Wednesday, January 23, 2013

She Explodes Like a Fist, Part One*

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The original.
Cassandra Cain, like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jordan Baker, was a “clean, hard, limited person.” Only unlike Baker, Cassandra didn’t deal in skepticism. She dealt in ass-whuppin’s.

Let's appreciate the undervalued Cassandra Cain Batgirl--


Way back in the year 2001, I was reading Thomas Pynchon and Flannery O'Connor, and comics Eightball and Hate, and openly sneering at the Batman making his way through crappy, murky stories where the writers seemed more intent on out-Frank Millering Frank Miller, making Batman more and more intolerant, inflexible.  In repeated clumsy efforts to make him the baddest ass in the world, writers had made Batman the least likable man in comics. Not a badass, just an asshole. Reading Batman and Detective Comics was like a death march of everything good about comics. And most other titles weren't much better.

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Total bad-ass!
One day I was on my lunch hour from work and needed some groceries.  I walked over to the supermarket, scanned the magazine rack on my way to some aisle or other.  Right then and there, on a whim, I picked up an issue of Batgirl, with a script by Kelley Puckett and art by Damion Scott and Robert Campanella. To this day, I don't know why.  Maybe it was just the novelty of buying a comic in a supermarket, something I hadn't done since I was a kid.  And anyway, I'd never understood the old Batgirl, running around in high heels with a makeup bag. She seemed unnecessary. Silly, interesting only in a camp way.

The Cassandra Cain Batgirl, on the other hand, was a rarity in mainstream comics in that she was a female hero who wasn't depicted as a sexual object. The point of her wasn't to look cute in her outfit. Mostly she was just there to put her foot up some thug's ass, not shake her own for the masturbatory pleasure of people too young or too timid to buy porn or download it for free off the Internet.

Puckett told her stories at lightning speed, Scott's manga-infused art was sometimes confusing to me (I've since gotten the hang of it). But at the center of it was this amazingly original character conceptualization... a Batgirl who finally made sense. I was hooked because I wanted to see if Puckett and Scott could take the premise and develop it to its fullest extent. I wanted to see if it would become something special.

They came pretty darned close!  Here's DC's official description of Cassandra Cain:

The newest member of the Batsquad is also the deadliest. But having killed once, she will never take a life again.

The girl who would be Batgirl was raised from birth by Cain, one of the world's deadliest assassins, to become his assistant and, eventually, his successor. Cain never taught the girl to speak, believing that violence was language enough for the life she would lead. On her "graduation day" Cain assigned her to perform a hit.
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The first drawing of Cassandra I did... not
very good. Terrible, in fact. Static and
boring and not in character.

The nine-year-old murdered like a professional, but she was hardly stone cold. Rather, Cassandra was so repulsed by her actions that she fled her Master.

Then, at a time in her life when other girls her age were feeling their first crushes and celebrating sweet sixteens, Cassandra was wandering the back streets of the world, eventually arriving in the best hiding place on Earth, Gotham City.

Oracle, the former Batgirl, recognized the enigmatic street urchin's abilities and recruited Cassandra to be one of her eyes and ears in No Man's Land. Oracle vouched for Cassandra when Batman needed to fill out the ranks of the Batsquad.

She already wears the Mantle of the Bat like a second skin, but her first skin, that of an innocent teenage girl, will long feel alien.


Unfortunately, most of what I liked about it was what could've been, rather than what it was. During its 73-issue run, Batgirl hit some heights but never fully evolved into a classic.  As good as it was during the Puckett-Scott run, I knew it could be better. I kept waiting for the moment when the creative team turned it into one for the ages, a match for its vibrant starring character, getting excited with each new development.  For example, in one scene (Batgirl #2, June 2000), Batgirl impulsively kisses the cheek of a man she just saved. No explanation, no thought balloon. Just a peck on the cheek and gone. What did it mean?

What was in her, deep in her soul? This violent girl, born not from love but from a twisted eugenics experiment by her ultra-mercenary father Cain, kissing this random doofus, as if to say, “It’s okay, everything is okay now."

What I especially liked about Cassandra Cain was that she was a pure fighter, perfect at physicality but imperfect at nearly everything else. Emotions were alien to her, and while she tried, she had little or no concept of normal human interaction. You couldn't beat her with your fists, but you might have a chance getting to her heart. And to top it off, she had this death wish.

Her father had abused her, raised her without spoken language or even thought so that movement became her mode of expression and understanding, to the point of a near-prescient ability to know what a person was going to do in a fight before they were even completely aware of it themselves. And he made her a killer.  She killed when she was just a small child and suddenly, in a moment of clarity, saw what she was and fled from it. With a death wish. A desire for self-immolation that made her breathtakingly fearless. She possessed a total disregard for self, so much so that she eventually abandoned her civilian identity to merge with the concept of Batgirl.  To live it completely.

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Cassandra's cinematic avatar... (art by me!)
With this mindset, you could see how she would become frightening even to an extremist like Batman. Reading her stories, I wanted Batman to watch her in action and think, "Oh shit, I'm scared for her. So very scared!" And at the same time, like the rest of us, he’d be unable to turn away, and she'd be exhilarated by it all.

