16 September 2012

The All-Too-Successful Career of Cassandra Cain

This chart is based on sales figures that Comics Chronicle back-calculated from reports by the Diamond distributor. It shows the relative performance of Batgirl (in black) and Robin (in red).

The protagonist of Batgirl in this period, as I’ve been discussing, was Cassandra Cain. She was a teen-aged protégée of Batman, dealing with issues of identity, values, and heritage, so her coming-of-age story was parallel to that of Tim Drake as Robin. But she was a new character, especially fresh since she was female and of Asian extraction.

When Batgirl launched in 2000, the magazine outsold the much older Robin by about 50%. Then its sales started to slide—as the industry has come to expect for all its titles. The sales of Robin could slide, too. The January 2002 rise for both magazines came during a crossover. The big jump in Robin sales in 2004 was when DC got a case of the Stephs. But the long-term trend is clear: while Robin bobbed along, Batgirl gradually ran out of its original gas.

And what was that fuel? I submit that it was the main character’s Unresolvable Foundational Conflicts. When Cass Cain’s story started, she was suffering the effects of a horrendous upbringing as a child assassin: she couldn’t read, could barely speak, and was haunted by her past deeds. Those burdens drove her quest for justice and made it much harder. They balanced out and humanized her preternatural martial-arts skills.

But then Cass Cain learned to read speak. She temporarily lost her powerful ability to read body language in fights, forcing her to recognize the trade-offs in her life—but she overcame that problem, too. Cass confronted and defeated her father, the nasty assassin David Cain. She confronted and defeated her mother, the slightly less nasty killer Lady Shiva. She overcame her feelings of guilt. She built friendships with other crime-fighters. In sum, Cass resolved all her main Foundational Conflicts.

And that left little fuel for future stories. To be sure, there were other factors—most importantly, the original creative team of writer Kelley Puckett and artist Damion Scott moved on. But other characters have survived such changes.

The fundamental problem was that Cass Cain won. Bruce Wayne and Tim Drake never resolved their Foundational Conflicts that way in the main storylines. Clark Kent and Dick Grayson did resolve theirs, in Alan Moore’s “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” and the Batman stories of 2010-11, respectively—but those storylines led immediately into reboots that restored the characters’ original Foundational Conflicts. In a series, the problem with a happy ending is that it’s an ending.

DC ended the Batgirl magazine with its Infinite Crisis reboot. I suspect that the company editors set out to restore Cass Cain’s Unresolvable Foundational Conflict by taking her back to her roots as an assassin. By editorial mandate, she reappeared as the villain in a Robin storyline.

Cass’s characterization in the resulting issues is almost unrecognizable—once non-verbal, she now filled panels with expository dialogue. Once almost suicidally committed to justice, she was now a supervillain. Far from restoring Cassandra Cain as an interesting badass, that story and subsequent, more creatively successful appearances alienated her old fans and brought in few new ones.

Bruce Wayne’s death led to a reshuffling of the team he had assembled, with a new Batgirl. Cass Cain simply disappeared for a while. Eventually DC portrayed her fighting crime back in Asia, still linked to the Batman team through Tim Drake but comfortable working on her own. She had traveled farther than any of Batman’s male protégés and come of age. But as a protagonist, as opposed to a supporting character, she had nowhere else to go—not without a new Foundational Conflict.

And in DC’s latest universe, Cass Cain hasn’t yet appeared at all.


Unknown said...

Absolutely! Finally someone explains exactly what happened and why. As a long time Cass fan and one who has written extensively about this character, I could not agree with this more. Thanks for the excellent analysis!

J. L. Bell said...

I'm pleased a long-time Cass fan finds this analysis worthwhile.

A follow-up question might be what Unresolvable Foundational Conflict could DC’s storytellers have found for Cass Cain that would fuel her stories again.

Perhaps in the DC Universe she existed in (the only one we know of so far), the Black Bat discovers a small group of children being raised as assassins, just as she was. She can rescue them for sure, but can she be their guardian long-term?

Anonymous said...

