Friday, February 14, 2014

Recommended Reading for 2/14: Batgirl featuring Stephanie Brown

When Stephanie Brown was introduced in Detective Comics by Chuck Dixon and Tom Lyle, it seemed like she was a one arc, one note character, albeit a good one. The daughter of F-List Batman villain The Cluemaster (a poor man's Riddler best known for being a member of Giffen & DeMatteis's Injustice League/Justice League Antarctica from the BWAH-HA-HA! years), Steph donned the costume of The Spoiler to shut down her absentee father's criminal enterprises. But after a couple stories where Steph went up against her dad, she started doing the vigilante thing for the action of it, and to hang around with Tm Drake, then Robin, as the two of them developed a relationship. Steph and Tim eventually broke up, she briefly was Robin, and one of the least of the Bat family events, "War Games," seemed to have thoroughly fridged Steph (if you don't know that expression, it has to do with female characters being killed for no other reason then to affect male characters, in this case Batman). But eventually, when Dixon returned to writing Robin after some years away, he brought Steph back as Spoiler. And after the "death" of Bruce Wayne, when the Bat titles went through the "Batman Reborn" branding, a new Batgirl title was launched, written by Bryan Q. Miller, with Steph as the titular heroine, and it became a major cult hit, and one of the best books on the market during its time on the stands.

One of the best aspects of Steph, one of the things that has made her such a beloved character as Batgirl, is that she was very much an everywoman. She wasn't a millionaire driven by vengeance like Batman, a boy genius like Tim Drake, or a living weapon like previous Batgirl Cassandra Cain. Steph was going to college, was trying to make new friends, maybe even meet a new boyfriend. And even more important to her character, Steph has moved beyond her issues with her dad, and was trying to be Batgirl because it was the right thing to do, and because she wanted to be a beacon of hope in Gotham. She wasn't a scary, single minded agent of vengeance like Batman, but was someone who was a hero because she thought the city needed it.

At the time it was released, this was also the book that was the place to go for Barbara Gordon, the original Batgirl, know at the time as Oracle. DC was in between volumes of Birds of Prey, the title Barbara was often featured in, and so Barbara was in Batgirl. The relationship between Steph and Barbara didn't start out too well, with Barbara not too thrilled with Steph taking up the mantle, but by the end of the first arc they were working together. That evolving relationship was one of the pleasures of the title, and even when Birds of Prey came back, Barbara was still a presence in the book. Barabara served not only as Steph's tech person and intelligence helper, but as her mentor, as the two had more in common than either had with Batman or much of his family, as they were both similarly motivated to do good.

Miller added another character to Stephanie's supporting cast, another female character who had been somewhat trampled by recent writers. Wendy Harris had been introduced into Teen Titans to be one of their tech people, along with her brother Marvin. Yes, that's Wendy and Marvin from Super Friends. But since whimsy was something found rarely at DC Comics at the time, pretty soon Marvin was eaten by a monstrous version of Wonder Dog and Wendy was badly injured. Wendy wound up in a wheelchair, and was full of anger at her fate. Barbara, who was also in a wheelchair after the Joker shot her, took Wendy under her wing and introduced her to Steph to become her own personal Oracle and partner. Taking on the name Proxy, Wendy began working with Steph. Their friendship grew, and was just hitting its stride towards the end of the run. Miller did a good job of drawing parallels not just between Barabara and Wendy, but Steph as well, as Steph's father was Oracle's arch nemesis, The Calculator. Miller built this great little cast of female heroes working together; it was a worthy successor and companion to Birds of Prey.

A particular favorite story from the series of mine was issues 6 and 7, where Steph has her first meeting with Damian Wayne, the current Robin. Damian is so abrasive and so full of himself, that he doesn't see the point in working with Stephanie, who he views as untrained and beneath his notice. But over the course of the issue, Steph earns the respect of both Damian and Dick Grayson, currently filling in as Batman. And this leads nicely into issue 17, which is another Damian and Steph story. In that story, Steph and Damian have to team up to save the children of Gotham's rich families from being abducted. Damian goes undercover, and has to interact with kids his own age. While the story is still Steph's, the issue does a tremendous job with Damian's voice, and having Steph, and outsider, see Damian in this environment makes it clear how the way Damian was raised, by his mother Talia in the League of Assassins to be the heir to Ra's al Ghul, has really affected him; Damian doesn't know how to be a kid. It's one of the best Damian stories ever written, and rereading it makes me miss the little brat all the more.

Issue 17 was a great example of one of the really excellent things Miller did throughout the series; while there was an overarcing plot, and many multi issue stories, they were broken up by some really fun one offs. Issue 13 was a one off where Batgirl teams up with Nick Gage, or St. Nick as his fellow GCPD officers call him, to fight Clayface. A handsome cop who was Batgirl's love interest, Gage ran into Steph a couple times out of costume to amusing results. Issue 14 has Steph and Supergirl fighting a legion of Draculas. And issue 18 was a Valentine's Day story featuring Klarion the Witch Boy. Miller brought in these guest stars in charming stories that never lost sight of Steph's unique voice, narrating the stories and making you fall for her as one of the most real protagonists in comics since Peter Parker first pulled on red longjohns.

The final arc of the series was one of the most bitter sweet reading experiences I have had in comics. The book had completely hit its stride. Miller had introduced the Order of the Scythe, a group of young super villains who made good additions to Steph's rogues gallery, built plots involving Wendy, and finally brought Steph face to face with her father for the first time in years. The final issue uses the Black Mercy, the plant that pushes you into a dream world, to show what I believe were Miller's long term plans for the book, giving Steph a long and wonder filled career as Batgirl. But Steph is able to cast off the Mercy, defeat her father, and have a final heart to heart with Oracle. Steph is happy, and that is filled with hope for the future...

The three main artists that Miller worked with throughout the series were very different and impressive. Lee Garbett began the series. His art is very much traditional super hero art, with great fluidity and excellent characterization. Dustin Nguyen was next. I've spoken about him before, and between his work on Detective Comics, Batman: Streets of Gotham, Li'l Gotham, and this book, he is one of the best Bat artists of the past decade; his style is unique to him, and jumps off the page, there's so much action and joy in it. Pere Perez wrapped the series. His style was closer to Garbett's, very super hero, very light. When his Steph smiled, you couldn't help but smile along.

Batgirl #24 was the last appearance of Stephanie Brown before the New 52 happened and she disappeared. She appeared in the special that wrapped up Grant Morrison's first run of Batman Incorporated, but other than a couple near misses in Li'l Gotham, Young Justice, and Smallville Season 11, Steph has been one of the casualties of the reboot. That looks like it's going to change, with the upcoming Batman: Eternal weekly series, which was previewed in this past week's issue of Batman (more on that in this Monday's reviews). There are runs of super hero books that break the trends of their time and become something special. The vocal Stephanie Brown fans have clearly indicated this fun, character driven series did exactly that. I hope that her return will be half as fun as what this series gave readers, and that she has a new lease on life in the Bat titles of today.

The entire twenty four issue run of Bryan Q. Miller's Batgirl series are available in three trades: Batgirl Rising, The Flood, and The Lesson. They are currently not in print, but shouldn't be that hard to track down.

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