Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Li'l Cass in "Batman: Li'l Gotham"

I absolutely despise the babyfication of superhero characters for any purpose, but even I have to give my pro-Cass approval to Dustin Nguyen's artwork for Batman: Lil Gotham, which apparently is some kind of digital comic from DC.  It's fun and appealing.  Plus, I like watercolors and if you look to the upper left corner there's a pretty sweet version of Cass as Black Bat.  She doesn't look too baby-ish, plus it might be the last time we see her in an official DC product, "canon" or not, for quite some time.

There's a report on a certain website that shall remain nameless-- they do a lot of satirical stuff so it's hard to know whether or not to take even this seriously-- that DC recolored the hair on a trick-or-treater dressed as Stephanie Brown from familiar blonde to non-Steph black.  Well, I hope they're joking around again because otherwise this is going to pretty painful...

In the meantime, enjoy Black Bat before outraged fans stampeding to burn Dan DiDio in effigy stomp her out of existence again.

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.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The marketing guy on Cass Cain: "Keep reading the books."

In a continuation of what's become a DC convention panel tradition, when they opened the floor to questions at the New York City Comic Con, someone asked when we'll see Cassandra Cain (and Stephanie Brown) in the "New 52," and DC's VP Marketing John Cunningham replied, "Keep reading the books."


Friday, October 12, 2012

DC does something with Cass that doesn't suck!

It's pretty sweet, actually.  Even though we had that "buy Cass's first issue" day not too long ago, here's another chance for fence-sitters and mildly interested potential readers to check out the very first issue of Batgirl for the low, low price of 99 cents!  And also for die-hards like you and me to register even more support for our favorite toxic, benched, non-existent Batgirl-Black Bat.  The sale starts October 12 and runs for four days so show Cass some love for under a buck!

Friday, October 5, 2012

"Bat Man of Shanghai:" Why can't there be a Cass Batgirl cartoon or comic like this?

But with dialogue that's not so perfunctory. By now everyone and her purple-clad best friend has watched this short, and we're not enjoying it because of its literate script. For me, it's the awesome Catwoman. I like her better than the one in the comics. It's cool they allow her to be kick ass enough to show some vulnerability and take her lumps. She's clearly outmatched by both the Bat Man and Bane, but she's still in there, after that scroll and she's not going to give up until someone knocks her the hell out.

As a stylistic exercise, it's impressive. With lines like, "This way! Hurry up!" and "Hey! What do you think you're doing? Get down from there!" they obviously didn't invest a whole lot in the script. You know, there's nothing wrong with purely visual storytelling with flashy kinetics, but there's also no reason why the characters have to speak in mindless declarative sentences. Let's put this amazing stuff to better use!

And do it with Cassandra Cain next time.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Aww... It's a little Cass!

DC Women Kicking Ass linked to this, and now so am I because it has a li'l Cass as Black Bat somewhere among all the other heroes... and you have to find her.  It's a game.  It's an adventure.  It's a game that's an adventure, that's really something you do sitting down at your computer.

The drawing is by Peter V. Nguyen.  Nice work!  It looks like a digital piece with a painterly approach.  Modeling is done with swaths of color not really blended in, just kind of sitting there.  Gives it a raw energy where something more refined would have felt stiff and off-putting.  I know the kids these days are into photorealism and colors smoothly grading into each other, but I prefer a more "artist's hand" approach like this.  I don't need to feel I'm looking at a photo to enjoy my super people.  They just need to have an internally consistent style or realization.  And appeal.  Especially appeal.

I like the black and white linear version best, though-- the wash on Batwoman's cape and Cass really impresses, and Nguyen's really got a way with hair.  I'd like to see him build a bit more depth there with those washes!  But I'm kind of a freak about black and white art and ink wash.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Batgirl Theme Song

Maybe it's because the official video has a Quentin Tarantino vibe, but "Ukifune" by the Japanese rock band Go!Go!7188 is the perfect theme song for the late, lamented Batgirl series starring Cassandra Cain.  I don't know what happened to that video.  It's missing, but you can probably find it if you search.  It's animated, with a woman flying through a series of shoji doors and gunning down a lot of yakuza types before donning a leather jacket over her kimono.  He's Go!Go!7188 performing "Ukifune" live:

No weepy emo music for Cassandra Cain. Although to be honest, the lyrics when translated are kind of emo. But in Japanese, they sound bad ass, don't they? Like Cassandra Cain.

