Robin the Boy Wonder is the best-known Batman sidekick character, though it’s probably fair to say that most casual Batman fans aren’t quite aware how many of them there have been. Yes, more than three!
The original Robin, orphaned acrobat Dick Grayson, was portrayed as a teenager and young adult who had been adopted by Batman. He eventually outgrew the sidekick role, taking on his own superhero identity as Nightwing. His successors Jason Todd and Tim Drake had radically different personalities – Jason Todd was a street kid with a bad attitude who was so unpopular that when given the chance, comics fans voted overwhelmingly that he should be killed off, while Tim Drake represented Batman’s smarter side, a well-adjusted geek with great computer and information processing skills, who eventually, like Dick Grayson, left Batman’s side to become his own hero. (He’s currently known as Red Robin) The latest Robin, Damien Wayne, is Batman’s young and slightly sociopathic son to villainess Talia Al Ghul, who has been raised both evil and snarky.
While the public perception of Robin is that of a boy sidekick to the Dark Knight, there have actually been several young women who have also taken that role, though usually in alternate timelines, or for brief periods of time. It’s an important story to tell, in the context of women in comics, because of the very different ways in which Girl Wonders have been treated both by Batman and by DC Comics.
The first female Robin, Carrie Kelly, was brought to us by Frank Miller, the man who thought that Catwoman would be more interesting as a former sex worker. In The Dark Knight Returns (1986), a critically acclaimed graphic novel featuring a much darker and angrier version of Batman than had been seen before, thirteen-year-old schoolgirl and scout Carrie Kelly is rescued by Batman, and makes her own Robin costume in order to join him. She uses a slingshot and firecrackers as weapons, and wears large green tinted glasses instead of a mask.
This Batman, who had retired after the death of Jason Todd, reluctantly allows this new sparky Robin to fight at his side, despite the pointed in-narrative commentary of other characters such as Superman and indeed the police, who include ‘child endangerment’ to their long list of charges against him.
Carrie is loyal, brave and above all, cheerful, exactly what this dark version of Batman needs to keep him going. Sadly she doesn’t exist beyond this self-contained continuity. In the sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Carrie was sixteen and still at Batman’s side, now calling herself Catgirl – still loyal, brave and cheerful, though a lot more violent than previously shown, but no longer claiming the name of Robin. She is also referred to as ‘jailbait’ within the comic, and many readers thought that she and Batman saying they loved each other was squicky (though Miller clarified in an interview that it was a father-daughter relationship, nothing more).
More than twenty five years later, DC Comics have brought two entirely different takes on an ‘alternate world’ female Robin. In World’s Finest, released early this year, we learned that the new version of Huntress is once again Helena Wayne, the daughter of Bruce Wayne/Batman from Earth 2, and that she used to be Robin alongside him, flying high tech planes and being generally awesome. Her life in Earth 2 is represented in a series of flashbacks drawn by Kevin Maguire, and from her combat suit to her skills and relationship with Batman, she seems to be treated as a female equivalent (and equal) to the original Dick Grayson Robin character.
More recently, in another outside-continuity series, a new Robin has appeared in Ame-Comi Girls, which portrays the DC Comics universe as a world in which the only superheroes we see are the women (we don’t know for sure that there is no Batman, Superman etc. in this world, but the origins and backstories are starting to make it increasingly obvious that this is the case). The series has been developed around a set of very sexualised anime-style statuettes of DC women, and yet a combination of fun art and very clever writing by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray has turned it into a fantastic feminist superhero series.
The Ame-Comi Robin appears to be a femme version of the standard Dick/Tim/Damien black-haired Boy Wonder. She has a short black haircut with a single ‘robin red’ streak, a sexy burlesque version of the old school Robin costume, and a wicked grin. However, Palmiotti and Gray chose to call her Carrie, presumably after Carrie Kelly, and to set her up as a best friend and cousin of Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl (the only Bat in Gotham). She’s a fun character who sums up all the classic Robin traits – loyalty, bravery and spunkiness.
None of these Robins, however, are officially part of the continuity – with the possible exception of Helena, though Earth 2 was always used as a dumping ground for less conventional versions of characters, and it’s telling that she has no relationship at all with the Earth 1 Batman yet – who has, as of the New 52 reboot last year, retained what appears to be the entire history of his male Robins: Dick Grayson was the first, now starring in his own series as Nightwing; Jason Todd was the second, who died and eventually came back as the villain/morally dubious Red Hood, now starring in his own series Red Hood and the Outlaws; Tim Drake was the third, now starring as Red Robin in the ensemble comic Teen Titans. Damien Wayne, son of Batman and Talia Al Ghul, is the current Robin, featuring in all the Batman titles but especially Batman and Robin and Batman Inc.
But there’s one missing. One who is very, very notable by her absence. Buckle up, Batfans! It’s time to talk about Stephanie Brown.
