Words of Questionable Wisdom: From The Girl Wonder to Girl-Wonder.org
Why Steph Brown Matters…
If you’ve ever listened to Lene Tailor’s wonderful I Read Comics, read the latest Sequential Tart or browsed by the popular blog When Fangirls Attack you know that a number of female comic fans have some very choice words about the comics industry. As a white male comics fan boy in his mid 20s I’ve been an unwitting member of the fandboy elite. As a friend of mine once bluntly said “you’re their target audience for them and you’ve got some serious shit to explain.”
And there’s a lot of stuff I can’t explain…
- I can’t explain why it’s 2006 and something 85% of comic book superheroes are Caucasian.
- I can’t explain the vast number of female characters whose costumes involve thongs, exposed mid-riffs, high heals, or a what Power Girl fans refer to as a “cleavage window.”
- I can’t explain what was going through George Perez’s mind when he created Crimson Plague.
- I can’t explain why the longest running Marvel comic starring a female lead is freakin’ Spider-Girl. (Which despite it’s loyal fan base, inoffensive family friendly status quite frankly isn’t that good.)
- I can’t explain nor justify the creepy, creepy way Michael Turner and Ian Churchill draw Supergirl.
Finally I honestly can’t explain some of the excuses my fellow comics fanboys, have used in various forums. “But many male superheroes have impractical costumes” was an argument pitched by Erik Larsen of all people, to which point I reply “how many male comic character wear thongs?”
Oh and before I finally get to the gist of the column let me tell you a true story. Shortly after DC’s Countdown came out last year I made a post on a message board lamenting the lack of a rating system on books like Identity Crisis. One poster sincerely argued that the Marvel’s Runaways was actually a more violent book because only five people died in I.C. (Sue Dibny, Jack Drake, Firestorm, & Catpain Boomerang) while eleven people die ( Alex and the entire cast’s parents) on in the “good die young” arc of Runaways. Truly faultless reasoning if you follow the 62% Violent Pac-Man school of logic. I mean really I’m still pondering can without a hint of sarcasm not be able to tell the difference between some characters disappearing in an explosion and graphically showing a nude charred woman’s corpse which is later given an on-panel autopsy in a JSA tie-in issue.
One of the most talked about fan campaigns in comics fandom this year Girl-Wonder.org a collection of websites dedicated against misogyny in comics and comics fandom. Started by Mary Borsellino, the movement was founded in part as a response to the demise of Steph Brown, the super-heroine known as Spoiler who all-to-briefly took over the mantle of Robin before promptly being killed off in 2004’s “War Games” crossover.
For those not familiar with Steph she first debuted in Detective Comics #647 as the daughter of a C-list villain named The Cluemaster. After her “rehabilitated” father returned to crime, an outraged Stephanie donned a sleek purple and black costume to stop him. Spoiler would continue to appear on and off in the Batman family of books, usually as a romantic interest for Tim Drake in the pages of Robin. Despite being an immensely likeable character, Steph never quite took off the way some of DC’s other teenage super-heroes did. Exclusively treated as a supporting player young Miss Brown was never given her own title, much less indoctrinated into a team book like Young Justice or Teen Titans. Most damaging to Brown’s character was an unfortunate habit by writers to use her as a victim in “topical” which played like ABC After School Specials in comics form. While her peers Superboy, Impulse, etc were featured primarily in lighter toned stories Steph was dealing with teenage motherhood, and later flashbacks to child molestation. Whether well intended attempts at dealing at serious topics or shameless attempts at inflicting shock upon the reader, all of these storylines accomplished was further marginalizing the character and treating her like a prop. Steph’s baby was conveniently adopted and never spoken of again, while her childhood near-molestation experience was pretty much ignored in every storyline that followed.
Still despite these setbacks Steph Brown managed to attract a small but loyal fanbase, one which was about to explode when writer Bill Willingham took over the reigns of Robin. Fresh from becoming a hot prospect on his Fables title for DC’s Vertigo line, Willingham’s Robin run seemed like a can’t miss prospect despite a somewhat awkward opening storyline in which Tim Drake’s father discovered his costumed alter-ego, forcing the young hero into semi retirement. After much hesitation Batman chooses Stephanie to be the next Robin.
Now what comic readers were perfectly unaware of at the time is that DC’s offices were already planning a series of events which would ultimately culminate in Infinite Crisis. Tragedy would hit the Batman family of books twice; first with the death Tim Drake’s father in Brad Meltzer’s “Identity Crisis” and secondly with the death of Steph Brown in a storyline called “War Games.” Yes fellow comic fans, the fate of Spoiler was planned before she put on the Robin costume. Heck… it was planned even before the decision was made to let her wear the costume. See Willingham’s rational for making Steph Brown Robin was that he wanted to give the character one last moment in the sun cementing her place in the Batman lore.
