On Stephanie Brown’s Batgirl

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I’d like to take a moment to talk about the most underrated of in-continuity Batgirls: Stephanie
Brown. 

Now don’t get me wrong. I love Barbara Gordon, and I love Cassandra Cain. They can both beat the crap out of pretty much anything, and on top of that, they are both well rounded, funny characters with rich back stories and they both represent groups of people that are severely underrepresented in comics.

I know that Stephanie has been labeled as just another white blonde girl, but let me explain why she’s not:

Stephanie Brown is the daughter of third rate Batman villain the Cluemaster (Arthur Brown), and his wife, Crystal, who is a recovering drug addict. Her family was pretty poor when she was a kid. They lived in a not-great neighborhood, and Arthur was not a nice man; abusive toward his wife and daughter, drank heavily, and well…he was a Batman villain, so you get the idea.

Stephanie became the vigilante the Spoiler, to stop her father and put him in jail. She was never adopted by a billionaire, she’s from a lower class background, and she’s a physical (and possibly sexual) abuse survivor. She is unique among the bats for having it rough in a truly realistic way.

Often told she was never going to be good enough, and that she was too reckless for hero work, she carried on. Bubbly, streetwise, funny, and personable, she’s always been great fun to read, because of her can-do give-’em-hell attitude.

During her tenure as the Spoiler, she became pregnant (giving the kid up for adoption), and was soon back swinging around fighting crime. When Tim Drake hung up the Robin suit briefly, it was Stephanie who took over, making her the first and only female Robin in main continuity.

And then not long after, she was brutally tortured and killed by Black Mask during the War Games storyline.

And then things got really ugly.

Because DC Comics editorial tried to sweep Stephanie under a rug, saying that she didn’t count as a Robin and her unfortunate demise was her own fault, and not the fault of biased writers and editors who didn’t want to see a girl in the Robin costume.

Campaigns were launched, complaints were heard, and finally, DC caved and brought Stephanie back from the dead, retconning her death as a fake-out. She was actually hanging out in Africa being a bad-ass, you see.

And then, something surprising happened.

DC handed the Batgirl mantle to Stephanie.

It took the Batgirl mantle away from Cassandra Cain, which sucks, but the thing about the Batgirl mantle is that it is a stepping stone roll into something better. Yes, it took DC a long time to reveal what Cass was up to (being one of the Batman Inc crew, Black Bat), but giving Stephanie Brown this chance to hold her own was important.

It’s important because, again, this character who has come from nothing and has been through so much was underestimated. Not only by the other characters, but by readers and retailers as well. Nobody thought she could hold her own book, and boy were we surprised. What a treat it’s been. It’s funny and action-packed, poignant without hitting you over the head. Stephanie Brown’s Batgirl title is everything a good natured superhero book should be.

And it’s ending after just 24 issues, due to the reboot, which places someone of a much higher social and class status in her place.

Stephanie is a character who has fought hard for her place with the rest of the Gotham Knights, every step of the way. She has learned everything she knows about crime fighting on-panel. We, as readers, have shared in not only her triumphs, but her massive mistakes, and that’s rare.

She is truly a product of the city she’s grown up in. She is not privileged or super duper inhumanly smart. She was not raised by ninja assassins or acrobats. She is as human as you or me, and while she remembers her past and her failures well, she is not weighed down or tortured by them.

Setting aside just how problematic taking Barbara Gordon out of her wheelchair and placing her in a role she has grown out of is, taking the Batgirl mantle from Stephanie, and giving it to a women with a higher income and more status (how many degrees does Babs have again?) is a terrible message.

It’s the message that you have to be privileged to be a hero. And it’s not the first time this message has been delivered.

If you haven’t been following Ms. Brown’s adventures, there are two trade paperbacks available: Batgirl Rising and The Flood.

Comments

  1. says

    Sorry– I know, I know, but I can’t forgive her for not being Cassandra Cain. Stephanie should have gone back to being Robin. & yeah…making Babs Batgirl is…a bad, dumb, bad, dumb choice.

  2. Maria says

    What I found really interesting in this article is Leigh’s analysis of intersecting identities, and paying particular attention to class and education. I think that’s really cool, Leigh. :D

  3. Some guy says

    I like to look at it this way: if a write-in campaign got Stephanie resurrected, maybe another one can bring back Oracle. Heck, we could get it started on this site, if it’s not started already.

