Friday, December 3, 2010

The Cass Came Back: Red Robin #17

Red Robin #17
Publisher: DC Comics
Script: Fabian Nicieza
Pencils: Marcus To
Inks: Ray McCarthy

It took forever. First I had to move all the way back to the United States from Japan, get a job, work on Black Friday, get paid, show up on a day the comic book store happened to be closed, bust my ass at work one more afternoon, then write a third-party, out-of-state post-dated check under an assumed name while wearing a disguise (a white linen suit with matching fedora, dark sunglasses and a bushy black mustache) but I finally experienced the long-anticipate return of Cassandra Cain to the the pages of a DC funny book.

And , to be honest, it’s been so long since I read (or even wanted to read) an in-continuity DC monthly, I have no idea what’s going on in this story. This one stars Tim Drake, a character I've long loathed for some random, idiotic comic book fan reason. He’s graduated from the Robin costume to the Red Robin one and I don’t know if this is a step up or merely a sideways one. But that’s not important right now. What is important is Cassandra Cain. This is the only reason I bought this comic. I freely admit I’m one of those insane, impossible-to-please Cass Cain cultists and I had to see how scripter Fabian Nicieza handled her.

So how do I feel about Nicieza's take on Cass? The opening scene is pretty clich├ęd—somehow superheroes always show up whenever someone’s being mugged. They jump from the rooftops just in time, kick a little ass, then disappear into the night, kind of how Rambo always knows what tree to hide in out of all the trees in the jungle so he can drop down on some unsuspecting commie soldier. Are there dozens of other muggings, burglaries and murders occurring at the same time? Probably. The whole superhero gig seems like a complete mis-allocation of resources. But these scenes are pretty effective in letting a reader figure out a character’s modus operandi.

In this case, it’s Cass conveniently showing up at one of your standard issue street muggings. Nicieza has Red Robin narrate throughout the brief action sequence—he’s a little awed, gives us Cass’s backstory and lets us know in no uncertain terms she’s badass: “Cassandra Cain, the former Batgirl, remains one of the most dangerous fighters on the planet.”

As for Cass herself, Nicieza depicts her as fairly taciturn and off-putting, and it's a welcome change for a character that has been written so randomly and poorly over the past few years-- when the DC creators can be bothered to include her in a story at all-- she's developed an almost tesseract-shaped personality. Nicieza's Cass drops subject nouns, speaks in short declarative sentences, doesn’t mince words, seems to understand some language other than English (Nicieza uses the classic Claremont "I'm speaking foreignese!" trick with the greater than/less than signs) but doesn’t deign to speak it herself. And when she finishes the conversation to her satisfaction, she jets without so much as a “By your leave” or a “Kiss mah grits, Mel.” She’s obviously a woman who lets her actions speak for her—which is how she should be.

Admittedly, Cassandra Cain fans have a reputation for being a little... shall we say... twitchy. And yet it turns out it's not that difficult to please this particular Cassfreak-- all it takes is writing a version of the character I can recognize from having read and enjoyed her monthly and suffered through all the horrible, intelligence insulting versions of her that have been foisted on us since. She’s in Red Robin #17 for five short pages and it’s the best Cass moment in years, without a wrong move or one of those fan-infuriating non sequitor moments (Navajo code speak? Drugged into murderous insanity? Anything by Adam Beechen?) that plague practically every Cass appearance since DC canceled her monthly book.

This is practically a gift to us from DC and Fabian Nicieza, so savor this while you can, Cass fans! God knows how the next scripter will write her when she shows up again. Happy-go-lucky wisecracker? Glitter-covered pole dancer with a snake fetish? Techno-savvy goth geek working for Naval Criminal Investigative Service?

