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Even before San Diego Comic-Con 2011, DC didn't much like Stephanie Brown. This much is obvious. After all, they had her become Robin just so that it would have more 'meaning' when she was brutally tortured to death. They brought her back to life grudgingly, and only after much fan outcry. And when they gave her her own book, replacing Cassandra Cain as Batgirl, they gave it to a new, untried author who had never written comics before – clearly, they had little invested in whether it succeeded or not. (The fact that Bryan Q. Miller did a spectacular job writing it and garnered a small but loyal fan following for the title was probably seen by DC as an unexpected bonus…at the time.) When it came time to Re-boot all of DC continuity with their much-lauded "New 52", Stephanie's book was one of the first on the chopping block.
Still, it didn't feel like DC had a personal vendetta against her or her fellow Batgirl, Cassandra Cain. I remember distinctly in the "Batman" panel at SDCC 2011, a fan asked whether Cassandra Cain would be showing up in The New 52, and the moderator turned to the assembled panelists and asked them. Grant Morrison said, "Certainly."
How times have changed.
Since July of 2011, I've spoken to creator after creator that has tried to use Stephanie Brown or Cassandra Cain in a storyline. At WonderCon 2012 I asked about them at an early panel that included Scott Snyder, Scott Lobdell, and Bryan Q. Miller, and Snyder told me (and the others agreed) that they really wanted to use them, but that they didn't have the power to make those decisions.
A few months after that, it was announced that Stephanie Brown would be appearing as Nightwing in the new digital-first title, Smallville, penned by none other than Bryan Q. Miller himself. I was delighted, and immediately bought the first ten issues to show my support.
At SDCC 2012, I heard a rumor that Stephanie Brown was to be replaced in Smallville with Barbara Gordon. Since Bryan Q. Miller had been dropped from the "Superman" panel, I ended up having to ask the question at three separate panels before I was able to confirm that the rumor was true.
Also at SDCC 2012, Scott Snyder made a point of telling me that he'd wanted to use Cassandra Cain in issue #12 of Batman, but that he'd been told that he couldn't, so he'd written in an original female character instead. He asked me to let him know what I thought of her.
I've since had at least one person tell me that, since Barbara is the more recognized and popular character (based on the fact that well-known author Gail Simone's version of her is doing quite well in the New 52), it made clear financial sense for DC to replace Stephanie with Barbara in Smallville, as Barbara would obviously draw more readers. However, I later learned that DC did not specify who Bryan was to use to replace Stephanie – he was only told that she must be replaced. Given that over forty pages had already been drawn, he chose someone that he thought would fit the art and the character as much as possible. So DC didn't choose Barbara because she was "more iconic" than Stephanie (the excuse that Dan DiDio fed me at SDCC 2012), nor did they choose her because they thought she would draw more sales. DC didn't specifically choose her at all. All they told Bryan was that he couldn't use Stephanie Brown.
It's interesting, isn't it, that DC sees female characters as so uniform, and a creator's vision so unimportant, that they feel that dictating a huge change like the replacement of one character with another at the last minute won't impact the quality of the story or art significantly enough to matter to readers? If Miller had written Dick Grayson into the book, then been told that he had to change the character to someone else and chosen Jason Todd or Tim Drake to replace him, it's patently obvious that this would have had an enormous impact on the story he was attempting to tell. Not only would the art have been off – Dick, Tim and Jason look similar, but are certainly not identical – but the dialogue and underlying story would have to be fundamentally altered to accommodate editorial's unreasonable demand for the last-minute change. But apparently DC's editorial staff doesn't consider its female characters as being independent or individual enough to warrant concerns about such things as authorial vision or the quality of the work the company is producing.
In August of 2012, Gail Simone spoke on her tumblr about the book she'd pitched to DC starring Black Alice, Misfit, Bumblebee, and yes, Stephanie Brown. "This was a book I worked on for a year with alterations. I wanted to do a girl team book…They would all be going to the same high school. The plan was to have BQM co-write it with me.
"It went through lots of permutations and changes but eventually, they passed on it, which was understandable but a little bit (okay, a lot) heartbreaking."
Bryan Q. Miller was supposed to attend New York Comic Con 2012, however, just as he'd been dropped from the Superman panel at SDCC 2012, he was dropped from NYCC 2012 entirely. Grant Morrison was there, though, and so was I when a Cassandra Cain cosplayer asked him about whether Cass would be showing up in Batman, Inc. He spread his hands helplessly and said, "I tried. I tried to write both Cass and Steph into a recent issue, and they told me I couldn't."
