Friday, January 14, 2011

Nerd Rage #4: Stephanie Brown’s Tale of Woe

Spoiler Alert: Purple is the New Black
As per the last post I’ve decided to celebrate my One Year Anniversary by writing about my favorite subject: comic books.  I debated exactly what topic I should touch on considering that I didn’t want to accidentally alienate anyone by becoming Angry Comic Nerd (Several essays were scrapped before this one, including the Fanboyish “Problems I have with Superhero Comics”).  But then I remembered my article about Cassandra Cain and how I, at the time, was worried that some people might assume I had ill feelings towards Stephanie Brown.  I love Stephanie Brown and my only issue with her lately was that she replaced Cassandra as Batgirl.  It’s not because I didn’t want her in a high profile title like that I just wanted to live in a world where a monthly Batgirl title and a monthly Spoiler title co-existed.  I also wasn’t in love with Stephanie’s book for the first few issues, but it seems like most everyone else agree that it’s actually very good.  Maybe it picked up after I called it quits.  In any case the fact is that no matter how much you or really any one may say differently in doesn’t change the fact that replacing an Asian character with a blonde white equivalent just has unfortunate implications.
But I never blamed Stephanie for it.  Plus I was happy that she was getting attention, though after the debacle with her character a few years earlier she had tons of publicity.  Yes, despite everything I talked about Cassandra Cain’s unceremonious exit and bizarre turn to villainy that was NOTHING compared to the utter insanity regarding the Death of Stephanie Brown.  Oh she’s better now but good grief did DC Comics open Pandora’s Box when they wrote that story.  Even today the wounds aren’t all healed but then again this is likely one of the company’s biggest blunders of the 2000s.
Before we talk about her death let’s talk about her life.
The Spoiler is the "Buffy Summers" of the Batman Family
Stephanie Brown aka The Spoiler (Which is actually how I think of her) first appeared in Detective Comics #647 in 1992, created by Chuck Dixon and Tom Lyle.  Her origin is somewhat similar to Cassandra Cain’s in that her father was a super villain and much of her motivation involved balancing out his criminal activities (Also for kicks, because that’s how she rolls).  She’s daughter of the Cluemaster, a fairly unremarkable Batman villain from the 60s with a similar modus operandi as the Riddler.  After his most recent return home from prison Stephanie was distraught to lean that, despite supposed plans for going straight, her father had once again turned to crime though this time without the use of his trademark clues.  Angered by this she began leaving clues herself in the hopes of “spoiling” her father’s plan thus becoming the Spoiler.  She donned a costume and began trying to aide Batman and Robin (Tim Drake, the third Robin) though unlike fellow amateurs Kick-Ass and the original Bat-Woman and Bat-Girl she was actually kind of successful at being a superhero; or at least no one nearly beat her to death after a dangerously ill-advised act of vigilante justice…not yet, anyway.  She eventually became a supporting cast member of the new Robin solo title where she and Tim began an uneasy friendship that evolved into a partnership that turned into a pretty long romance.   This book was also one of the main factors in bringing me back into comics after I quit for bit so I have very fond memories of these two characters as a crime fighting duo/couple.  Should DC ever hire me as a writer (Increasingly unlikely due to this cursed blog) I would likely try to bring that relationship back…also I will totally have Dick Grayson marry Barbra Gordon because…why the hell not? [2013 EDIT: I'm over that now. I see no point to it theses days] 

