Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Nerd Rage #1: Cassandra Cain as Batgirl

Good for frightening crooks
Bad for Children's Parties

This past Saturday I had a somewhat intense conversation with DJ Muppet about the comic book character Cassandra Cain and her mistreatment at DC Comics (For the record we were talking in agreement, not arguing. We’re on the same page on this one). If you don’t know who that is I can’t really blame you for it, but you certainly know her superhero alter ego Batgirl. “Batgirl?” you ask with a questioning glare. “Isn’t Batgirl Commissioner Gordon’s daughter? I saw the 60’s Batman TV Show/Batman: The Animated Series/Whatever and she was totally that redheaded chick.” Yes, congratulations; you have mastered being a casual comic book fan. Please except the prize of a normal social life and lack of mocking by your peers for liking childish things.
It is true the classic Batgirl was indeed Barbara Gordon who is either the Commissioner’s daughter or niece depending on the writer. However in 1988, in the pages of the Alan Moore written graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke, Barbara was shot (Among other things) by the Joker in a sadistic effort to drive Commissioner Gordon insane and ultimately lost the use of her legs. She gave up being Batgirl and instead became Oracle, using her high intelligence and computer expertise to act as an information broker and communication network for the superhero community and later becoming the leader of the all-female mostly female team the Birds of Prey. So while she is thought of as being Batgirl in pop culture in the comic books she hasn’t held that title in over 20 years. By the way, Mr. Casual Fan, what’s it like to be able to hold a conversation about sports rather than useless info about fictional characters that no one cares about? FOOTBALL!
Cassandra Cain is likely more of a mystery to you than Barbara so I’ll enlighten you. After Miss Gordon was forced to give up the role the identity of Batgirl went unused for eleven years. In 1999 a mysterious new Batgirl debuted during the No Man’s Land storyline (Short Version: An Earthquake basically destroys Gotham City and the US government says “Screw ‘em, that place sucks anyway”). It turns out that the woman behind the mask was none other than the Huntress aka Helena Bertinelli who, long story short, has something of a chip on her shoulder. Since Batman freaking hates the Huntress he immediately strips her of the mantle (Apparently he can do that). Introduced in the same story was Cassandra, a young Asian-American martial arts prodigy who works for Oracle, and Batman gives her the costume he stole claimed, presumably to metaphorically flip Helena off.
Seconds before Batman tosses her off a building
So there you have it. Cassandra became the Batgirl for the 21st Century. She was very capable, not at all the damsel in distress archetype that Barbara occasionally fulfilled during the Silver Age of Comics. Hell, she was a better fighter than Batman and could defeat him so long as it was a fair fight (It’s never a fair fight with Batman however, so he still wins). She’s a minority, adding a badly needed Asian superhero to the DC Universe. And it didn’t feel all that forced, like it often does when such a change takes place. She also was one of the more compelling characters than the average person introduced in comics around that point. Cassandra is the daughter of David Cain, a master assassin, and Lady Shiva, one of the world’s top three martial artists and all around murderer. She was born with a natural talent for martial arts as well as an innate ability to read people’s body language and predict movement. In order to perfect this skill she wasn’t taught how to read, she wasn’t taught how to write, she wasn’t taught how to talk. Her only form of communication: violence. This horrifying display of child abuse was done in order to create the perfect bodyguard and assassin for semi-immortal super villain Ra’s al Ghul, Batman’s other archenemy. At some point, I think she was supposed to be eight years old, Cain forced the now extremely deadly little girl to kill a business man. So of course she reads his body language and can tell what he’s feeling as he dies. I’d like to think that this was an obvious possibility and Ghul's League of Assassins should have taken this into consideration. Well I guess if super villains were smart then they wouldn’t keep losing to guys in tights. Anyway SHOCKINGLY the very young girl was traumatized by the event and subsequently ran away. She swore she’d never take a life again.
Pictured: Badass
So years later she resurfaces in Gotham City and, partly because he was impressed with her skills and story and partly because he thinks the Huntress can suck-it, Batman allows Cassandra to become the new Batgirl and takes her under his wing (In as much as Batman does with someone who isn’t named “Robin”…and isn't a boy). As Batgirl she was unique. She was mute due to her upbringing which brought a certain mystique to the character. She was, more so than any other member of the Batman Family, a woman in desperate need of redemption. Other people decided that she was going to be a sword that the League of Assassins would use to kill, but she strove to become a shield used for protecting the innocent. At the same time during her solo series she tried to connect to people in spite of her limitations, ultimately growing as a person (She eventually learns how to talk).
So here, my friends, we have a strong female hero who doesn’t play second fiddle to the boys. She was armed with an interesting background and huge potential for character growth which she would achieve. So what’s the problem? She sounds like the perfect character as far as my usual critiques go. Well unfortunately DC doesn’t seem to share my appreciation of the character. Specifically a weird series of events happened to poor Cassandra in the pages of the comics. DJ Muppet and I were questioning whether the company was sexist and/or possibly racist. I’ll tell you what we talked about:
In 2005 DC ran a large scale crossover called Infinite Crisis which was supposed to shake up the status quo. This storyline was followed up with One Year Later. Exactly what it sounded like; the continuity of all of DC’s books was pushed forward one year, regardless of whether it fit in with the current storyline of any title. So most characters wound up in vastly altered situations than where they were merely thirty days (Real Time) earlier. When last we saw Cassandra she had defeated her mother Lady Shiva in a life or death battle where she may or may not have killed and resurrected her (It’s a long story) and apparently retired as Batgirl. Her comic was certainly canceled. So during One Year Later, in the pages of the Robin comic, she resurfaced…as the leader of the League of Assassins.
