Saturday, August 09, 2014

Favorite DC Characters #3 - Stephanie Brown

Character: Stephanie Brown, aka Spoiler/Robin/Batgirl

Creators: Chuck Dixon and Tom Lyle

First appearance: Detective Comics #647

First encounter: For the second week in a row, it's a comic we already mentioned. This time, it's Robin #4. This issue established a few important facts. That Robin knew Spoiler's identity, and did not approve of her being a costumed vigilante. Conversely, Steph didn't know who he was, and was going to be a costumed vigilante whether he liked it or not.

Definitive writer: Jon Lewis for her time as Spoiler, and Bryan Q. Miller for her stint as Batgirl. Given the editorially mandated disaster her stint as Robin was, I'd as soon ignore it.

Definitive artist: Pete Woods when she's Spoiler, Dustin Nguyen for Batgirl. Woods overall. I liked Steph's stint as Batgirl, but she's still primarily Spoiler to me.

Favorite moment or story: Pretty much any time Steph hits her sleazoid father, the Cluemaster, is a good time. I also enjoyed issue 26 of Cass' series, when Steph took out that Thugee cult member who was demanding to face the one who defeated Shiva (that'd be Cass). But it has to be Batgirl #18, from Steph's series, her team-up with Klarion the Witch-Boy, to help his partner Teekl find love on Valentine's Day. Stephanie did very well considering she had basically zero experience with magic up to that point. Panel at the right from that issue, drawn by the aforementioned Dustin Nguyen. Sorry about the flash.

What I like about her: Admit it, you're surprised she's only #3.

I loved her Spoiler get-up, especially later on when I saw it as drawn by Pete Woods. As I mentioned last week, I like purple - though Steph's costume is really eggplant - and beyond that, I like costumes with hoods. Because I like to wear hoodies, and hoods provide easy shadows around faces to make characters look mysterious or intimidating. In general, I thought her Spoiler gear looked good, and it seemed practical. She wore real boots with treads (also they had the sort of rolled over tops like pirate boots, always cool), she had a few pouches to carry things, but not to a Liefeldian degree, and when she went with long hair, she even cut a hole in the back of her mask so her hair could run out through it in a ponytail. Sensible, and effective, and done on a budget, at least initially.

Satorial discussion aside, I love that Steph never quits. You could rightly point out all heroes overcome adversity. This is true. However, most heroes are overcoming super-villains, an ungrateful and suspicious public, or maybe issues in their personal life. They got bills to pay, or their significant other feels neglected. Stephanie's had those problems, but for most of her costumed career, the biggest roadblocks in her path were other costumed crimefighters. Batman, Oracle, Cassandra Cain, Tim Drake, Damien Wayne. It's been a non-stop parade of other superheroes telling her she sucks, she should give up, put the costume away before she gets hurt. Not exactly a warm and supportive atmosphere to learn the trade in. Connor Hawke and Black Canary are notable exceptions, so maybe she ought to have moved to Star City, joined the Arrow Family. Something for the next reboot, perhaps.

Early on, before I realized just how much of a recurring theme this was, it was a big reason I liked Steph because she was continuing to fight crime against Batman's wishes. This was very impressive to me. Not because I hated Batman - at this stage, I mostly knew him from the animated series or the Tim Burton films, and I was still convinced he was cool - but because he is Batman. Even experienced super-heroes can be intimidated by him. But Stephanie just kept on doing her thing, regardless of his wishes. It's like, you know how sometimes a writer introduces a new character and tries to establish how awesome they are by having them beat up Wolverine, or Thor, or whoever (see Jeph Loeb and Red Hulk)? This was like a really toned down version of that. I don't know that the creative teams intended that to be the result, but showing her as a character who loved crimefighting so much she openly defied freaking Batman really helped establish her credentials with me.

OK, "openly defying" is a bit strong. She stayed out of Gotham, or out of sight of him, most of the time, and on one occasion when he did find her in costume in the city, she ran like hell (turned out he wanted her help finding Tim, this was right about the time he reveals Tim's secret identity to her, after Tim had withheld it on the Bat's orders). Still, she was fighting crime in costume after freaking Batman told her not to! She was able to encourage his various sidekicks - first Tim, later Cassandra - to hang out with her in direct violation of his orders! Sure, if she plays the odds, it's unlikely Batman will have enough free time on any given night to devote to checking to make sure she isn't out there fighting crime without his say-so, but still. Batman's a scary dude. I wouldn't cross him lightly.

And for all that she was criticized for getting in over her head, she mostly seemed to know her limitations. When she was on her own, she wasn't out there trying to capture Two-Face or Killer Croc.  A lot of times, Stephanie was clearing out drug pushers in her own neighborhood, which may not be saving the Earth for aliens, but she's making a difference, one none of the other Bat-family were likely to get to. I feel like a lot of the moments where her reach exceeds her grasp are the ones where she feels she has to prove something to them, to get them off her back. War Games would be an example.

Beyond that, she did try to get someone to train her. Everybody's always too busy, or thinks that would be encouraging her. It's staggering characters as allegedly intelligent as Oracle, Tim, and Bats couldn't figure out Stephanie didn't need any encouragement. She needed training. Occasionally one of them will offer to train her, but it usually turns into some extended exercise in humiliation. Bats sets up a test she's meant to fail, so he can tell her she's not good enough and send her on her way. Again, ignoring the fact telling her that won't make her quit, but hey, he told her she wasn't good enough. It's no longer his problem, right? Steph has to pick up what she can as she goes, learn some things about jumping from Cass, about using grappling lines from Bats, maybe some stuff on detective work from hanging out with Tim.

