Monday, September 26, 2011

When Batgirl Said "Sweet Patootie"

Dylan Horrocks wrote some of my favorite Batgirl issues and some of my least favorite.  He often had some wonderful ideas, like Batman and Batgirl working out their father-daughter issues in the way that works best for them-- brutally beating up on each other.  These are people who believe in tough love in its most literal sense.  He also had some crappy ideas, like Barbara Gordon constantly enforcing gender stereotypes on Cassandra.  It helped a lot when he had a seasoned pro like Rick Leonardi to make solid storytelling choices; landing him on pencils was a big plus for the title.  If only some of the fill-in artists had been up to the task...

Having Cass shock her friends as she experiments with language learned from television in #51, "The City is a Garden," (2004) is a pretty clever notion.  Horrocks didn't do a whole lot to develop it in subsequent issues, and what little it appears in the comic could have been handled a whole lot better in the artwork.

The clumsy storyelling here really murders the gag.  The artist has to think in terms of acting-- read John K's blog entries about this in animated cartoons; it's almost the same thing-- and Cass's shocked, silly, scared expression, doesn't match up with Barbara's fairly mild remonstration.  It adds a forced quality to the joke.  It's oversold, and previous artists characterized her as fairly unemotional even when baldly lying face-to-face with Batman.

So this response rings false.  After all, it's not as if she's being screamed at, which would be a huge mistake on Barbara's part anyway.  Conversation with someone like Cass would be like running with scissors-- you might get away with taking chances 9 times out of 10, but that last time will spill some blood.  Why not have Cass respond with a serious, determined look on her face:  "That's what they said on TV, how could it be wrong?"  Or a mere inattentive shrug, as if to say she doesn't really care that much, talking is such a useless burden anyway.  Which would leave Barbara exasperated and at a loss, thinking over more strategies to get through to this girl.  After all, how do you deal with someone like Cass, explaining things that would be self-evident to someone more conventional in comprehension and response?

Also, I find Barbara's insistence that no one on TV talks like normal people pretty ironic coming from a character in a superhero comic.  Horrocks deserves extra points for that, at least.

The second instance is more successful.  Instead of showing Cass's reaction, we only get Bruce Wayne's.  And he's flabbergasted.  Why does it work this time?  Because it's easy to imagine Cass, experimenting with language, not realizing the impact of word choice.  If this comic really had the strength of its convictions, she might even have said, "I think he wants to fuck me."  To that end, we really don't need to see her full face because the dialogue is enough to convey her naivete.  Batman's reaction is a little over the top-- I think it's much more likely he'd just grunt or narrow his eyes and make a mental note to have Barbara instruct Cass later-- but at least it's appropriate.

I only hope that's apple juice in that glass.  Isn't Cass only about 18 or 19 at the most in this issue?

Well, Cass-the-language-shocker is right on.  As a once-and-future ESL teacher, I often noted the difficulty English learners have with nuance.  A friend of mine-- whose English is actually pretty good-- once responded to a compliment I paid her by blurting, "It's a LIE!"  She meant it as a humble deflection of my flattery (which I meant sincerely), but it came out much stronger than she intended, without modulation.  We both ended up laughing about it.  Another time I was dating a girl with a somewhat lower fluency.  One night, we had to walk in a driving rain to a convenience store to bring back snacks for her friend.  The entire length of that walk, my semi-girlfriend griped, "Fuck the selfish bitch!  Fuck the selfish bitch!"

And that's the kind of thing I can see Cass doing without her even realizing it.  I wish writers had done a bit more thinking about this.  They really missed a chance at enriching her character, adding some comedic flourishes to her personality.  But hey, DC, it's not too late.  Fabian Nicieza handled her dialogue pretty well in two issues of Red Robin in which he got to use Cass, before the reboot.  It still works even with the more language-experienced Black Bat.  Or inexperienced, if she's going to be 5 years younger or whatever the heck's going on over there right now.

Besides picking up on the usages of friends, where else would an illiterate increase her vocabulary besides movies and TV?  Imagine if Cass gets into Batman's Complete Laugh-In DVD set.  We might get some hilarious scenes where she tells villains to "Sock it to me," or stuns Batgirl-Barbara by demanding she "Bet [your] sweet bippy."  Or catching a little TV Land and telling Damian Wayne to "Kiss mah grits!" or "Sit on it!"  What if she caught an HBO comedy special and started working a little blue?

One second thought...

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