The original Huntress, Paula Brooks, was a super-villainess in the very early Golden Age of comics, but she’s not the character who is mostly associated with that name, and indeed her name was later retroactively changed to ‘the Tigress’ to save on confusion.
As I mentioned in the post on Catwoman, the real Huntress was a character who had her origins in Earth 2 in the 1960’s. The DC Comics multiverse allowed them to tell a variety of stories outside the main continuity, and Earth 2 was notable not only for preserving older and less fashionable versions of particular characters (such as the Golden Age Flash, Jay Garrick, or the Golden Age Black Canary, Dinah Drake) but also for allowing characters like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman to age naturally, marry their sweethearts and have children of their own instead of remaining static as those in the main continuity often did.
Helena Wayne was not the daughter of Batman and Catwoman so much as the wealthy and privileged daughter of happy couple Bruce and Selina Wayne. Her world was not turned upside down until she was already an adult: her mother was blackmailed into one last costumed crime, and was killed due to Batman’s actions, leaving both Helena and her father grieving.
But while she was inspired by the death of her mother, and the hero figure of her father, Helena was not especially traumatised as Bruce himself had been by the loss of his parents at a much younger age, and she went on to have a rich and full life, balancing her life as a lawyer (in the same firm as Dick Grayson AKA Robin, her father’s former sidekick) and a costumed vigilante. Like Batman, Huntress relied largely on tools and gimmicks as well as martial arts ability. In particular, she was associated with the crossbow as a weapon.
The Earth 2 Batman himself died in action before learning about his daughter’s own career as the Huntress. Dick Grayson considered taking over the Batman costume, but Helena convinced him otherwise, determined that they should keep their own identities, and allow Batman to be dead. To my mind, this means that for a large part of her career, Huntress was not just the Earth 2 equivalent of Batgirl, as might have been expected – she was the Earth 2 equivalent of BATMAN.
Helena joined the Justice Society of America (the Earth 2 equivalent of the Justice League) and became particular friends with Power Girl (the Earth 2 version of Supergirl, Superman’s cousin). Her solo adventures mostly appeared in the pages of Wonder Woman as a back up feature, but she also appeared in All Star Comics and was briefly a member of the team Infinity Inc, who were all made up of the children of original Justice Society members. Helena was also often seen visiting Earth 1 for JSA/JLA team ups.
Her early career and many of her adventures of the Huntress are collected in the trade paperback “The Huntress: Darknight Daughter” which I thoroughly recommend.
But – and here we go again – then came the Crisis of Infinite Earths, and the formal destruction/merging of the DC multiverse in 1985. No longer happy with telling stories across multiple continuities, the company was keen to streamline its narrative, and that meant the sacrifice of many characters. In the new continuity, many of the Justice Society members were now rewritten as the previous generation’s heroes who observed and played a mentoring role from their retirement chairs.
Helena Wayne, however, wasn’t going to work in this new continuity – certainly not as the adult daughter of Batman and Catwoman, or as an older “Golden Age” character, as she wasn’t part of that tradition. Like many other characters, she was killed in action during the Crisis battle, and once the reboot kicked in, no one remembered she had ever existed. Before she was killed, however, both she and “her” Dick Grayson got to experience the horror of realising that their world had gone, and no one remembered either of them.
In 1989, The Huntress made a return to the DC universe. Helena Bertinelli looked very similar to Helena Wayne, but had an entirely different character and personality. The Italian daughter of a mafia boss whose family was wiped out in a hit (because, you know, ALL Italian people are connected to the mob, that’s not xenophobic at all), she is much darker, tougher and more trauma-driven than her previous incarnation.
The modern Huntress costume is notable for retaining its similarity to the Bat and Cat legacy costumes, apart from the large white cross which identifies the character as Bertinelli rather than Wayne, and indicates her Catholicism. It has also consistently bared her midriff for several decades. It always seemed to me the height of hubris to bare the midriff of a character whose signature weapon is the crossbow. But Helena IS pretty hard, chances are her mighty abs would just deflect any missiles that came her way.
Helena Bertinelli occupied a strange space in the comics, as a “new” character who looked and felt like she should be part of the Bat-family, but was not endorsed or even liked by Batman, who disapproved of her violent nature – the implications inherent in her use of the crossbow are at least not ignored here as they were in the Earth 2 days where were all a bit ‘lalalala jolly adventure, shoot someone in the head, lalala.” Helena has forged her own friendships with other Bat-characters like Dick Grayson’s Nightwing (whom she occasionally romances), Tim Drake’s Robin, Barbara Gordon’s Oracle and even Catwoman, as well as friendships with many of her “former” colleagues in the Justice Society all without reference to her previous (non-)existence.
Over the next twenty years, Helena Bertinelli created her own legacy, distinct from that of Helena Wayne. She had her own mini-series early on which focused on the Mafia aspect of her backstory, and set her up as a streetwise vigilante. She joined the Justice League International as the token ‘person without a sense of humour’ but tended not to stay for longer than short periods, mostly because of Batman’s suspicion of her and his continuing association with the League.