Anyway during her stint as supporting cast member the Robin book got critical acclaim partly because of her teen pregnancy. Yes, years before Juno or MTV’s 16 and Pregnant Stephanie Brown had unknowingly been knocked up by a former boyfriend and the issue was heavily dealt with in the comic (Leading to the baby being put up for adoption).  The point is that she was an important part of Robin’s success during its run in the 90s and she herself was gathering a larger fanbase myself included.  So one would think that, as a crime fighter in Gotham with growing popularity, DC would bring her more into the fold of the Batman books where she would start being used as a larger character rather than a plot device.
Well…not really.  Unfortunately it seems that not many people in DC saw the potential of the character at the time.  Soon the writers began planting the seeds that would eventually lead to her death in 2004.  First was a glimmer of hope in the that revelation that Batman had begun training Stephanie.  Which is super cool on paper.  The number of female superhero associates that Batman has had in his group over the years is small, pretty much limited to Barbra Gordon and a lot of his direct involvement with her and her training is very much depended on retroactive continuity.  Heck, perhaps this could have been the first step to making an official female Robin (I would later eat those words).  After he returned from a mission Stephanie lets it slip to Tim that she knows his secret identity.  You see during their whole relationship Robin hadn’t revealed his civilian identity to the Spoiler due to his incredible loyalty to Batman and fear that it could theoretically compromise his mentors’ operation.  His unwillingness to divulge even his real first name was an elephant in the room for years.  It turned out that while the young hero was on said mission Batman had revealed his partner’s true identity (Why?  Because Batman is a dick, I guess) leading to some rather serious trust issues between the dynamic duo.  So again Miss Brown was more of a plot point to cause conflict between Batman and Robin than a character, but she was being trained by Batman and also begin mentored by the Birds of Prey so things were obviously looking up, right?
Of course not.  Spoiler was soon fired by Batman, probably because the writers didn’t have any real plans for her, and he forbade her from fighting crime.  Why?  Because Batman is a control freak.  We’ve mentioned this before.  What’s worse was that Stephanie was becoming increasingly shrewish as Robin’s girlfriend looking more like a jealous clingy girl than his partner.  After a series of events in his own title Tim was forced to retire as Robin due to strong concerns from his father who had recently learned of his activities.  Distraught by this and other issues with their relationship Stephanie broke into the Batcave and demanded that Batman train her as the new Robin…which, by the way, was very similar to how Tim became Robin in the first place but I suspect that DC was trying to make her seem like something of an undisciplined brat for doing it.  Against his better judgment Batman agreed and thus Stephanie became the fourth Robin and the first official female one.   Now no matter what you say about who should have been Robin at that point the idea of a girl Robin is super awesome.  Bruce Wayne cannot possibly have the same type of relationship he had with his previous partners with this new one so this storyline could have led to a completely different dynamic between the traditional Batman and Robin role.  The possibilities were vast and the future seemed bright.
A bold new partnership that lasted years-
Then came the day Black Mask took a power drill to her.
I’m getting ahead of myself.  Before the Eli Roth-like torturing of one of my favorite characters DC first killed her credibility.  After failing to follow orders during her initial missions Batman once again fired her.  So she was the fourth Robin for just a hot minute, DC displaying their complete disinterest in changing up the Batman/Robin partnership.  To make matters worse Stephanie seemed hell bent on proving that she was an awful and dangerously incompetent character by stealing one of Batman’s SUPER PLANS in order to win his respect, screws it up something fierce, and causes a massive gang war (As told in Batman: War Games).  Great, because I love it when my favorite characters are depicted as spoiled assholes who are also morons despite not being nearly as bad in the past.  I’m fairly certain that this is all a matter of plot convenience.  The writers wanted to kick off this War Games storyline and Stephanie was the sacrificial lamb they chose to use.  Anyway the villain Black Mask kidnaps her during all this and tortures her near to death with a power drill in order to get information that would soon elevate his status to A-list villain.  So the whole point of this was to make a B-rate villain more menacing?  Women in refrigerators indeed.
Despite managing to crawl her way to a clinic Stephanie died from her injuries; her last words before her demise was asking Batman, who had snuck into her room in her last moments, whether she was ever truly Robin to which he replies “Yes.”  Though the circumstances leading to her death were stupid, forced, and incredibly violent at least her last panel alive was a sweet and emotional scene, if depressing.
