Bats About The Girl

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There’s a new Batgirl in town - and she’s not Barbara Gordon. I have a hard time regarding this as a good thing. I should be straight with you from the start - for me, there is nobody who could ever fill Babs’ yellow boots. She might well be a Wheelchair User, she may have a new identity as Oracle, but she is also the definitive Batgirl. If any one wants to put on that cape, then they have to live up to the standard she set.

So the question is, can this new Batgirl make the grade? More to the point, do we want her to? Does the world really need a Batgirl? Contrary to popular misconception Barbara Gordon retired as Batgirl before the Joker shot out her spine and put her in the chair. She hung up the cape after deciding that there were enough heroes out there already and she could do more good elsewhere.

A dozen years on from the retirement of Barbara Gordon (for those who care about such things, “The Last Batgirl Story” was published in the Batgirl Special back in 1988) Gotham City is still pretty crowded. The streets are still stalked by the Batman of course, and although Robin has been sent to school over the river, he’s still around too. Nightwing is just up river in Bludhaven, while back in Gotham proper we have The Huntress, Azrael, the Spoiler and Tommy ‘Hitman’ Monaghan.

OK, so the Huntress, Hitman and the Spoiler aren’t technically “Batfamily” members, but that’s not the point. I started reading Batman Comics just after the death of Jason Todd, and have always felt that one of the most appealing things about Batman was the fact that he was a loner. Why do DC insist on surrounding the Dark Knight with so many hangars on?

Still, she’s here now. Cassandra Cain, the almost mute adopted daughter of David Cain, master assassin. We’ve had a few issues of her regular book now, what are we to make of her? I must say that the first point in her favour is that she doesn’t even try to fill those yellow boots. Our new Batgirl has an all new, all black costume. Except it’s not all new really is it? Cassandra Cain is wearing the suit designed by Helena Bertinelli, the Huntress, when she took on the mantle of the Bat during the early days of No Man’s Land. Helena had her “Bat Privileges” revoked by Batman because she was wearing the suit without permission and she failed an arbitrary and almost impossible test. The Huntress’ decision to become Batgirl is one I don’t feel was ever adequately explained, and it strikes me as more than a bit of a coincidence that the suit should fit Cassandra so well.

Then there is Cassandra’s background. We are told that she was adopted as a child by the assassin David Cain, and raised to kill, although having killed once she now refuses to do so. Now, does that sound anything like a certain Avenging Angel we all know and love? Come on DC - try harder for goodness sake.

Of course in spite of those reservations I must admit that there have been some genuine highlights in Cassandra’s short career. Issue 2 of Batgirl was genuinely heart breaking - a truly moving story of hope and compassion. Batgirl tried to save a man named John Robinson from the mob, and failed. She tried, but even before she knew of his plight, the man was already too badly beaten by his tormentors. Knowing he was unlikely to survive John Robinson wrote one last letter to his wife.

Batgirl can neither read nor write (so far as we know) but she delivered the farewell note to his widow, and even if Batgirl couldn’t bring her husband home, she at least brought some comfort. Stories like that can be hokey. What lifts this one above the level of mere sentimentality is Batgirls reaction. Having seen the effect John Robinson’s letter has on Mrs Robinson she realises that writing is a skill worth having. The last thing we see is Barbara Gordon discovering Cassandra asleep at a desk, trying to learn to write.

Which brings us to the relationship between this new Batgirl, and Barbara Gordon. All of the other members of the Batfamily have joined the crew because they ran into Batman. Dick Grayson became Robin after the Batman’s involvement in the hunt for his parents killers. Batman caught Jason Todd trying to steal the hubcaps off the Batmobile and decided to rehabilitate him, Azrael too was brought into the fold to try to rehabilitate him, and so that he could fill Batman’s boots while Bruce recovered from the beating he took from Bane. Tim Drake was just some too clever by half kid with a Batman fixation.

