Saturday, August 23, 2014

Favorite DC Characters #2 - Cassandra Cain

Character: Batgirl (Cassandra Cain)

Creators: Kelley Puckett and Daimon Scott

First appearance: Batman #567

First encounter: Robin #132. I was still buying the book at the time, and to kick off the post-War Games status quo of both characters taking over for Nightwing in Bludhaven, Tim and Cass had a team-up. I had to buy her book to get the other half of the story, and I kept going.

Definitive writer: Kelley Puckett, though I may be more fond of Anderson Gabrych's run than others.

Definitive artist: Daimon Scott. Scott was very good at drawing a Cassandra who looked like she was nothing but whipcord muscles, which is what I'd expect for someone who was raised to be a perfect weapon by an exacting taskmaster, and then spent several years living on the streets. Also Scott knew how to draw action, kind of important for a character defined by it.

Favorite moment or story: Cassandra has a lot of good moments. The times she and Steph spent together, the time she took down the Brotherhood of Evil single-handed. The time she KO'ed Shiva with a sucker-punch using a dislocated arm. The time she beat Shiva, straight up. What I'm going to go with is from Batgirl #6. Cass is trying to protect this man who developed telepathy after being experimented on by shadowy forces. It's not going well, because in his attempt to communicate with her, he reordered her brain along more normal lines. She can speak now, but she can "read" people's body language any longer. She's already been KO'ed by someone way beneath her skill level, and struggled mightily against just a few guys with guns. In her frustration - with them and herself - she even stopped one of the guy's hearts for a few moments after he shot one of his one men, just so he could see what it was like. Which made Batman very edgy.

But they've found the telepath, and while Batman mounts a rescue, another kill team is approaching from the rear of the house. Cassandra takes most of them out, but there's one left, with a gun aimed right at her - and the other member of his team directly behind her if she dodges. Unsure that she could stop him from firing if she dodges,Cass goes right at him, ignoring the bullets (who starts firing faster when she sees she's not stopping), and knocking the guy out, while making sure no one dies.

What I like about her: The first time I saw Cassandra Cain in a comic, she was saving Tim Drake's butt from some idiot named Shrike. She did the dramatic last page appearance at the end of Robin #132, then proceeded to trounce Shrike in just a few pages at the start of Batgirl #58. Looking back, this kind of did Tim a disservice. He's held his own against King Snake before, but Shrike whupped him, and I can't believe Shrike's actually better than King Snake. Blind martial artists are almost always better than non-blind martial artists, right?

At the time, though, I didn't care. This Batgirl showed up, kicked this bad guy's butt with contemptuous ease, and even mixed in a little smack talk (she tells him, 'I can see what you're going to do next, and it bores me'), before dodging his last desperate attack and dropping him with a quick chop to the neck. Before the 4 issue crossover was done, she'd somehow read Tim's entire plan for escaping a room full of killers from his body language, and carried it through by pretending Tim beat her to death, even when Penguin made Tim shoot her in the shoulder. She didn't say much, but she didn't have to. She'd had a rough childhood, but was still kind. She'd been friends with Stephanie Brown (a major plus in my book). And she was really freaking cool to watch in action.

I've said previously that sometimes it's fun to read the adventures of characters who can't simply do super-awesome things whenever they like, because you get to see how they work around those limitations. But it's also fun to read about characters who can do super-awesome things at will. She can take a bullet without flinching. She can take multiple bullets and keep charging towards the person shooting, never dodging and thus endangering the life of someone behind her. When trying to rescue an abducted man whose only mistake had been stopping a mugging, the two of them wind up trapped in an old prison cell. Cass doesn't know how to pick locks, and if she has any tools in her utility belt that will get her out, no one told her. So she punches her way out. Not in one punch, because she isn't super-strong, but with multiple punches, one after the other, in the exact same spot, until she smashes through.

Oh, and when she's at full strength, she can dodge bullets. Sorry about the flash.

Then she can beat up the four crooked government agents that fired them.

