Christian Hoffer wonders exactly what is toxic about Stephanie Brown.
Last night, the Outhouse reported that executives at DC had instructed Bryan Q. Miller to remove the character Stephanie Brown from an upcoming Smallville Season 11 arc and had given him a list of approved characters with which to replace her. Miller ultimately chose Barbara Gordon from the list, which allegedly also included Dick Grayson. Shortly thereafter, Wired.com reported that multiple sources at DC considered both Brown and Cassandra Cain, another former Batgirl, as "toxic" characters.
Reaching out to several DC sources, I can confirm that "toxic" is indeed the word being bandied about by DC executives, with one source quoted as saying "Toxic? Yup, that about sums it up." The uncomfortable truth of the matter is that DC does not consider Cassandra Cain or Stephanie Brown to be marketable characters and is doing their best to scrub their comics clean of them, looking to prevent the characters from ever having a chance to take root in a book, be it in a starring or supporting role.
The fact that DC considers at least two of its characters (and we're not including Wally West or Donna Troy, two other established characters that have yet to be mentioned in the DC stable) to be "toxic" is a surprising and baffling fact. While both former Batgirls have...fanatical fanbases, the truth of the matter is that when given a starring role in a book, both haven't been failures in the comic market. Last August's Batgirl #24, the final issue in Brown's series written by Bryan Q. Miller, sold an estimated 22,695 issues according to Comichron. While these aren't exactly record shattering figures, it did outsell the latest issues of Stormwatch, Batwing, Demon Knights, and even Smallville: Season 11 (although this does not take digital sales into account). The first three books mentioned are all series that DC has committed to and have survived two rounds of cancellation thus far. Furthermore, that final issue didn't have the boost of the New 52 marketing campaign or the stronger comic market of 2012, which has enjoyed a 20% boost in sales from last year.
So if sales aren't to blame for the character's toxicity, what is? It can't be that DC believes there are too many characters in the Batfamily. DC managed to keep all four male Robins in continuity and gave three of them starring roles in their own books. If DC were claiming that multiple Batgirls were too difficult for a new fan to digest, surely four Robins over an accelerated five year period would be a bit much to handle as well? It's not as if Brown's continuity is overly complicated either. In truth, her backstory is fairly generic (daughter of a supervillain who became a hero to stop him) and could easily be repurposed or restructured within the New 52.
If sales or continuity can't be blamed for the toxicity of the character, than what else is left? I'm hesitant to throw out the obvious answer of sexism, despite DC's sigh inducing inability to see the difference between cheesecake exploitation and female empowerment. However, the idea at least needs to be tossed out that while having multiple male sidekicks is okay with DC, having more than one female character is not. The comic book industry has historically had sexist undertones and progress on pushing the industry towards a more equal footing has been hampered in part by the sad fact that sex sells comic books.
There certainly seems to be a double standard in play, in which DC leaps at finding ways to insert male fan-favorites (once again, excluding Wally West) while excluding female characters who also have strong fanbases and well-developed and marketable personalities. In light of last summer's controversy over female characters (ironically catalyzed by a Stephanie Brown cosplayer) in addition to comments made just last week by female creators who stated that the female fanbase was being underserved, you have to wonder exactly why DC isn't leaping at the chance to further stock their portfolio with characters that can be easily marketed toward an unexploited demographic of readers.
The only other possible answer is that DC is simply trying to distance itself from characters that have passionate fanbases that would rather see vanilla, single-character oriented books that portray characters in a positive, well-rounded fashion but don't have much opportunity to serve as a jumping point for a major crossover event or advance DC's narrative at all. In an increasingly event-driven industry, solo books that feature anyone but a marquee character could be viewed to have limited marketability. One could also make the argument that the characters of Brown and Barbara Gordon are simply too similar and that many of the quirks used to make Gordon successful are the same quirks that would be relied upon to successfully write a Brown driven series. While I'm skeptical that these are the reasons behind Brown's toxicity, they're certainly easier to swallow than wholesale sexism or sketchy math.
At the end of the day, I find it baffling that DC has labeled certain characters as toxic, believing them to be the root cause of a book's failure as opposed to the creative teams that work on them. If one were to describe Rob Liefeld as toxic due to the immense criticism his books face and their inability to sell, I would understand. If one were to label Aquaman as toxic due to his status as a running gag in the greater realm of pop culture, I would understand. However, I'm of the opinion that any character, no matter how "toxic" or poorly regarded they might be, can be written well given the right creative team and direction. DC officially has a dangerous situation brewing, one that could well end up restarting an uncomfortable discussion about gender and sexism in comics that already tarnished their company once. It's time for Dan Didio and Jim Lee to come clean about why a fictional character with no discernible unmarketable traits and an active fanbase is considered to be toxic when poor writing, sloppy art and questionable creative choices are not.
Written or Contributed by: ThanosCopter