07 August 2011

Stephanie Brown’s “intrinsic importance to the Bat-verse”

Back when I discussed the second Jason Todd, I posited that death was the best thing that had ever happened to that character. Dying removed Jason from current Batman stories for fifteen years, but it solidified what he symbolized within the DC Comics mythos. It resolved the conflicting roles and personas that different writers had depicted in the preceding years.

Did the apparent death of the fourth Robin, Stephanie Brown, have the same effect? I don’t think so. Instead, it amplified the symbolic meaning she already had, which DC’s editors and many of its writers hadn’t recognized.

The development of the Stephanie Brown character began in 1966, when Batman writers created the Cluemaster as a stand-in for the Riddler when they wanted to tell a Riddler-type story (villain unaccountably leaves clues about his upcoming crimes for Batman to figure out). The Cluemaster was so generic that his last name was Brown.

In Detective Comics, #647, writer Chuck Dixon brought the Cluemaster out of character limbo, having cured himself of his compulsion to leave self-defeating clues. But someone else was revealing all his plans: a young woman calling herself the Spoiler! Tim Drake, rookie Robin, discovered that the Spoiler was a teen-aged blonde. Finally, Batman stopped the Cluemaster at a crucial moment by revealing that the Spoiler was the man’s own daughter, Stephanie.

In a 2008 interview with Comic Book Resources, Dixon said:
“Frankly, Spoiler began as a pure plot device and evolved, because of fan interest, into a romantic foil for Robin. I’m not really certain of her intrinsic importance to the Bat-verse other than the fact that she’s become a beloved supporting character.

“It’s also kind of cool that Robin has someone around his own age to run rooftops with,” laughed Dixon. “It’s sort of a male fantasy to find a girl who shares your hobby.”
Dixon and his editors thus used Stephanie as a supporting character in the Robin series—rooftop companion, romantic complication (Tim already had a girlfriend from his second miniseries), and source of valuable lessons about life.

For example, immediately after Robin and Spoiler officially became an item, in Robin, #58, Stephanie discovered she was pregnant by her previous boyfriend. That being a magazine about Robin, the subsequent action hinged on the question, What would Tim do? Because he’s mature for his age, and a natural hero, he found a way to help Stephanie through labor. Tim’s solution involved a skeevy alternate identity and help from the Flash getting back to Gotham, but he was there for her.
Then Stephanie put the baby up for adoption, and almost nothing more was said about it. (Except in fanfiction.)

Almost all of Stephanie’s subsequent storylines in Robin involved her dealing with another Horrible Burden: “My dad is a supervillain who brings his friends home with him!” “My mom is addicted to pills!” “I was sexually abused as a young girl!” Some readers complained that she was nothing more than a magnet for Afterschool Specials. Indeed, the PFS Bookclub even defines such a fictional archetype this way:
The Afterschool Special represents a character that is maimed, killed, or otherwise emotionally devastated for the purpose of another character learning a valuable lesson in life. The name comes from the television trope of the 80’s afterschool specials, which were designed to teach children life lessons. An example is Stephanie Brown, who was killed in battle to teach Robin that he bears a responsibility to protect the people.
Stephanie’s death in Batman: War Games thus simply extended an existing pattern.

That said, Stephanie played other roles in other DC magazines. When she interacted with Batman, she was mostly not-Tim-Drake: someone Bruce Wayne used to manipulate Tim while the Dynamic Duo was on the outs. When she interacted with Cassandra Cain as Batgirl, a preternaturally gifted martial artist unfamiliar with normal life, Stephanie was regular-girl.

What was common across all those appearances, and key to her character, was that things never came easy for Stephanie Brown. She wasn’t close to being as good an acrobat as Dick Grayson, a detective as Tim, or a fighter as Cassandra. In fact, by their high standards, she was close to incompetent—but only because she aimed so high from where she started.

Stephanie was from a working-class family; she didn’t have Bruce Wayne’s billions or Helena Bertinelli’s millions or Barbara Gordon’s technology. She sewed her own costumes and, most of the time apparently, secured her own equipment. She didn’t even have the independence of being an orphan; she was still hiding her crime-fighting life from her mother, and her occasionally returning father.

But Stephanie never gave up. In the context of Tim Drake’s story, and Bruce Wayne’s, that made her a complication to deal with. Her perseverance could get her in trouble (or, occasionally, get them out). In the context of her own story, that spunky quality made Stephanie Brown a hero. After all, no superheroes give up.

Stephanie’s death by torture in War Games fit right into the line of Horrible Burdens the character was saddled with. So did the apparent disrespect from Batman not installing a trophy case in her honor. And—this is where it gets interesting—so did the apparent disrespect of DC Comics, first using her as a sacrificial supporting character and then declaring “she was never really a Robin.”

Both within the fictional DC Universe and within the fan culture around that universe, Stephanie Brown came to symbolize someone who wasn’t getting any breaks.

And yet she, and her fans, never gave up. Stephanie came back from the dead—perhaps a little ahead of schedule. Even then, as the quotation from Dixon above shows, DC’s creative team still had trouble understanding her unique symbolism within the Batman mythos. But unwittingly they had created one for her.

In 2009 Stephanie Brown took over the role of Batgirl, for the first time becoming the title character of a magazine. A magazine which will soon be canceled because of sliding (though not disastrous) sales and the overall DC reboot. I’ve read some fun issues in that run, and look forward to reading the rest as collected. But I wonder if enjoying advantages at last—Barbara Gordon as committed mentor, advanced equipment, better training, official status within the Bat-family—washes out some of what’s made Stephanie Brown interesting and unique.


Max E said...

Her book is wonderful, and totally a different side of the Gotham's Bat-Fam, and provided some much needed character development for Damian, surprisingly. They are awesome together. Babs Batgirl book looks to be downright grim and edgy, so this light, frothy, and "normal" Batgirl is a real treat. I'm hating seeing her probably going back to Spoiler.

J. L. Bell said...

There's a curious irony in how a character whose narrative function for many years was to smack the back of Tim Drake's head with a reminder of the tougher side of life has lately been carrying the lighter side of the Bat-books.

I love Stephanie's crossovers with Damian as Robin. She's smacking the back of his head with lessons on regular life, too. Except that he comes from the dark side, and she's showing him the light.