Saturday, October 06, 2007

My legal obligation as a comics blogger: A post about Stephanie "Spoiler" Brown

So I had kind of an unusual experience Friday afternoon. I was sitting in my wingback armchair, enjoying a pipe and a good book, which is how I usually spend my leisure time, when I heard a thunderous knock on my front door.

Standing on my porch were two clean-cut looking people in their mid-thirties, one male and one female, each wearing dark suits with ties and carrying expensive-looking briefcases. When I cracked the door and asked if I could help them, they said they were from the Comics Blogosphere Bureau of Regulation and asked if they could speak with me for a few minutes.

I was naturally skeptical, and told them I’d never even heard of any such an organization, but they quickly produced badges, as well as I.D.’s and some very convincing paper work.

So I welcomed them in, offered them seats and asked what they took in their tea, when they abruptly cut me off and asked me to have a seat.

From their briefcases they produced a manila folder with my name of it, full of print-outs of my past posts, a few unflattering headshots of me, and other information pertaining to Every Day Is Like Wednesday. They curtly informed me that I had yet to broach the subject of Stephanie Brown in any great detail.

For those of you who don’t know, Brown was a minor heroine in DC Comics n the 1990s and early aughts who went by the name Spoiler, was Robin IV for about fifteen minutes, and then died a violent death in one the stupidest Batman stories ever written, a distinction which would immediately be surpassed by the story that immediately followed it.

She’s also, somewhat surprisingly, become incredibly popular online (Particularly for a character who never carried her own title…or miniseries…or one shot. Or, um, solo story. Anywhere. Ever). She’s also become emblematic of online comics feminist criticism, a popular Exhibit A in the case arguing rampant sexism in Big Two comics. Mostly because Batman hasn’t erected a glass case with her uniform in it, as he did for Robin II when Robin II died.

Anyway, the two agents in my parlor this afternoon informed me that I was legally obligated to post at least 1,000 words about Stephanie Brown on my blog a year, or else risk losing my comics blogger’s license. I could appeal of course, but there was no guarantee the judge would side with me, and in the mean time they would be able to seize my blog.

All in all, it seemed far easier to comply, so here we are: A rather lomg post about Stephanie Brown.

As it turns out, the timing couldn’t be better, as it’s Stephanie Brown week at Project Rooftop, the website where talented artists redesign superhero costumes, often coming up with designs that are one hundred to one thousand times better than what DC and Marvel had previously designed for the characters.

As usual, Dean Trippe came up with the best. That’s it at the top of the post. He mixes Brown’s Spoiler costume with her Robin costume, and comes up with a look that’s better than both. If I ran DC Comics, I would have long ago put Trippe on the payroll and given him some fancy title like Senior Vice President of Teen Aesthetics and Fashion Consultant, and a one-sentence job description: “Redesign all of our teen heroes so they don’t look quite as stupid as they do at the moment.”

Trippe’s previously drawn the best Supergirl ever, the best t-shirt version of Superb*y, and a not-so-bad version of Batgirl (although I couldn’t see the Cassandra Cain version wearing either of his designs; the cape and skirt one being cooler than the Catwoman-like one).

I like Trippe’s Spoiler costume so much that it actually makes me wish DC would bring Spoiler back to life and start putting her in their comics again. Of course, that’s a popular position among people who write about DC comics on the Internet, what gives this declaration weight here? Well because, in all honestly, I never cared about Stephanie Brown one way or the other.

In fact, I find the strong emotions swirling around the Internet about her rather fascinating, as I can’t quite figure out what makes her so special. Certainly there are plenty of other Tim Drake love interests, dead or in limbo, whom no one seems to insist on seeing more of.

Just as there are plenty of other Gotham vigilantes, female or otherwise, dead or in limbo, whom no one seems to care about.

And God knows there are plenty of female supporting characters in comics who were killed in stupid stories that were, at worst, offensive and, at best, tone deaf. What makes Brown so special? Is it that she’s a little bit of each?