"Because not murdering people was boring"
Take a few seconds to let that soak in. Cassandra Cain, a girl so disturbed by killing that she dedicated her life to being a peacekeeper, is now leader of the foremost organization for murdering folk for money (Which sometimes dabbles in attempted genocide). Not only that but she framed Robin for a murder she committed. She framed Robin for a murder she committed! she framed robin for a murder she committed!!! She even gave Tim a goddamn “Join Me and We Shall Rule the World” speech like a flipping dime store Darth Vader (Very articulately, I might add. Pretty good for a girl who only learned how to talk kind of recently). Somehow, within the year that passed in the “Comic Book World”, Cassandra had done a complete 180 personality change and gone back on everything she believed in. Again this was just about a month (Or three) for us so it was very jarring for fans of the character. She was a super villain, having taken Ra’s al Ghul’s place. This made so little sense that I can’t…unbad…type.
So for the next few months Cassandra would appear in a few books as a villainous version of Batgirl, which went over extremely poorly with fans. They were, understandably, enraged by DC’s decision in regards to this change and it was pretty universally considered character derailment for her. At some point Dan DiDio, head honcho of DC, made remarks along the lines of “It’s great to see people care so deeply about a character and be so invested with what we’re doing” when asked by fans why Cassandra had suddenly become evil. That response was clearly political tip-toeing though and it told us nothing. Eventually it was revealed that Batgirl had been brainwashed with drugs by Deathstroke the Terminator, archenemy of the Teen Titans, into doing all these things but when you stop and think about it that doesn’t make sense at all. I don’t understand his motivation at all to do this nor do I understand what real benefit it gave him (Plus it forced Cassandra to be submissive to a man. That’s not suspicious at all!). As soon as Deathstroke was revealed as the mastermind Robin was able to free her of his control and suddenly all was forgiven and Cassandra was back on the side of angels where she belonged.
Staff Writer: Crap! Fans don't like the new Evil Batgirl!
Dan DiDio: Quick! Make up something up!
Dude, that sounds like someone covering their ass. While DC might say that they were always planning on the story going in this direction the way it went down screams backpedaling to me. I suspect that DC thought it might be interesting to recast Cassandra in a villainous role, maybe to replace Lady Shiva who was kind of an anti-hero at the time, but severely underestimated how beloved the character was. So when fans revolted they quickly changed their minds. This alone is not enough to make me furious. Sure I was bothered when this happened, but it was nothing compared to the One More Day debacle with Spider-Man how Spider-Man is clearly a single ladies’ man who plays the field all the time.
So Batgirl is a hero again and all is right in the world. She gets a miniseries, joins the Outsiders, and now has a bit more things to seek redemption for during. Not ideal but not too bad. Batman even adopts her, bringing her more into the fold in his war on crime. However things went south really quickly. Batman was killed in the crossover Final Crisis (He didn’t actually die. In reality he was nvihuvbialbvilqbfvilibiablcSO confusing!!!!) and then, because she is apparently extremely weak willed and completely uninterested in honoring her mentor and adoptive father, she quits being Batgirl for a second time this time with literally no fanfare. In the pages of the new Batgirl comic in one panel she’s fighting some thugs with The Spoiler (Stephanie Brown, who has her own history with DC screwing female characters over) and by the last panel of the same page she nonchalantly tosses away her costume and then disappears! Like walks off into the night never to be seen again. Instead the Spoiler takes the reins of being Batgirl in the new ongoing series.
Think about this with me for a second: A capable, powerful, intriguing, complex and Asian character suddenly out of nowhere gets a character alteration that everyone hates so DC quickly changes it. Then, after a criminally short time with her being back in action, they replace her with a considerably less interesting PRETTY BLONDE WHITE GIRL!
Phew! I feel safer now that she's white
Nothing against Stephanie Brown. I love Stephanie Brown and I’m glad DC undid her horribly unnecessary death from a few years back. I liked her as the Spoiler and I liked her when she was briefly Robin (Though Batman didn’t) but I don’t understand what benefit there was to having her suddenly replacing Cassandra. She is nowhere near as deep nor is she as thought provoking as the former assassin. It’s made worse that I read the first few issues and they were awful. It almost seemed as if DC just wants Cassandra out of the way and their first attempt went wrong so this time they just switched her with an equally misused character and hoped no one complained. This all happened a little while ago, I should say, but this is not the only instance of minority superhero who lost their slot to a white person. Ray Palmer, The Atom, who returned to Earth after abandoning it years ago steps back into the limelight while his Asian replacement, Ryan Choi, was recently killed. Ronnie Raymond, who was dead, replaced Jason Rusch as the primary component in the Firestorm Matrix (It’s a little complex, but what’s simple is that Firestorm was black, now he’s white).
It’s a weird trend, but I don’t want to throw out words like “racist” because you can’t ever be certain where storylines are going. Perhaps, with Batman returning from the dead soon, Cassandra may come back with a good explanation for her departure. The other stories involving those other characters are ongoing as well, I’m fairly sure. However I can’t help but relate what some of my friends (Who were white) said: that this is a whitewash. Whether that’s true or not we certainly lost one of the best characters DC had to offer and we are all worse off for it.
To be clear: I really like Stephanie Brown
But that's a rant for another day