Also not too much long after her death it was revealed that Leslie Thompkins, the doctor who ran the clinic, had apparently let the Spoiler die from her injuries as a warning to Batman about using children in his war on crime.  WHAT?!  For those of you who don’t know Leslie is a longtime supporting character of Batman who was a friend of his parents and unofficial guardian of a young Bruce Wayne.  In fact she’s one of the few people to know about his dual identity.  While she disapproves of his activities due to her pacifists beliefs (So strong that she helps anyone who comes into her clinic, even if they’re super villains) she loves him like a son.  Well apparently she had lost her goddamn mind here because she basically MURDERS Stephanie to make a point, which go against everything I understand about her character.  In the end Batman chases her out of the country and threatens to throw her in prison if she ever comes back into the US or practice medicine again.  So basically during this dumb storyline not only did DC kill one strong female character but they also ruined a second one.  Bravo, DC, bravo.
Cue slow clap
I’m not sure why DC felt they needed to kill her off at all.  Surely she could have survived and the brutal experience could have been just as relevant to the story. Oh wait, I’m being silly.  Her death was a one of the driving story points of the sequel to War Games Batman: War Crimes where Batman is (rightfully) accused of endangering children.  So even in death the Spoiler is still a plot device.  Fantastic.
Her death, while upsetting for her fans, isn’t really the only problem.  First of all it was the way she died as it has been accused of being a very sexually charged death.  A man murders a teenage girl with a phallic object; I can see where one would get that idea.   Another point was that Tim, now back as Robin, didn’t do all that much on-panel grieving.  This is probably not as important as it seems but it just would have been nice to see the character more affected by the death of his girlfriend.  Hell they wasted a perfectly good plot with him trying to cope with the fact that his rejection of the “Robin” mantle may have led directly to her death.  I don’t think that ever happened, or at least not as much as it should have (Conversely Robin fell to pieces a few years later when his friends Superboy and Impulse/(Yuck)Kid Flash/The Flash/Bart Allen were murdered).  Plus some fans thought that Batman himself was to blame and even suspected that his recruitment of Stephanie in the first place was a ploy to lure Tim back into the fold.
However the big problem was, following her death, Batman did not put up a memorial in her honor.  For years after the death of the second Robin Jason Todd a memorial with his costume has been on display in the Batcave consistently.  Fans believed that, seeing as she too was a Robin, Stephanie deserved such a tribute as well.  When directly asked why she hadn’t received the honor by fans then DC editor-in-chief equivalent Dan DiDio responded “She was never really Robin” which was apparently DC’s official stance on the subject.  And then the internet exploded.
Fans were livid by the casual treatment of the character and cries of sexism were declared.  The Women in Refrigerators topic, originally started by now hotshot DC writer Gail Simone a few years prior, once again lured its head.  Large amount of websites seemed to pop up not just because the Spoiler was killed and forgotten but what the act meant about gender in comics.  So yeah, good job on that DC.   After a few years of this in the pages of Robin, once again written by Chuck Dixon, a girl wearing the costume of the Spoiler began following Tim around.  It soon turned out that this girl was in fact Stephanie Brown alive and well.  Apparently, according to this new retcon, she never died in the first place.  Actually Dr. Thompkins had faked her death and smuggled her out of the country so that she could recover in peace.  Also Batman, he says, actually suspected as such which is why he never put a memorial up.
Really?  This was the best they could do?
Now let’s ignore that this retcon is the clearest form of back peddling I’ve seen in comics since Marvel declared that Magneto didn’t actually kill all those people in New York City in the pages of New X-Men (Look it up).  Let’s also ignore that the doctor’s plan was pretty stupid.  Why in God’s name didn’t Batman verify she was alive if he “suspected as much.”  He practically ran Thompkins out of the damn country with an elephant gun because of what she did.  How does a man with a compulsive need to be in control of everything and to constantly outsmart his friends not bother to double check to make sure his FORMER SIDEKICK AND PARTNER was really dead?  Was he asleep during his investigation?    I’m betting that he did in fact find some evidence that may have implied her death was more than it seemed but basically just said “I can either track down Stephanie Brown or catch the new season of Lost.  Meh, f**k her.”
"George W. Batman does not care about women"
Thankfully there’s a happy ending as not only has Stephanie finally gotten a chance to shine as Batgirl it turns out that the reason Cassandra quit so suddenly actually due to orders from Batman in the case of his death meaning he planned the whole thing from day one (Which doesn’t make too much sense either, but we got to take what we can get).  And also the two heroes FINALLY came to terms with each other in Bruce Wayne: The Road Home: Batgirl #1 as Batman has not only given his blessing for her to continue working as Batgirl but has accepted her as a member of the Batman Family, something she has been seeking for eighteen years (Real time).
One day perhaps the Spoiler will return
 For now let's enjoy her as Batgirl
Thanks for reading.  Let’s make the next year of Beta is Dead even better than this last one!


  1. Wow, so much agreement. Well, not sure about Tim/Steph & Dick/Babs romances, but the rest, yeah.

  2. Fair enough. To each their own, and what not.

  3. The Spoiler costume was not purple, it was eggplant. Purple would have looked stupid.


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