Trippe offers a nice, evenly toned overview of the character’s history in his intro the Project Rooftop entry.

I personally found her intriguing in her first appearances, in some of Chuck Dixon’s earliest Bat-writings, when he was still transitioning from the series of Robin miniseries to Detective Comics.

If I remember my Bat-history correctly, Brown made her first appearance in a three-part story that ran from TEC #647-#649. Dixon reintroduced second-rate Riddler The Cluemaster to Gotham (previously he had fallen far enough into joke status that he was part of the Injustice League/Justice League Antartica in the Giffen/DeMatteis Justice titles).

In addition to Batman and Robin, someone else kept spoiling Cluemaster’s schemes, and the big reveal was that it was his daughter in disguise.

It’s a neat origin for a heroine, playing off the teenagers rebelling against their parents idea, although Dixon played it straight and soap opera-y, instead of going for the inherent fun and laughs in the situation.

I’m sure in a black and white drawing, the original costume didn’t look too bad: A body suit with a hood and a full-face mask (to completely conceal her identity). But for the first few years of her existence, the costume was often hideously colored a sort of fuchsia. Sometimes it would be straight purple, sometimes more of a lavender, but more often than not, it looked fuchsia, and the sleek bodysuit was full of 90’s style ornamentation—shoulder pads, pockets, belts and straps that didn’t seem to do anything but make the costume less appealing. Additionally, the gloves, boots and mask were often more of a navy than black.

Brown began appearing in Dixon’s ongoing Robin almost immediately, and I dropped the title around that time (Not because of Spoiler; it was honestly just a coincidence).

See, Dixon is a great pop comic book writer, but he’s far better at coming up with cool action movie-like plots than character work (For a good example of this quirk of Dixon’s writing, think of just about any Dixon-written DC story of the 1990s. Okay, now change the protagonist, from Robin or whoever stars in the one you’ve chosen to Batman or Nightwing or Green Arrow or Catwoman or Black Canary. Okay, now how does the change in protagonist change the plot? Exactly).

Having seemingly abandoned the far more interesting King Snake and Lynx as Robin archenemy and love interest, Dixon started using Cluemaster and Spoiler in pretty the same roles and, well, if heroes are defined by their villains, and Cluemaster’s your main villain…

Dixon cultivated a romance between Robin and Spoiler, which seemed rather unconvincing to me (Did Tim Drake really have time for girls? As a reader his age at the time, I had a hard time suspending my disbelief enough to buy a 14-year-old high schooler who was popular, serving as Robin, keeping his secret life from his family, and had an active love life. Still, Brown was better than Tim’s previous girlfriend, Arianna, since she was actually a vigilante, giving her a leg up on people who weren’t vigilantes).

Let the record show: This costume is pretty sucky

Over the years, all kinds of questionable things would happen with the character, including her getting knocked up (not by Tim, who’s totally still a virgin I bet*.), having the baby and giving it up to adoption. It was all very after school special-y.

For a brief time, when Batman was being an especially antisocial dick, Spoiler was the only Gotham vigilante he was talking to, but her presence in Bat- stories really betrays the fact that DC wasn’t quite sure what to do with her.

One month she was blacklisted by Batman, the next he was personally training her, the next she’s retired. Then she’s Black Canary’s apprentice, then she’s blacklisted again, then she’s Robin, then she’s blacklisted again.

I never cared for her as an ongoing component in Robin, or in the Bat-books in general, where she seemed to occupy a weird space between accepted agent of the Bat Family (like Azrael, Robin, Nightwing, Oracle and Batgirl), black sheep (like Huntress) and just some random vigilante who only appeared in stories written by writers who loved her (like Anarky).

I personally only warmed to her in the pages of Batgirl, a title I came to too late. The introduction of a new Batgirl struck me as a bit random in No Man’s Land, but when I actually tried an issue of Scott Peterson, Kelley Puckett and Damion Scott’s Batgirl, I realized what I was missing.