For example… Lone Wolf and Cub manages this much better. But that’s probably because Koike Kazuo is a genius. Which is no knock on Puckett-- few writers are.  In Koike's Ogami Ito stories, there's a fine balance between scenes of pastoral peacefulness, that when contrasted with the katana-slicin' action, a mad beauty emerges. For the action scenes to work, there must be scenes of repose. Muscles tense, then relax.

Ang Lee's classic film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, explores a similar character with nearly superhuman abilities (but with an inner rage Cass lacks). Jen Yu, brilliantly portrayed by Zhang Ziyi with equal parts fury, grace and pathos, is a princess who’s mastered martial arts at an incomprehensible level, but since she was taught the actions but not the controls, she's in danger of burning out in a frightening, exalted way.

As quickly paced as the film is, and despite its origins as a genre film, it never stints on character moments.  Consequently, it grows beyond mere wire-fu martial artistry to become art.

Another film character Cassandra calls to mind is Beatrix “The Bride” Kiddo, from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill flicks. Tarantino’s masterful pastiche of kung fu clichés and stylized ultra-violence never loses sight of The Bride’s motivations and internal conflicts.

Like Jen Yu. Like Ogami Ito. Like Beatrix Kiddo. With her death wish and a deeper exploration of the forces acting on the inner Cassandra, Batgirl could've reached similar, delirious heights, with added depth and contrast, not just bubblegum-- or comic book-- kung fu.  Her stories could've been elegiac, Lone Wolf and Cub-style introspection and action blended with Crouching Tiger emotional depth and romance with a helping of Kill Bill hyper-kinetic violence, a balancing of tensions, giving the characters room to breathe. Moments of beauty, moments of terror.

As the series stands, at its best it's pure fun with a killer character at its center but a bit shallow.  Under Puckett (and partner Scott Peterson on the first few issues) and with Scott and Campanella, the series comes closest to fulfilling its promise.

I can't help but wonder if she'd died at the hands of Lady Shiva in Batgirl #25 (April 2002) if it wouldn't have at last.  Such a death could have been magnificently tragic, with her character arc completely resolved.  But we're talking about a monthly comic where stories have to keep coming no matter how bent out of shape the results.

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To answer the cover's question... I thought so.
Father Figures... and a Mom

One of the major themes of the series is the war for Cassandra's heart between two fathers and a sister/mother surrogate. Or the war within Cassandra's heart as she responds to their machinations or attempts to analyze and help her, to save her when that's the last thing she wants.

Barbara Gordon is the one character who evinces concern for Cassandra as opposed to Batgirl. She argues constantly with both Cassandra and Batman that the girl needs at least a semblance of a normal life.

But is this even possible?

Jen Yu, once she’s tasted the power of self, cannot submit to being a mere princess in a loveless arranged marriage. But, because it’s received from a severely flawed source, like Cassandra she’s a cracked vessel for this power. Like Ogami Ito and the Bride, Cassandra’s ultimate gift is to destroy, not to create.

But despite this, should Cassandra or any of the others accept a diminishment of self, to live as ordinary mortals when they have these abilities?

Even with her own Batgirl career behind her, Barbara could never equal Cassandra, and probably can’t fully appreciate Cassandra’s deadly artistry. As Barbara explains it at one point when Cassandra's briefly adopted the original high-heeled Batgirl costume, she was more about looking cute and running around in heels while bopping bad guys.

At some point, biological dad Cain comes to the realization that he loves her not just as his successful experiment, but as his daughter. By then it's too late and she's gone. In #22, he sings mournful versions of “Bicycle Built for Two” and "Darling Clementine" to her via a security video, sending her out the window onto a rooftop in tears.  This of the series' really heartfelt moments, one point where the series is hitting exactly the proper notes at the proper time.  Tellingly, it's from the Puckett/Scott era.

But even as Cain tries to reclaim her, neither we nor Batgirl could never be certain of his motivations… is there really a spark of fatherly love, of remorse? Or is he merely manipulating her in order to gain control over this weapon he’d created?  He's trying desperately to wrest her from the man who was rapidly becoming her figurative father. Batman. Batman gave her a costume, a name and a life. In return, she gives herself over to him completely. He eventually supplants Cain as the major driving force in her life, the one person capable of truly wounding her.
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She looks like her fans feel.

How? Well, he's so central to her being that not once but twice he fires her as Batgirl, devastating her... and twice she battles back to prove herself to him. In #50 (May 2004), the two of them work out their emotions with their fists, pounding each other.

And late in the fight, Batman finds himself fighting off her embraces. She wants him to hold her. To become her father. At this point, the thematic element of dueling fathers, of father-daughter relationships, is satisfactorily resolved. Thematically, at that point, Batman is for all intents and purposes her father.

