“Congratulations. Even I have never beaten Shiva hand-to-hand.”
-Batman to Batgirl after she defeats Lady Shiva in “Bruce Wayne: Fugitive Volume 1” (2002)
In the fictional world of superheroes, the battle of the sexes can be very literal. In the DC Comics Universe, many femmes fatales have fought with and against Batman. These include the good, in the form of Batgirl and Batwoman, the bad, in the shape of Lady Shiva, and the sometimes good and sometimes bad and overall we don’t really know for sure most of the time, characterized by Catwoman.
But let's focus on the good and Batgirl here. First introduced in the 1960s by Bill Finger and Sheldon Moldoff, Batgirl has had many iterations over the years. One of my favorites was the Barbara Gordon Batgirl (Chief Gordon’s daughter) who appeared in Detective Comics #359 in January of 1967. The Batgirl of Cassandra Cain was introduced in Batman #567 in July 1999. My all time favorite Batgirl is Stephanie Brown and in particular the run of Bryan Q. Miller. I really like how she grew from a renegade in the form of Spoiler, was a Robin, and then got her time to shine as Batgirl.
As we anticipate Batman V Superman later this month, let's consider now the idea of Batgirl's true potential as a crime fighter. Could she hold her own with the Dark Knight? I previously explored these ideas in Becoming Batman ("Could Batgirl Beat Batman?),Project Superhero (where Jessie focuses on Batgirl as her ideal superhero), and in a previous post here about women in comics.
Before getting into skill and ability, it has to be admitted that there are some differences between men and women. But when it comes down to physical skill and ability a lot of the differences are really related to scaling factors. This is deliberately oversimplified, but a bigger body is typically stronger. Since, on average, men are bigger than women, they are stronger. The point is men aren't stronger simply because they are men.
I've chosen here to focus on the version of Batgirl seen in Cassandra Cain. Cassandara was originally shown as having the most legitimate training pedigree of any Batgirl. In the2005 graphic novel “Batgirl: Kicking Assassins”, we learn that she has trained fromchildhood to be a martial artist par excellence and is a extremely well trained and competent fighter. In our fictional fight off between Batman and Batgirl we'll start far away and move close in considering use of tools (weapons), striking and kicking, throwing, and grappling.
So let's start our exploration of the Battle of the Bats with the elephant in the room--physical size. A key issue in combat is the size of the opponent and their vulnerable areas. Using baseball as an example, it is more difficult for a pitcher to throw strikes to a very small batter than it is to a very large batter because the absolute vertical size of the strike zone is much smaller. Since the strike zone is scaled to each batter problems with variability and error when throwing to the smaller batter creates more difficult. Replace "strike zone" with "vulnerable area" and you have a real challenge for Batman. Especially since he is always using non-lethal force which relies on precise strikes.
The use of weaponry is the great equalizer in fighting, even in the case of the limited tools that Batman and Batgirl would use like batarangs or impact weapons such as a staff or cudgel. Unlike using hands or feet (or elbows, knees, etc) as weapons, actual hand held weapons have their own mechanical properties that can be evenly exploited by either of our Bats. There is no real advantage for either Batman or Batgirl when weapons are used.
At the range of striking and kicking, I can vouch from practical experience that fighting smaller opponents is much more difficult than larger opponents. When I used to fight competitively I always preferred an opponent my size. While I had a larger reach than the smaller opponents I did compete against I did not enjoy fighting down toward smaller targets and was susceptible to quick counter attacks. A key part of Batgirl’s strategy when fighting Batman would be based upon waiting for Batman to close the distance between them with his attacks and counter-attacking after parrying his attack or simply as he closes in.
Because Batgirl is physically smaller and of lower absolute strength and power than Batman, it might be assumed her ability to hit his larger targets would be ineffective. Although Batman’s punch has more destructive power (ability to transfer momentum) than does Batgirl’s, her smaller limbs can be moved faster with high kinetic energy. Also, Batgirl is striking with hands and feet that have smaller areas and therefore the pressure is higher in her strikes. While Batman’s attacks may not as easily hit the vital points on Batgirl’s body, she still will absorb a lot of “body blows” which will be very fatiguing and tiring. Batgirl has to use her smaller size combined with her technical skill when fighting Batman.
The scaling issue comes up again when we are talking about throwing. Batman is taller than Batgirl and therefore has a higher center of mass making it is easier for him to be thrown than if he were shorter and of similar size to Batgirl. Assuming relatively equal technical ability, we will give the slight nod to Batgirl.
Lastly, we come to ground fighting with grappling, wrestling and submission holds. While skill and technique are still of huge importance, for fighting on the ground absolute strength is much more important than in any of the other areas of fighting. Since Batman has higher absolute strength, he has a clear advantage over Batgirl here. Batgirl would need to minimize Batman’s advantage by keeping him from closing the distance that makes grappling a likely outcome. Batgirl needs Batman to stay upright and fighting with her to have a chance.
In the story "Tough Love" in Batgirl #50 from May of 2004 a real fight starts between the two when Batman asked Batgirl to “stand down”. An evil mad-scientist (who else) sprays them with a drug that causes extreme behavior. This causes escalation of a fight that eventually covers most of Gotham City and an entire comic book with Batgirl holding her own against the Caped Crusader.
Overall and taken on balance, in Batman’s world just as in our own world, women and men can have equivalent performance when skill and ability are the main criteria for success. Having said that, I would really have liked a nod to Batgirl helping Batman against Superman in "Dawn of Justice".
No offense, of course, to Wonder Woman on International Women's Day.
(c) E. Paul Zehr (201