Same costume, suddenly pretty awesome-looking

I still can’t speak highly enough of that series, particularly the first 25 issues, which comprised one big complete story. Cassandra Cain was a heroine unlike no other in the DCU, and was the closest thing to either a martial arts hero and a manga protagonist that DC Comics was publishing at the time.

That first 25 issues of Batgirl essentially comprised an ongoing conflict between father figure Batman and mother figure Oracle over how best to raise a teen vigilante, one which, interestingly enough, was pretty much the Dark Knight version of Batman if he happened to be a mute, illiterate teenaged girl. Batman treated Cain like his ultimate weapon, and Oracle wanted to convince Cain to be a real, normal human being in addition to dressing up like a bat to beat people up. Cain herself leaned toward the Batman side of the debate.

Spoiler began popping up occasionally, and the girls formed a sort of friendship based on mutual need-fulfillment. Batgirl didn’t really have any friends (Robin was the only person her own age she knew, and he was kind of terrified of her), and Spoiler gave her someone to play rooftop tag with and have the occasional brief, clipped, reluctant talk with. Spoiler, meanwhile, still wanted to be a hero, but Batman had shut her out almost completely at that point, and she looked to Batgirl for training and a bit of Bat-approval.

If Spoiler didn’t work quite as Gotham Vigilante #8, or as Robin’s girlfriend, or as an ongoing Very Special Message in the pages of Robin, she worked quite well as a supporting cast member in Batgirl.

Spoiler walks in on Batgirl during a typical destroy all mannequins training session

And damn, did Damion Scott make that costume work. Check out those huge Spider-Man-sized eyes on her mask! I love Scott’s version of Spoiler’s costume, and I suppose the fact that she stopped looking stupid went a long way towards helping me to enjoy comic book stories about her.

And then things went to hell.

During that dark period between Identity Crisis and Infinite Crisis, during which the quality of DC’s line of super-books began to slide, and so many of the “rules” of the fictional universe just seemed to fall apart, Bill Willingham was writing Robin. He was writing a pretty intense arc about Tim’s dad Jack Drake finally discovering his son’s secret identity, and understandably being a little pissed off that the weird millionaire he knew was secretly dressing his teenaged son up in tights and sending him against mass murderers every night.

So Drake did the responsible thing, respected his father’s wishes and quit the Dynamic Duo. So Batman turned to Brown and made her Robin. This wasn’t out of necessity. Batman’s gone thorough most of his career saying how he doesn’t need anyone else to anyone who will listen, and in cases where he needs to bounce ideas off some one or help kicking ass, it’s not like he didn’t have Nightwing and Batgirl on speed dial. No, he made Spoiler the new Robin basically as a classic Batman dick move, to shame Drake into returning.

This new status quo lasted three issues of Robin. Stephanie-Brown-as-Robin appeared in an issue of Batgirl and Teen Titans and maybe elsewhere during those months, but she was Robin far less time than Jean-Paul Valley or Dick Grayson were Batman. Or Huntress was Batgirl.

And this is why the frustration at Batman’s failure to memoralize these three months (Or, more specifically, DC’s failure to memoralize these three months through Batman) confuses me.

I don’t think anyone suspected for a moment that Stephanie Brown was ever going to be Robin for longer than a story arc, did they? Certainly it didn’t seem any more permanent than Jean-Paul Valley or Dick Grayson permanently being Batman. In fact, JPV got to be Batman for three rather sizeable story arcs.

Batman quickly fired Brown as Robin for some dumb-ass reason. Maybe because she just wasn’t as properly trained as Tim was, despite the fact that every two months or so Batman would forbid her to be a vigilante and would force her to quit training.

And then things get really stupid, because from there we get into “War Games,” one of the very worst Batman stories ever told. What makes the story so bad is its Countdownian transparency—you could almost see through the panels of art and dialogue bubbles a poorly thought-out memo listing plot points to get the various Bat-characters from Point A to Point B, no matter what. The result was a story in which all of the characters seemed to be either hysterical or stupid (or both), the events driving the plot don’t make any sense if you stop and think about them, and everyone’s actions seem to contradict their own fictional histories.

