Although Barbara Gordon will always be known as the iconic Batgirl, she never got a solo series named after her in the mainstream DC Universe until Gail Simone’s run in the New 52 reboot. (Although her animated series incarnation did get a series called Batgirl Adventures in the late 90s).
No, the first Batgirl to get a solo series named after her is the now little known Cassandra Cain.
Cassandra Cain has the distinction of being the only POC in Batman’s Bat Family (unless you count Dick Grayson with his Romani heritage- although that gets brushed aside), and one of the deadliest hand to hand fighters in the DC Universe. Not only that, but her immense skills meant that she garnered more respect amongst Batman and the Robins than any other Batgirl has recieved before or after her.
So, what was Batgirl’s first solo title like (excluding Batgirl Adventures)? Well, lets have a look at this 2000s series and see if it’s worth checking out.
To say the artwork is hit and miss wouldn’t be entirely accurate. It’s highly stylised, and everything’s bold, blocky and fluid.
It has big, exaggerated, ugly faces, chaotic panel placement, deeply shadowed faces and often backgrounds and even whole panels are washed in a single color (usually blue green or red) in order to give it a moody, or ominous or more atmospheric feel, while all the civillian life scenes are more colourful and bright. There’s also a lot of line work and sparce dialogue, which gives it a really streamlined feel and made the action scenes a treat to read.
All this works phenomenally for action sequences. Cassandra Cain is an all action no talk (literally- she’s a mute who they taught to read body language). So this art style makes sense… mostly.
The only downside is that this exaggerated art doesn’t work as well for the more low key moments. In fact, some of the character designs can look hideous- Cassandra is the worst offender. Seriously, she looks a lot like the neanderthalls from Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur in some panels:
When you’re dealing with a tragic child warrior story similar to Dark Angel, Hitgirl, or Leon The Professional, you really need emotional subtlety. And it doesn’t help when Batman’s pulling an expression like this.
Oh God, how can you take that face seriously? Just compare that to the subtlety of Stephanie Brown’s expression in another Batgirl series:
So much emotion in that one look, and its so subtle as well. This is a HUGE problem because when we have a character who’s mute – or only tals in broken sentences at best- and has no life outside being a warrior, you really need to rely on low key character moments, subtle gestures and facial expressions to draw us in and help us connect with her. The art doesn’t do that.
This isn’t helped by the double edged sword that is her costume. Don’t get me wrong, her Bat costume looks incredible, Black, sleek, and a monstrous mask that looks like something of nightmares. I really like this costume… and yet. A big problem is the fact that Cass was not originally a villain (not until an editorial mandate happened anyway). Cassandra is a tragic figure- raised as the ultimate assassin and forced to kill when she was too young to know what she was doing, let alone say no. She cannot talk, so she relies on expressions to get her mood across- and this mask that obscures her face robs her of a lot of character.
They say that the reason that Roman Gladiators wore masks was because it was easier to kill a man when they didn’t have to look them in the eye and acknowledge them as human. The same principle goes for Cass, as I reckon that the mask makes it harder to relate to her as a character. It doesn’t help that what with the stitching, it looks like a nightmare mask she’s trapped in.
But still, she’s made to look like an actual badass warrior rather than cheesecake who contorts her spine to get her ass and boobs in full display every other panel. In that respect, no matter what I think of her costume’s flaws she’s still head and shoulders above 90% of other superheroines out there.
Ironically, as Batgirl loses skill and gains language, the artwork balances out and though is less dynamic and fluid, everything looks better. The characters are no longer an eyesore, though I can’t help but think the biggest thing this improvement achieved is making Cass look pretty, and made the civillian life scenes less of an eye sore.
It’s an interesting story. Basically, Cassandra Cain is a half Asian girl who was trained from childhood to be an assassin by a killer called David Cain. The central gimmic is that instead of teaching her how to speak, she learned to read fighting moves as a sort of ‘language’, and thus she is mute. Honestly, I am not sure if this is one of the dumbest ideas I’ve ever heard of, or the coolest.
But then I remembered the Silver Age and Bat-girl’s plan to escape her enemy’s prison by cutting out paper bats and throwing them out of the window, and now it all of a sudden seems completely reasonable.
Anyway, this is an interesting concept, and creates a certain dilemna in terms of story telling. Since not only. It further shoots itself in the foot by choosing a costume that does not show her face, and an artstyle that does not lend itself to subtle expression.
