Thursday, February 28, 2013

A look at a Cassandra Cain collection belonging to someone who must be the greatest Cass collector in the world!

If you want to take a look at what must be every single Cass Cain figure, toy or statue ever released (or not released, in one case) minus the upcoming Black Bat chess pawn figure from Eaglemoss, this photo-heavy post has what you need.  Of course, the quality varies and none of them-- not even the ones based on Damion Scott's version of Cass-- really capture her full essence.  You'll find some cool pieces represented, though.

I half-heartedly tried to get the "Batman: One Coin -- Season 2" Cass a few years ago.

Here in Japan, you can often find "blind box" toys.  These are model kits of shinkansen (bullet trains), WWII airplanes or anime and manga characters.  All kinds of crazy stuff.  They come in small cardboard boxes which are all colorfully decorated with photos of what you might get, but nothing indicating what you will get.  So it's a surprise every time.  My favorite featured xenomorph eggs containing all the parts to put together fully poseable Colonial Marines figures from the movie Aliens.  I bought the heck out of those and ended up with a decapitated Sgt. Apone (the tiny parts proved too delicate for my clumsy, ape-like hands) and a bunch of skeletal, spiny alien critters to menace my vintage Kenner Star Wars figures.

Anyway, my second year living here I came across the Batman series and bought... oh... probably one.  I think I got a Robin.  Then I gave up.

Somewhere around that time, Takara released their Batman and Superman Microman figures featuring both the comic book and most recent movie versions of both hero.  The Batman set included a Barbara Gordon Batgirl.  Since Microman figures are fully interchangeable, I took a few parts from her and some from a basic black female figure and snapped together the most slapdash custom Cass Cain figure imaginable.

Oops... looks like we need a new Robin!


I've always thought the whole idea of Robin is ridiculous anyway.  While I like the original one, Dick Grayson, his stint as Robin is more camp than anything else.  I mean, what is the purpose of using a child to fight crime?  Even by the suspect standards of comic book logic, this is a hard dose of stupid to swallow.  And look at their mortality rate.  That pretty much bears out the idea having a youthful ward as sidekick is a terrible idea.  Some of the later Robins worked a little harder to justify their place at Batman's side, especially this latest one.  Who, in the interest of full disclosure, I hated.

I found him obnoxious and annoying.  Granted, I've only read maybe two or three of the comics he's appeared in.  But don't get me wrong-- I doubt he was supposed to be likable in any conventional sense.  Usually I gravitate towards edgier, problematic personalities in stories, especially if they're tragic.  In this case, he seemed grafted onto the story too late for me to develop any kind of sympathy for him or his overweening personality.  Kind of like Kennedy in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  She just rubbed me the wrong way and I never warmed up to her because she entered the story way too late and demanded a certain kind of attention that I, as a fan, just wasn't prepared to accord her because she hadn't earned it through experience.  On the other hand, her lateness may be the very reason I never developed a like for her-- no time to get to appreciate her positive aspects or her inner pain and all that jazz.

Anyway, getting back to the Boy Wonder in question-- obnoxious character stuff can be pretty funny.  In small doses.  Plus, not every character has to be friendly or nice.  That would be pretty boring.  Characters "you love to hate" are just peachy with me.  So noow that it's done-- and a little too late-- I'm reassessing my take on the most recent Robin.  From various comments I've read and certain online essays, I realize for some people this little guy mattered.  He was made of boy-wonderment.  To you, the fans of this particular Robin, I admit I asked for his death in any number of Facebook comments, but now think I was wrong to do so.  I'll be more objective and careful in the future.

But the main thing is-- who will be the new Robin?  Because even though I think the very concept is asinine, we all know there must be a Robin of some sort.  It's a Batman given.