Stripped of her “R” blouse, Brown goes back to being Spoiler, and initiates a war game of Batman’s in an attempt to win his love or whatever.

The game assumes every crime boss in Gotham is stupid enough to answer an anonymous invitation in person with one body guard, and then that they would all somehow simultaneously kill each other by accident.

This somehow leads to a gang war so big that not even the combined forces of Oracle, Batman, Orpheus, Obsidian (Is that her name? The bald chick?), Batgirl, Nightwing, Catwoman, Robin and Tranatula II (Or III?) can possibly stop it.

It also hinges on Black Mask being able to go hand-to-hand with Batman, Barbara Gordon forgetting that she knows martial arts too and thinking that Black Mask could actually take Batman in a fight, and a were-scarecrow.

The centerpiece of it all? Black Mask torturing Spoiler to death with drill bits. Well, she escapes, but dies from the injuries sustained in the battle. It’s a cruel, depressing, relentlessly negative story, one which makes all of its heroes seem not only highly incompetent, but to be pretty bad people.

But as stupid as it was for DC to willingly engage in such an exploitive story with the cloud of women-in-refrigerator-ism still hanging like a thick, black cloud above them, and hard to refute claims of outright misogyny stemming from Identity Crisis leveled at them, it was also just a really, really badly told story.

The end result? Robin and Batgirl are sent to Bludhaven, Nightwing is sent to New York to go undercover as a gangster or some such shit, Batman is labeled a wanted vigilante by the GCPD like back in the old Year One days, Oracle moves to Metropolis and refuses to speak to Batman anymore, Orpheus is dead, Spoiler is dead, and, oh yeah, Leslie Thompkins, pascifist lifelong friend of Bruce Wayne, is a killer. Point B looks a lot different form Point A, and the story was just the most direct line between them, quality be damned.

That radical shift in the status quo was revealed to be little more than poorly-planned random change for change’s sake a few months (our time, a year Batman’s time) later, however, when the various Bat-characters would get another radical shift, for the most part, in the direction of their pre-“War Games” status.

One Year Later, Batman had adopted Robin, and the pair of them were in Gotham and on better terms with the police than ever before. Nightwing was back in the fold, although sent to New York to star in some exceptionally shitty stories (even by Nightwing standards). Batgirl was suddenly the Totally Evil Leader of the League of Assassins (I’m still waiting for the reveal that that’s the Earth-3 Cassandra Cain we’ve been seeing…the various “fixes” to the original shitty Robin arc don’t match up at all). Oracle seems to be speaking with Batman, but she’s still steering clear of Gotham City. Leslie Thompkins is simply not spoken of. Spoiler and Orpheus are still dead.

And there’s no memorial case in the Batcave for Robin/Spoiler.

Is this a big deal? I don’t think so. And I don’t think there ever will be one there, either.

If fans didn’t start asking about it, I doubt anyone at DC would ever have even entertained the thought. The fact that Robin II still has a case likely has more to do with the fact that artists drawing the Batcave know from experience that the five things that signify a drawing of a cave as a drawing of the Batcave are a dinosaur, a giant penny, a computer, a parked Batmobile and a glass case with an old-school Robin costume in it.

I assume any Bat-artist drawing the cave could have drawn a Stephanie Brown-related memorial case in if they wanted to**, especially since clearly DC’s not real big on editing art to make sure characters are on model or that long dead people don’t accidentally cameo these days.

But of course, once fans started asking about a second, Stephanie Brown-specific case, then editors had to start thinking about one, and the obvious answer is that, “Good God, memoralize one of our greatest mistakes?! Why would we want to do that?”

I’m assuming DC wants to simply forget “War Games” and “War Crimes” ever happened (they’ve undone almost all of the changes effected by them already) and a memorial to the fallen Stephanie Brown would double as a memorial to those stories, just as the memorial to Robin II has always served as a memorial to “A Death in the Family.”

