25 May 2008

Spoiler Alert for Robin

This past week turned out to be significant in Robin history. Robin, #174, confirmed what DC Comics magazines and editors had been hinting for months: that Stephanie Brown, the (by my count) fifth teenager to take the role of Robin, wasn't dead after all.

A little background. In 1992, shortly after Tim Drake debuted as the fourth Robin, the Batman comics introduced Spoiler: a female acrobatic masked vigilante in eggplant-colored tights and cape. Tim tracked down the Spoiler and identified her as Stephanie Brown, the teen-aged daughter of a minor villain named the Cluemaster. She was trying to fight crime--on a shoestring budget, with no mentor--out of embarrassment about her father.

The following year, DC launched the ongoing Robin comic book, and Tim's relationship with the slightly older Stephanie was a major plot engine over the next decade. As Chuck Dixon, the magazine's writer until 2002, said in a recent interview:

Frankly, Spoiler began as a pure plot device and evolved, because of fan interest, into a romantic foil for Robin. . . . It's also kind of cool that Robin has someone around his own age to run rooftops with. It's sort of a male fantasy to find a girl who shares your hobby.
Tim and Stephanie fell in love, had a baby (not his, but he helped at the birth), broke up, got back together, and went through other experiences of hormonal teenagers. On top of that, they had the typical experiences of comic-book heroes: finding out secret identities, switching bodies, having to fight their own parents, dealing with jealous ghosts, and so on.

In 2004, DC hired Bill Willingham to script the Robin series. I've mentioned Willingham's Fables comics favorably, and will have more to say about them in due course. Comic Book Resources interviewed Willingham about his eventful stretch of Robin comics:
CBR: While writing "Robin," the character has gone through some major changes, including his father finding out about his secret identity, the death of his father, the death of his girlfriend, and relocating to a new city. How many of these changes originated with you, and how many were given to you to explore by editors?

BW: What a nice way to put that - "...given to you to explore by editors" as opposed to, "inflicted on you against your will and better judgment," Well done. Very diplomatic. . . .

CBR: Despite all the changes the character has gone through, all of Robin's actions seemed true to his character.

BW: How nice of you to say, but some readers might disagree with that.
And so, it's apparent, might Willingham. The story of Tim Drake's father learning that he's been spending his nights as Robin, instead of, oh, playing in a midnight basketball league, appears in the collection Robin: Unmasked.

Tim's resignation for his dad's sake left Batman without a teen-aged partner. Meanwhile, the Batman editorial team had plans for a big "crossover" story to promote all their magazines, which would need some striking landmark event to drive the plot. These days, such comic-book events usually involve a character dying. Willingham had a bright idea, as he explained in that interview:
The death of Spoiler was locked in before I was asked to take over the series, but it was my idea to let her become Robin for a short time before that. My thinking is that it would be nice to give her at least one moment of glory, accomplishment and success, before all of those horrible things that were destined to happen to her.
Thus, Stephanie Brown became the first female Robin within the regular DC continuity. Most of the Batman stories in which she wears the red and green costume appear in a collection called Batman: War Drums. According to Willingham in an interview with Word Balloon quoted at evenrobins.net:
There was a nice spike in sales during that time and I wish her death hadn’t been so as locked in because when it started going really well, what I would have liked to have said was, "Let’s follow this for a while." That was not available as an option and you can’t really...do that same stunt over and over again. We had that momentum once, we lost it.
The long-planned crossover is archived in the three Batman: War Games volumes; many fans seem to feel that's three too many. Having been fired as Robin, Stephanie returns to her Spoiler role and ignites a gang war. A villain named Black Mask captures and tortures her. Tim Drake returns as Robin, sadder and madder. Batman beats up people. And, we are given to understand, Stephanie Brown dies for our entertainment.

Here's a passage from yet another interview with Willingham, from the AV Club, on his great notion:
My personal theory is that we've all got this bucket full of good ideas, and if you just hold onto them, your bucket never gets fuller. There's only so many you can hold at a time, but as fast as you use them up, it fills up again with more good ideas. My notion is to spend everything you've got coming through your head as fast as you can, and you're guaranteed to get more good stuff.