Interesting remark by Lee Child this weekend about his character Jack Reacher: he said, essentially, that Reacher would not make a good movie character because he never changes, so there is no narrative arc. I guess you can be dramatically uninteresting whether you resolve your fundamental conflicts or just don't notice that you have them.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, Hollywood likes to show its protagonists going through some “character arc” and learning a valuable lesson about life. Tom Cruise, who will play Reacher, is an expert at playing characters who start out callow and learn to be less callow. He's done that in excellent films and in poor ones.

But callowness isn’t Reacher’s problem, or his Unresolvable Foundational Conflict. The interest of his character, from what I can gather, lies in the conflict between his hulking, dangerous, rootless self and his repeated wish to help people and set things right. That conflict provides the fuel for an ongoing series. If it’s ever resolved—Reacher meets a good family or community and settles down—then the character becomes boring and the series is over.

Eric said...

The current Wonder Woman story is not dealing with an unresolved foundational conflict (that I have discerned) and yet remains very interesting and entertaining. I think her character is interesting without a conflict. When Cassandra showed up as Black Bat in the Gates of Gotham story, her characterization was very well done and more appearances like that would be worth reading even though her foundational conflicts have been resolved. Her resolve and focus make Cassandra so interesting, not just the obstacles in her past.

J. L. Bell said...

Cass Cain's appearances in Gates of Gotham and Red Robin were welcome and added to those storylines, but it's significant that she wasn't the main character. She was in a supporting role, and the interest came from seeing others (Damian, TIm) react to her. For her to carry a magazine on her own again, I think she would need an ongoing conflict.

I haven't read the latest Wonder Woman stories, so I can't comment on them. Historically, compared to DC's other big-name heroes, Wonder Woman has had the most redefinitions of her central conflict and identity as (mostly male) storytellers have tried to figure out what she represents. I can't claim to have a handle on that question, at least not since Marston's initial clear and somewhat creepy conception.

Nathaniel said...

I think resolving one of her main conflicts--being able to read--off-panel was one of the greatest mistakes they made with the character. It's like when Marvel decided that Rogue had slept with the Sentry in a story that was never told after the latter died. You can't just have a character overcome one of their key conflicts off-page.

I really wish they'd reintroduce her in the new DCU and basically wipe away everything after her own title ended. Or at least take her back to the days of being the quiet, mysterious badass. It's really strange to me that they're willing to muck around with the origins and storylines of iconic characters, but won't even do that for this fairly minor one.

Anonymous said...

But Cass never learned to read or write. She only learned to speak.

Also, she never resolved her foundational conflict, which began when she killed someone. Due to her body language reading ability, she saw exactly how that person felt as he died. Her foundational conflict is her drive for redemption. That was never resolved.

J. L. Bell said...

Whoops. I wrote "learned to write" above when I meant "learned to speak easily." Cass Cain was struggling with reading toward the end of her magazine's run but apparently did pick it up by the time she reappeared.

I agree that Cass's empathy with the people she killed early in life fuels her just as the death of Bruce Wayne's parents fuels him. But in both cases they can't change the past, and once they know that where does that energy go? In Bruce's case, to trying to protect every child and person in Gotham from crime—an unresolvable conflict. In Cass's case, from trying to atone for her murder—and mathematically, how many does she have to save to balance the scale? Once she recognizes her father was at fault, how much guilt does she carry herself?

Since nearly all superheroes fight crime and try to stop people from being killed, something has to make each successful character distinct. In Cass's case, I suggest it was her legacies and her debilities. She tackled those and won.

J. L. Bell said...

It's interesting that DC has apparently taken one of Cass Cain's signature abilities—a highly-developed sense of body language—and given a version of it to Dick Grayson in the new continuity.

That seems to reflect the Batman team's idea that Dick reflects Bruce's physicality, Jason his drive, and Tim his intellect. But it also seems to leave less room for Cass Cain as a distinct character, and it erases the important moment in many tellings of the Batman mythos when Bruce voluntarily reveals his secret to Dick instead of being found out.