Penciller Marcus To and inker Ray McCarthy provide clean artwork and assured storytelling; this is a sure way to get on my good side. To refreshingly uses a variety of panel shapes and sizes rather than those tiresome “widescreen” panels featuring stiff, static imagery so many other artists use these days. To does throw in some stretched horizontal panels, but he frequently breaks up pages vertically as well for pacing and variety’s sake. And he actually draws through actions—a criminal points a gun, gets a batarang in his hand, then crouches and clutches his wound in pain and there aren’t any cheats—lazy close-ups that serve only to fill space with a minimum of drawing effort and confuse readers. Late in the book as a contrast to the all the action, there's a nice 3-panel sequence where a woman I believe is called Lynx glides into Red Robin’s arms. To is an artist who actually creates the illusion of movement just like the pros used to do before tracing porn frames and mis-using Poser became all the rage.

In fact, To's work looks a bit like Alan Davis-light; it bears enough surface similarities to Davis in the way he handles various eyes, mouths and the fairly naturalistic (yet still heroic anatomy) to charm me even more. Combined with McCarthy's easy-to-read inks, it's appealing. Cass’s new costume is a bit clunky, with weird armored shoulder pads and ridiculous straps that serve no obvious function, but I like how To’s ditched the most idiotic superhero accoutrement of them all—the cape. Instead, he gives Cass a stylish short scarf. I probably appreciate that more than most because I designed a retro-ish Batgirl costume for Cass a while back that featured an extremely short cape as an accent piece similar to Spider-Man’s under-arm webs. Hey, I thought it was pretty cool. Obviously, it’s not necessary here now that Cass has relinquished the Batgirl role.

Finally, Bruce Wayne shows up as Batman in his own redesigned costume. It looks like combination of the outfit he wore in the Tim Burton Batman films and a Bryan Singer X-Men movie costume… but what’s this? Batman, the biggest prick in the whole DC universe actually shows… warmth? He hugs Red Robin, smiles, then actually says something about having fun?

This is the first time in years I haven’t wanted to slap his Bat-face. Maybe they’re going to stop trying to out-Miller Frank Miller and undo all the damage so many mediocre writers have done to the Bat-books since The Dark Knight Returns and Year One. Ever since, DC's scripters have increasingly written Batman as a teeth-gritting sociopath with all the charm of a pre-heart enlargement Grinch on three-day coke binge. I can't deny it's made him more popular than ever, but I prefer to read about human beings. Even human beings dressed like bats.

Did I just write a positive review for a DC comic starring a character I hate, featuring a cameo by one I'm overly sensitive about and another by a character who usually makes me wanna barf? Well, wonders never cease!


MOCK! said...

Joel wrote: "DC's scripters have increasingly written Batman as a teeth-gritting sociopath with all the charm of a pre-heart enlargement Grinch on three-day coke binge.


That is PERFECT!

Joel Bryan said...

Haha! I'm glad you liked that! Thanks so much!

Nathaniel said...

I'm glad you liked it. I found it pretty enjoyable as well, if just because it appears to be the same Cass that I used to read about, as opposed to a totally different character. I just wish her appearance had been longer, and that maybe she could have reunited with Bruce as well, but I guess it's a book named "Red Robin" not "Red Robin and The Girl Formerly Known as Batgirl." And her costume is apparently just temporary, according to Marcus To. She'll be wearing something bat-themed next time, I imagine.

Nicieza has already confirmed that she's coming back for an arc next spring, and Gail Simone has stated that she will be showing up in Birds of Prey soon, so maybe things are looking up.

Joel Bryan said...

Well, Nathaniel, one counter to all our "What has DC done to Cass?" arguments that really irked me was when someone claimed all the crazy versions we've suffered through were the result of "character development" rather than slapdash writing. I totally dispute that considering many of those iterations were completely off the wall and occasionally contradictory to what we already knew about her-- hence the whole "she acted that stupidly because she was drugged" storyline. And I really believe things would have been fine with her if they had just kept her out of Beechen's hands. His crap version added all kinds of unnecessary garbage-- lame love interests, a mopey-dopey Cass who doesn't want to be the best martial artist on earth?

Since when? Oh well, sorry! You know all this stuff. I'm just on a roll now thinking about this!

