Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Batgirl #1 (April, 2000)

Script: Scott Peterson, Kelley Puckett
Pencils: Damion Scott
Inks: Robert Campanella

Synopsis:  Following a flash back to her childhood where she brutalizes some yokel claiming to be a mercenary, we catch up with Cass as she settles into her new digs under the loving care of Barbara "Oracle" Gordon.  Batman takes Cass out for a night on the town, which involves violence.  Cass begins to learn the power of bat symbol and the meaning of her new identity just in time to confront the very same mercenary whose life she ruined all those years ago.

You have to love the rule of threes.  Three billy goats gruff, Three Wise Men, three wishes, cube steak, the three-act screenplay structure.  Cassandra Cain's three encounters with the all-time loser of losers-- a guy so phony tough he makes Wyatt's brother Chet from Weird Science look like "Chopper" Read-- provide a framework for what would otherwise be a plot-free premiere issue.

It starts with little Cass.  Her father, the assassin David Cain, has invited a group of mercenaries to spar with what they believe to be a harmless child.  Our hapless wannabe, a buzz-cut figure with the word "MERC" helpfully tattooed on his arm, refuses and ends up in the hospital for his troubles.  Flash foward to present-day Gotham City and Barbara Gordon (during her Oracle phase) acts as caretaker for that child, now grown up into the Cass Cain we all know and love: a silent, moody teenager but even deadlier now that she has some size and muscle on her.

After writing team Scott Peterson and Kelley Puckett set up the particulars, they have Batman take Cass out for her first anti-crime patrol, which features a nasty scene where they stop a rape.  It's an overly familiar scenario, one lazily used in any number of hacky comics to establish a character's bona fides as a toughie.  As per the Standard Comic Book Storytelling Rulebook, our heroes just happen to be in the right place at the right time (there's little or no thought given to how the rapist and his would-be victim found themselves there because that's beside the point, apparently).  Lost in his teeth-gritting tough-man pose, Batman thoroughly terrifies both culprit and victim.

When the ostensibly heroic Batman blows his top and can't resist brutalizing the would-be rapist, Cass reacts with surprise.  Well, she's wearing that faceless mask, but the pose suggest surprise, or some kind of consternation.  But the source of this surprise is left ambiguous for now.  Perhaps Cass, with her abnormally strong empathy, is sensing something repulsive in Batman.  As grotesque as the rapist is, this is one of those cranked-to-eleven Batman moments and doesn't show him in a particularly good light. There's zero concern for further traumatizing the victim (who remains a cipher) and precious little for the effect of his actions on Cass, herself a victim of abuse and violence.  It may be that Cass sees herself in Batman's actions, and doesn't particularly like it.  After all, there are those two flashbacks, one in which the child Cass performs her own act of horrific violence and a later one where she witnesses its long term aftermath.

Her world seems defined at this point by violent men.  One has to wonder if she's traded one sadistic father figure for another.

As story climaxes, Cass confronts that doofus of a merc again.  This time, he's killed a guard in a robber attempt of some kind and Batman sics Batgirl on him.  Why would anyone choose Gotham City of all places to pursue a criminal career?  Our nameless merc-- granted he isn't that bright-- has been all over the world and could have chosen a more lawless place, but here he is in one place on earth protected by a guy who has a mad-on for whipping criminal behind.  It's just his tough luck he also happened to choose the very night his long time nemesis Cass Cain is trying out her bat-wings.

It's a long-shot coincidence, but it allows Peterson and Puckett to bring their thematic concerns of fear and identity to their logical conclusion.  Cass, as Batgirl, becomes Batman's ritualistic stand-in.  While the story suggests she's already developing qualms about his methodology and guidance, as well as the beginning of her own ideas as to what she hopes to accomplish-- a recurring element in later issues-- by its end Cass has learned a lesson in myth-making and using it to help in her mission.  Finally, Batman presents her with the city (with a couple of caveats) and the series is off and (silent) running.