I'm a big fan of the character, obviously, and while I enjoyed her series, my honest assessment is it rarely reaches for greatness.  There aren't any stories that stand on their own as classics of the genre, or even seminal moments in the Bat-family history.  Occasionally, in the way mainstream books starring teen girl characters do, it settles for cutesy-wutesy moments and while violent, it never really becomes frightening and strange, like the "Ukifune" video itself.  I wanted it to scare me.  To get the most mileage out of a character whose very language is violence, you have to take the stories into some dark places and really unsettle people.

I mean, no kids allowed.

Reading it, I couldn't help but wish the Batgirl series would eventually live up to the character's promise.  With her disturbing origins and death wish, I felt it should be equal parts the animated sequence from the first Kill Bill, Jen Yu's tragic story from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the melancholic yet still amazingly action-packed Lone Wolf and Cub by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima. For every heartfelt moment of Barbara Gordon trying to get in touch with Cassandra's wounded heart there would be an equal and opposite one of Batgirl kicking the stuffing out of some nasty joker who really deserves it in some sordid setting.  At some point, Batman would say, "Whoa, slow down, little lady!" and she'd leap off a rooftop to her almost certain death only to land safely. Nearly giving ol' Batman a heart attack every time.

And absolutely none of that "I just want to be normal" junk.  No pining for shopping trips and school dances.  Cass, the obsessed prodigy.  She'd toss herself into the mission with a vengeance, with her guilty conscience and death wish intact. A love-hate relationship with Daddy 1 (Cain) and Daddy 2 (Batman). A total disregard for self and a single-minded obsession with being the best Batgirl she could possibly be.

But there'd also be that secret soft side, the humanity denied. She'd alternately embrace it and reject it, uncertain of who she is outside of the costume, but loving every minute inside. Because of her strange gift and the empathy that comes as its side effect, and her own disconnect from that humanity, she'd be emotionally hurt constantly, and take it out with her fists and feet on whoever Batman wound her up and pointed her at...

Batgirl was alternately entertaining and frustrating, and it floundered after a while.  Some false starts at new directions, quickly abandoned and then DC cancelled it.  We'll never really know what it could have been.  In the end, though, I decided it was a waste of energy worrying about what the series wasn't rather than appreciating it for what it was.  I can always make up my own characters and stories and explore these themes.  Still, I always wanted Batgirl to go for Akira Kurosawa when it seemed content to be Tony Scott.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Another Cassandra Cain doodle...

Back when DC abruptly changed Cass into a talkative villain, I came up with my own version. My Batgirl is pretty much the original silent, deadly version from the real comic, but in a kind of retro-Batgirl suit, minus the high heels (of course). As sort of an antidote to the dark Wonder Dog-eats-Wendy storytelling popular at the time, I had this idea of putting an ultra-violent Cass in a sunny, neo-retro-post-modern take on the Teen Titans, only this time headed by this socially aware super-achiever version of Supergirl. Other members were Wonder Girl based on the cheerful hedonist version from the original Teen Titans comic (she'd cause the more responsible Supergirl no end of headaches), a shaky, insecure version of Robin and Cyborg. Kid Flash, Speedy and others would come and go as the stories dictated. Yeah, it was a stupid idea, but writing scripts no one would see and doing little doodles on ATM receipts really kept my love for these characters alive when their actual caretakers seemed to be doing everything in their power to destroy them.

Cassandra Cain versus an Uncle Fester cosplayer...

Your guess is as good as mine as to why these people and a giant gorilla are all raising their left arms.  I think Batgirl is going to kick that erzatz Uncle Fester's ass (if she can ever untangle herself from that flowing mess of a cape), and Enid is confused as to how she got involved in this ridiculous situation.  Frazetta's happy monkey wants to play.