  4. says

    The trouble with the idea of ‘bringing back’ Oracle once they have rebooted Barbara as Batgirl is that in order to do it… another generation of readers get to experience a young, athletic female hero being brutally shot down. I dislike the idea of pushing Barbara Gordon back into her old role (and old body), and I hate the idea of losing Oracle as a character, but I hate even MORE the idea of the rebooted Batgirl having the spectre of the Joker hanging over her, doomed to repeat the same storyline. I have a horrible feeling that it’s inevitable, and that it will be the loyal, vocal Oracle fans who get credited with making it happen.

    Basically the whole thing sucks. I loved Barbara Gordon as Batgirl but I don’t see why stories featuring her can’t be set in the past. The thought of a rebooted Birds of Prey featuring Dinah without Oracle has just lost me, right from page one. And I think it’s a very good point that the role of Batgirl (like the role of Robin) is a stepping stone to a more substantial superhero identity, and not an end point in itself.

    I started off thinking that maybe the reboot would be a good thing, but the more I learn about it, the more confused I am about what storylines are getting a ‘hard’ reboot and which are not. Surely it should be one in, all in, not this messy tangle of current and old-school versions of characters?

  5. Havoc says

    Tansy Rayner Roberts,

    I would be okay with them bringing Oracle back if Barbara has a car accident or something else that’s similarly RL-realistic, not a comic book happening. Also if she’s not brutalized by a criminal who hopes to hurt her father through her.

    • Maria says

      @Havoc and Tansy —

      This. It’s not her young athleticism contrasted to her getting injured that makes the storyline upsetting. I mean, hello, we’re living in a historical moment when 25% of vets are disabled, and where the idea that someone could be injured in the line of duty is really tropey. What would make it suck is if she’s gotta get hurt to make a point to someone else. Whatever happens that makes her Oracle again has to be about her plot, not someone else’s.

  6. Leigh says

    Maria,

    Well that was the problem originally. She was shot in The Killing Joke, which is very much about Jim and Batman, and was very much thought to be out a side story that was out of continuity until she then appeared at Jason Todd’s funeral in a wheelchair. And then it was like “oh I guess that was main canon….”

  7. Lindsey says

    Yeah, Killing Joke wasn’t intended to be canon. It was just Alan Moore’s take. I think the end results (up until now) of moving it into canon have been a net positive, in creating Oracle, but it is one of a very few times a fridged girl gets to come out ahead and stronger like a male character.

    On the topic of the post: I never could get into any Batgirl adventures. I didn’t like Robin either mind, and even less because Tim Drake was such a special little guy. But I did like the idea of these tough girls and how the mantle could let them evolve. I also really like it when DC (Or Marvel) allows something to grow and change rather than holding a prized property in stasis. I would have favored Dick remaining Batman if there had been any chance at all of that happening. This current regression is just a huge, huge mistake.

  8. Robin says

    I’m mostly a Dark Horse / Vertigo / Boom! reader, but I might just have to pick up the Stephanie Brown trades. She sounds really interesting.

    As for the reboot turning Barbara back into Batgirl… must they? I’m primarily familiar with Oracle from the short-lived Birds of Prey TV series, but she seemed pretty awesome in that mentor / mission control role. In fact, when Chloe evolved into Watchtower on Smallville, I had some really nice continuity fuzzies for her and Babs. DC superheroes seem to function a lot better with their hacker touchstones as backup.

    And yeah, it seems vastly unfair to take that identity away from someone who was really benefiting from it personally and give it back to someone who’s outgrown it.

  9. says

    Leigh,

    I don’t need a more bad-ass identity! Besides, being spun off into a more fringe role is hardly a win. I liked her Batgirl best of all things– in part because MYTHICALLY she brings something new to the table. She’s an anti-Batman in a lot of ways– her problem is that she HAD parents, & her crystallizing moment is that SHE killed. Anyhow, anyhow, just my particular fan-torch. With Steph…I just think “Girl Wonder” is a super promising pitch that never got its chance.

  10. Nyght says

    I agree stephanie should have her chance. Im really upset that this is happening, ive just found her graphic novels and i love them to bits! There is, in all honesty, one thing id like if they’re so dead-set on re-birthing barbara as batgirl, and thats that they do something with the characters they seem to be dropping from the initial batman universe, give them their own alternative universe, hell give them their own city. I just find that the characters they’re dropping is doing exactly the opposite of what they want it to. it’s the characters like Stephanie and Cassandra that have brought some more younger readers in, just because they’ve made their personalities more relatable and i enjoy reading them. its the same with the newer batmans though. i find them much more enjoyable, like the detective series. These seem to be the stories they’re dropping, and as far as i can tell it wont work. I like oracle, i like her relationship with stephanie. i want to read more stephanie. Why do they have to stop it?

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