I can only tell you who it won't be.  And that's Cassandra Cain.  For one thing, she more than likely hasn't even been born yet in the new DC continuity.  Her origin could be reconfigured where she was born in some sort of artificial womb from an egg supplied by Lady Shiva and sperm from David Cain, then rapidly aged and trained in some science fiction-y way with the end result pretty much the same as before.  But she's never been identified with the Robin brand.  There's no real reason for her to become Robin and I wouldn't want her to.  She could still have a slot as Black Bat without interfering with DC's Barbara Gordon plans and backstory.

What about Stephanie Brown?  This is a sentimental pick of mine.  I'd be happy for her fans if this happened and it would smooth over a lot of public relations hurt from the past few years.  Steph has been a Robin before, so there actually is a precedent.  But if she's to be a contemporary with Cass, then she also hasn't been born yet.  Unless they do the fast-aging thing for Cass, in which case Steph is lurking somewhere around the DC universe.  Steph is also more closely associated with the Batgirl and Spoiler identities, so it would make more sense to re-establish her as Spoiler, then maybe work her in as a substitute Batgirl at some point.  But, hey, this is DC and story logic hasn't exactly been their strong suit for quite some time.

All that geeky junk aside, I think we all know the next Robin will be this Harper Row character.  I don't know a lot about her, but she's a Scott Snyder creation and he's taking over as the main Bat-architect.  Plus, the few images of Harper I've seen show her as some kind of sleuthing Nancy Drew-type in a dark tunnel of some kind, which establishes her credentials as a potential Batman protege.  You average, ordinary, work-a-day person tends to stay out of dark tunnels and harm's way.  Unless their average, ordinary, work-a-day job involves dark tunnels and harm.  I doubt she's comics' answer to Ed Norton, so Snyder and DC must be positioning her for some purpose.

Unless this dead kid comes back.  His grandfather does that pretty often.  Come to think of it, so does his dad.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

How Jose Ladronn sees Cassandra Cain

Very linear.  I'm not hugely familiar with Ladronn's work, but I find this a very compelling image.  It's like a strange mating of Jack Kirby and Moebius.  And the grouping and poses are largely successful.  The capes and extremities create interesting silhouettes and negative space.  I absolutely prefer these covers where the artist poses the characters dynamically and facing the viewer. Three-quarter views are lazy and so are covers with black backgrounds no matter how nicely the artist renders the characters.  I also like to see some hands and feet in there, too.  I also admire the coloring technique, which adds body to Ladronn's organic, minimalist line stylings. It's moody and textured and not at all garish or off-putting.  Nice subtle gradients.  I much prefer it to the pointy stuff inside the comic.

Now let's tak a closer look at Cassandra Cain because this is a blog all about her.  On the plus side, Ladronn gives Batgirl some well-muscled arms so she looks like the capable martial artist she's supposed to be, and adds seams to her super-suit so it doesn't look like it was painted on.

Which is one of my least-favorite superhero art cliches. Have you seen any of those Photoshop jobs where people take porn pics and spray paint superhero costumes on the women? The funny thing is, they're not that far off from the actual intent of a lot of superhero comic book art when it comes to female characters-- "Look at me and touch yourself, you wicked voyeur, you."  Yes, male characters also have painted-on costumes and can cause arousal as well, but the main point of a male costume is to show off musculature and enhance the character's powerful image.  If you don't believe there's a difference in gender presentation, go do a Google-search for some of that clever art where male characters sport female-style costumes and poses.  Male or female, though, I prefer when the artist indicates these are clothes and not a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue feature.

On the other side, unless Batgirl's had some of those super-sized implants-- the large globular kind strippers and adult industry performers going for a certain niche market prefer-- there's some anatomical dissonance going on. You don't generally see this kind of coupling of slender physique and mammalian endowment in nature. Or that shape.

Batgirl's bat-girls also play a little havoc with the way our eyes move through the composition. In the extreme foreground, Ladronn draws us into the image with the large spotlight thing in lower right and from there, our eyes go to... Cassandra's boobs where they just sort of linger. The colorist (Ladronn again?) emphasizes them even more by making them look as though they're specially illuminated. Evidently, those lights in the foreground are the portable boob-spots Batgirl carries in her utility belt. They're powered by long-lasting Waynetech 9-volt batteries she buys with her family discount.

