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 clichéd—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!