So I don’t think we’ll be seeing a case there ever, and I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing.

Will we ever see Stephanie Brown again? That’s a more interesting question, I think.

Like I said near the beginning of this post, she was never really that popular a character. She was popular enough to guest-star here and there, but never carried a title of her own (Hell, Anarky got a mini and a monthly). So I don’t think there’s any kind of financial impetus to bring her back to life. And creatively, I think resurrection stories are to be avoided at all costs, because they simply erode the drama of death in your fictional universe.

But then, there was no real financial impetus to bring Jason Todd*** back to life, or Ice, and DC resurrected them both since Brown died. And both of those were accomplished in the most pedestrian, random ways (A character in another comic punching the walls of continuity in the case of the former, magic herbs in the case of the latter).

Hell, Spoiler’s fellow minor Bat-characters have had even more goofy resurrections.

Lynx, who, like Spoiler, died in “War Games,” simply appeared alive again in Robin…at least long enough to be killed by Batgirl a few panels later. Killer Moth, who was torn apart in Infinite Crisis, similarly just appeared alive again in “Face The Face.”

Next month, totally dead forever Ra’s al Ghul is expected to return to life in a storyline called “The Resurrection of Ra’s al Ghul.”

So maybe Stephanie Brown did come back to life along with Lynx and Killer Moth in the Infinite Crisis/52 rejiggering, and she just hasn’t made the scene yet.

Or maybe she’ll come out of a Lazarus Pit like Ra’s in the next issue of Robin.

Or a Spoiler from one of the other 51 Earths will immigrate to the main one.

Or maybe the upcoming Final Crisis will involve some sort of final continuity rejiggering, which will essentially undo all of the stupid things that were done between Identity Crisis and Final Crisis, including all of “War Games.”

If and when she does return, however, I hope she’s wearing that outfit Trippe designed for her.

* Although I bet if we wonder if Robin’s gay enough, Dixon will be sure to write a story in which Robin totally bangs a bunch of chicks.

**Does Batgirl I have a memorial in the cave? In some stories there’s a glass case containing Barbara Gordon’s costume right next to Jason Todd’s. In others, there’s a glass case containing it elsewhere in the cave. In plenty of stories, there’s no sign of one, but then, in plenty of stories there’s no sign of a penguin statue, an assortment of penguin umbrellas, or Batman costumes either, but in other stories there are.

***Oh sure, it probably boosted sales on Batman for exactly one arc, and helped get Judd Winick more royalties off a short run on the title than he otherwise would have, but it’s not like we’re going to be getting a Red Hood miniseries or monthly. Or a Red Hood/Jason Todd movie. Or even DC Direct toys. Jason Todd doesn’t even have a marketable name or look at the moment; he’s just a secret identity of a former superhero.


Dean Trippe said...

Excellent post. I'll let the agents know you've complied.

Thanks for all the kind words. Please take over DC as soon as possible. I've been applying for the "Senior Vice President of Teen Aesthetics and Fashion Consultant" position for YEARS, and the higher-up's aren't having it. I'm holding out hope for a changing of the guard, if you know what I mean.

I've got some ideas one what a back-from-the-dead Steph story would be like, but I'm keeping them under my hat for now in case I get the chance to do it. ;)

Baal said...

Bah. Stephanie's not dead. The missing medical files and Thompkins' apparent lunacy? She saved Stephanie's life and had her spirited away a la witness protection and concocted the whole 'letting her die' scenario so she could leave town to care for her and act as surrogate mother.

Anonymous said...

Pffft, the Fangrrl hysteria over Stephanie Brown is easily explained - according to progressive political dogma, one of the surest ways to garner power and influence is to claim to be a victim. Spoiler (spunky little do-gooder chick that she was) was grotesquely and ridiculously abused by a bad bad man. This publicly elavated her to Victim Status, which should have guaranteed her iconic stature and had a huge impact in all future Batman efforts.

But it didn't.