And then there is the strange story of the trick-or-treater dressed as Stephanie Brown. In early issues of DC's brand-new digital-first comic Li'l Gotham, a lighthearted take on the heroes and villains populating that city, a trick-or-treater dressed as Stephanie Brown appears in the background along with many other kids dressed up as familiar faces. When cut away from the rest of the image, her hair appears orange, but taken with the full page, it's easy to see that her hair is, in fact, blonde (it matches Damian's cape, the Aquaman-kid's hair, and the Bat on her own chest). Not only this, but the purple stripes down the side of her costume and the proximity of a Cassandra Cain lookalike and a Klarion, the Witch Boy (bum bum bum!) make the costumed child's identity crystal clear.
If you looked at your copy of Li'l Gotham in the first few hours after it was released, this was what you saw.
Sadly, DC felt it was necessary to change this girl's hair color after the comic had already been released. Nguyen confirmed that the trick-or-treater was supposed to be dressed as Stephanie Brown's Batgirl, and that DC had "requested" that he re-color her hair.
If you looked at the same copy of Li'l Gotham a few hours later, this was what you saw.
In fact, a fan, commenting on the situation, mentioned that they'd spoken with Nguyen at NYCC 2012:
"ugh Dustin actually showed this to me at NYCC…joking they’d do something like this"
Let's be clear, here. This was not an appearance by Stephanie Brown in Li'l Gotham. This was a child dressed up as the Stephanie Brown version of Batgirl. As another fan pointed out: "It’s an unnamed cameo on a page full of cameos, that only a small number of people will notice, and only fans of the character would recognize, but NOPE. Can’t have a blonde Batgirl."
The mandate from DC editorial seems increasingly obvious: Stephanie Brown is not to appear in any way, shape, or form in any comic coming out of their offices. And if you work as a creator for DC Comics, the message is equally clear: your creative vision is secondary, not just to financial concerns, but to the opinions and whims of the editorial staff. You are allowed creative freedom only on their sufferance, and if they don't personally like something about your work, they will change it in whatever way they wish with zero regard for your creative vision and the work's artistic integrity. They don't even need to have legitimate financial or legal reasons to do this, they can do it just because they want to – and they frequently do.
And to think, I used to believe that working for DC Comics must be one of the best jobs in the world.
Through all this, however, one of the things I find most baffling is the attitude of other fans.
There are, of course, plenty of people that like Stephanie Brown, and plenty that don't, and I don't take issue with either. After all, I'm not a super-huge Wally West fan, but why would that make me hate-on people that do like him? I certainly don't criticize fans who say they like him and would like to see him return to the New 52. Fans of superhero comics are a dying breed, so I've always thought that it's natural for fans to support each other. The comics you read may not be the comics I read, but so what? We're both fans of superhero comics, and that gives us something in common, a special bond that should overcome differences of opinion like whether Superman or Batman would win in a fight, right?
Of course, we all know it would be Batman.
Wrong. I've been amazed at the sheer nastiness of some of my fellow fans, particularly in regards to Stephanie Brown. The thing that floors me the most is something I've seen several times: the implication, or even out-and-out accusation that Stephanie fans have "brought this on ourselves". That we, and I in particular, are so annoying that DC is "punishing" us by withholding our favorite character. That the proper response to a fan expressing enthusiasm and support for a character he or she loves is essentially to say, "Shut up already!" no matter how unprofessional it would be for a company to do such a thing.
I have had people tell me these things personally, and seen them posted on various forums. The rudeness alone always stuns me, but it's the accusation that makes me go, "Seriously? You can't really believe that."
Except that there's a part of me that's starting to wonder.
Here's the thing: I have been wracking my brains for an explanation as to why DC Editorial is unwilling to allow Stephanie Brown or Cassandra Cain to appear in any of their comics. It's not just that their creators aren't allowed to use either of them, even in minor roles – Dan DiDio flat-out lied to me about why Stephanie was replaced with Barbara in Smallville. The re-coloring of a Stephanie-costumed child's hair in an out-of-continuity title was so unnecessary and over-the-top as to leave me staring at the screen in bafflement. As far as I know, no other character in that comic suffered such an indignity – though perhaps this was in part because the Cassandra Cain look-alike was wearing street clothes.
