Wednesday, August 27, 2014

There's Not Enough Time To Look At All The Lousy Comic Book Parents

I mentioned in Saturday's post I'd been thinking about comparing Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown's respective fathers, and let it never be said I don't occasionally follow through in a reasonable amount of time.

I was thinking about it because one of the more important issues in the Cass/Steph friendship is Batgirl #28, when Steph convinces Cass to spar with her. During one of the lulls, Steph is griping about her dad, and Cass sort of lets it slip her father is the noted assassin David Cain, which leads to some comparing of notes, and Steph ultimately laments (after learning Cain would shoot Cass occasionally), 'Man, I can't beat you at anything.'

Not that who has the worse father is a competition anyone should be trying to win, but it got me thinking about it. They're both ugly situations, similar in someways, different in others, and it lead me to some thoughts I don't have good answers for.

In a larger, worldwide view, David Cain is certainly the more evil person. He may be fairly dispassionate about it, but he's still one of the best hired killers in the world, and would take basically any job (except if the target was Cassandra). Arthur Brown, as the Cluemaster, was a 3rd-rate Riddler most of the time. Occasionally he'd wise up and try a Taskmaster approach, teaching ordinary hoods the proper way to pull a robbery, and taking just a portion of it as pay, keeping himself out of the reach of Bat-fists. But still, on bodycount and general mayhem alone, he lags behind.

But if we're looking at them as father's, I don't know. Cain's hard to judge because his situation with Cass is so damn odd. Making a child grow up with no talking is strange, but he did communicate with her. Except it was through violence. Making her fight a bunch of guys, or even the Bronze Tiger, or surprise shooting her to keep her on her toes. Stephanie's dad was just kind of a jerk, when he wasn't in prison. He'd lock her in a closet, or throw a beer bottle at her if he felt she was being too noisy. Or he left her in the care of his creepy, likely sexual predator friend while he took her mom to rehab.

Cain had a deliberate (crazy) plan he was trying to enact, while Arthur was just being an ass. They're both abusive in their ways, but Cain's trying to push his daughter to achieve something, while Arthur regards his as a non-entity at best, a severe nuisance at worst. Cain is the parent that wants their kid to be a tennis star and pushes them with extra lessons and training and single-minded focus until the kid either succeeds (but probably can't operate in the real world), or burns out and falls apart. Arthur is the parent who completely neglects their kid, unless he's busy blaming the child for all his failures and shortcomings. Who's worse? Is there an answer?

Cain loved Cass as his daughter. That seems clear if for no other reason than Cassandra knew it, and I don't think Cain could have always made his body language give that off as a false signal. But a lot of that seems to be because she was able to be what he wanted her to be: A singular weapon, the likes of which never seen before. If she hadn't pulled that off, she would have died in the training, and Cain likely would have started over from scratch, whatever that might entail. He was able to inflict the physical damage he did on her, and when asked about it by Batman, grin and reply, 'It kept her on her toes.' Which is more than a little messed up.

At the same time, when he was reunited with her years later, he ultimately turned himself in to the authorities, and stayed in jail. He demonstrated on at least one occasion he could escape whenever he liked (when he delivered a birthday present to Cassandra's cave), but otherwise, he stayed put. He didn't become a hero, but he actively stopped killing people, at least in part because he knew Cassandra wouldn't be any part of his life if he didn't. Which implies that a) he wanted Cassandra to be part of his life, and b) he knew it would have to be on her terms. She wasn't coming back to him to be an assassin, so he would have to stop killing. There's parental affection there, and quite a lot of pride, but it's wrapped up in so much other stuff I'm not sure how to untangle it all.

Stephanie's situation seems clearer. Arthur Brown never really showed much concern for Steph. In her first adventure, he was certainly surprised to see the purple-clad vigilante with Batman was his daughter, but if Steph hadn't seized the opportunity to whale on him, I'm not sure he would have hesitated to harm her if it helped him escape. When Arthur teamed up with the Riddler briefly, he caught Stephanie tailing them as Spoiler. He nearly pushed her off a ledge, only to grab her cape so he could tell her to tell the Bat he wasn't up to anything. Or else. In Steph's Batgirl series, he was perfectly willing to expose her to a Black Mercy so he could escape from prison, after putting her in the line of fire against a series of teens with powered armors. Arthur rarely seems like he wants her dead, but he doesn't have much compunction about harming or intimidating her if she gets in his way. Cain's trying to live out his dreams through Cass, but it at least seemed to form a bond between them. All of Arthur Brown's dreams are focused on him.

This lead to Stephanie (in Robin #111), relating to Tim Drake her two warring theories on her father: Either he was weak, or he was evil. The reason they came up then was because she had just recently learned her father had died. His partnership with Nigma fell apart when Arthur got busted, and while in prison, he was offered a chance to go on some clandestine mission (apparently not as part of Task Force X, because no reduced sentence was offered). Arthur accepted, went on the mission, and died (he got better, obviously). This had impressed the government guy in charge so much, he came to tell the Browns the real story along with the fake version that would be released to the press, prison accident or something. This throws Stephanie for a loop, because it does not fit with either of her established theories. Also, now she can't ask him if he had anything to do with the surprise sudden death of that likely sexual predator only a few days after young Stephanie told her dad about the situation. It's a situation where she doesn't know his motivations, and neither do we. Was he trying to make up for past misdeeds, or was it part of some long con? Did he figure he had nothing to lose? Did his daughter factor in at all?

It really feels like the best thing Arthur Brown has in his favor is "did not randomly shoot his daughter," which is a slim hook to hang one's hat on. Cain's actions are more extreme, but they come from a place of, affection, I guess. Or confidence (though mostly in himself as a teacher). Arthur's abuse is of a more everyday variety, coming from a mixture of insecurity and indifference. Cain at least tried to remake the connection, without ever really rejecting his past actions, while Arthur has never vocally demonstrated any regret for his actions or a desire to be a part of Stephanie's life going forward. How do you do the math on that, especially if you factor the moms in. Shiva was no part of Cass' life for years, then kept fighting her and trying to kill her. She did help Cass regain the ability to read people, though, and helped her get over her death wish. By, er, killing her, but it worked! Steph's mom was eventually a positive presence, but for a long time she was a shell, cowering before Arthur, or hiding herself in addiction to prescription pills. Which pretty much forced Steph to be her own parent. At least Steph eventually had a good mother, but then, at least Cass' dad eventually stopped killing people. For a while.

I don't have an answer. Like I said, it isn't the sort of competition anyone should be trying to win, but it's closer than I might have thought at first glance.

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