Thursday, July 26, 2012

Stephanie Brown and Cassandra Cain: The Love Canal Girls

Can comic book characters become toxic?  I'm not sure if they can, but I certainly know those lovable, laugh-a-minute kids at DC love to stir up all sorts of comical trouble!  First the irrepressible scamps went all over town posting charmingly misspelled homemade posters trumpeting the appearance of a version of long-neglected fave Stephanie Brown as Nightwing in their Smallville Season 11 comic, which they planned to print on a jury-rigged press down at their dilapidated clubhouse.

Then Butch and his henchman the Woim gummed up the works with a lot of mean-spirited pranks, causing the darling ragamuffins who run DC to canter away in their mule-drawn taxi cab with its goose-powered horn, shouting over their threadbare sweater-clad shoulders, "Oops, sorry.  That's not Stephanie Brown, isn't gonna be Stephanie Brown.  It's Barbara Gordon instead!"

Given their record with female characters in general and with Stephanie Brown and her fans in particular, the DC people had to know replacing even an alternate universe version of Steph with an alternate universe Barbara Gordon-- the regular version of the latter having already supplanted the regular universe version of the former-- wouldn't go over too well.*  And it hasn't!

But the gang at DC are a group of never-say-die youngsters who just can't keep out of mischief!  Whether it's crashing some hoity-toity catered charity affair and embroiling a lot of stuffed-shirt types in a massive food fight or rebooting their entire universe for the umpteenth time because they've run out of original ideas while denying it's a reboot, you can be sure of sidesplitting laughter and tear-jerking moments of pure sentiment when the latest Our DC Gang short comes to your local theater! 

Here's where it gets surreal.   Corinna Lawson, senior editor at Geekmom over at Wired, says sources tell her it's because Steph and her pal Cassandra Cain are considered "toxic" in the DC offices.  At practically the same time, a writer going by the name LOLtron over at The Outhouse quoted similar sources-- multiple this time-- one of whom is quoted directly as saying, "Toxic?  Yup, that about sums it up."

While I find anonymous sources suspect and toxic might be just a buzz word, it might be true.  Both characters have easily roused fans who feel slighted by DC's treatment of them, including me.  Maybe Dan Didio or Jim Lee or someone else at DC just said, "To hell with it.  Using these two is thankless."  This might be especially true of Stephanie Brown.  Her death and DC's bizarre refusal to acknowledge her importance in the family of books in which she appeared inspired a website protest movement, and her fans and others were disturbed just last year when DC shunted her aside in favor of putting Barbara Gordon back in the Batgirl costume, a move that also alienated a lot of fans of Barbara's previous identity as the Oracle.  Lots of baggage there, lots of hurt feelings that are still pretty raw.  People are convinced certain elements at DC have it in for Stephanie, and not without some justification.

Supporting the idea DC doesn't want either Steph or Cass in their books anymore, perhaps inadvertently, is a Tumblr post by Batgirl writer Gail Simone, a straight shooter, who chimed in with the insider info the switch came because Smallville Season 11 writer Bryan Q. Miller, a nice guy who earned Steph-fan gratitude by writing her own Batgirl series was asked to use someone other than Stephanie Brown.  Was asked.  That says someone made a conscious decision to kick this hornet's nest again.  Perhaps in emulation of a recent movie based on another movie adapted from a best-selling line of books.  Comic book companies love to imitate success!  Hence Smallville Season 11 in the first place, DC's version of Dark Horse's popular Buffy the Vampire Slayer continuation.

Simone, of course, didn't address toxicity or reference-- to use another phrase I read about Steph, Cass and the lack of certain others from the DC narrative-- their having been "benched."  As in Cass and Steph have been deliberately benched, along with those other unfortunates.  Unlike people who speak without using their names and titles, Simone is definitely too smart and probably too discreet to let something like that slip even if it is true, and I wouldn't blame her.

On the other hand, if these anonymous ones are telling the truth and toxicity is the DC policy towards Steph and Cass, that would make it more than a little strange DC would let Scott Snyder say, "We talk about where in the stories they're going to show up" at one of their roundtables as recently at their panel at C2E2 as recently as last April.  And the extended, remixed version:  "They are characters that we love too, we talk a lot about using them.  We want to bring them back in a way that really matters.  They're on the table, we promise we want to use them as well."   Oh, and I was sure at one time I  heard no less a DC personage than Grant Morrison promised Cass would be back in the New 52 Card Pick Up or whatever it's called, but all I can find to confirm that are old comments from people saying they also heard the same thing.  In 2011, apparently.   Something more recent with a direct quote might have been more reassuring.

You'd think everyone there would be instructed to stay on message and not make promises, vague or otherwise.  You know, if DC really has no plans to use them, Snyder or someone could just say, "Sorry, we don't have any plans to use them at this time."  People get upset at that kind of bad news, but a lot less so than they do when they feel a company has deliberately screwed them over.  And in this easily avoidable case, there's no way for Steph fans to feel otherwise.

Whether the put-upon duo has been declared toxic or are still viable, this whole thing just seems odd to me.  Maybe I lack a true insider's frame of reference or mindset, but I'm just thinking how easy it would be just to throw Steph and Cass back into the mix.  It's not as if other changes to these characters required any creative heavy lifting in the past.  Just re-set Cass to her silent super-dangerous former glory while still calling her Black Bat and tell us in the New 52 she never was a Batgirl-- and finally ditch all those nasty lingering elements from her bad old days.  They turned her villainous, brought her back, had her quit being Batgirl in ludicrously off-hand ways, so why stick at this one like it's some kind of quest for the Unified Field Theory?**

On the other hand, I'm not sure how Steph fans would react to bringing her back as Spoiler minus her Batgirl stint.  Since they were so excited about even a fake-Steph outside the regular continuity and with only loose ties to the version they truly love, maybe they would accept this as well as long as the writers wrote her in a dignified way.  I'd hope so, anyway.  Considering the alternative, it certainly seems preferable.

Whether all this will translate into lower sales for DC's other comics, the current Batgirl title or Smallville Season 11 remains to be seen.  I doubt it.  Smallville's got this digital first print thing and should have a lot of appeal to fans of the TV show, which I never got into.  I just remember a number of them demanding Bryan Singer-- hey, another Bryan-- cast the show's star in his eventual dud Superman Returns.***  DC's probably counting on them to jump all over this book from their home computers and iPads or whatever the heck it is people read comic books on these days.

And as far as the dedicated comic book readers go, from what I gather, while there are some people giving up on DC, other people irked by the switcheroo are still going to buy DC titles featuring other characters they like or written and drawn by creators they want to support, so any negative impact on DC's bottom line, the true arbiter of toxicity, will be negligible.  DC's actually going to make money off the whole thing.  So the end result is, the small vocal core of fans truly upset by these events, or non-events, the ones eating waffles, will just have to get used to this new reality.  One where a character they care about simply does not exist for an indefinite period.  Perhaps permanently.

 The Outhousers have dubbed the easily avoidable Smallville fiasco "Stephgate."  Do you think it's likely we'll get an announcement from DC directly addressing Toxicgate?  I'm not exactly waiting around for the press release.  We'll probably see a book called BFFs:  The Adventures of Steph and Cass before that happens.

*God, how I love funny books!
**Unless, of course, you really don't have plans to use her again.  For whatever reason.
***That was on the IMDB message boards, and I'd sooner say "Bloody Mary" three times in a mirror at midnight than link to that here and risk calling down that hell.

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