A Boner for Barbara: The Truth About What Happened at SDCC 2012

A column article, The Squeaky Wheel by: Kyrax2

Click below to listen to an audio version of this post, or download the mp3 here .

 

After last year's excitement, it was a sure bet I'd be taking another four-day tour of San Diego Comic-Con 2012. There is a great deal to write about, but first and foremost, I want to clear up several pieces of misinformation and misreporting floating around.Stephanie Brown as Nightwing, one possible future from issue 24 of Bryan Q. Miller's run on "Batgirl".

Earlier this year, it was announced that a favorite character of mine, Stephanie Brown, would be appearing in Bryan Q. Miller's Smallville season 11 comic series as Nightwing. (For those of you who are confused, at the end of Miller's run on Batgirl, she appeared as Nightwing in a 'possible future' style panel.) Now, I'll be honest: I think Bryan Q. Miller is a fabulous writer, but I'd stopped watching the television show Smallville after the second season and never had much interest in going back.  I didn't plan on following the comic series.

All that changed when I read that Stephanie Brown would be appearing in it, especially as Nightwing. Then and there, I went to Comixology and purchased every back issue in digital format, an easy decision at the low price point of 99 cents (see my musings on the silly price structure of digital comics here). My plan was to let the issues collect in my queue until the issue introducing Stephanie was released, and then start reading the comic from the beginning.

On Thursday, the first full day of San Diego Comic-Con, a friend passed on the rumor that Stephanie was being pulled out of the Smallville comic in a last-minute change. I looked it up on my smartphone: sure enough, Bleeding Cool had published said rumor; moreover, the art was being re-colored and the dialogue changed to turn Stephanie Brown into Barbara Gordon.

I desperately wanted to know if the rumor was true. Of all places, I imagined Comic-Con would be the place to find someone at DC to confirm or deny it.

Unfortunately, I'd missed DC's "Batman" panel that day (I got in line just a little too late), and the following DC panel, "DC All-Access: DC NOW!" ran long, so they had no time for questions.

Stephanie! As Nightwing! So awesome!That was okay, though, because the first panel on Friday was DC's "Superman" panel, and Bryan Q. Miller was scheduled to be there, presumably to discuss his Smallville comic. But he wasn't on the panel when I got there--he had been pulled earlier in the week. I did ask the other panelists if they knew whether there was any truth to the rumor, but none of them knew. The panel coordinator told me that the news that Stephanie would even be in Smallville, "had not come from them." (Actually, it had.)  I pointed out art from the issue featuring Stephanie had already been released. Scott Lobdell, who is kind of the court jester of DC's panels, said jokingly, "Who are you going to believe, the art, or us?"

I want to note that, contrary to some reports, Lobdell was not at all mocking or disrespectful to me - he was kidding around with everyone the entire time, including me. When I mentioned that I'd purchased all the back-issues of Smallville, he said that I should keep on buying them until Stephanie showed up, which doesn't sound funny out of context (and knowing what I know now), but was hilarious at the time. Then he said, more seriously, that he thought I'd asked a great question and that I should get a prize for it; he started applauding and encouraging other people to applaud. I demurred, a little embarrassed (and I did not, in fact, receive a prize). I did think it was awfully sweet of Lobdell to say that he thought I deserved one, however, and to applaud me.

I know that Lobdell doesn't always come across well online, and not everyone enjoys his writing style, but I've now met him in person several times and he is a really, really nice guy face-to-face. He was nice to me both on the panel and off, and I'm saddened and angered by reports that the treated me poorly, especially reports written by people who actually attended the panel. It simply isn't true.

There was also a report that said that I'd asked whether Stephanie Brown would be in the New 52, which naturally led to people saying, "Why is she asking about Stephanie Brown at a Superman panel?" It was unfortunate that the reporter got my question wrong (he also said unkind things about me personally, but much to his credit, he soon after took down the comments, and then he sent me a very sincere and gracious letter of apology, as well as apologizing publicly.)

Back to the convention: I had been to a couple of panels, but I still hadn't been able to confirm whether the rumor Bleeding Cool had posted was true or not! I decided to ask again at DC's "New 52" panel in the hopes that Geoff Johns would be able to answer the question - if anyone knew, I thought, he should!

I kept my question short, since this panel was about the New 52, not Smallville or Superman. I simply asked whether any of them could confirm whether Stephanie was being replaced by Barbara in the Smallville digital comic. Even Geoff Johns said he had no idea what I was talking about! There was no one from DC Digital there, I was told (suggesting that only someone at DC Digital knew).

After the panel I talked a bit with Scott Snyder, and he told me that he'd really like my opinion of Batman issue #12 when it comes out. He said that he'd wanted to use Cassandra Cain in the book, but he wasn't allowed to, so he was bringing in a new character instead. He told me, very seriously, that he and the other creators had been thinking a lot about the questions I'd asked last year (regarding female representation in comics), and that they were concerned about it as well.