Thing is if Willingham’s intentions were to get people to care about Steph Brown, his plan worked all too well. Within moments of the announcement that Stephanie would be the new Robin a firestorm of attention was kicked up. Steph Brown was suddenly everywhere as the story of DC’s new “Girl Wonder” was picked up by several mainstream news outlets. Fan art of Stephanie as Robin started appearing on the internet weeks before the actual comic shipped. After being a low-key success for over 100 issues Robin was suddenly one of the most talked about books in the nation.
It’s very seldom that you see a relatively minor character getting elevated to A-list position, but that was precisely what seemed to be happening. It appeared for all the world that Stephanie Brown had undergone a remarkable transformation. People were looking past the stupid “topic” stories and were ready to give her a fresh start. For everyone who didn’t know better (meaning everyone but the writers and editors planning the direction of the bat-titles DC at the time) something really big was going on.
So just how does DC respond to this totally spontaneous and unexpected fan response? How do they adjust their plans realizing that they’re about to kill off the breakthrough character of the year? Well they do nothing… really. Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead they decide to continue their original plan for the War Games crossover in which they killed off Steph Brown just for the sake of well… it was a crossover and for some strange reason you can’t have a crossover these days without killing someone.
This is for me one of the most infuriating things about the Steph Brown phenomenon for me. It was a flat out stupid business move. Imagine for yourself a world in which shortly after “Giant Sized X-Men #1” Claremont and Byrne decided to go back to a team consisting of Cyclops, Jean Grey, Angle, and a de-furred Beast. Imagine if you will a scenario in which George Perez and Marve Wolfman immediately wrote Raven, Starfire, etc out of the picture so the original Teen Titans could return in 1981. DC acted against the very basic laws of supply and demand. You don’t get the general public excited about something and then cut off the supply.
Alas Steph’s career ended almost as quickly as it began. In fact before the final sales figures on Robin #126 (her first official appearance as Robin) were in the can, Steph was out of the Robin costume; fired by Batman for screwing up against a new villain named the Silver Scarab. Steph Brown would next appear as Spoiler in the long-planned “War Games” storyline in which she would inadvertently set off a mob war after unwittingly putting into action one of Batman’s drastic contingency plans. Yes years after Mark Waid’s “Tower of Babel” storyline one would have thought Batman would have learned a lesson about leaving these Machiavellian plans laying around particularly somewhere a 16-year-old girl could find them, but no he didn’t. (In fact Batman apparently still didn’t learn the lesson hiding the secret contingency plans as DC’s OMAC Project later proved.)
Steph’s demise was one of the most prolonged, cruel, and drawn out in comics history. Some panels can be described it as borderline snuff porn In fact it was perhaps a first in our era of waiting for the trade paperback: the first decompressionist death scene as Steph was beaten by Black Mask and tortured with a power drill only to escape and later die of blood loss in hospital care. Other casualties of War Games would include Orpheus whose total number of appearances could be counted on one hand alongside such D-list villains as Hellhound, Silver Monkey, and Black Tarantula. Barbara Gordon also blew up the watchtower which was the home base for the Birds of Prey and moved her team out of town. Oh and as for Black Mask, the man who slit Orpheus’s throat, killed Steph in such a gruesomely unpleasant fashion he pretty much got off scot-free.
So all of the mainstream media DC was getting, all of the fan buzz, and all of the hype around Steph Brown: The Girl Wonder was build-up for a death scene in an event storyline. Because you can’t have an event storyline without a death scene. That’s what we’ve come to. People used to buy books like Secret Wars, or even going further back The Avengers/Defenders War just to see all of their favorite characters team up in one book, but now we’re apparently either too stupid or too bloodthirsty to have a big story without a character death.
But the story of Stephanie Brown wasn’t over. A year later in an even worse (though far shorter) storyline entitled War Crimes revealed that Dr. Leslie Tompkins (a woman previously portrayed as a saint who once even gave aid to serial killer Mr. Zsasz) played a hand in our heroine’s death by denying her medical aid. See Leslie wanted to teach Batman a lesson about endangering children so helped kill one. That makes about as much sense to me as America attacking another country for no good reason in response to a completely different country attacking us for no good reason. Uh… never mind.
So just why did Steph Brown connect with fans during her all too brief run as the “Girl Wonder?”
Half of it was timing. Ever since the cult success of Sailor Moon in the 90s, we’ve seen a slow trickle of cartoons which are essentially female superhero fantasies. By 2004 viewers had seen The Power Puff Girls, Kim Possible, Totally Spies, and the Italian cartoon/book series W.I.T.C.H was just starting to roll in onto American shores. A generation of women were growing up without the stigma that superheroes were just for guys. It seemed like the perfect time for DC to introduce a superhero title aimed bringing in young female readers and using an established franchise like Batman seemed like just the ticket.