Ultimately, we have to conclude the artist's message for this cover is Batgirl recently went through a Las Vegas phase.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Someone asked Bob Harras and Bobbie Chase about Cassandra Cain

Bob Harras, former editor-in-chief at Marvel Comics and current editor-in-chief and senior vice president at DC Comics, and Bobbie Chase, current editorial director at DC, made a stop at the Comic Book Resources message boards and answered a few questions from concerned fans about DC's plans.  Of course, some familiar names came up:  Cassandra Cain, Donna Troy, Wally West, Miss Martian, Connor Hawke (no Stephanie Brown?).

Josie Campbell: Bob and Bobbie, to kick off the first all fan-question edition of B&B, we're going to start with a question a lot of fans have been wondering about as it pertains to characters not currently being used in the New 52. Starting our conversation, user finfangfool asks, "People have often asked about the possible return of old favorites from the pre-New 52 Universe (or Post-Crisis, whichever you prefer), and have often been told there are no plans or they wouldn't fit in plans for current DC Comics. I was wondering if you'd consider a book set in the pre-New 52/Post-Crisis universe and outside the 'real' Universe, featuring characters like Wally West, Donna Troy, Cassandra Cain, Connor Hawke, Miss Martian, etc.?"
Bob Harras: I would say to fingfangfool that no, we won't be considering that -- we only have one universe, and that is the universe we are presenting right now.

Nice try, Fingfangfool.  I'm guessing Stephanie Brown is what you mean by "etc."  I don't know why DC would do an ongoing book about their old universe, but I wish they'd do a few more off-beat things like that Wednesday Comics series where they turn creators loose on whatever version of whatever character they'd like to tackle.  Without limits as to which characters are available.  It would be a good way to poke around DC's extensive back catalog of super-people and experiment with different concepts, all continuity-free.  Or, if you like, using whatever continuity suits the story, a la Grant Morrison's masterfully nostalgic yet still compelling and fresh (plus Eisner-winning; let's not forget Eisner-winning!) take on Superman in All-Star Superman.  DC might also use these little one-offs as test beds to see what characters should be reintroduced into the main narrative.

They're already gambling a lot on series like Katana.  I'm hoping that book lasts because I like the character (I'm buying it for now, anyway, and it's the only DC ongoing I'm going to purchase until Cass makes her reappearance), but the way DC is flipping titles, it's looking like practically everything without Bat- or Super- in the title is nothing more than a glorified mini-series.  To be honest, I wish they'd just abandon company-wide continuity altogether and just let creators tell independent stories with the characters, but I'm also kind of a weirdo that way.

Anyway, it's nice to see someone putting Cass's name in front of some of the big bosses yet again, even if they burp the memory away with their expense account hamburgers or whatever it is comic book executives eat for lunch and never do anything with her.

Arousing Grammar examines the Batgirl-SuperBOY* romance!

James Jean takes a sad song and makes it better. (Batgirl #41, August 2003

*Edit and apology:  I originally titled this post "Arrousing Grammar examines the Batgirl-Supergirl romance," when what I meant to type was "Superboy."  While it might have resulted in a better story (I don't see how it could have been worse), to the best of my knowledge, Batgirl and Supergirl have never been romantically linked.  So why did I type that?  Freudian slip?  According to Geoff Johns, I was drugged by Deathstroke.  Sorry, everyone.  Back to the frivolity--

Yes, at one point Batgirl felt the urgings a-surging and set out to make Superboy hers and hers alone.  It's about time someone looked into this, and fortunately, it's Jason Levine on his always entertaining Arousing Grammar blog.  Levine takes on the Dylan Horrocks storyline in issues #39-41 (June 2003-August 2003) where Barbara takes Cass on a cruise to teach her how to be a real girl.  You know-- wearing bikinis, being ogled by boys, wearing little black dresses, ogling boys, giggling, slumber parties and all that.  On this little gender stereotype reinforcing trip, Cass fends off the advances of one guy to pursue another on her own.