I'll admit, I had to swallow kind of hard before replying, "I can't tell you how much that means to me."

Nevertheless, I'd gotten to chat with Scott Snyder, Scott Lobdell, Gail Simone and her husband, and even Geoff Johns a little - and none of them knew whether the rumor was true or not! Rich Johnson from Bleeding Cool did approach me during the panel and said that it was definitely true that Stephanie was being replaced. Of course, that didn't confirm anything--after all, he was my original source for the rumor in the first place. I needed public confirmation and an explanation from DC, if possible.

The following day was Saturday, and I was exhausted. It's an hour and a half trip to the convention center and and an hour and a half to get back. That much driving and walking (I parked about a mile and a quarter from the convention center each day), plus going to bed past midnight every night, was taking its toll on me. I arrived late for Saturday's first DC panel, "DC: The New Wave", but I was in time to hear the discussion of at least one new property: Amethyst, a new, female-led fantasy title.

Look at that purple costume! I like her already!As I was sitting there, watching the discussion and listening to the panelists through a haze of exhaustion, I started thinking about the good things DC's done over the past year. Don't get me wrong, the company has made a lot of mis-steps along the way, but the fact of the matter is, Ann Nocenti is writing Green Arrow and will soon be writing Catwoman, Gail Simone is on Batgirl, Becky Cloonan will be doing the art for Batman #12, and there are several new female-led ongoing books, such as World's Finest and the newly-announced Amethyst. Amanda Conner will be doing Before Watchman: Silk Spectre and Cat Staggs will be drawing Phantom Stranger. That's only a sampling of some of the upcoming work that either stars fictional women or is being created by real women. (For a more comprehensive list, check out Tim Hanley's most recent analysis at his blog, Straitened Circumstances).

When DC announced last year, "We Hear You", I had been impressed and happy, but I also wondered if real change would be forthcoming. There was (and is) still a long, LONG way to go before anything like parity would be reached, especially where employment of female creators is concerned.

But sitting at that Amethyst panel, I felt it was time to give credit where credit is due. It's very easy to get caught up in the negatives, especially on the internet. I wanted to take a moment to focus on the positive and recognize that, yes, progress has been made.

Thus, when I stood up at DC's "New Wave" panel, the first thing I did was to thank them for making a real effort to live up to their promise and for listening. I meant every word.

Then I asked, "Mr. DiDio, maybe you know: is it true that Stephanie Brown is being replaced with Barbara Gordon in the Smallville season 11 comic, and that the art is being re-colored and the dialogue re-written?"

I finally got the answer. It was true, he said.

DiDio went on to explain that in Smallville, they'd used the 'most iconic' versions of the different characters they'd brought in, and that Stephanie was not as strong or popular a character to start off with as Barbara. I didn't argue with him since I'd already taken up a fair amount of time at the mic, and I could see that it wouldn't make a difference anyway.

His argument is deeply flawed, though.

Black Canary and Impulse, who later became The Flash, in the Smallville television show. Look at those iconic costumes!It's the sort of argument that sounds good on the surface. "Smallville used the most iconic versions of the characters they introduced." The problem is, it's simply not true. Smallville used whichever version of the characters they wanted. In Smallville, the Flash's name was not Barry or even Wally. It was Bart.  In fact, as one fan noted when Stephanie's appearance in Smallville was first announced, "Them taking liberties with continuity is the exact reason this show was so successful."  Not to mention, neither Stephanie nor Barbara is the definitive Nightwing - that would be Dick Grayson.

Furthermore, replacing Stephanie with Barbara is actually bad from a business perspective.

Let's say there are three types of people:

  1. People who like Smallville.
  2. People who like Stephanie Brown.
  3. People who like Barbara Gordon.

People who like Smallville are going to buy the comic regardless of whether Barbara Gordon or Stephanie Brown is in it.

People who like Stephanie Brown, like me, would buy the comic to see Stephanie Brown, since she is not appearing anywhere else in the DCnU. I think they would have been likely to do this even if they, again like me, were not fans of Smallville.Batgirl #0

Will people who like Barbara Gordon suddenly run out and buy all the issues of Smallville just because she's in it? Maybe some will. But Barbara Gordon already has a strong presence in the New 52. She's in her own book, and she's going to be in some crossovers with Scott Snyder's next arc. For people who like Barbara but aren't fans of Smallville, I doubt that they'll be falling all over themselves to grab the next issue.

Added to this is the fact that everyone knows that the character was supposed to be Stephanie; it's essentially a hack job to force Barbara into the comic. If the situation was reversed, if Gail Simone had been writing Barbara and was forced at the last minute to turn her into Stephanie, I'd be leery of picking up the book, as much as I love Stephanie (and Gail). That sort of hack job isn't fair to the characters, and it's not fair to the creators. I have a lot of faith in Bryan Q. Miller's ability to make the best of a bad situation, but surely curtailing his creative freedom is not the best way to get the best possible book. Ironically, it seems like the creators of Smallville the television series had more creative freedom than the creators working on Smallville the comic.

