My sincerest apologies for the late feature this week, I’m afraid life got in the way.
This is shame because in the feminist portion of the comics blogging community, we had quite an active week. So active, in fact, that a revelation from Robin #172 that would have been sure to cause a fuss a year or so ago was barely commented upon.
It’s not exactly a surprise revelation, but I’m going to cut this post and make a Spoiler Warning for anyone who’s avoiding internet blatherings about Gotham Underground #6 and Robin #172
Quick recap in case you’ve been harvesting subterranean algae on Venus for the past few years or if–considerably more likely but vastly less interesting–you simply haven’t been paying attention to my corner of the internet: Some time in the recent past the various Batman books joined together in a crossover called War Crimes. During that crossover Stephanie Brown–a character from the 90s teen-hero boom known as Spoiler who had spent 70-some days as Batman’s sidekick Robin earlier that year–was tortured by the main villain of the crossover, Black Mask.
Batman brought the near-death Stephanie to the clinic of supporting cast member Dr. Leslie Tompkins for treatment. Tompkins–a long-running female character notable for being a pacifist doctor who disapproved of Bruce’s vigilante activities but still helped him when he needed her–refused treatment and told Bruce she allowed the girl to die in order to teach him a lesson about bringing young people into his world.
After this crossover Leslie disappeared from Gotham City and Stephanie was promptly forgotten. The comics fan community treated this with the normal level of maturity, leading to an outraged circle of fans banding together with other fed-up fans of female characters and forming the now-infamous Girl-wonder.org. They launched a letter campaign and pestered DC Comics EIC Dan Didio in person at conventions in order to get a memorial case in the Batcave for Stephanie, just as the now-resurrected Jason Todd had a memorial case. That’s right. No resurrection request, no demanding Tim Drake be replaced, no official demands that the writers or editors be fired. Just an organized letter campaign asking for a memorial case–no, that’s too putting it too strongly–a drawing of a memorial case in a drawing of the Batcave. A very simple request.
Now I’m not affiliated with Girl-wonder.org in any way. So I’m absolutely not qualified to speak for them. But I’ve been keeping track of this concern since it was in it’s planning stages, so I can be reasonably certain I know what the logic behind the letter campaign was. The entire matter was symbolic. The supporters of Project Girl Wonder felt that too many female characters were used and thrown away as thought they were nothing more than eye-candy for the male readers. A memorial would signify that Stephanie Brown had been important as a person to the male leads in the Batman franchise, and that her death would have a lasting effect rather than just being a moment meant to shock the audience and possibly titillate the more twisted of the readers.
It was a very simple, reasonable request that DC chose not to fulfill. I’m not going to speculate as to why, but it caused no small amount of outrage among the fans of the character. They got a view of a memorial in dream sequences, and future timelines and such, but not actually what they asked for.
Instead, they got something more effective. Stephanie Brown brought back to life in Robin #172.
Now, I know there are some people who will say that that’s meaningless. That the memorial would have brought some meaning to her death, and that as a resurrected character she is still a throwaway character. But there was more damage from that character’s death than just that character being trashed. Another female character was repositioned as the sort of person who would let a little girl die to prove a moral point. And Batman himself was positioned as the sort of person who would be unaffected by the death of a young girl. because even though much of the Batman-Stephanie dynamic was Batman trying to discourage her from vigilantism, Bruce Wayne has always been the sort of person who would treat the death of a person he tried to save not as the fault of that person, but as his fault for not trying hard enough to save them.
Stephanie Brown being alive means that Dr. Tompkins did not actually let her die. So that’s one female character returned to her status as a supportive moral voice, and possibly returning to Gotham City soon.
Stephanie having survived downgrades the underlying message of the female Robin storyline from “the only girl Robin was brutally murdered and no one cared” to “the only girl Robin was hired to make a boy jealous and fired for things the boys get away with.” Still not great, but it leaves some room to explore Batman’s attitudes about gender in the future.
And it upgrades Batman from “cold bastard who didn’t care about a little girl who died” to “Greatest detective in the World who saw through Leslie’s bluff.” I know I’m making a leap of faith assuming DC will make Batman have known this all along, but I don’t think it’s that far a leap. It’s the only way that fits. And it’s particularly important because as the central character in the franchise Batman needs to be someone worth rooting for. He’s a harsh, cold person on the outside, but one of the most important aspects of a Batman story was that he truly cared about saving lives. That it hurt when someone died, which was why he wouldn’t even kill someone like the Joker. That he would sooner die trying than fail to save even the lowest, most immoral person in Gotham. His notable lack of pathos over Stephanie’s death detracted from that. She may not have been his favorite person, but he knew her. His “kids” knew her. She’d once worked for him. And he’d tried repeatedly to keep her from vigilantism because he figured she’d die. He should have cared a great deal about her death, no matter who’s fault it was.
Now, it hurts a little as a feminist commentator to say that the most important reason to bring back a supporting female character is to give a male character his moral authority back. Unfortunately, it’s true. Batman is the central character here. But there’s a difference between using a female character as a supporting character in positive manner and tearing down a female character in order to advance the male character’s plotline. The former is what can happen if Batman is shown to have known all along that Stephanie survived. The latter is what War Games seemed to be driving at–only with the added negative of not actually having much effect on the male character.
In short, while a Stephanie memorial would have been a nice gesture of equality, Stephanie’s return has the potential to save the Batman franchise emotionally. It gives Batman back his moral authority.
Completely unrelated to Stephanie Brown, today is Easter Sunday according to many denominations. Thursday was the Spring Equinox. I’m going to ask that some of you to look at your comics from this week and last week, and see if any of their favorite characters who have celebrated Christmas in the past made mention of Easter. I’m thinking they didn’t, but I could be wrong.