Okay, the latter doesn't particularly reinforce stereo-anything, but we'll get to that in a moment.

I have mixed feelings about the Dylan Horrocks run on Batgirl.  On one hand, he wrote two of my favorite Batgirl stories-- Batgirl #45 (December 2003), where she confronts Barbara Gordon's legacy in the role by wearing her old costume* and Batgirl #50 (May 2004), where she resolves her father issues by adopting Batman as substitute-dad before revealing her true loyalty is to the bat-symbol rather than the man himself.  The issues in-between are pretty decent, too.

But Horrocks also wrote the stories in question, which I consider the nadir of the entire series, with Barbara ignoring Cass's individuality and bizarrely insisting she thrust herself into situations for which she's not prepared, such as wearing skimpy swimwear at the ship's pool (Cass scores a few points by honestly admitting it makes her feel bad, for which Barbara feels appropriately chagrined for a moment or two before launching another yet another attack on Cass's self-esteem), but ultimately being rather belittled by the come-ons of Black Wind, some jerky-come-lately nobody.  And then comes the goopy, drippy, saccharine Superboy romance.

Which, on the surface, isn't such a bad idea.  After all, with Midnighter and Apollo, The Authority plays with the idea of Batman and Superman being not just friends and rivals but lovers.  So why not a World's Finest romance between their youthful proteges?  Plus, I like the idea of Batgirl being the initiator.  That seems very true to her general approach to life, where she aggressively pursues what she wants, whether it's saving someone's life or risking her own to perfect her skills under the tutelage of the very dangerous Lady Shiva.  She just seems like the kind of person to pursue romantically rather than be pursued.  I sometimes liken Cass Cain to Jen Yu in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  When Jen decides on Dark Cloud, she makes the first move and, symbolically, stays on top.  So would Cass.

Unfortunately, in execution, the story suffers from unattractive art (characters look formed from Play-Do and the fight scenes are an embarrassment) and cutesy-pie elements so sugary-sweet they'll cause you to gag then brush your teeth obsessively for days.  You'll probably still develop cavities.

These issues are so bad, they put me off Batgirl for a few months when I originally read them.  If that's the direction they're taking her, I thought, no thanks!  Only James Jean's kick-ass cover on #41 redeems any of this.  If only he'd drawn the interior art.  And anyone else had written it.  You can see for yourself on Arousing Grammar and make up your own mind.

*And even this sends wildly mixed signals about sexualizing the Cass Batgirl, a character who to that point had been all business and counter to the typical female super-person stereotypes.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The first appearance of Lady Shiva-- Cassandra Cain's mom!

Her name is Lady Shiva, and she does hate Dragon's guts.  Actually, her name is Sandra Woosan and the reason she hates Richard Dragon is because she thinks he caused her sister Carolyn's death.  This is how she appeared in DC's Richard Dragon Kung-Fu Fighter #5 (December-January 1975-1976).

She's changed a lot since then-- even more so since the advent of the New 52-- but back in the mid-1970s, Lady Shiva wore a head scarf stolen from Rhoda Morgenstern.  One thing that's remained constant throughout her various DC comics incarnations is Lady Shiva's ability to deal out ass-whippings.

When we first see her, she's in a purple hood and green pants and art team Ric Estrada and Wally Wood have craftily drawn her to look like a man.  In her very next scene, they have her in some kind of Asian fetish dress and looking definitely female.  Later, when she finally gets to fight Richard Dragon, she's back in that purple-green hooded outfit but this time sporting a more feminine shape.  She quickly ditches the hood and spends the rest of the issue in the same green outfit we see her in on the cover.  She starts by throwing shuriken at Dragon, but doesn't hit him, for as she declares in her best Inigo Montoya impression, "I deliberately missed you, pig... To prove I could kill you easily!  Instead, I prefer to do it otherwise...  ...To pound the life from you!  For I am Sandra Woosan...  ...And you caused the death of my sister!"

