Monday, September 17, 2012

Cass: Too Successful?

In an essay entitled "The All-Too-Successful Career of Cassandra Cain" on his blog Oz and Ends, J.L. Bell makes a strong case for our Cass having been too successful at conflict resolution.  Bell accurately assesses and neatly sums up everything there is to know about Cass and her comic book career.

What went wrong was it went so right.

Maybe I'm excited by it because he echoes points I tried to make years ago in an review I wrote for the trade paperback collection Batgirl Vol. 1:  Silent Running.  This was back in 2001 when she still had her monthly, and I boldly predicted the rate of character development would result in Cass becoming "another black-suited Bat-ninja."  I wanted the writers to explore her psyche more and stretch the narrative before they reached a logical stopping point or turned her into something generic.

After reading Bell's take, I feel validated.  Somewhat.  Partially.  Bell explains what happened in terms of "Foundational Conflicts."  Simply put, Cass had several personal issues that largely defined her character arc-- inability to communicate through words, father/daughter relationship, guilt, death wish, self-identity and Batgirl resolved all of these-- some of them repeatedly-- within its first 25 issues, or up until original creative team Kelley Puckett and Damion Scott left the book.  Bell doesn't hang a number on the exact issue that was one too many, so I'll be super generous and say until #50, which established Batman as Cassandra's new father figure.  There were some real stinkers in the mix before then, though, that showed the directionless tendency that caused the book to start shedding readers.  As the series went on, it increasingly became less about Batgirl running silently and more about her running in circles.  Sales dropped, a half-hearted attempt to change settings and give the title a regular supporting cast came to nothing, DC cancelled the book.

Then things got weird.  As they had done successfully with Batman and Superman before her, DC attempted to reset the character, to give her what Bell calls an "Unresolvable Foundational Conflict," but the people responsible-- whoever they were-- handled it poorly.  Which is putting it mildly.

Any good story is at its heart about the transformative journey of the protagonist.  Lone Wolf and Cub by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima or Lady Snowblood by Koike and Kazuo Kamimura are the ideal models for what Batgirl's journey should have been.  Or the Ang Lee film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, mostly due to some similarities Cass shares with the Zhang Ziyi character Jen Yu.  These end satisfyingly.  No more story to tell.  Batgirl, on the other hand, was intended as an open-ended series in the American sense.  She has to have some kind of unique, personal motivation to keep doing her thing, and keep readers involved.  I'm sure if DC had found one for her, she'd still be in print somewhere, somehow.  It's easy to see in hindsight how badly they botched what was once a popular, top-selling character, but at the time those terrible ideas must have seemed like just the thing to cure Cass.

Or reverse-cure her and give her more of those Foundational Conflicts.  Instead, they just resulted in conflicts with the fans and oblivion for Cass.  Kind of ironic, I suppose.  Cass was so good at kicking ass, she kicked her own ass.

I want to end this on a hopeful note.  Perhaps in a few years we'll see a "re-boot" version.  After all, if the movie studios can give us another Spider-Man origin film barely 10 years after the first, there's no reason DC can't re-introduce Cass in all her silent, death-wishin' glory in one of the many Batman-starring books, Birds of Prey, or the Barbara Gordon Batgirl.  After all, it doesn't cost as much to add a supporting character to a comic book as it does to make a huge summer blockbuster film.  Perhaps Cass can come back not as Batgirl, but as Black Bat.  Then do it all over again, but slowly.

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