8 comments:

  1. You've got the right of it. I don't know if I would label it as racism more just general incompetence on DC's part. Or they did it purely to cause an uproar.

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  2. It's true that I may have been exaggerating a bit as far as it being racist (I can be pretty sensitive about that button), but the implications are a little suspicious nonetheless.

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  3. To me, Cassandra was a boring character with little in the way of personality. I don't think her "turning evil" was DC looking to get rid of an Asian character, it was DC trying to do something with a character that they thought wasn't working. And Steph becoming the new Batgirl made sense, who else would they have picked for it once the higher ups decided they didn't want Barbara Gordon to regain the use of her legs?

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  4. Fair enough. Though I don't really see why Stephanie Brown is any more interesting than Cassandra Cain. That, I assume, is a matter of taste/opinion and can't really be debated.

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  5. I was really hoping that the Young Justice series that started up recently would make up for the suspicious doing-away of Cassie, but I was disappointed. I did read somewhere that Artemis--the blonde, blue-eyed archer--was supposed to be half Vietnamese, but...

    It really is too bad about Cassie's current status as Practically Invisible; she was just overall a really intriguing character to me. And it was heartening to see a (legitimately) half-Asian major character. :(

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  6. There's an overall lack of Asian characters in the DCU right now, which is too bad. Just ask Ryan Choi (RIP). I certainly wouldn't mind seeing Cassandra show up on Young Justice, but that seems...unlikely

    If Artemis is supposed to be half Vietnamese then I hope that's actually touched on in the story. Because right now she seems very....white.

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  7. Do you know how glorious it is to find a compacted form of Cass' storyline to show people? Comics can get so confusing even when the characters aren't completely derailed by bizarre story arcs. Excellent job.

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