Cassandra's ability to read people's bodies, in addition to making her a remarkable fighter, also meant she could tell what people were feeling a lot of the time. The trick was, that didn't mean she knew what to do about it. In that crossover with Robin, after she beats Shrike, she notes that Tim is quiet on the outside, but inside there are all sorts of emotions screaming to get out (unsurprising since his father had just died in Identity Crisis, on top of Steph's death in War Games). Cassandra has no idea what to say that will make it better, or even how to encourage Tim to let it out. This presents an interesting problem for Cassandra. In a lot of ways, she's a creature of action. It's what she was trained for, to read people and use what she reads to defeat them (and ultimately kill them, if her father had his way). Now she tries to use those abilities to help others, protect them from people who would hurt them. But the nature of her gift is she can tell people are hurt by things she can't do anything to fix, which has to be maddening. It might help explain why she took helping people so seriously. If you can see people around you suffering all the time, and can't stop seeing it, wouldn't you try to fix the problems, so they weren't in pain any longer?

Initially, though, she was so intent on saving people because she believed she had to atone for killing a man when she was young. I once read someone online say they thought that was a little too precious, that it made her character flaw something admirable (that she cares too much or something like that), and they felt it was unrealistic for a kid. I don't know about that. I remember seeing a kitten die in front of me when I was about 5, and being pretty shook by that. It made death a real thing, in a way it hadn't been previously, and I wasn't able to perfectly read the kitten's pain and fear as it died, as Cassandra could when she killed the man. Plus, she spent a decade wandering the world, just trying to survive basically, before she turned up in Gotham and joined the Bat's retinue. It wasn't as though she immediately settled on obsessively helping people.

Also, thinking about it this week, it occurs to me that David Cain took Cass with him on hits prior to that, where he sniped people while she sat on the roof next to him. So not only did Cassandra feel the horror of what her victim experienced, she may have realized this is what her father had been doing all along. And she'd have been able to read his body and tell he enjoyed it, and wanted her to do it as well. Which may have helped drive her flight from him. I'm speculating there, for the record. I don't know that was ever explicitly said, but it makes a certain amount of sense, given Cass and David Cain's characters.

Their relationship is another of those odd things I enjoyed about Cassandra. David Cain is a bad guy, a remorseless killer. By the time we meet Cassandra, she's fully aware of it. But he still raised her, and in his own way, he loved her. Cassandra would know that as surely as anything, which makes it all the more confusing for her. If he's bad, and he loves her, what does it say about her? Is there something wrong with her, that he cares for her? Is there something wrong that she still cares about him? It's something she has to work through, that his loving her doesn't make her bad, or him good, and it's not wrong she still cares about the guy who raised her. I don't know if she ever entirely worked it out, because there was a lot of anger and confusion to deal with, but it made for an interesting facet. When she stops obsessively saving people as a way to pay for her taking life (also as a way to put herself in danger, since she saw her own death as the only appropriate atonement), I think she came to appreciate simply being able to help people for its own sake, and in that regard, Cain helped make it possible.

There are things Cassandra can do none of the other members of the Batfamily can, and it's because of how she was raised and taught. The key is how she chooses to use them, which is why I thought making her a villain was such a dumb idea. Just because bother her parents are killers - one of whom she had no contact with until she was Batgirl, and even then, it was restricted to a couple of fights and a training sequence we never saw - it does not follow that Cassandra will also become a killer. She wasn't really given the choice to learn to read body language by Cain, but how she uses the ability, that was her choice. Which is something I really enjoy, the idea that one can break out of the paths others tried to set them in.

Cassandra is honestly a lot of my favorite types of characters in one. The first two years of her solo title see her working through a serious guilt complex, which is something I apparently identify with. This gives her a bit of the redemption arc, though in her case it may be less about the life she took, and more about recognizing the value in her own life. The idea that wanting to live can make you stronger than being willing to die played out much less annoyingly in Cass' big fight with Shiva in Batgirl #25 than it did between Kenshin Himura and Shinimori Aoshi in the pages of Rurouni Kenshin. Probably because there was less speechifying by the hero and more just winning the damn fight (Also, I like Aoshi more than Lady Shiva). Once she gets interested in actually living, we get to see Cass try and figure that out, which is, for some reason, an arc I seem to really enjoy. Maybe because in skilled hands, those stories help remind me of cool things in the world I ignore or take for granted. It's a chance to see the world through different eyes.