Comics are still (mostly) a masculine pursuit, and Stephanie Brown's victimization didn't valorize her in the eyes of most of the writers or most of the buying public. And to add insult to injury, she wasn't even memorialized, despite her suffering and death.

So comics, in not respecting the Power Of The Victim, and publicly acknowledging that Spoiler was not in the same league as Jason Todd in regards to impact or importance despite her victimhood, has insulted all right-thinking people and women everywhere. A sort of 2-for-1 political maneuver that has driven many shrill and possibly neurotic ladies to distraction and vocal froth far out of proportion to anything the actual stories or character herself ever earned.

Thus endeth the lesson.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I've always thought they should bring Stephanie back as a new Secret, as her last few appearances were in Batgirl playing the role of ghost dad from Due South.

tgiokdi said...

a picture of the case that you're talking about

Ragnell said...

Anyway, the two agents in my parlor this afternoon informed me that I was legally obligated to post at least 1,000 words about Stephanie Brown on my blog a year, or else risk losing my comics blogger’s license. I could appeal of course, but there was no guarantee the judge would side with me, and in the mean time they would be able to seize my blog.

There's a subparagraph that lets you get away with 2 pictures of (or 2,000 words about) Power Girl's breasts per year.

I believe there's another one which involves regularly pointing out that all the other bloggers blog DC except for you, but that's for Marvel fans.

Patrick C said...

Don't forget the giant Joker card hanging from the ceiling in the Cave

Anonymous said...

While I cannot comment on the massive stupidity of War Games (I'm more than willing to trust you on that one), you can add me to the list of people who just don't get the Spoiler hoopla.

I read Dixon's ROBIN on and off (mostly off during Bat-crossover-mania, before finally quitting for good around No Man's Land - I think I read about 40 issues of the first 75-80 issues), and Steph was - long before any of this drama unfolded - the most obnoxiously annoying character in the book. Arianna was annoying, sure, but Steph was (as noted) afterschool-special annoying. That's a whole other level of awful. Dixon's a good action writer. Teen drama... not really his strength.

Does it make War Games any more palatable? I doubt it, but if I'm picking a crusade, even a "save the female comic character" crusade, Stephanie Brown ain't it.

Hell, I wasn't even reading any Batman comics at the time of War Games, but as soon as Steph became Robin, it seemed blatantly transparent that DC had scheduled her for execution. I thought to myself: Good riddance.

Greg said...

Damn...thanks for filling me in on the Spoiler saga...since I was absent from comics during that time, I appreciate the background--it'll help me to stall appropriately if the CBBR show up to disturb my pipe and book time.

I sort of liked Steph as a character, and had been surprised to learn she was briefly Robin...shame they couldn't have done it differently. I think it would subtract from JT's death (ha, as if his resurrection has not...) to add a nearly identical case for Steph's costume...when Bruce might simply have added a small brass plaque to the display to indicate an additional Robin corpse...or perhaps, the case we see now IS hers...what with JT being back and all.

(I don't think we can rule out that Alfred may actually be taking the time to shift around different bits of memorabilia in the Cave in support of whatever case Batman's currently working on...which might be why sometimes we see things, and other times not.)

There's more of a case for cleaning up Wonder Woman's shabby editorial treatment than Steph's, at any rate.

Caleb said...

Thanks Dean, and please do keep applying. Let me know if you need a reference.


Hey, that's not bad. And then that issue where Batman confronted Leslie and called her a super-villain, we could just read all that dialogue in really sarcastic voices. I bet that would make it a pretty fun read, actually....


That's a nice picture of the case, but I can't see Batman ever erecting one...especially like that. I would think she'd get a Spoiler costume in glass instead, and the "good soldier" seems weird...I mean, she wasn't a "soldier" of Batman's for very long, and she was a pretty bad one, wasn't she?


Yeah, the Robin upgrade was certianly a red flag she wasn't long for this (fictional) world. I think Willingham even said in interviews he knew DC planned to kill her, so he made her Robin first, since it was, like, her last chance to ever be Robin.

Anonymous said...

The spoiler saga is incredible.