Eventually she got hooked up with some gear, either from Bats directly or through Tim, but for a long time, it was whatever she could buy or cobble together herself. Her skills at fighting or moving through the city were things she picked up as she went (I think a lot of her athleticism came from being on the gymnastics team, and maybe taking a class in akido). She didn't have parents who left her a ton of money so she could travel the world and learn at the feet of masters. Certainly in the early days of her career, she's self-taught, which is kind of cool. She grows, she learns, she stumbles, she gets back up, she gets better at it on the fly.

There are limits to how far one can go with this, obviously. Stephanie is not a prodigy, and so sometimes things go awry. When she gets fed up with not knowing Robin's secret identity, and someone he knows in his private life is injured in a shooting Robin and Spoiler break-up, Steph starts stalking the girl, believing she will lead Steph to Robin. This very nearly gets a innocent guy killed when Stephanie misreads the situation. That's bad, but again, she's doing the best she can with what she's got. No one sat and down and explained the finer points of deduction to her, or gave her access to a Bat-Computer. So she's not infalliable, but again, learn and grow from mistakes, and she didn't get disheartened by them, or from being on the outside of the group.

A lot of problems - for Steph, for Tim, probably for Cassandra - came about because the Bat-family seemed to delight in making Steph aware of how much they knew about her, and how little she knew about them. At least it seemed that way to her, and it left her feeling like an outsider for the longest time. It comes up on the second page of Robin #4, when Tim says something like, "You decided to go full-time with the vigilante thing? Can't say that thrills me, Steph," and she responds with, "You just love rubbing in the fact you know who I am, and I don't know anything about you" And it goes on for years. When Dinah mentions Oracle, and Steph asks Tim who that is, he's all, "You don't need to know that yet." Ugh.

Even when she was "in", she was rarely all the way in. When she was Robin, she got fired the first time she disobeyed orders. The order she disobeyed was to stay in the Bat-plane, and she did so because she could hear over the radio that Batman was in trouble and wanted to help him. How awful (meanwhile, Damien fucking decapitates a criminal and he gets to keep being Robin). I'm sure the fact that Spoiler was at times less a member of the Bat-family than freaking Catwoman was part of the appeal to me (also the fact that she kept digging in the face of all the stone-walling). She was on the fringes of the group, never getting all the in-jokes or references to past events. Nope, I have no idea why I would identify with a character like that (though mine's self-inflicted, rather than the result of a dickish father figure who rules over said group with an arbitrary and irrational gloved fist).

So, never quits, does not let disapproval get her down, not really part of the group, and has done her best to make her own way. Most importantly, she loves superheroing. She started out trying to foil her father, but quickly figured out she really enjoyed it. You know I like characters who actually enjoy crimefighting. I've been hopping around the Internet a lot lately, trying to find useful images for these posts, and there are a lot of them of Stephanie, in whatever identity she's sporting, having a great time. Enjoying swinging through the city, enjoying getting trained by Batman. Enjoying sparring with Cassandra, or playing rooftop tag with her. Enjoying stopping some guys from robbing a convenience store with Tim, or flirting with him when he gets mopey. Heck, just sitting on a rooftop with Oracle watching a sunrise.Panel at the left from Teen Titans #13, drawn by Tom Grummett, written by Geoff Johns.

In a lot of ways, Stephanie is sort of the unusual, upbeat character. A lot of the Bat-family characters are about hope or redemption, but they aren't typically cheerful. Batman has this goal to eliminate crime, but it's such a monumental task it's largely turned him into a grim figure I'd pity if he didn't treat everyone around him so badly. Cassandra was trying hard for redemption, and her path was inspirational, but she was not a sunny character for much of her history. Stephanie's role in Robin seemed to be exactly the role Tim envisioned himself performing for Batman. She keeps him from getting too mopey or gloomy, and reminds him what they get to do is pretty cool. She was possibly Cassandra Cain's first real friend (depending on whether you apply that label or "big sister/mentor" to Oracle), and I feel Steph is the first one who gets Cass to actually laugh. When they're sparring, even though Steph isn't in the same galaxy as Cass as a fighter, Cassandra appreciates her effort, and enjoys spending time with her. She's sad when their training sessions abruptly end, and she goes back to a life mostly spent alone in her cave. Stephanie's more open with what she's thinking and feeling, and Cassandra responds to that by opening up a little herself.

In a lot of ways, Stephanie is most like Dick Grayson (which makes me sad they didn't interact much). She's probably not the athlete he is (though again, she does pretty damn well for her relative lack of formal training, and Bats himself once said she could be at least as good as Tim, if not better), but in terms of attitude and outlook. Bryan Q. Miller made it a point of his Batgirl run that Stephanie wasn't about vengeance, or striking terror into the hearts of the underworld. She was about giving people hope, helping people feel there's someone out there looking out for them, someone who cares about them as something other than the victim of the moment. It fits. Yeah she donned a costume to bring down her father, and every time he's reared his head since then, she's shown up to punch it. But most of the time, she's just fighting whatever crime she happens along to help people, and because she enjoys it. No avenging dead parents or anything like that.

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