Friday, November 29, 2013

DC Comics: Accidental Feminists?

Today I've got another special guest post for you! Please extend a warm welcome to my guest blogger Mr. Reluctant Femme - otherwise known as Alex Hardison. He normally writes excellent sci-fi,and has been published in noted webzine Flurb, but today he's agreed to tread unfamiliar ground and put together a non-fiction work for the first time since he escaped Uni on two subjects extremely close to his heart - Batman and feminism.

  I've often thought that the ongoing theme of surrogate family was one of the most interesting elements of the whole Batman world . The Bat Story begins when Bruce Wayne, playboy millionaire, loses his parents to random violent crime. He naturally then takes a sacred vow to fight against the criminals who plague his city for the rest of his days, and takes up the cape and cowl to become our beloved Batman. This is of course, too great a task for any one man, even one completely awesome as Batman, so he recruits a range of companions and protégés over the course of his crusade. In return for their help in his ongoing crusade against crime, Wayne attempts to raise, teach, and nurture his team in a way that his parents were never able to raise him. Mind you, how WELL he raises them is a matter of some debate. He’s not exactly the warm, light hearted father figure most children would hope for.

Serious Bat Business is Serious.
 Batgirl: Year One, Scott Beatty, Chuck Dixon, Marcos Martin and Alvaro Lopez

It only occurred to me recently, however, that there is a distinct divide in the way in which male and female members of the Batman Family enter the fold. Put simply, the male companions – most of which have fought crime under the mask of Robin – are directly recruited by Batman. He selects them, trains them and authorises them to fight in his name. The female characters, in contrast, become heroes largely off their own bat. They may wear the Bat insignia, but Batgirl, Batwoman and a host of other characters quite deliberately create and authorise their own superhero careers, with or without the approval of Batman.

In order to keep this whole thing to a reasonable length, I’m going to need to keep a pretty narrow focus - Batman’s been around since 1939, and there’s a LOT of crazy stuff out there to get distracted by. In this post I’m only going to be looking at a specific set of characters as they appear in the comics, as opposed to film, animation or video games, and for the most part I’m going to be talking about the modern incarnations of the characters. I’m also going to exclude characters who only appear in parallel timelines or alternate realities, as well as characters who have fought alongside Batman but are primarily depicted as villains, heroes in their own right, or love interests .

This is just the Robins. And Nightwing. And Phantom Stranger. He's a whole other
thing that I'm not going to even go near.
The All-New Batman: The Brave and the Bold 13, Sholly Fisch and Rick Burchett

This leaves me with ten characters to discuss, five male and five female. The most obvious candidates are the four male Robins: Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, Tim Drake and Damian Wayne. I’m also going to include the Most Nineties Person Ever Azrael, the two best known Batgirls Barbara Gordon and Cassandra Cain, Unreasonable Purple Aficionado Huntress,  the rebooted Batwoman Kate Kane and finally Stephanie Brown, who has been not just the only female Robin, but has also kicked criminal butt as Spoiler and yet another Batgirl.

I’m going to summarise the origin stories for all these characters as quickly as I can, under the assumption that those of you reading who really care about all the nitty gritty details already know them, and the rest of you don’t know aren’t particularly interested. The first two Robins, Dick Grayson and Jason Todd, were both recruited by Batman in the wake of personal tragedy; the former went on to grow a very ill advised mullet and become Nightwing, and the latter come down with a rather terminal case of Clown Murder. 

The third Robin, Tim Drake, manages to outsmart the entirety of Gotham and figure out Batman’s identity, and goes knocking on the door of stately Wayne Manor to present himself for training in the wake of Todd’s untimely demise. The fourth Robin, Damian Wayne, is actually Bruce Wayne’s biological son, the result of a tryst between him and Talia al Ghul. His villainous ex-paramour (Batman has terrible taste in women) raises her son as part of her League of Assassins, and when he’s of a suitably adorable age, dresses him as Robin and presents him to Batman as some kind of terrible joke. Turns out growing up with Ra’s al Ghul as your Dad gives you a pretty twisted sense of humour. As usual, Batman gets the last laugh by taking Damian in and training him up into a decent, if slightly murderous, Robin.
And you thought that your son could be a little shit.
Batman 656, Grant Morrison and Andy Kubert

The final male sidekick is a bit of an outlier to my theory, and well, kind of the Bat Universe as we know it currently. Azrael (real name Jean-Paul Valley) was programmed by a sinister religious society known as The Order of St. Dumas to be their unwilling assassin, until Batman tracked him down, took him in and trained him to work on the side of the angels. After his moral backflip Azrael he got his own (terrible) series and eventually took on the title of Batman when the Bruce Wayne was briefly incapacitated with a broken back, thanks to a vicious  enemy in a Luchador mask.  Azrael went on to lose his mind as soon as the cape and cowl was on,  and decided that the thing that was lacking from the Batman costume was knives attached to every surface, but that’s a whole other story.