The other half of it was that somewhere in-between “No Man’s Land” and “War Games” something had gone terribly wrong in the Batman books. While the supporting cast and some aesthetics have changed in the past 15-20 years Batman himself has largely remained unchanged to the point he’s become unlikeable, almost bordering on a baroque self parody. In the execrable War Crimes arc at one point Batman rants “If War Crimes were committed perhaps we should have War Crime Tribunals, and let all of the buried poison seep out!” In the hilariously awful Batman: City of Light the Dark Knight grunts like Peter Boyle in Young Frankenstein while combating a mad architect who wants to turn Gotham City into Neo Crystal Tokyo.
This isn’t the Batman comics fans know and love, this is the Batman from Shortpacked!
Which is perhaps why writers are increasingly turning to the fabled “Year One” era of Batman. Last year saw “Batman and the Monster Men” by Matt Wagner and it’s sequel “Batman and The Mad Monk” just hit store shelves. We saw got “Year One: Scarecrow” and “Year One: Ras Al Ghul” just in time for Batman Begins. Seth Fisher, J.H. Williams, and Dan Johnson’s highly underrated “Snow” arc from Legends of the Dark Knight could have very well been called “Year One: Mr. Freeze.” Meanwhile Jeff Loeb and Tim Sale continued their string “Long Halloween” follow-ups with “Catwoman: When In Rome.” Frank Miller’s “All Star Batman & Robin” meanwhile almost reads like an angry parody book. It’s almost as if Miller was saying “imagine how stupid ‘Year One’ would look if Batman acted the way he does in today’s books.”
The Bat-books that are in mainline continuity have gradually reduced Batman to a supporting character. The Red Hood and Black Mask were the real stars of Judd Winnick’s Batman run. A.J. Lieberman’s run on Batman Gotham Knights could have simply been called “Adventures of Hush.” Perhaps aside from name brand recognition and blind loyalty the thing that’s kept the Batman titles from slipping too much in terms of sales is the fact that he continues to have the best rogues gallery in comics.
DC seems to acknowledge there are problems with the Batman but they seem to always go about them the wrong way. Sometimes they simply slap a hot creative team on one the books for a few months which is sort of like putting a fresh coat of paint on a rusting car. Other times they go about by trimming away at the books supporting cast… almost always striking at the female ones resulting in the demises of Sarah Gordon, Vesper Fairchild, alongside Steph Brown. Barbara Gordon who had become a valuable figure as Oracle was abruptly moved out of town. Cassandra Caine was recently recast as a villain, while Leslie Thompkins was turned into a murderer. (Or at least grotesquely negligent based on how the state Gotham is in defines its medical malpractice laws.)
Thing is the problem with Batman wasn’t with Cassandra Caine, Vesper Fairchild, or any of the characters that got written out of the picture. The problem was with Batman himself.
Alive Steph Brown could have given the viewer a new set of eyes to view Gotham City through. By interacting with Batman she could have given a new generation of readers someone to identify with. She could have helped soften-up the all too often bi-polar characterization of Batman.
Dead Steph Brown only added to the series of problems with the Batman family of titles. She was only the latest in an all too long list of characters for Bruce Wayne, Time Drake, etc to brood over. Realizing this, the writers outside of Willingham in “War Crimes,” and Anderson Gabrych seemed to prefer to pretend that Steph never existed. This made things even more insulting to the readers.
Project Girl Wonder calls for a memorial case for Steph Brown. To be honest I don’t think this is enough for the character or the fans. I think a memorial case only validates “War Games” and “War Crimes” place in Batman Lore, not Steph’s. And I honestly don’t believe “War Games” nor “War Crimes” deserve that distinction. I think they’re wretched, ill-conceived stories that would best serve comic fans if every copy were chopped up and used to distribute free paper-machÃƒÂ© to low income kindergarten students.
I don’t want a Steph Brown memorial. I want Steph freakin’ Brown.
In a recent episode of Comic Geek Speak writer Keith Giffen once jokingly stated that if he really wanted to he could bring back Ted Kord in two panels. So why not Steph Brown? It’s not like character deaths haven’t been retconned before. I mean really was there an online movement to bring back Golden Eagle that I was unaware of? Hellhound and Black Tarantula returned in the pages of Villains United, and later Birds of Prey with no mention of their demise in War Games. So why not put Steph in the roster of BoP?
If Mario Gully can apologize for idiotic strip club scene in a recent issue of Ant, I see why it’s unreasonable to ask DC to give Steph a second chance to shine. One that’s not sabotaged from the get-go.
I admire Mary Borsellino and the determination it took to start this site. But I also think the forgotten Robin deserves a lot more than another glass case for Tim Drake to smash into.