In the massive No Man’s Land Batman storyline of the late 90’s, in which Gotham City fell apart as an abandoned war zone, Helena not only stayed as Huntress, helping and defending people to the best of her ability, but also briefly took on a ‘Bat’ costume as well, because she felt the city needed to think that Batman was still around. There was a marvellous scene in which she dared a bunch of thugs to consider whether or not the Bat had ALWAYS been female, and no one had ever admitted it before. Batman briefly allowed this new Batgirl to continue wearing “his” symbol and to fight under his own command, but later bullied her into giving the costume back, claiming now that it was her uncontrollable emotions that made her unfit to represent him. He promptly handed the costume on to young, silent assassin Cassandra Cain.
Huntress continued to be portrayed as a loner, someone who isn’t quite allowed into the “family” of costumed characters in Bruce Wayne’s inner circle. She maintains her connection to Gotham City, though, possibly entirely to spite him.
Helena found a place in the Birds of Prey, alongside Oracle and Black Canary, and became one of the central ongoing characters of that team. She also featured in the short-lived Birds of Prey TV series, played by Ashley Scott, though the TV version was not Helena Bertinelli but “Helena Kyle,” daughter of Batman and Catwoman once again.
Other TV appearances include the excellent, Bertinelli-authentic version of Huntress in Justice League Unlimited, where she attempts to avenge the deaths of her parents, and becomes romantically involved with the Question; and also the rather less authentic appearance of the Huntress in Batman: the Brave and the Bold where she is a college professor, and indicates some romantic interest in Batman (ewwwww!).
I think it’s also worth noting that the post-Crisis Catwoman has developed along very similar lines to Helena Bertinelli, with a noir sensibility and a focus on storylines involving mobsters, drugs and the seedier side of the DC streets. Indeed, the Brubaker version of Catwoman from the 2000s felt to me very similar in tone and content to the Huntress mini-series of the late 80’s, with Catwoman set up as far more of a street protector and vigilante than an actual cat burglar.
In recent years, Helena Bertinelli acquired an odd friendship with Power Girl, who was dealing with her own identity crisis thanks to memories of their former life in Earth 2 (which had been restored to DC Comics as of the Infinite Crisis event) and clung to Helena as the closest thing she could get to her own former best friend, Helena Wayne.
And then (another familiar reboot pressure point!) came the New 52 of 2011. Neither Huntress nor Power Girl were featured as part of the early line up of titles last year, but within a month or two of the reboot, Huntress appeared in her own mini-series. It all looked very promising – for the first time since she gave up wearing a leotard to fight crime in, her midriff was protected by a far more practical version of her signature costume, and the comic so beautifully drawn by Marcus To featured glorious Italian scenery along with a fairly standard “Helena Bertinelli” plot involving people smuggling and the suffering of women in the modern slave trade. Gritty violence, drugs, mob connections and crossbows, all just what you might expect.
Except that it wasn’t. Because as revealed at the tail end of the mini-series, this wasn’t Helena Bertinelli at all. The twist was that Earth 2 had been sneakily rebooted as well, and no one knew about it yet… no one except Power Girl and Huntress, who were in fact the Earth 2 versions of themselves, stuck on Earth 1.
The Worlds Finest ongoing series was launched early this year, answering some of the WTF! questions that had been running around the internet. This Helena, it turned out, was very much Helena Wayne, daughter of Batman (and we assume, Catwoman), though the superhero identity she had held in Earth 2 was Robin, making her officially a partner to her father (which I have to say made me go AWWWW like nothing else – Helena has never had that before in any of her previous incarnations!).
Now stuck in a world which already has a Supergirl and a Robin, Karen and Helena created new identities for themselves, and while Karen/Power Girl has been busy building a tech company and trying to find their way home, Helena has been wearing vigilante purple and saving the downtrodden. Once more she’s a character who should have a Bat-family legacy, but instead has to operate on her own, away from the support of the Gotham gang – but this time, she knows it.
Despite the positives of this new series, the reboot has proved highly controversial. Helena Bertinelli’s Huntress has a strong following of readers who had never even heard of the Helena Wayne version of the character, and feel betrayed at the cavalier loss of decades of backstory and development. It didn’t help that ‘Bertinelli’ is revealed in Worlds Finest Issue #1 as the identity of “a dead woman” which Helena Wayne has been using falsely for some time – this felt for many readers like they were being kicked when already down.
I sympathise deeply with those readers who have lost their Huntress. It sucks when “your” version is taken away from you – having a favourite character killed off is bad enough, but having one rebooted out of reality is harsh, and the New 52 has featured a great many blows for fans of female characters in particular.
But for me personally, while I have always enjoyed Helena Bertinelli, it feels like I have “my” Huntress back, and a far more interesting and complex take on the character than the pre-Crisis comics allowed for. If the art was less hit-and-miss (George Perez is really not capable of drawing women who look like they belong in this century, it seems, though the flashback sequences by Kevin Maguire are wonderful) Worlds Finest would be a serious contender for my favourite current female-led comics title.
I can wait.
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Where the Wonder Women Are:
1: Black Canary
4: Black Widow
5: Wonder Girl
6: Captain Marvel
8: Abigail Brand.