Look, the Nineties were just a different time, okay?
Batman 500, Doug Moench, Jim Aparo and Terry Austin

As you can see, four of these five characters have had their right to dress up in a stylish cape and punch excessively themed criminals granted to them directly by Batman. Even though Azrael, came from a different organisation and originally had a whole other agenda, the fact remains he was deliberately and specifically recruited by Batman. The women of the Bat Universe, however, are a different story.

Barbara Gordon is the daughter of police commissioner James Gordon, blessed with a brilliant mind and the sort of Olympic level gymnastic ability that appears to be slightly more common than left handedness in Gotham City. When her father secretly uses his connections to block her from pursuing a career with the FBI, she turns to the next logical career path: making her own Bat themed costume and setting out into the night. This arc would be emulated many years later by Kate Kane, who is discharged from the military for her relationship with another woman. Unable to resist the desire to fight crime, she too puts together a Bat-themed ensemble and starts kicking face. Neither of these women were encouraged or recruited by Batman – in fact he specifically tries to shut them both down at various points in time. He eventually concedes that Barbara Gordon is going to keep fighting crime no matter what he does, and takes her into the Bat family, but only once he sees he has no other choice. Kate Kane is never really approved by Batman as such, and she’s certainly not a recognised member of the close Bat family – but just like Barbara, Batman eventually comes to the conclusion that he simply can’t stop her.

Many faces were kicked that night, and it was good.
Batwoman: Elegy, Greg Rucka and JH Williams III

Two other female Gothamites with similar backstories are Helena Bertinelli (Huntress)   and Stephanie Brown (Robin, Spoiler, Batgirl). They each had criminal fathers – the Cassamento crime syndicate and the Cluemaster respectively. (Yes, that’s right, Gotham apparently needs TWO riddle themed villains; The Riddler just wasn’t enough) In my opinion one of those is substantially more embarrassing than the other, but the Nineties were a strange time for everyone. Both Helena and Stephanie donned costumes in order to interfere with their family’s criminal enterprises, with Bertinelli becoming Huntress and Brown becoming Spoiler, because making up terrible names is apparently genetic. (She "spoils" the criminals fun - geddit?) They both had their agendas interrupted by Batman, who apparently makes it his business to vet anyone who wants to wear a cape and sit on a gargoyle. But like Barbara Gordon, they both end up passing Batman’s rigorous evaluations, both ended up becoming ongoing members of his team.

The final female sidekick that I want to talk about is Cassandra Cain – while Azrael is just an outlier to my theory, Cain is an outright contradiction. The daughter of assassin David Cain, Cassandra was trained to be a killer from birth and is mute because – get this – her language centres are dedicated to reading body language. Comics, everybody! She starts out as an agent of the now-crippled Barbara Gordon, before being given a Batgirl costume by the big man himself. That’s right, the only female character to be directly recruited by Batman also has no voice. Read into that what you will. Maybe it’s meant to be a reference to the mythological Cassandra, who was cursed to have no one listen to her, but that’s probably reaching for justification where there is none. She’s also the only Asian Batgirl and the only one to turn to outright villainy for no goddamn reason at all, but that’s a subject for another article.

Seriously cool costume though.
Batgirl 58, Andersen Gabrych, Alé Garza and Jesse Delperdang

As you can see, there is a clear trend across all these origin stories: the male Bat Wannabes derive their authority directly from Batman, while the female heroes take their titles for themselves. The men are part of a continuum, a legacy, while the women must forge their own identity from whole cloth. Dick, Jason and Tim all had the title of Robin graciously granted to them by Batman, along with permission to join his crusade.  Damian was given his Robin costume by Talia al Ghul as a sort of black joke, but his right to the title nonetheless flows from Batman – he is, after all, his son and Batman allows him to the keep the title once Damian has proven himself. While Azrael’s, name and costume come from another organisation entirely, and he was initially directly opposed to Batman’s mission, once he abandons his evil origins he is trained by Batman and Robin directly. He doesn’t put on his Azrael costume again until Batman permits it, and is rewarded with being able to take the role of Batman himself when required.

The women, on the other hand, all come from backgrounds in which they are betrayed by traditional power structures – be it law enforcement, the military or their family – and they all respond to this betrayal by striking out on their own. Gordon and Kane donned Bat insignia in honour of the man who inspired them, but they did not seek out his approval to do so, nor did they quit when he initially told them to. Perhaps they felt that they had already been betrayed by men in power – why seek out another man who might prove equally unhelpful? Brown and Bartenelli’s crusades were initially personal matters, parallel to Batman’s war on crime, and one has the impression that had he not intervened, they would have happily continued on as they were regardless. They didn’t automatically recognise his authority in the same way the male characters did, and so Batman  was compelled to seek them out and attempt to impose it on them.

Things get better for them from here, I promise.
 Batgirl: Year OneScott BeattyChuck DixonMarcos Martin and Alvaro Lopez

On the face it is, this all seems like a remarkably theme for a medium as notoriously sexist as comics, and superhero comics in particular.  So where does this come from? Are the writers at DC a pack of secret feminists, taking pot shots at the patriarchy while disguised as mere funnybook writers? In a word, no. Anyone who pays any attention to comic books news or fandom in general can doubtless come up with plenty of examples of creepy oversexualisation, exclusion of female creators, mistreatment of female characters, or otherwise incredibly sketchy choices on the part of DC and it’s writers. While I’m sure there are a few secret feminists hiding out in the graphite trenches, it seems unlikely this long history of girl power in the Bat Universe was deliberately feminist.

