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Saturday, March 22, 2014

Stephanie Brown: That Plucky, Purple Protagonist

Stephanie Brown's history in comics hasn't exactly been a bed of roses. She started off as a sidekick to a sidekick, and was loved by the fans but despised by the DC Comics editorial staff, including the nefarious Dan DiDio. After a brief stint as the fourth Robin, she wound up being brutally killed off, before being revealed to have been not-quite-dead. After that, she got a bit of a boost, being promoted to Batgirl and headlining her own title until the DC reboot. Of course, she promptly got New 52'd and wasn't even mentioned until recently, when she appeared in comics once again... as a prisoner of the city's premier crime lord. Sound familiar?

To those who do not know just who Stephanie Brown is, allow me to enlighten you. Stephanie Brown was originally the daughter of minor Batman-villain (and Riddler-copycat) Cluemaster. Stephanie became the Spoiler to "spoil" her father's crimes, and later applied her new identity to generally fighting crime. Unfortunately, Batman and Robin (Tim Drake, at present) didn't originally take too kindly to her "amateur" crime fighting activities, and only Robin reluctantly accepted her presence. (It didn't help that Stephanie had a crush on Tim.) Eventually, Stephanie became a quasi-trusted member of the Bat-family, temporarily taking Tim's place as Robin at one point, before being fired and banned from crime fighting because, as we all know, Batman is a jerk. After coming back from the War Games fiasco, Stephanie resumed her activities as Spoiler before taking on the mantle of Batgirl in place of her dear friend Cassandra Cain. After 24 issues, the New 52 happened, and poor old Steph disappeared. However, she has recently turned up in an issue of Batman, apparently being very important to the plot, and is slated to appear in upcoming maxi-series Batman: Eternal. I for one have high hopes for it. Please read that as "I am ecstatic."

The main reason I love Stephanie Brown so much is because she is the number one proof that our heroes don't have to dark, brooding loners. You know, like Batman. Whether she's the Spoiler, Robin, or Batgirl, Steph has shown that fighting crime in Gotham City doesn't have to always get you down. She's maintained a never-say-die attitude, which mirrors- nay, rivals Batman's own determined nature. Batman himself said as much. The contrast, however, is the running theme of chipper positivity in her manner. Stephanie Brown may be, at heart, a determinator, but that doesn't mean she's unhappy and grim all the time. Rather, she's probably the most emotionally well adjusted person in the entire Bat-family. She's cracking jokes, making pop-cultural references, and having fun fighting crime while doing a good job at it. And that's a great thing. An awesome thing. A fantastic thing. And we could stand to see more of that in today's comics.

You might ask whether I think Stephanie Brown works best as Spoiler, Robin, or Batgirl, but I'd have difficulty answering. This is mainly because Stephanie is the sort of comic book character who is unique enough to transcend the mask, so that she wears it, and not the other way around. However, since all but one of these aforementioned roles are legacy characters (that is, a mantle occupied by different people at different times), she of course has to be compared to previous bearers of the Robin and Batgirl mantles. In truth, I probably liked Stephanie the least as Spoiler, primarily because the dark purple (or, as Stephanie would insist, eggplant) cape and cowl with the full face sock mask didn't really suit her. Steph is a character with a lot of emotion going into her, so it would only be logical if she had some way to emote. That said, she's decidedly at her best when she's Batgirl, though she's been Spoiler longer than she was Robin and Batgirl combined. This is not to say that her as Spoiler is a bad thing, far from it. We got lots of awesome stories with Steph as the Spoiler. But when the eyes and the mouth are finally visible, and she's in action, we finally get to see the real Steph, the one we all know and love, without the goofy giant white-eye thing. Fortunately, the new Spoiler outfit, or what I hope is the new Spoiler outfit, is going to allow us to see Steph emote while in her badbutt Spoiler costume.

Anyhow, the question still remains: How does Stephanie measure up to the other Robins and Batgirls? As Robin, Stephanie doesn't have a whole lot to stand on because she was Robin for about 4 issues. However, in that brief speck of time, she managed to bring out a whole different side of Batman by being his perfect foil. The cheery, chipper Girl Wonder to the down and dour Dark Knight. This is a dynamic with Batman that hasn't really been explored in the modern age of comics, and I'd love to see it given more attention. That said, I still think that Tim Drake was the best Robin, but that doesn't diminish Stephanie's accomplishments while in the suit. As Batgirl, Stephanie was phenomenal, hearkening back to the era of Barbara Gordon. I suppose it really isn't fair to compare her to Cassandra Cain, because 1.) I haven't read a whole lot of Cassandra Cain stuff, and 2.) Cassandra Cain was a completely different character with her own take on Batgirl which hugely contrasts with Stephanie's run. Stephanie's tenure as Batgirl, as relatively short as it was, was also one of the best roles as a legacy character in comics. And for that, I daresay she was even better than when Barbara Gordon was in the suit.

I suppose something should be said about how Stephanie's costume reflects her origins and motivations. Purple is the traditional color of domestic violence causes, and Stephanie has a history with domestic violence (her father was a supervillian, after all, but she was also a victim of attempted child molestation). Her main motivation, I believe, is to help make the world safe for girls like her. Very touching, really. Stephanie's perseverance also makes her an admirable role model, embodying Philippians 4:13 ("I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."). Stephanie is also notable for being a character who worked her way up to get her own fan base, not for being known as Tim Drake's on-again-off-again girlfriend. She's transcended her original station in fiction to become a force truly to be reckoned with.

On the whole, I can't express enough I much I want Stephanie Brown to appear in the Bat-books again, and I can't wait to get around to reading her Batgirl trades, not to mention her appearances in the last few Robin trades. She's one of my favorite characters and I just love reading stories with her in them. I also can't wait to read Batman: Eternal. If you're interested in reading up on Stephanie Brown, I would suggest that you check out her Batgirl trades, the later editions of Robin, and maybe the War Drums/War Games arc if you're feeling particularly foolhardy. I personally wouldn't recommend that last one.

Fun fact: You want to know something funny? Yours truly may very well have inspired the big reveal in the penultimate issue of Stephanie Brown's Batgirl series, which involved Stephanie's father, Cluemaster. Just look at this picture, scanned from the letters page of Batgirl #20:

Pretty cool, huh?

Image 1 courtesy Image 2 courtesy personal collection.