It's also a bad move from a business perspective, because it was announced over a month ago that Stephanie Brown would be in Smallville, and changing at the last minute has made many fans extremely angry. I have to wonder if it was worth it to DC. After all, they went to a lot of trouble to piss off their fans and lose a lot of sales. And I mean a lot of trouble - according to Bryan Q. Miller, the artist has already drawn over 40 pages. Re-coloring and re-writing the entire comic had to have been a lot of work, and for what? So Barbara Gordon could be shoehorned after the fact into a role she was never intended to fill? How many people at DC actually wanted that?

Of course, I suppose that there is the philosophy that any publicity is good publicity, but I've seen even people who dislike Stephanie agree, "That's just fucked up."  When it was first announced that Stephanie would be in Smallville, there was a great deal of positive commentary (certainly no one was clamoring for her to be changed to Barbara!).  In contrast, the press regarding erasing Stephanie and replacing her with Barbara has been almost universally bad.

If Bryan had been told from the beginning that he couldn't bring in Stephanie Brown and he had to use Barbara Gordon instead, it would have been one thing. Fans would have shaken their heads, but it would have been par for the course where Stephanie Brown is concerned. If there had been a legitimate reason not to use Stephanie, such as a copyright conflict, that required she be pulled out of the comic and the art be changed, doing so would have at least made sense.

Instead, DC's decision appears capricious, illogical, and almost calculated to actively alienate a portion of DC's fanbase that DC can ill-afford to lose. Whatever the truth behind the scenes, it sure seems like all of DC comics is subject to the whims of a single person, a person that has enough clout to force his personal preference upon any comic he chooses, regardless of how little business sense it makes, how many fans it drives away, or how much it runs roughshod over the creator's freedom. After all, only one person I asked at the entire convention actually knew whether Steph was going to be replaced, and had a 'reason' why.

Or, as one person from Comics Bulletin more succinctly put it, "Someone at DC has a boner for Barbara."

And there's yet another reason it's bad from a business perspective, one that's a little more subtle. It has to do with something I spoke of at Geek Girl Con last year.

We're always searching for the characters we can love, the characters that really move us. Since discovering DC, I'd found several male characters in DC to care passionately about, mostly in the Bat family. Tim Drake was one of them. Kon-El, especially as written by Geoff Johns, was another. I adored Dick Grayson. I loved Bruce Wayne.

It had always been harder to find a female character that really moves me in the same way in DC. Sure, there are some wonderful female characters, but they comprise only a fraction of the number of male characters, and none of them seemed to have the qualities that really drew me in... until I started reading Bryan Q. Miller's run on Batgirl and fell head-over-heels for Stephanie Brown. She became, not just my favorite female character, but my favorite character in the DCU, period.

The Justice LeagueLooking at the current Justice League, if Batman's not your cup of tea, maybe Aquaman is, or Cyborg, or Green Lantern. But if Wonder Woman's not really to your taste, you're kind of out of luck as far as female characters go. Looking at the Bat family, you can love Bruce's angstiness, or Dick's cheerfulness and...flexibility, you can fall for Jason the anti-hero bad boy or Tim's seriousness or Damian Wayne's grumpy attitude. But if Barbara Gordon or Kate Kane don't do it for you, there's not much else to choose from anymore. Having a wider variety of characters populating their universes means giving fans a broader choice of characters to fall in love with and more reasons to stick with DC. Forcing every female ever to work directly with Batman to be Barbara Gordon and *only* Barbara Gordon is just plain short-sighted.

For Bryan's sake, I'd love to be able to say that I'll be reading Smallville season 11 despite these changes, but at this point, knowing what could have been and should have been, it would be like swallowing ground glass for me.

I really hate that the only real way to register a protest against this ludicrous and totally unnecessary last-minute change is to suggest that people stop buying Smallville. I hate it. Because I like Bryan and I love his work, and I really, truly feel that DC's not going to get the message. I feel like DC's corporate office is going to throw their collective hands into the air and say, "Oh well! Guess a digital comic/comic based on Smallville/comic by Bryan Q. Miller just won't sell! We won't be trying THAT again."

 

The Final Squeak

 

Today I'd like to share with you a couple of pieces of fanart that made me smile.

The first piece is by gabzilla-z on tumblr, and you can find it here.  After commenting on my article, I hope you'll tell her how much you like it.  (Used with permission)

Stephanie Brown as Nightwing!

The second is by one "Queen Frostine", it's an absolutely adorable version of Batgirl Stephanie Brown as...well, I wouldn't want to spoil it.  Just click the link and see.

[Edit: I'm now seeing reports that Bryan had a choice of who to replace Stephanie with, and that he was given a list of a few specific names to choose from (some much less well-known than Babs), and decided upon Barbara as Stephanie's replacement himself.  I have not confirmed this with Bryan directly, but if true, it seems that the issue was more one of "Anyone but Steph (or Cass)" than it was of "Only the best-selling, most iconic version will do!" ]

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