As the fight begins, Dragon protest, "Sandra... Shiva... We have no quarrel--"

"Afraid to strike a woman, pig?"  Sandra sneers and punches him in the face.

Lady Shiva's first appearance.  Ric Estrada and Wally Wood, Richard Dragon Kung-Fu Fighter #5 (Dec.-Jan. 75-76)

Within a few moments, Dragon convinces her he's not the one responsible for Shiva's loss, that it's Cravat, grotesque-looking guy shooting death-rays at both of them just to make their fight more interesting.  He's drooling, too.  Without missing a beat, Shiva turns her rage on Cravat, but Dragon prevents her from landing a killing blow.  He asks her if the two them are now friends.

"Until further notice, Richard Dragon... we are!"  Lady Shiva tells him as they shake hands.

What a performance.  What a first impression!  Of course, Lady Shiva is another of those dragon lady stereotypes, but she's delightfully amoral and her free way with insults combines with that quality to allow her to steal every panel she's in.  She's way more charismatic and interesting than Richard Dragon, which may explain why she keeps re-appearing in the DC narrative while Dragon has long been relegated to a footnote and why when Cassandra Cain needed a powerful mom to complement her creepy dad, Scott Peterson and Kelley Puckett went with Lady Shiva, renamed Sandra Wu-San by that time.  Fighting is her thing and she's one of the best in the DC universe right from the get-go.  She'd go on to help Dragon in further adventures and we'll talk about them soon right here!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Batgirl #4 (July 2000)

Cass doesn't get turned into a kid or
shrunken; this cover is symbolic.
Batgirl #4 (July 2000)
Plot: Scott Peterson, Kelley Puckett
Script:  Kelley Puckett
Pencils: Damion Scott
Inks: Robert Campanella
Colors:  Jason Wright

You have to feel for Alfred.  The long-suffering butler to the Wayne family, he's had the responsibility of working for a guy who's internalized so much hurt he no longer has a clue how to act like a human being.  Moral nuances are beyond him.  To absolutist Batman, even a small child bears absolute responsibility for his or her actions, with little or no chance for forgiveness or redemption.

So when Batman receives a snuff video starring little Cass Cain as a throat-ripping killer-- despite her adorable pigtails and dress-- Alfred does what he's probably done a million times in the past.  He handles Batman's feelings with kid gloves and tries to pilot the broken man's emotions along the proper course, no doubt inwardly sighing at his tragic lot in life.  When he tells Batman he knows children and the girl in the video has no idea what she's about to do, you know he's not just referencing his knowledge of Cass, but also the increasingly insufferable mesomorphic toddler he works for, the bratty man-child he's been raising for thirty-something years.

And while Batman falls to pieces like a heartbroken schoolboy, Barbara Gordon tells Nightwing she just can't seem to bond with the new Batgirl.  Something to do with their inability to communicate beyond a few gestures.  Batgirl does her thing, which in this issue means fighting a trio of gunmen to protect a doughy goof of a man who rewards her with the magical gift of understanding language.  When an imposing costumed weirdo comes to claim the man, Batgirl throws herself into battle, only to realize she's lost her gift of reading her opponents' next move.  This turns her from an unbeatable force into merely a pretty good martial artist.  And this time, her opponent is more than pretty good herself.

Too soon.  This issue is thematically solid, with the Barbara-Nightwing conversation foreshadowing Batgirl's mental transformation, but we're still so early in her story it seems a bit soon to introduce an element that undoes Batgirl quite this much.  Really, they could have spun out Barbara's frustration for at least a year and let us get to know the silent Batgirl, to garner sympathy for her as she struggles to understand words.  While this new development would set up what's arguably the most memorable storyline of the Puckett era, it feels rushed.  It perhaps hints at some difficulty the creative team is having coming to terms with the full implications of their creation-- a character whose silence is this profound could easily become a vacuum at the center of every story.  Barbara's complaints of alienation could very well echo their own, and those of some readers.