In 1992, Steph was introduced in Detective Comics (written by Chuck Dixon) as the teen daughter of The Cluemaster, a B-grade Batman villain. She created her own superhero identity, The Spoiler, specifically to wreck her Dad’s various criminal plots. She became a regular character in Dixon’s popular Robin series the following year as a friend, foil and occasional love interest for Tim Drake.
Steph was a working class hero, daughter of an absentee (mostly because of jail) criminal father, and a mother who was addicted to prescription medication. She maintained a fun and positive attitude towards life, however, and was a great, well-rounded character. Her friendship and on again, off again romance with Tim was very nicely drawn for the more-than-a-decade in which his series ran – in particular, her teen pregnancy storyline was met with positive critical acclaim.
In 2004, Tim Drake’s father discovered that he was Robin, and forced him to give up the costume. Steph decided to replace him in his old job, making herself a Robin costume and sneaking into the Batcave.
It was clear right from the start that just because there was a girl in the role of Robin didn’t meant that a feminist statement was on the cards, at least as far as the creators were concerned. Indeed, Steph was repeatedly belittled and undermined within the narrative. Batman was reluctant to accept her as Tim’s replacement, even questioning her worth after taking her through intensive training and supplying her with a professional Robin costume. Steph was portrayed as defiant, unable to take orders, and lacking in her predecessor’s competence.
Oh, and then she was killed. Indeed, it was later revealed that the powers that be at DC Comics knew they were going to kill off Stephanie Brown when they made her Robin – she had always intended to be a sacrifice, and an example of a failed, incompetent superhero.
This is how it went down: Batman fired her for insubordination. Steph responded by stealing one of his long-term plans to deal with the entire Gotham criminal underworld and putting it into effect, without realising that she lacked all the information to pull it off. Gang warfare broke out, disaster ensued, and Stephanie was tortured horribly, her body depicted in a hideously objectified way in the artwork conveying said torture. She later died in hospital.
When Batman investigated, he discovered that Dr Leslie Thompkins, previously a sympathetic character, had deliberately chosen not to save Steph’s life so she could stand as an example to Gotham’s youth as what not to do.
Stephanie’s death, her gratuitous and sexualised torture, and the subsequent emphasis on how she had basically deserved it through her own incompetence, was hugely upsetting for her legions of fans, especially a large number of female readers who felt that their hero had been thrown under the bus for no good reason. In particular, it was noticed that Steph was rarely mentioned after the storyline concerning her death was wrapped up – and unlike Jason Todd, her Robin costume did not hang in a memorial case in the Batcave.
It was hard to see that the different treatment of the martyred Jason Todd and the belittled Stephanie Brown was anything other than pure, unadulterated sexism. Indeed, she became a symbol of the appalling treatment of women in comics, not only as an example of the Women in Refrigerators phenomenon raised by Gail Simone (in which female characters are violently killed or hurt purely to advance the plots of male characters), but also of the general disrespect that many comics creators (and especially those making the executive creative decisions) have for female characters and female readers.
Geek webcomic Shortpacked sums up the female Robin issue here.
The website Girl Wonder, established by women such as Karen Healey and Mary Borsellino to discuss issues of feminism and sexism in the comics industry, was named in honour of Steph, and a campaign called Project Girl Wonder was established to request that DC Comics honour the character appropriately with a memorial case. Project Girl Wonder was officially retired in 2008 when Steph was brought back into the DC Universe, her death retconned as an event that had been faked by Dr Leslie Thompkins (though worth noting that this occurred after her horrible torture, so that aspect had not been erased). Not only did Steph fans have her back alive, but Dr Thompkins character had also been rehabilitated with this revelation.
As far as many were concerned, it was a win, and after returning for some time to her Spoiler costume (there was never any question that she would be Robin again) Stephanie Brown went on to have a popular and successful run as Batgirl, which I will discuss tomorrow. Girl Wonder itself continues as a website featuring all manner of issues including campaigns to prevent harassment at conventions, to make comic shops female-friendly, and the celebration of iconic female characters. It’s now only one of a chorus of feminist blogs and critical commentators on the comics scene, who draw attention to problems as and when they arise.
Meanwhile, as of the recent New 52 reboot, Stephanie Brown has not been mentioned or appeared in comics (except for the out-of-continuity kids title Batman the Brave and the Bold in November 2011 where Steph and Carrie Kelly were two ‘future Robins’ who travelled back in time with the boys to save Batman’s life) and her fans have still not been told whether her history as Robin, as Batgirl or indeed as Spoiler “really happened” or not. Even a recent attempt by her Batgirl writer Brian Vaughn to include her as a female Nightwing in the out-of-continuity Smallville comic was quashed by those higher up in the company. Based on current information, Steph is the only canon Robin whose career has not been preserved in DC continuity. While this does mean her terrible death has also been erased, that is at a high cost if it means the history of the only canon Girl Wonder has been rendered invisible and irrelevant.
NEXT TIME: Batgirl!
Where the Wonder Women Are:
1: Black Canary
4: Black Widow
5: Wonder Girl
6: Captain Marvel
8: Abigail Brand.