Q&A with Marieke Nijkamp: The Oracle Code
*This Q&A contains spoilers for the graphic novel, The Oracle Code available March 10, 2020, DC Comics
Content warnings: eugenics, institutionalization, ableism, medical experimentation, trauma
Last year you were on my podcast, Disability Visibility, talking about young adult (YA) literature and you mentioned after the recording your upcoming graphic novel for DC Comics. How did you get the opportunity to write this and how does it feel to have The Oracle Code coming out now?
DC invited me to pitch something for their (then) to-be-announced YA line, and while they gave me the freedom to pitch any character I wanted to explore, they suggested Barbara Gordon… as Oracle.
And obviously I wasn’t going to say no to that!
You are the author of several YA novels such as This Is Where It Ends and Before I Let Go. What is different about writing for a graphic novel compared to your previous work? What are some things you learned in writing The Oracle Code?
Writing a graphic novel is so much more immediately collaborative. No novel stands on its own, and it’s always a matter of teamwork. But with graphic novels, the writer’s work really is only a small fraction of the book. Without the art, without the colors, without the lettering, none of it would work. And I loved that!
In terms of what I thought, I think mainly different ways to approach story. Considering all the various elements. Winnowing down dialogue to the most important words. And especially in terms of collaboration–playing to each other’s strengths.
Barbara Gordon, aka Oracle, is an iconic disabled character in the DC universe. What did you want to explore with Barbara/Oracle that is different from previous stories about her, especially since this character is a teenager instead of an adult?
The Oracle Code is an origin story in a lot of ways, but mostly in the sense that, in main continuity, we don’t really see the transition from Barbara to Oracle. A lot of it happens on the other side of a computer.
Here, the transition happens on the page. Babs is a young hacker who trails her father to an active crime scene and ends up being shot. She goes to the Arkham Center for Independence to adjust to life in her wheelchair. And as a result of that, she’s fighting to figure out who she is anymore. It isn’t until she finds hacks and puzzles and creepy mysteries in the Center around her that she begins to realize she’s still Babs. How she is has changed, but who she is hasn’t.
Of course, she has to address her own ghosts before she can investigate the ones in the Center!
What was it like collaborating with the artist Manuel Preitano on the look and style of The Oracle Code? Did you have any input on the details that made the illustrations feel authentic?
Manuel did such an amazing job with the art! From the very first moment and the very first sketches it was clear he *got* the characters, and he did such a wonderful job bringing the world to life.
When it came to things like making sure he got the wheelchairs and various assistive devices etc. right, we just discussed it openly. I sent him a whole bunch of photos and videos and he took such care with it!
Barbara becomes friends with Yeong, Issy, and Jena during her time at the Arkham Center for Independence (*snarf*). How does the power of community and friendships with other disabled people help Barbara’s sense of self?
When Barbara first arrives at the Center, she is struggling hard. She feels like she doesn’t know who she is anymore. She lost her best friend. And she’s not ready to trust anyone. But the girls at the Center refuse to let her isolate herself from the world, because in one way or another, they’ve all been where she is now. They all know how important community is. And they’re definitely an essential factor for Babs to start her journey toward self-acceptance.
So it was really important to me to have the girls there. To be able to normalize disability like that in this book (because pretty much every teen on the page is disabled!) And to give Babs disabled mentors, both to keep her from falling and to teach her joy.
There are some pretty heavy themes in The Oracle Code, one of them the trauma of becoming newly disabled. Can you tell me more about the importance of acknowledging fear and trauma as part of the disability experience for some people and how it expands what we think of as disability representation?
Barbara goes through a whole range of emotions in this book. She’s grieving. She’s angry. She’s terrified. She’s traumatized. I wanted to give space to all of those emotions, because all of them are valid.
And they’re not usually emotions that disabled characters (or even: people) are allowed to have. For the longest time, ‘disability representation’ meant only presenting us as cheerful, kind, naive, perfect. When anger happened, it happened in the context of teaching disabled characters to be kind (which will inevitably cure them). When grief happened, it happened in the context of insurmountable grief, of knowing that being disabled means there will never be a happily ever after, only certain death.
Reclaiming those stories means being allowed to feel as we do.
The Oracle Code challenges societal narratives on cures, that is, the pressure to be ‘fixed’ or ‘made whole’ by the medical industrial complex and the very people who care about us such as friends and family. Why are these prevailing beliefs, in the guise of ‘therapy’ and removal of suffering and pain, so dangerous to disabled people, especially young disabled people?
Fixing implies that we’re broken.
That we’re not right the way we are.
Not being whole implies that we’re lesser.
And that’s exactly what makes these believes so dangerous to disabled people. Because implicitly, all these ideas cast as not fully human. At best that turns into the idea that we’re not as valuable as abled people, at worst that we’re a threat to humanity and a drain on resources. Historically, that perceived lack of humanity or human value has been used to argue in favor of eugenics, institutionalization, inequality, denying us our agency.
And on an individual level too, being told that you’re broken is pervasive. It stands in the way of access. It stands in the way of acceptance.
Of course, all of this isn’t to say that the medical complex is by definition The Worst. I truly believe most doctors have the best intentions, and goodness knows I’m grateful for meds and assistive devices! But it’s the medical model vs. social model of disability every time, isn’t it? And even the best intentions can harm.
Another issue I am glad to see depicted is the exploitation and devaluation of disabled people. It’s painful yet so true that disabled people have been hidden and tortured in institutions with the idea that they will not be missed and are serving ‘the greater good.’ How does this resonate with the not-so-distant past and today?
I had an argument with someone recently that the idea that stories like these are old and tired, that the evil institutions have become such a cliché… and several hours later news broke about torture and abuse at another care facility.
It wish it wasn’t the case. I wish we were well past Bedlam scenarios. But that’s still not true, sometimes even with the very best of intentions.
And I think it boils down to what we talked about for the previous question as well. When you don’t see someone as fully human, you have no reason to treat them with humanity.
With the publication of The Oracle Code, what do you want to see and work on next? What are some projects that excite you this year and beyond?
I actually have another book coming out later this year. Even If We Break is a prose YA novel, all about a group of teens who goes off to a cabin in the woods, to play the RPG has bound them together for years, until everything falls to pieces. It’s a thriller. It’s wonderfully queer. And (obviously), two of the main characters are disabled.
Marieke Nijkamp was born and raised in the Netherlands. A lifelong student of stories, language, and ideas, she spends as much time in fictional worlds as she does the real world. She loves to travel, roll dice, and daydream.
Marieke’s YA novels include: This Is Where It Ends, which follows four teens during the fifty-four minutes of a school shooting. And Before I Let Go, a haunting young adult murder mystery set during a cruel Alaskan winter. Additionally, Marieke is the editor of Unbroken, an anthology of 13 stories starring disabled teens, written by disabled authors.
Support Disability Media and Culture
DONATE to the Disability Visibility Project®