Women and the new 52. It’s been getting a lot of press. Again. Much of it following the news that Stephanie Brown will not be appearing as Nightwing in the new Smallville comic after all. It was writer Bryan Q. Miller’s intention, but editorial fiat told him that Brown would have to be replaced. Questions why eventually brought reports that someone at headquarters considered the character ‘toxic,’ but there was no explanation as to what that might mean. Bleeding Cool suggested that it may only mean that DC is keeping her for something special. We can only hope.
For those new to Wonder Girl fandom, or those baffled by it, Stephanie Brown was introduced into the DCU about twenty years ago. Calling herself the Spoiler, she is the daughter of C list villain the Cluemaster. Stephanie blamed her father for the sorry life she and her mother found themselves in, and vowed to keep him in prison. She was featured heavily in Dixon’s Robin run, often as a love interest for the Boy Wonder, and is Batgirl Cassandra Cain’s BFF. She was a likeable, upbeat C lister and everyone seemed happy with that. Then, in 2004, DC gave her a big promotion: she became the fourth Robin. Batman and Robin, the Girl Wonder.
It made sense for the character. She’d always worked hard and sought approval, or at least acceptance, from the Batman. Now she’d gotten it. And readers got the promise of a new boy-girl dynamic to the dynamic duo. (No, not like that!) But it was all a lie. Editorial wasn’t giving Stephanie their approval at all. Instead, they were setting her up to be tortured and killed. Readers were upset. And even more than the heavy handed story manipulation, what upset them was that Stephanie never got the respect given the last dead Robin. It’s accepted that Jason Todd was an angry young man and a poor choice to be Robin, but he got a memorial in the Batcave. He was Robin, he died, he got a memorial. Stephanie was Robin, she died, she got butkus. Nothing. Zip. At that point she became something more than a C lister. She came to represent the lack of respect shown to both female characters and female fans by the Big Two and by DC in particular.
Eventually DC back tracked and brought her back. In comics the dead are always with us, primarily because they rarely ever stay dead. And she got another promotion: Batgirl. This relaunch was a part of some wide ranging changes to Gotham, following the (again temporary) death of Bruce Wayne. I picked up all the titles and followed them for a while before letting them all go. I don’t usually follow mainstream comics beyond the odd big event, but lately there had been so many big events that I hadn’t been following much at all. As a Bat fan I made an exception here, before dropping them. A few months later I was faced with a problem that all long term comics readers deal with from time to time. Lots of stuff out there, but nothing was really grabbing me. What did I want? I wanted something upbeat and engaging. I likeable character. Something well written and fun. Something, I realized, very much like Miller’s run on Batgirl. But why get something like it, when I can just go back and pick up Batgirl again? I wasn’t going to trade wait it. (Did you know that only about half of Cain’s Batgirl run was ever collected?) I put it back on my subscription list and picked up the copies I’d missed. All was well. Until DC did it again. No, they didn’t kill her. They cancelled her run and replaced her with the original Batgirl, Barbara Gordon. Stephanie Brown was consigned too… we have no idea. From what little we know, the whole subject is strictly verboten at 1700 Broadway.
Complaining fans have been stonewalled by the company and mocked by fanbots online. You hear all the standards: we don’t own the characters, we’re too caught up a given era, and, if you’re a male fan, isn’t it a little pervy that you like a young female character? Well, no we don’t own our favorite characters, but it’s not really that simple, is it? Most comic fans—fans of the Big Two—have a preference. Marvel or DC. They may like both, but not equally. We buy into a shared universe, literally. We spend our money following favorite characters, crossovers, and events. We commit. And for our commitment we are rewarded precious little. The idea that we’re stuck in a given era rings hollow when talking about Batgirl. After all, DC has turned the clock back on Batgirl to the time of INXS and Rain Man topped the charts, ignoring two decades of character development. The third criticism speaks more of those who are making it, than those it is directed against. Apparently they can only view female characters in terms of their sexuality. That there are such fans is hardly surprising. That they assume they are normal would be laughable if it didn’t say so much about the comics industry.
Last week Heidi MacDonald posted an interesting essay, arguing that the Big Two will never seek out a female fanbase. They have a market and they don’t want to dilute the brand by seek out a more diversified customer base. This met with some intelligent criticism, but I would like to point a couple of other things out. First, while her argument does seem to make some sense from Marvel’s perspective—Disney did buy the company in order to reach boys, having already all but taken over girls’ merchandising—it doesn’t really work for DC. No one at Warners is looking to dominate the children’s toy and television market in the way Disney seems to feel is their due. Second, as a parent of girls I can readily confirm something TV programmers have known, and openly admitted to, for years: boys won’t buy girl’s things, but girls will buy boy’s. Marketing to women is not a threat to the brand. You don’t have to dilute anything. You just have to stop treating girls as though they have cooties. Give them stories and characters they find interesting. Stop viewing them as a problem that needs to be avoided or placated and give them good stories. So, I guess it doesn’t really apply to Marvel either. And really, when these companies are thinking about money from comics, they aren’t even thinking of comics. They are thinking of using the characters in movies, games, cartoons, toys, clothing, and countless other things. But, honestly, if gaming can reach gender parity in its users and sales, there is no reason at all that comics can’t.
Reading people’s comments on webzines, blogs, tumblr, and forums I can’t help but feel that a big part of the resistance to Brown is that girls like her. Girls have cooties and girls like Stephanie Brown, so Stephanie Brown must have cooties. Of course, I could just denounce it as sexism, which it is, but who is going to listen to that? What comics need is someone from outside the industry, someone who isn’t a fanboy turned creator turned publisher, to take the reins. Someone who hasn’t come to see the excesses of fanboy-dom as the norm. I don’t expect that to happen any time soon, but not because of the success of the Avengers movie of the sales figures for the New 52 (after all, month after month, they continue to ‘settle’). No, the reason I don’t expect any outside intervention is because the comics themselves aren’t important to their parent companies. They only exist to provide merchandising material.
As for me and the New 52, I feel my reading it just going through the motions. I picked up Batwoman for a while, then dropped it when I heard they were dropping Hadley. Having two artists I liked on it was the draw for me. The story never gripped me and I cannot for the life of me figure out what she is doing with the DEO instead of working with the Bat-family. I have been reading World’s Finest, but it looks like the first arc will be all set up. And I just read the new Batgirl trade, The Darkest Reflection. It was mostly okay. The art did nothing for me and the concept behind Mirror was a bit heavy handed. One interesting reversal: Barbara is Gordon’s natural daughter again. She was originally, then her backstory was revised to make her Gordon’s biological niece, whom he had adopted. Now she’s his daughter again. No idea why they felt that was necessary.
If however, Bleeding Cool is right and DC has just been saving Stephanie Brown, I promise to buy at least two copies of each issue. One for me and one to share. I’m sure the stockholders would prefer that to waffles.