So while writing Robin and stuff like that, if I had good ideas, I'd try to pitch them and run with them. Sometimes it backfired. It was my idea to make Spoiler into Robin, just before she died horribly. I thought that would be a good thing for the character, but it turns out that legions of female fans now detest me for doing that.
Indeed, they did. Which seems unfair because DC's (outgoing) editorial powers had decided on the death of Stephanie Brown before Willingham took the job.

Critics saw Stephanie's violent death as fitting into a larger pattern of how comic books exploit supporting female characters to provide angst for leading male characters. Ten years ago the website Women in Refrigerators catalogued many other examples of female characters and their suffering. This list is not unlike the one about gay superheroes killed in mainstream comics that novelist Perry Moore assembled. I'd like to see a comparative analysis of straight male secondary characters and their fates as well; those guys may also be plot fodder.

Since DC killed and resurrected Superman in the early 1990s, death and rebirth have been superhero clichés. When a company could thrive while (temporarily) killing off even its oldest, strongest, and most lucrative trademark, a supporting character like Spoiler doesn't stand a chance of avoiding the grim reaper. But any comic-book death, unless it defines a hero's origin (as in the killing of Bruce Wayne or Dick Grayson's parents, Peter Parker's uncle, or the entire planet of Krypton), can be reversed when the market seems right.

Gail Simone, the creator of Women in Refrigerators, had a simpler argument for the superhero comics publishers: How will you attract female readers and stay in business if you keep killing off or hurting your female characters? Her criticism brought her to the attention of DC Comics, which hired her to script Birds of Prey, about an all-female superhero team (which had at times included Spoiler as a trainee), and now Wonder Woman.

The elimination of Stephanie Brown inspired more specific protest, such as this open letter from Katherine Keller and other internet essays. Fan anger focused around Project Girl Wonder, an email crusade to have the Batcave include a memorial for Stephanie, just as there was one for the third Robin, Jason Todd. (He's come back from the dead, too, a couple of years ago.)

As the clues piled up this spring that Stephanie would be brought back alive, the Girl-Wonder.org website suspended its campaign. Project Girl Wonder had probably played a role in the character's return--not by putting pressure on DC Comics in a political sense, but by showing that Spoiler had her own fervent fan base. [Girl-Wonder.org remains active as a source of commentary on the bigger, ongoing issue of females in superhero comics.]

Now Stephanie's back. And as you can see in this image from the latest Robin, drawn by Chris Batista and Cam Smith, Tim's very pleased to see her. (Yes, he does have a bo staff on his belt, but he really is pleased to see her.) One question now is whether Stephanie Brown was popular because she was unfairly treated and cruelly killed off, or because of some internal appeal of her personality that can keep her around.

Next month brings a one-off Robin/Spoiler magazine. The cover by Rafael Albuquerque (at top) pays tribute to Carmine Infantino's iconic image from the late 1960s of Batman and Robin on a rooftop. Visit the ad-heavy Bat-Blog to see the original and some previous homages.


KPhoebe said...

Hi! Thanks for the link, but you've misidentified Girl Wonder.org as Project Girl Wonder. Project Girl Wonder is a subproject of Girl-Wonder.org (I know! Confusing! Sorry about that!), and that project is now archived, but Girl-Wonder.org itself is not suspended.

Though the return of Stephanie is welcome to many of our members, there's plenty of advocacy and consciousness-raising to be done regarding the roles of women in comics, and we don't expect that will change any time soon!

Anonymous said...

Death and rebirth in superhero comics have been cliches long before Superman in the 1990s. Professor Xavier in the 1970s and Jean Grey in the 1980s, both from the X-men are prominent examples. And any number of supervillains have seemingly perished and returned since the 1940s.

Long ago I think the rule was something like: if you see the body, the character is dead. If there's no body, you know the character's coming back. I think it was likely Prof. X who demolished that rule of thumb.

While the actual planet of Krypton hasn't reconstituted itself (as far as I know--I stopped reading Superman titles regularly in 1982), the surviving number of Kryptonians other than Kal-el could well populate a planet. And when you take into consideration the number of times Supes has traveled back through time to return to Krypton, the planet might as well have been resurrected.