In my opinion, this trend comes from somewhere less exciting, but nonetheless real – one good idea, repeated over and over until it doesn’t work anymore. While a lot of people think of her as the first female side kick, Barbara Gordon wasn’t the first woman to wear a Bat cape and Bat cowl – she was just the first one that anyone really liked. She was actually preceded by the original Batwoman, Kathy Kane, and her niece, Bettie Kane, who went by the name Bat-Girl. These characters were brought in with a single purpose – to demonstrate the staunch, undoubted heterosexuality of the Dynamic Duo. The fifties were a tumultuous time for comics, and Batman had come under a great deal of fire for apparently portraying a homosexual relationship between a reclusive, tormented millionaire and the orphan he took in and with whom he shares both a bed and sessions of strenuous exercise in skin tight outfits. DC’s response to this was to introduce a pair of damsels, one of appropriate age for each character, to tag along, get rescued from death traps and deliver the heroes a chaste kiss upon the cheek after each adventure. The fact that Our Heroes tended to get somewhat flustered and upset by these kisses didn’t actually do a great job of convincing the audience they were lovers of the ladies, and since this was pretty much their whole purpose, these characters were quickly scrapped. 

The greatest crimes here are against fashion.
Batman 139, Bill Finger and Sheldon Moldoff

Then came the Sixties, and the second wave of feminism. Comic books were a very different medium to the movie-plot-breeding-ground that they are today, and were actually right  at the forefront of popular culture. Not just nerds cared about Batman – everyone did, and the writers at the time tried to keep Batman up with current social changes. Batgirl was  conceived in direct, intentional opposition to the wilting caricatures of femininity that had come before her, in an attempt to keep up with the increasingly loud feminist movement that demanded heroines who did more than simper and get captured. In a later retrospective, an unnamed editor described the difference between the new sidekicks and the old as such: “thanks to the big change and a foresighted editor, these hapless females are gone for good. In their place stands a girl who is a capable crime-fighter, a far cry from Batwoman who constantly had to be rescued [by] Batman.” (Detective Comics No. 417 (1971)) Even allowing for historical revisionism, it appears clear that the intent to create a new, liberated female character was there from the very beginning. It wasn't perfect - there was one 'funny' story in which criminals keep escaping because she keeps stopping to check her make-up - but it was progress.

The template for all of the female Bat-heroes since then is without a doubt Barbara Gordon, and her path from disgruntled teen to self actualised woman. While it seems unlikely that all the Bat writers since then have been as deliberately feminist as her creators, simply by repeating her undeniably feminist origins due to lack of originality, they have unwittingly created a long line of kick ass ladies. 

For good or for ill, comic books are inherently conservative. Something which has worked in the past is much more likely to be tried again in the future. Dick Grayson was recruited and trained by Batman, and so future male characters are treated the same. Batgirl forged a bold independent legacy, and so future female sidekicks get to live out the same storyline over and over. The fact that the male and female characters are treated as distinctly different camps, of course, speaks volumes about the mentality that pervades these writing processes.

Detective Comics 406, Dennis O'Neil and Bob Brown
The final question, of course, is this – does it matter? If a female character takes charge of her own destiny and potentially inspires readers to do the same, does it matter if her attitude comes from a genuine feminist attitude on the part of the writers or not? The fact of the matter is that we still live in a world in which traditional power structures are not generally accommodating to women. Here in Australia, our Cabinet has exactly one woman in it, and men continue to hold the vast majority of the positions of power and authority in both governments and the private sector around the world. Even today, in 2013, if a woman assumes a position of power, it is safe to say that she has gotten there by forging an untrodden path, rather than having it granted to her as part of the existing power structure. For comics to reflect this, be it by deliberate agenda or accident of history, is in my opinion entirely appropriate – and AWESOME.

Follow Me Everywhere!


  1. I really enjoyed reading that! I don't get to read comics much (too expensive) so I appreciate the historical walkthrough. :-)

  2. Thanks, I'm glad that you enjoyed it!

  3. That was so interesting. :) I've never read any comics and so know very little about the world of Batman and company, but I really enjoyed that walkthrough. And know I just want to read them all - mostly so I can laugh at all the fashion. :)


    1. There's some VERY special fashion going on. This was a very specific walkthrough, far from comprehensive, but I'm glad that you enjoyed it.

  4. Great stuff! As you know I'm a huge fan of comics and their history and this is a brilliant primer into the world of Batman. Also, I agree, it is entirely appropriate and awesome.

    1. High praise indeed, thanks so much for reading.


Thank you for taking the time to comment! I live for comments, good or bad.

Anonymous commenting IS allowed on this blog, but in order to reduce the amount of spam, comments on posts more than 14 days old will be moderated.