All that remains is for Cass to come into her own as a fully realized, independent human being. That is, if this had been any medium other than a mainstream superhero comic. In mainstream superhero comics, story arcs can be finite but characters cannot. Therefore they exist in a strange stasis, where the only changes wrought on them are by writers and artists exercising a “different take.” But ultimately, these are only slightly modified versions of received material.

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Attempting to re-establish the superhero status quo...
After dealing with Daddy, a resolution with her mother seemed in order but it wasn't really to be. Sure, they fought, but there was no catharsis. And, as we found out later, none of this really mattered anyway. Cassandra was bound to backslide for illogical reasons.


But to be honest, once she learned to speak and read, what else could you do with her? In a sense, it becomes a race for mediocrity, to shed uniqueness. In my mind, I saw future Cass somewhere along issue #124 as a boringly competent detective with stupendous fighting abilities, dating Robin or Spoiler and none of her past playing much of a role at all. Changing creators but recycling plots from other comics in the comfortable, mind-lulling way of most mainstream titles.

And anyway, almost immediately after Puckett and Scott left the book, Batgirl showed an increasing propensity for silliness and repetition. As a highly abnormal human being, Cassandra struggled with ordinary emotions. Under writer Dylan Horrocks, whose run is marked with inconsistent quality (he did write the masterful #50 which is a series high point, after all), Cassandra grappled with one of her greatest foes:  a bikini.  And her second greatest:  bad art.

I'd never experienced embarrassment for a comic book character before reading Batgirl #39 (June 2003). Even though the story eventually made some half-assed point about the "male gaze," it seemed the whole point was to get a few panels of Cassandra in skimpy swimwear at the urging of Barbara Gordon, of all people.  Quite a number of issues around this time feature Barbara's preoccupation with Cass's prospective sexual attractiveness to males as a theme.

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At the time I thought this was the
worst thing DC could do to Cass.
Evidently, there's one way to be a woman in the DC universe, and even the women there enforce strict gender regimentation. The cover to the infamous bikini issue itself seemed designed to humiliate and diminish her, but the story inside reinforces this with art that forcibly turns Cass into a cutesy-pie cartoon figure, diminutively referred to as "Little Bat" by another character.

Immediately, she's given a brief flirtation with Superboy that results in a completely weak marshmallow of a story in #41 (August 2003) where he flies her to some fairy castle in the clouds-- the kind of precious cloying “I’ve read Judy Blume therefore I understand teenage girls” stories Chris Claremont used to do in those godawful "Some Teeny Bopper Tells Another Teeny Bopper a Fairytale" issues of Uncanny X-Men and New Mutants.

That one issue almost almost soured me on the whole thing right there.  Horrocks redeemed his run with that amazing #50 and a scattering of issues around that time-- with the considerable help of Rick Leonardi's amazing artwork.

But after that Batman fight, the series became punch drunk. Staggering. It continued for 23 more issues but never regained momentum.

They seemed to lose the essence of the character, turning her into a mopey emo kid (Cass should never truck with self pity), sending her off to Bludhaven (not a bad idea, actually) and introducing a dull supporting cast, then doing nothing of note with them. Fully rejecting Cain with a final “You were a bad father” (Really?  You don't say!), she leaves him lying broken and battered on his prison cell floor, and set off to find her biological mother.  A search which should have been emotionally blistering.  Instead, writer Andersen Gabrych and the rest of the creative crew waste all of #66 (September 2005) on Cassandra's supposedly comical confrontation with a troll.  A troll? Absolute nonsense, and until her re-emergence as a talkative dragon lady in Robin #149-151, this was the nadir of Batgirl's career.  Furthering the disappointment, they water down the mother-daughter confrontation by tossing in a gratuitous Mister Freeze plot and rendering Cass merely a face in the assassin crowd.

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Butts and boobs.  I don't miss Wizard at all.
Flopping to the Finish Line

As the title petered out, someone at Wizard (Chris Ward, I think) wrote one of their typical fluff pieces about "Comics' Sexiest Women." It was illustrated with a group of superhero women washing a car, and featured an old school style Batgirl, with the note that said something along the lines of, "We want to see a red-head-- ANY red-head-- back in Batgirl's cape and cowl."

Evidently, Cassandra Cain and her non-sexualized image was not comic book enough for Wizard. As if it doesn't matter if Batgirl makes any sort of logical story-sense, doesn’t matter who the character is or what she can do, as long as she has red-hair and boobs and high heels.

End Pt. 1!

*a version of one of the earliest things I wrote about Cass Cain, re-edited to take out the embarrassing anger!


  1. In my opinion, this writing is just as embarrassing for Barbara. TOTALLY not my version of the character. I see her as sort of like a mental version of Cass. Both have exceptional mental or physical abilities that are able to compensate for ineptitude in other areas. I see them both as incredibly strong people who don't care at all what anyone thinks of them. Honestly, Barbara back talks Batman more often than JLA does.

    1. I agree, especially during the Horrocks tenure on the book. The way he wrote Barbara with a very reductive view of gender expression and this idea Cass has to conform to it in order to be whole struck me as unfair, odd, overbearing and unpleasant. The whole cruise ship/Superboy romance arc really creeped me out.