Nicieza's version-- as brief as her appearance was-- actually seemed like a Cass who did and thought the things the character did and thought in Batgirl and grew up a bit since then. It's like he trimmed the Beechen-fat and left us with a lean and mean Cass machine.

That alone made me happy as a Cassateer or whatever we're called. I'm hopeful Gail Simone and Nicieza will continue this trend when they take her on next year. I enjoyed the bit of foreshadowing Nicieza worked in with Red Robin's gift to Cass. I didn't want to spoil that, but it tickled me a great deal. Even if she doesn't take up that particular role again-- which I honestly believe she would have outgrown by now-- as long as she's doing something, somewhere!

Well, as long as it's not that religious-themed Cass Simone came up with that time. That would be a great idea for a completely new character, but I think it would out-Beechen Beechen to hammer Cass into that shape.

Joel Bryan said...

And maybe DC will take note of this, too-- people like me stopped buying crappy Cass and all it took was a 5-page respectful Cass treatment to send my money back Time-Warner's way. And if they're really humanizing Batjerk again, I might be tempted to buy a few more titles she has a chance of popping up... uh... in. My severe dislike of the way they've been handling that character has been another reason I haven't felt much need to spend money on their current monthlies.

Nathaniel said...

Haha, I've seen the "character development" excuse before. I saw someone explode all over a Cass fan at a forum because "you Cass fans just aren't willing to let your pet character change!" Well, the two problems with that are that I think she did change over the course of her original series, and that she apparently changed into a totally different character off-panel.

I mean, I'm not opposed to Cass learning to read. But it should be presented as a struggle that takes years, not something that she picks up after going to an ESL class and getting tutored by Alfred during a time period where she never showed up in any books. And even when she learns, she shouldn't be giving speeches and writing novels.

I'm hoping they just do with Cass what they've essentially done with Steph: the past is over, we're never mentioning it again. War Games? What's that? Being dead for years? You must be talking about another character.

Just never mention the Beechen years, and if you have Cass read something, have her remark that it's difficult when you're reading and writing at a third-grade level and I'll be happy.

And I really haven't kept up with the Bat-line since Cass was put on a bus, so I'm not sure how Batman himself is being treated these days in other books. I know I had some issues with him in his return event, because it turns out every single thing that has happened has happened because he engineered it. Including Cass leaving Gotham, which was apparently his dying wish for her or something, which is kind of dickish.

Joel Bryan said...

Nathaniel, you're more plugged into the fandom than I am so thanks for filling me in on that-- and I couldn't agree with you more about everything you wrote. I feel exactly the same way.

As a former ESL teacher, let me tell you-- you're right that it's a long process. They missed some unique story AND character development opportunities in favor of lame cliches and conventional story points. They could have really dealt with illiteracy through this character and explored her different way of communicating, but instead they let a hacky writer screw it up and make it stupid.

Ultimately, I don't see how making Cass mopey, whiny and all "I suddenly hate being special and just want to be a normal girl with a normal family and boy to keep me warm" and conventionally chatty with no distinctive voice to differentiate her from any of DC's female characters equals "character development." The problem with corporate authorship is occasionally you get someone who doesn't get a character, screws them up, then other writers have to figure out how to fix it within continuity and we fans have to accept that as "character development" when it's really gross incompetence and laziness.

Imagine how that one fan would have squawked under the same circumstances if it had been his or her favorite character!

Joel Bryan said...

I'm with you about the Beechen stuff. Don't explain it as a dream, don't mention the drugging or any of that-- just kill it by ret-conning it out of existence without even explaining it. It just never happened.

And even the "Bruce told her to quit" thing seems to be a tossed off "The quitting scene was so idiotically written let's just pretend this is how it went down." It's kind of another "Oh, she was drugged."

I mean, what was the brilliant thinking Batguy's strategy?

"I'm dead, so I need my best fighter to disappear and do nothing while the least capable person I know takes over her role thereby crippling everything I've been trying to do my entire life."

Superhero comics are pretty silly, but they're never sillier when trying to fix problems with terrible writing by working the mistakes into continuity rather than just digging a hole and burying them.