Uncle Ben has lived again in at least one recent What If story. I don't know of any stories in which Bruce Wayne's or Dick Grayson's parents have returned, but if there aren't any, it's only because no one's come up with an interesting idea for a story. The recent returns of Gwen Stacy and Bucky Barnes prove, I think, that all you need is an intriguing story idea and any "dead" character, no matter how "sacred," is ripe for resurrection.

I'm just waiting for the return of Raven Sherman.

J. L. Bell said...

I did have trouble figuring out which came first, Project Girl Wonder or Girl-Wonder.org. I finally decided to say that responses to Stephanie Brown's fate in particular focused on the Project, but I'll add a note about the website still being a source of interesting essays on the larger, ongoing issue of females in superhero comics.

J. L. Bell said...

Superman's death and rebirth stand out for me because (a) he's such a lucrative trademark, bigger than any previous "dead" figure, a sole hero rather than a villain or part of a group; and (b) that was when I first saw the widespread cynicism within the comics fan community about the whole exercise.

In other words, the Superman plot struck me as when a comics publisher was killing and bringing back a character not because it was the logical or satisfying outcome of a particular story, but for its own sake. DC had the idea of killing Superman and built the story around it, rather than seeming to build up to the death as a climax. Maybe I was simply more naive earlier when Marvel was going through the Phoenix saga (which I didn't follow), but that seemed more story-driven and less marketing-driven.

I remember dropping into a comics store in that period with a friend who didn't read comics but mentioned reading about Superman's death. Another customer then had to tell us, his eyes wide and his voice hushed, that now no one knew where Superman's body was, or something like that. I felt caught between two extremes: a naive newcomer thinking this wasn't all a marketing ploy, and a true believer who knew it was but cared anyway.

Anonymous said...

The Dark Phoenix saga wasn't a marketing ploy. She wasn't originally supposed to die, just lose her powers (or something like that), and the following issue showing Jean Grey powerless had begun to be penciled. But then Jim Shooter, Marvel's Editor in Chief, told the creators to kill the character. He'd looked at a recent X-men issue in which Phoenix wiped out a planet of sentient beings, so he decided that she must die as a consequence.

Or at least, that's pretty much how I've heard and read the story many times over the years.

I've long assumed the death of Phoenix marks the beginning of the now-decades-long fascination of killing off superheroes, whether or not to boost sales. Superman was certainly a headliner, just as Captain America was last year. But from the point of view of someone familiar with what's going on in a lot of comics, they're both just ho-hum business-as-usual for superhero comics publishing.

What I find particularly upsetting in all these fictional deaths--and you've touched on this--is that the decisions to kill the characters are so often not decided by the actual writers of the comics, but by editorial staff or other employees of the publishers. Most offensive was the late-1980s death of Robin where anyone could phone in a vote for him to live or die. I know comics have long been seen as junk and anti-art, but do the publishers have to issue invitations to that view? I think that Robin's "death" was a big step backward for comics publishing. I don't know how logical or satisfying the actual story was because I've never read it. Never read the "death" of Superman from the 1990s either. Give me the several "deaths" of Superman from the late 1950s-early 1960s in "imaginary" stories. Those I enjoy, no matter how hare-brained some of them are.

J. L. Bell said...

I'm glad to hear that the fatal end of the "Dark Phoenix" saga wasn't planned as a way to boost sales, though it undoubtedly did. At that point, I would argue, the death and rebirth of superheroes wasn't yet the cliché that it's become. Even the second major example probably wasn't cliché. But the third?

Earlier this year I saw a piece of fan art showing all the major companies' dying and reborn characters in an airport's departures and arrivals area. That encapsulated how boring and bothersome the cliché has become: it's like air travel!

I'll eventually discuss the "Death in the Family" story that ended in the third Robin's death. How can I not? That story was going to be the end of the road for Jason Todd as Robin (at least for a while) whichever way the vote went, but fans chose death by a tiny margin. The story itself isn't as affecting as what later writers made of Batman's guilt.