Batgirl is different. Barbara herself became Batgirl because she chose to, not because she was chosen. Cassandra was found by Barbara Gordon, and enlisted as one of her helpers. Cassandra taking on the mantle of the Bat was not Batman’s idea, but Barbara’s. The new Batgirl is not the protégée of the Batman, but of the original Batgirl. I like this idea, because it continues Batgirls tradition of independence form the big bat, but it also means that Babs will get some more exposure. Barbara has always been underused, even now she has her own book in Birds of Prey. (I know I’m not the only person who thinks that would be a better book if we saw more of Babs and a lot less of Black Canary - but that’s a subject for another time...)

Barbara fills a lot of roles for the new Batgirl - parent, teacher, friend, mentor, big sister. There is a good deal of potential in the relationship between the old and new Batgirls for growth on both sides. Cassandra already knows how to fight. Barbara must teach her more subtle and more difficult lessons - about humanity, about life, relationships, and self worth. Those developments should be interesting to watch.

There are however still some frankly unsatisfactory elements in all of this. I’m still a little unclear as to the reason for Cassandra Cain being in Gotham when the bridges were blown at the start of No Man’s Land. Allowing that she was, how credible is it that she should hook up with Barbara? Even after the start of No Man’s Land Gotham City remained a big place, with a pretty sizable population. Really how likely is it that the former Batgirl should just happen to run into a highly trained teenager in the middle of all that earthquake rubble?

I know it’s only comics, and a certain amount of suspension of disbelief is to be expected, but I have to suspend my disbelief pretty high to swallow that lot. That many plot devices in one place smacks of hurried and lazy writing - as though the idea for a new Batgirl book came first and the character was created to fill it. How else do you explain the speed with which her solo book got launched?

It took Dick Grayson more than half a centaury to get an ongoing series to himself. Tim Drake needed several mini series and a good run up - even Azrael had to go through the whole Knightquest thing. They got their series “because the fans demanded it.” Fair enough. After her arrival in No Man’s land, the fans might well have demanded that Cassandra be given her own book too. Indeed, I’ll even concede that they might already have been demanding it by the time the book came out. But the new Batgirl series simply cannot have been produced in response to fan pressure because there wasn’t time.

Cassandra’s first appearance in No Man’s land to the launch of Batgirl issue one was what? Six months? A little more maybe. How long does it take a major publisher like DC to get a new book underway? To be honest I have no idea, but I harbour a suspicion that it’s probably a little longer than that. Perhaps it’s just wounded male pride that this girl can get her own book so quickly when the lads had to wait so long, but I don’t think I’m quite that shallow. There is after all a lot of work to do between deciding to publish a comic and getting it on the rack.

You have to design the characters (even in a book like this where much of the cast is well known already this is still true) you have to write enough issues to give you a decent lead time. They have to be edited, pencilled, inked, coloured, approved, printed, distributed, and so on. It all takes more time than DC had. Indeed, the rushed and seemingly slapdash approach the writers seem to have taken with her origin suggests to me that the character was shoehorned into No Man’s Land so that they’d be ready for the pre planned launch of the solo book. It’s a shame really, because as I said, there are some interesting stories that can be told about Cassandra. I wish a little more obvious thought had been put into the origins of the character because there does seem to be the potential for greatness, but she’s standing on foundations of sand.

Still it may not matter. Barbara’s own origin changed during the Crisis on Infinite Earths - there is a precedent for origin revision. In the end, if that’s the best argument I can make against her, Cassandra is probably in with a good chance of surviving long term. In the end, it comes down to this:

Did I want a new Batgirl? No. Do I like her origin? No. Does that matter? Not really. Like I said, she’s here now. Whilst her origin may not be original, or even convincing, she is still a potentially interesting character. Watching her learn to read, write and maybe even speak may well prove to be more rewarding than watching Azrael bust heads. It seems to me that there are a great many interesting tales that can be told with Cassandra Cain. Several of my friends have told me that they don't have much faith in the new Batgirl as a character, but I have a feeling she may show us all a thing or two yet.

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