Also, Cass has sort of the rookie hero arc. Which seems strange, considering she could leap into the fray against 20 opponents and probably walk out without a scratch. But there was more to be a crimefighter than just punching criminals, oddly enough, and she had to try and figure those things out. The limits on who you can save, the difficulty of juggling private lives with costumed ones, especially if your private life involves costumes (because you're dating Superboy, for example). Trying to learn how to be a detective when you can't read or write, and haven't really studied forensics or criminology. Watching Cass work around that (as she did in Batgirl #47) can be a lot of fun. Especially because she kind of showed up Batman by doing so. I tell you, if Batman was trying to give Cassandra more of a normal teenage experience by simulating the overbearing, arbitrary parental figure, he outdid himself with the sort of zeal you'd expect from Batman. Eventually, she even starts ignoring Batman's rule about not fighting metahumans. I mean, she did take out one in her third issue, but that was after Batman got KO'ed and there was no other choice. But gradually she starts fighting metahuman terrorists, killer androids, and eventually even the Brotherhood of Evil, and we get to see her progression as she learns to deal with different kinds of threats.

The friendship she had with Stephanie Brown is another thing. I didn't find out about that until after Steph had "died", but going back and finding the Puckett/Scott run on Batgirl opened that up for me. It's an interesting pairing, the two kids with criminal fathers (in some ways, which I might expand on in a later post, I think Steph's dad might be worse than Cass'). The ones viewed at a slight reserve by other members of the Batcrew (Cass by Tim mostly, Steph by pretty much everyone). The two teenage girls. So there's a certain amount of common ground, but then vast differences as well. Because Cass is this physical marvel, but there are all kinds of things she doesn't know or understand that Stephanie does, simply because of Steph's relatively more normal upbringing. So she needs Stephanie to read a ransom note, or help her figure out how to find the hostage.

And the more they hang out, the more Cass opens up. Given the chance, I think Cassandra's a very warm, caring character. Which makes sense. If she hurts someone, she can see it, so it's probably much easier to see people feeling good. And being around Steph, who clearly loves crimefighting, and is usually a bubbly, friendly sort, produces a similar attitude in Cassandra. She talks about herself and her father, she laughs. She helps Steph train, but they turn it into games. Tag on the rooftops. Which is a far cry from some of the training we'd seen from Cass earlier, where she spent hours obliterating training dummies down in her cave, alone. When Steph calls off some of their training (for reasons I don't think were ever explained), Scott and Puckett make sure to show how disappointed Cassandra is to be left alone in her cave, how much she'd been looking forward to Spoiler's visits. Someone who actually appreciates Stephanie Brown is always going to be OK with me.

One last paragraph, about the costume. It's very monochromatic, even more than Batman's current black and grey number. The only things that break up the black are the thin yellow outline of the Bat-symbol, and those huge utility belt pouches. But it can make her very cool. Batman is this huge, looming, ominous shadow. He blots out the light and envelops criminals in his presence. Cass is the small, darting shadow. The one you only see out of the corner of your eye, moving swiftly from place to place. There she is! No, over there! She's all over the place! Anderson Gabrych had a scene once where she stopped a convenience store robbery and talked about watching Alien, how it reminded her the scariest things can be those only hinted at. Which is perfect for her. She's a tornado of fists, but just to look at her with an untrained eye, she isn't very scary, this wiry teenager. So don't let them see her, only the hint of this thing, moving with impossible speed.

On an entirely different level, I love how humongous the belt looks on her. I think Batman literally just gave her one of his spare ones and called it a day, because I don't think the size gap between Cass and Helena Bertinelli (who originally wore, so credit to her for costume sense, I guess) is that large. As someone who read and watched too much shonen manga, my theory was Cass just carries a bunch of rocks and weights in the pouches as training. Especially if Rick Leonardi was drawing her, because he also tended to give her this big thick looking boots. If you look at them, they are way too wide for someone as spindly as Cass. So I figure there are weights stitched into them, because otherwise, it wouldn't be a challenge. Which is silly, Cassandra wouldn't mess around that way when she's out saving lives, but it still amuses me.


Earl Allison said...

Amen, absolutely adored and very much miss Cassandra Cain. I admit that I was skeptical at first, but reading her series made me an admirer.

Thank you for the article, great to see how many enjoy the character.

CalvinPitt said...

Earl allison: Thank you for reading, I'm glad you enjoyed it.

SallyP said...

At the very beginning, I really couldn't stand her. However...the more I read about her, the more I...grudgingly...started to like her.


I wish they would bring her back.

CalvinPitt said...

I'm still not sure I trust the writers at DC to write her well if they do bring her back. Scott Snyder seems to like her, and Gail Simone, but it's more likely she'd end up in the hands of Scott Lobdell, or worse, Adam Beechen again.