 Scott's art is quirky and fun, and he excels at facial expressions.  I like his funky figure construction and particularly his version of Cass.  Too many artists on other titles draw her as a 7 foot tall supermodel with slender limbs and gigantic breasts, as if their main goal isn't a relatively convincing character but to encourage the readers to masturbate along with the story.  Rather than go for the stereotypical sexy superwoman who seems poured into the costume from the pages of Maxim magazine or the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, Scott' gives Cass a shaggy, haphazard haircut, heavy eyebrows and a pinched, orphan's face; she also has the short, wiry physique of a bantamweight kickboxer.  Scott pays almost as close attention to body language as Cass herself does.  When you have a silent character in a faceless mask, it's important the artist choose the correct poses to sell each moment.  Cass's reaction to Batman's brutality is one, as is another later in the comic where Cass finds herself casting Batman's shadow on an alley wall.  Campanella's slick ink job makes it very appealing, very contemporary, with animation, hip hop album cover art and manga influences, lots of speed lines and the illusion of antic motion.

Compared to other superhero origins like radioactive spider bites and mutant abilities-- both of which boil down essentially to "magic"-- Cassandra Cain is an inspired concept: a child raised to replace language with kinetics, giving her the ability to read an opponent's every move.  As the result of intense training starting from birth, she possesses no verbal or written communications skills, but she does have unmatched fighting techniques and can apparently learn new ones in a matter of minutes the way you or I would learn vocabulary in a foreign language.  Or, in Cass's case, her native language, which is violence and movement.  Perhaps psychologists, behaviorists and martial artists could rip it apart as unlikely if not completely impossible, but it has the advantage of at least seeming plausible-- more so than a bullet-proof alien messiah with near-limitless strength or someone who can change the outcome of physical laws merely by talking backwards.

Obviously, the very idea of even such a child bringing grown men to their knees, much less breaking their jaws, is absolutely ridiculous, even more so than petty crooks coming halfway around the world to challenge Gotham.  Most criminals actually are that idiotic, but undeveloped muscles just don't work like that.  It's slightly more acceptable than one of those "Ninja Baby" shorts from America's Funniest Home Videos, mainly because it's played sincerely and... because superheroes are inherently stupid and we just have to accept that as our price of admission into Cass's world.  After that, it's up to the creative team to make it easy for us and here they're largely up to the task.

What Batgirl does most effectively is play on the visual dichotomy of someone in one of the most vulnerable of societal groups actually being a hyper-competent ass-kicking machine.  Cass's antecedents include Pippi Longstocking, Sally Kimball from the Encyclopedia Brown series, Emma Peel from The Avengers, Lady Snowblood, whose slender physique and fragile appearance bely her deadliness, Buffy Summers, the "chosen one" cheerleader with powers themselves derived from some kind of magical source lost in prehistory and Max Guevara, genetically-bred super-soldier who rebels against her nature from Dark Angel.  Killers-come-later in the Cass lineage include the egregiously over-the-top Hit-Girl from Kick-Ass and the more sober version Hanna from the film... er... Hanna.  That's just to name a few.

It's obviously an attractive dichotomy, perhaps one springing from some inner BDSM streak and desire to be dominated by some winsome lass-- although as I've pointed out, Cass isn't overtly sexualized.  I seem to remember a scene either edited out of the movie Pulp Fiction or written into the script but never filmed where Mia Wallace quizzes Vincent Vega if he's every fantasized about being beaten up by a girl and he lists a several, including Peel and Kimball.  Obviously, it's crossed Quentin Tarantino's mind, and I could easily imagine someone adding Cass to Vincent's list in some ill-advised remake (which is probably inevitable within our lifetimes).  It must be in the air.  Maybe it's a form of gender empowerment.  Female-identified readers can imagine themselves as Cass.  Maybe it's simply just a lot of fun reading a ripping action yarn in which a small girl and/or teen stomps burly criminals senseless.

Maybe Batgirl is all of those things at once.  We can read the text in any of those ways and make our case accordingly.  As a matter of fact, we have.

I can't fault DC for trying to exploit a good idea (shoot, this blog exists, right?), and the Batgirl creative team largely succeeds right out of the box.  Their Cass has a rangy, knotty musculature and a confused vulnerability that aid the suspension of disbelief even if the story's contrivances work against it.


  1. Thank you. I do have a question that is not covered in this post: do you know why Merc and company were standing on that huge piece of plastic? Merc asks but isn't answered.

    1. You're very welcome and thanks for the comments! I believe the plastic sheet is so the cleaning up of blood and various body parts like teeth will be easier after the demonstration.