The workaround was by making Batgirl more of a subject than narrator. Most of the first few issues are narrated by Oracle (Barbara Gordon, who was the previous Batgirl) and Batman.
Now, a mute protagonist could present a challenge – it could involve Cass slowly learning how to talk, bonding with Oracle, maybe even remembering what her father taught her… but instead they went for an ass pull and had a psychic magically healing her. Seriously.
They tried to make it seem like less of an asspull by presenting it as Batgirl having to choose between being the ultimate warrior and mute, or a less skilled, average fighter but able to talk. However, this was clearly done because the writers wrote themselves in a corner by being mute, and didn’t know how to keep this up and keep her interesting.
It’s a shame, because it was a genuinely interesting problem and there could have been a lot of character development involving bonding with Oracle as she slowly learned language and how to hit in- especially if learning language helped her remember what Cain said as he was training her. Instead we got what we got, with her language skills resulting in her fighting skills becoming more inconsistent, which was a shame, but still made for interesting reading.
It also had another disadvantage of constantly pitting Cass against Mooks. Interestingly, in spite of being by far the deadliest Batgirl and one of the best hand to hand fighters in the DC Universe, her debut fights and achievements are less impressive than Stephanie Brown’s. Even though Stephanie was in part defined by failure and weakness. Still, Stephanie went up against Scarecrow, the calculator, and even a brainwashed Huntress and Catwoman, as well rescuing both Dick Grayson and Barbara Gordon.
Both Barbara Gordon and even ditzy Bette Kane got to debut against masked crooks. Here, most of the time Cassandra went against nameless, maskless goons and her biggest threat wasn’t any foes- but rather whenever the writing team needed to give her a random nerfing. This nerfing is explained by the fact that when she gained the ability to talk she lost the ability to read movements, and yet she appears to get her skill back after a training session with Lady Shiva and it still turns on and off.
Speaking of Lady Shiva, the biggest bright spot was their fight. Lady Shiva is one of the strongest martial artists in the DC Universe, whom Bruce trusted to train Tim Drake (the third Robin) and whom managed to knock Jason Todd (the second Robin) flat on his ass in A Death In The Family. This moment made for one of the strongest conflicts in the opening issue. Often, when I see a superheroine pitted against another female I raise my eyebrows slightly, because it just so often feels like ‘hmmm… this should be girly and this foe has a vagina- lets put them up against each other!’ I still remember when Babsy in Gail Simone’s run called half the DC Universe’s female superheroines in to help her and I was wondering ‘what? No Nightwing? Why ignore the male superheroes when the city’s at stake?’ But no, Lady Shiva and Cass Cain make sense. She is also an ultimate fighter who is dedicated to attaining the peek of skill.
It’s been said that Batman is the least interesting character in his universe, and it’s his contrast with his Rogues gallery as well as Superman and his allies that makes him interesting. I suspect the same is true for Cass, as her rivalry with Lady Shiva was great fun. Lady Shiva’s ideals and approach was the complete opposite to Batman’s. Plus, having two of the most badass Asian superheroines in the same comic was pretty awesome.
Another high point was that we saw a more softer and melancholy side to Batman. Far from being the immoving stoic, he genuinely cared for Cass, and was the perfect foil to Cass’ father who only viewed her as a killing machine.
Cain was another great villain, as his obsession with creating the ultimate killer was highly reminiscent of Lydecker from dark angel. I’m looking forward to seeing him in future issues.
But a big flaw was to include an annual in this. It involved a completely different creative team and it feels out of place. It basically involves Batman and Batgirl pursuing this cheesecake Indian shapeshifter whom once they catch up with proceeds to infodump her whole life on them. It’s more focused on the plight of the untouchables and how they have few rights in India, and honestly, since this character has no relevance to anything I can’t bring myself to care about the conflict.
Overall, it may be flawed but with its brilliantly fast pace action, fluid artwork and an excellent standoff against DC heavyweight Lady Shiva, this series was a good start for Batgirl. In all honestly, a big part of the reason I love this is because as an unstoppable trained from birth, Cassandra Cain makes for an excellent power fantasy.
However, the issue is held back by the fact that Kelley Puckett clearly hadn’t quite thought through how he was going to handle Cass’s muteness and the central concept behind her fighting skills, and so the random psychic ‘quick fix’ solution made it feel so cheap. Even so, its definately worth checking out, if for no other reason than its an interesting part of the Batgirl legacy.