the best experience in Dallas schools."

Craig traveled to Hollywood in the late 1950s with dreams of becoming a professional ballerina, but instead found a career in acting, appearing in an early episode of Perry Mason, and later in such Hollywood blockbusters as High Time, It Happened At The World’s Fair, Seven Women From Hell and Kissin’ Cousins. Her co-stars included Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, Charles Bronson and her future Batman co-star Cesar Romero.

Craig is an integral part of comic book history and was a huge catalyst for representation as the first female superhero of TV.

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Batman was one of the biggest television shows of its time. Although Bob Kane’s original depiction of the character in the 1930s comic strips called for a darker, brooding character, the series starring Adam West and Burt Ward was known for its playful cheekiness, ridiculous storylines and subtle innuendos. Batman's popularity peaked when a theatrical film debuted in 1966, but the series began to decline over time. When ratings began to fall ahead of the third season, the creators felt that bringing in new female co-stars — Eartha Kitt also came in as Catwoman during Season 3 — would help give the series new life.

Craig first appeared in the show's pilot and later in a promotional short that showed how she befriends both Bruce Wayne and Robin. Batgirl aids her new allies in defeating the villain Killer Moth and officially joins the team. A new version of the iconic theme song with the added “Batgirl!” played afterwards. The short was popular enough to get Batman renewed for a third season, and some fans even assumed that it was the intended pilot for a Batgirl spin-off series.

Reviews at the time praised Craig’s performance. While Batman and Robin's banter had grown a little stale, Batgirl gave a scrappy sense of optimism to the series that didn’t detract from the action. Batman had spiraled into self-parody, and Craig was able to restore the “cool” to the DC Universe. Her memorable debut in the episode "Enter Batgirl, Exit Penguin” saw her facing off against Burgess Meredith’s Oswald Cobblepot. It was the most electrifying Batman had been since its debut, and it’s a shame that Craig was never able to appear in a live-action film.

Sadly, Craig’s addition wasn’t enough to save Batman from getting canceled. The series had plummeted in viewership and ABC made a fast decision. Around the same time, Craig had a guest role in another cult television series that was canceled after its third season: Star Trek. She appeared in full makeup as the alien prisoner Marta in the episode “Whom Gods Destroy.” Craig died in 2015, but her influence lives on in Oak Cliff. A mural dedicated to Batgirl by artist Steve Hunter can be found on the side of a building at 313 N. Bishop Ave., and “OG Batgirl” costumes have frequently appeared at North Texas fan festivals.

The original Batman series has found new appreciation in recent years. Although some DC fans looked down on the show for its campiness in the wake of Tim Burton’s darker take on the character in 1989, Batman has since become steadily accepted as a gleefully silly approach to the beloved characters. Adam West and Burt Ward even reprised their roles for the animated films Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders and Batman vs. Two-Face.

Craig is an integral part of comic book history and was a huge catalyst for representation as the first female superhero of TV, as DC wouldn’t release a theatrical film with a woman at the center until Supergirl in 1984. While Linda Carter gets a lot of the credit for her role as Wonder Woman, Craig had the challenge of joining an existing series and adding something new to the central dynamic.

Yvonne Craig taught girls to be super, and Dallas will always claim her.
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Liam Gaughan has been covering film and television since before he had a driver's license, and in addition to the Observer has been published in About.com, Schmoes Know, Taste of Cinema and The Dallas Morning News. He enjoys checking classic films off of his watchlist and working on spec scripts.

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