Hello everyone, and welcome back to COMFORT FOOD COMICS PRESENTS: SPECIAL INGREDIENT.
In every column, we look at a newer comic and the “Special Ingredient” that made it extra delicious. It could be a character, a location, a plot device, a callback to a previous issue… basically anything that jumped out to me and made me think “mmm, that really improved the taste of this comic.”
Although the best comic this week was, without a doubt, Dark Nights – Death Metal – Multiverse’s End #1, I want to argue there was so much good about it that no one element or moment stood out. Owlman, Captain Carrot, Kyle Rayner… there was so much good it’s impossible to pick one thing.
But over in another DC comic there was one story that got me good. And so, this week’s Special Ingredient is the Batgirls – Cass and Steph – appearing in Batman: The Joker War Zone #1 in a story by Joshua Williamson, David LaFuente, Hi-Fi, and Gabriela Downie.
The History of Batgirl
When one looks at or discusses the history of the Batman “family” of characters, it’s fairly easy to connect each Robin to a certain era. Dick is the first Robin, from the 40s through the 70s. Jason is of the 80s. Tim is 90s to early 2000s, and finally Damian is mid-2000s to present. Anyone else is really just a blip on the timeline.
Tracing the history of Batman himself is even simpler. Bruce Wayne is Batman, and anyone else (Jean-Paul, Dick) is just a blip on the timeline.
But when it comes to Batgirl, depending on when you started reading comics, one of two things is true; Barbara Gordon is Batgirl, or Barbara Gordon was Batgirl.
It’s hard to argue that the story of Barbara’s partial paralysis, caused by the Joker, wasn’t a formative part of the Batman narrative in the ‘90s, as she became Oracle and supported the Bat-characters, Birds of Prey, and Justice League. Years after Bruce replaced Jason Todd (murdered by the Joker) with Tim Drake in the role of Robin, there was still no Batgirl.
Until, in the fantastic No Man’s Land story, Cassandra Cain was introduced, and became the new Batgirl.
Cassandra Cain was an interesting character with a hell of a background. A better fighter than Batman himself, she was brought up learning nothing but how to fight and kill – not even verbal communication. Her struggles with her violent impulses, learning how to communicate, and becoming part of the Bat-Found-Family made for many interesting adventures as she starred in the first ever Batgirl solo ongoing series from 2000-2006.
But, after some bad storylines where she “snaps” and turns evil and then kinda comes back to good, Cass eventually decided there was no point to being Batgirl anymore because Batman was dead (following Final Crisis), which opened the door for another new Batgirl – Stephanie Brown.
Stephanie Brown’s character actually predates Cassandra Cain’s, having first appeared as a supporting character in Robin in 1992. In that series, she takes on the identity of Spoiler in order to stop her super-villain father, The Cluemaster, with Robin’s help. She sticks around as a romantic interest for Tim Drake, as well as an occasional partner as Spoiler, also working with Young Justice and the Birds of Prey at times. She deals with teen pregnancy, teen romantic troubles, parental issues, and, oh yeah, she becomes Robin herself for a bit when Tim quits and, y’know, dies.
Except not really, because comics, and after she returns and Cassandra Cain gives up on being Batgirl, Stephanie takes up the costume, and then redesigns it with some purple, which is both reflective of her Spoiler costume but also reminiscent of Yvonne Craig’s tight purple suit in the 3rd season of the ‘60s Batman TV show.
Stephanie’s run as Batgirl would last for 24 wonderful issues.
Then the New 52 happened.
And “Barbara Gordon is Batgirl” became true again. Both Stephanie Brown and Cassandra Cain would disappear completely for years, and when they did return, it would be as “Spoiler” and “Orphan,” their time as Batgirl forgotten.
DC, starting before the New 52 but especially since, has been very much about servicing the “brand” of their characters. Barry Allen is the definitive Flash, so let’s bury Wally. Hal Jordan is the greatest Green Lantern, so relegate all the others to team series. And Barbara Gordon is Batgirl. It’s clear and easy to understand for cross-media pollination – TV shows, movies, toys, etc. – but it’s not really what I want the DC Universe to be.
Which brings us to this week, and Batman: The Joker War Zone #1.
After two stories that aren’t about any of the Batgirls and therefore don’t matter (YMMV), the third story kicks off with Spoiler and Orphan attacking a gathering of Joker’s goons. A short flashback shows us that Stephanie thinks lighting up the Bat-Signal will help give Gotham hope, but it’s been destroyed. She recalls her father had a replica/stolen one/they-don’t-explain-why at one of his super-villain warehouses, but Joker goons are holed up there. So she and Cassandra take the fight to them and kick all the asses, but unfortunately damage the Bat-Signal in the process.
“I wanted the city to see Batman’s symbol. To know we haven’t given up. But it wasn’t just for them,” Stephanie says. Cassandra has an idea, and overcomes Steph’s objections with a reminder that “No one gave Batman permission.”
And thus concludes the return of the Batgirls.
As a revamp of their “becoming Batgirl” origin stories, it works perfectly for me. Do you know who else didn’t ask for permission to be Batgirl? Barbara fucking Gordon. Most versions of Batgirl’s origin are built around her choosing to become Batgirl, making the costume and adopting the symbol for herself because of the message it sends, and in most cases going on despite Batman’s objections, just like our girls are doing here.
Beyond that, it’s a lot like our recent “Special Ingredient” from The Flash (also written by Williamson) in that it begins to bring the DC Universe back into a shape I enjoy, full of legacy characters and families of characters who have been inspired by and learned from each other, who can use the same name and fight the same battle because they stand for the same things. It seems to understand that the traditional versions of a character isn’t always going to be the best version, or, at the very least, that there should be room for more. It plays on nostalgia for the ‘90s and ‘00s, but in a way that’s additive, not reductive. Hopefully it is a sign of things to come as DC moves forward after their recent shake-up.
Batgirl vol 1 #1-73 and Batgirl vol 3 #1-24 are the main series for these two in their Batgirl identities, and there’s a lot of fun stuff in both.
The full No Man’s Land crossover introduces Cassandra Cain and is one of the best Batman stories ever, and I always recommend the novelization of it by Greg Rucka for deeper insight into the characters.
Stephanie’s origin story in Detective Comics #647-649 is also great, and then she can be followed to her appearances in Robin vol 2, which will ultimately lead you to the story where she becomes Robin and supposedly dies, collected in Batman: War Drums and Batman: War Games Acts 1-3.
It’s sad that there’s nothing more recent, but these series and stories will give you those peak ‘90s/’00s feels and encapsulate what makes these characters, and their times as Batgirl, special ingredients.