Maybe DC is involved in some super-secret legal battle regarding Stephanie and Cassandra, or the use of them as Batgirls, not a whisper of which has made it onto the internet or into the press.
Or maybe it actually is my fault.
Something made DC decide that Stephanie Brown and Cassandra Cain are "toxic". Toxic for who? And why? It wasn't the sales of their respective Batgirl books – their sales might not have been spectacular, but they still sold better than many of the books from the New 52 that made the first cut. There really doesn't seem to be any legitimate reason to go to the lengths DC has gone to to erase every trace of these characters from the current continuity. None of the excuses DC itself has presented have made any sense, when they've bothered to give a reason at all.
Could the DC Editorial Department be petty enough to erase a character – going so far as to change the art in an already-published book – simply because a woman dressed as and ultimately identified with that character publicly challenged them? Would they really ban their writers and artists from making any reference to the character whatsoever, even in out-of-continuity titles like Smallville and Li'l Gotham? Is it possible that they don't want focus on a character that has become a feminist icon among comic fans and a symbol of much of what is wrong with DC? Could they really be actively trying to drive away the most vocal of their female fans?
Even before SDCC 2011, Stephanie Brown and Cassandra Cain had become focal points for rallying female comics readers, Stephanie after her brutal death in the War Games story arc and Cassandra after she was drugged and manipulated into being a killer in a ridiculously out of character storyline. But ever since DC publicly stated that "We Hear You", it's felt to me like Stephanie has represented more than just herself. It feels like she represents so many other girls and women who never get the chance to shine in superhero comics, either on the page, or as the one penning it. It feels like it's not just about her anymore.
My husband, upon hearing about the Li'l Gotham ridiculousness, asked me why Stephanie Brown fans don't just get together and buy the rights to the character from DC, "Since they're
not using her."
I responded immediately without even thinking: "DC doesn't want that. They want her to disappear. They want to silence us."
Then I stopped and thought about what I'd said.
They want to silence us.
I'll be honest: if Steph and Cass had to be erased in order for more real women to be able to work as creators in the superhero comic industry…well, I'd be okay with that. I'd like to believe that Steph and Cass would be okay with it, too. And it is true that DC has been bringing on more female creators, especially on high-profile titles like Green Arrow and Catwoman – something for which I've repeatedly and publicly praised them.
But it's also true that there was only a single female creator on all of DC's panels at New York Comic-Con this year. If DC really cared about including more female creators, surely there would have been at least one female on one of their panels about the fifty-two different ongoing titles they're publishing. There wasn't. Panel after panel featured male creators, sometimes so many that they filled the stage and extra chairs were brought in to accommodate them all (a courtesy they somehow couldn't manage to extend to Amy Reeder in 2011), but the sole female creator they invited appeared on their Before Watchmen panel. It's also true that DC is actively excluding people like Paul Cornell from their panels because of his support of the "Panel Parity" movement.
These things, combined with some incredibly misogynistic statements publicly made by some of DC's own employees lately and the company's truly bizarre vendetta against Stephanie Brown and Cassandra Cain, make me wonder whether what DC's Editorial Department is really trying to say is: "We Hear You – So Shut Up Already!"
The Final Squeak
I have a few subscriptions to various DC titles, but I never read them anymore. They just pile up on my shelf, still in their plastic wrappers. I'm slowly letting them expire. My pull list has shrunk significantly, too. Currently I'm buying Captain Marvel, Ultimate Spiderman, and Saucer Country. I also intend to keep buying Li'l Gotham off Comixology. Why? Well, despite ridiculous and unnecessary editorial shenanigans, it's one of the very few comics I've enjoyed over this past year. It made me smile. It's only 99 cents! And I like Dustin Nguyen. Plus, this is the type of title DC expects to fail. Heck, maybe they even want it to fail, so they can say that cheap digital comics don't sell or that fun, lighthearted comics don't sell. Maybe they screwed up Steph's appearance in Smallville for similar reasons. I don't pretend to understand what actually goes through DC Editorial staffs' brains, anything I wrote above notwithstanding.
Anyway, Li'l Gotham was terrific fun and I can't wait to share the next issue with my daughter. I recommend buying it even if you're pissed at DC, because this book is anti-everything DC is right now. I definitely got my money's worth.
Look at Alfred's apron!