But Cass hasn't been a vacuum, at least not through the first three issues.  It's just a matter of trusting the character, of unfurling her story at a slightly slower pace, with more of those little moments like Cass knocking on her own head to demonstrate hard-headednesss when Barbara reminds her she's recently had a concussion.  When Cass suddenly develops a language-based thought process, she's thrilled.  This is some strong characterization-- they've given her a personality that comes through despite the silence-- and I wish they'd done more with it.

And that Batman-Alfred scene again.  Contrasted to Barbara, who just wants to get to know the Cass inside the Batgirl costume, Batman's so intent on molding the girl into a weapon he can use he's nearly lost what little mind he has left, and his wild mood swing when Alfred suggests the video might be faked only reinforces the notion he's more than a little unhinged where Batgirl is concerned.  The story relies on some sci-fi techno-magic at this point, but it sets up further developments when Batman's attempt to prove Alfred's theory-- which, judging by his facial expressions, even Alfred seems dubious about, as if he's just humoring a lunatic-- comes up inconclusive.  So it's off to Macau to investigate, because that's what Batman does best besides freak out.

Again, this sets up some dramatic confrontations in upcoming issues, but it seems a little early in the story to drive a wedge between Batman and Batgirl.  They're only just starting to learn to work together and their story needs more room to breathe.

But Batgirl is primarily an action-based book, with Batgirl disarming a trio of black-suited gunmen out of a Quentin Tarantino casting call and rocks them not-so-gently to sleep before their pistols even hit the rooftop.  The book comes so close to grasping at greatness in these moments it becomes a little frustrating when they settle for the merely good.  Peterson and Puckett rely too heavily on superhero story conventions to set up this sequence-- Batgirl just happens to be swinging by at the right time.  Yes, she's drawn by some gunshots, which are pretty noisy, but it seems mighty convenient or coincidental that out of all the possible crimes happening in Gotham City that night, the one she happens upon involves a psychic who can help her understand language while complicating her narrative arc.  There has to be a better way to involve him in her story.

And you know what?  Now that we're on this topic-- it strikes me as odd these Bat-people zip around Gotham on ropes like this in the first place.  It seems even a top-flight athlete like Batgirl would be too busy trying to spot places to shoot her next grappling hook to spend much time scanning for crime.  Wouldn't it be more efficient to stake out high-crime areas and just wait?  Or divide the city into some kind of grid, with overlapping patrol zones for each crime fighter and equip them with some kind of broadly-sweeping electronic eyes and ears rather than have them swooping along on ropes and ziplines?  For all his brilliance in detective work, it seems Batman hasn't really thought through this whole "war on crime" thing, and he's gathered a small army of helpers only to waste them with inefficiencies and poor command and control.  And then he expects them to be beyond perfect and stop crimes they're not even present for.

Anyway, my lack of willing suspension of disbelief aside, I love that Scott doesn't try to draw pretty people; he tries to draw interesting ones.  These aren't the idealized heroic figures of a John Buscema (as much as I love those as well), nor are they the traced-from-a-supermodel work of some of Scott's photorealistic contemporaries.  The man who gives Cass her psychic makeover is a doughy schlub and the final villain is a menacing, androgynous, dreadlocked figure in a garish outfit.  Scott's Cass is as scrawnily muscular as ever, with a bulbous head when masked and huge, expressive eyes-- even if they're blacked in.  He pulls a neat full-page trick when the psychic reconfigures Cass's brain, rendering her thought process symbolically as a grouping of martial arts poses transforming into the word "talk."  I don't think I've ever seen anyone attempt to illustrate actual thought, and it's a simple and effective visual.

I only wish when Cass and the psychic engage in their mental conversation the colorist had chosen something more contrasting for their panels.  Cass's is a blue gradient and the psychic's is a purple one but they're not so different from each other or the background noise that you're instantly aware of which one goes to which character.  I know thought balloons are passe, but perhaps something more creative using those could have worked, especially considering how creatively Scott carried off Cass's sudden change.