Thursday, January 08, 2009

Is Steph as girlRobin a gimmick?

And does it matter?

Disclaimer – I have only read Spoiler’s appearance in Robin and Birds of Prey. What I have to say relates to her appearances in Robin; however I would welcome feedback on her appearances in other titles.

I guess to answer this you’ve got to think about what a gimmick is, and then decide if gimmicks are a problem, and if so why.

The Oxford English dictionary* defines gimmick as:

A trick or device, especially to attract attention, publicity, or trade.

So I guess the decision at an editorial level to turn the Spoiler into Robin for a short period, was a gimmick. I wasn’t reading comics at the time, so I don’t know if the trick worked. Did they get more publicity from this? Did they get more sales? If anyone knows, please let me know, or if you know where I can find the info, please point me in the right direction.

I would imagine that sales may have spiked for a short period, and I imagine that it helped promote the Wars Games storyline. Steph was only Spoiler for a few (4? 6?) issues of Robin, so I am speculating that the intention of making her a girlRobin was to generate interest in the Bat clan comics and also to provide a lead in to War Games. As opposed to, say, generating (inter?)national publicity and awareness of both the DC and Batfamily brands, amongst the non comics community.

Of course, this is just speculation. DC may have wanted to raise their profile in non comic reading circles, but I can’t imagine having a girlRobin for just a few months would be a very effective way of doing so. Then again, were there any Batman movies or other media coming out at a similar time? Because that could have tied in quite well. I could research this myself but for two reasons: Firstly, I am writing this on a non internet enabled laptop. Secondly, my internet enabled pc is in the coldest room in the house and Norfolk is going through a very cold snap. I cannot stay in that room for too long, I don’t cope well with the cold. Damn Victorian draughty houses.

So. I am going to assume that Steph became girlRobin in order that a major event** could then happen. I am going to assume setting events up for War Games was more important than the wow! factor of having a female Robin.

Over the last year or so, since reading blogs like When Fangirls Attack, I have seen plenty of discussions about the treatment of Steph as girlRobin. How it was disgraceful, how it meant that DC didn’t give a stuff about their female fans, and how it demonstrates DC’s arrogance in thinking they can make a token gesture towards women readers and our desires. I’ve probably written similar posts myself.

But if you argue that the motivation for Steph-as-Robin was to set up War Games, and not to produce a girlRobin, then I think that the last two problems become irrelevant, in this context. If it was never about making it ok for girls to take on traditionally male roles, then I would imagine that what DC’s female fans wanted didn’t really figure at editorial/plotline meetings.

Which could be seen as a crushing disappointment - DC don’t care about us. Well, no, I’m not convinced the female demographic is who DC want to court. They have had some stunningly great not- sexist books out last year, but I think that’s more to do with them hiring decent artists and writers, and not specifying that boobs need to be the focus of every panel. In other words, they’ve focused more on producing good stories than on producing porn-lite. Which is as it should be. Do good stories and the fangirls will cometh. As will the fanboys.

Anyway, back to the point. Was Steph’s treatment as girlRobin shoddy? Did it show disrespect for the character (and by proxy, her female fans). In my really-not-humble opinion, to work out if she was disrespected and treated in a sexist manner we would have to ask the following questions:
Is Steph both as Spoiler and as girlRobin treated with respect and dignity? Is her character believable? Does she mature and do changes taking place make sense within her given history? Do the other characters behave, both directly towards and when discussing her, in a believable way?

To me, and this is where it is gonna get really personal and I fully expect people to disagree with me, I don’t think DC did disrespect her.

Everything I read about the Spoiler showed that she was impulsive and passionate. She was dedicated to the vigilante cause, dead serious about succeeding at it, and refused to back down even after she had repeatedly been told, by many different people, to give it up. She’d go out with Robin on patrol, he’d advise her to hold back, to watch, to gather info on a scene, and she’d say screw this and dive right in. It’s how she found Black Canary and how she convinced Dinah to take her on as apprentice. She wasn’t automatically gonna change as girlRobin.

The way in which she became girlRobin also worked. Tim had quit being Robin, Batman needed a new partner, (he doesn’t work well by himself, which is how Tim got the gig), and Steph had proved how determined she was. She’d been popping up again and again for a really long time, each time Batman met her he told her in no uncertain (and probably quite growly) terms that she didn’t belong and she had to stop, effective immediately.
There are grown heroes in the DC universe who don’t dare disobey Bruce as Batman – Guy Gardener for one.
(EDIT: Ok, I'm a dork and should read more Guy stuff. I was basing the above comment on the (admittedly not many) JLI books I've read where Bruce keeps Guy in line, Kalinara has kindly pointed out that my assumption is wrong, please ignore that and insert your own character that does what Bruce says. )

Yet a 16 (15?) year old has the courage and the arrogance to tell him to piss off and keep on doing what she loves and has got a knack for.

So yeah who else was Bruce gonna take on? He does admire courage and dedication. He’s got this need for everyone to prove themselves to him before he takes them on. Steph got the gig after making herself a fancy new girly costume, and Bruce told her if she disobeyed him even once she was out. Well she disobeyed him and she was out. She knew the score, but she was impulsive, she thought she knew better, so she was kicked out. Nothing I’ve seen so far looks out of character of her.

Of course, a relevant question now would be did the boyRobins ever disobey Bruce like this and if so what was their punishment? And if it was different, is there a suitable in context explanation for this? I don’t know for definite the answer to this, I seem to recall reading Tim disobeying orders and not being sacked, but I cannot say for sure.

In the case of Steph however, she had to be kicked out, in order for War Games to commence. She had to be emotionally hurt and so try to get back in Bruce’s good books. Unfortunately this ended in Steph starting a gang war thereby wrecking most of Gotham and getting herself killed (or so we thought). I can imagine the DC meetings where War Games was dreamt up – TimRobin would never have triggered the gang war, yet it has to be someone close to Bruce who does so. This will also mean that Bruce gets to deal with feelings of betrayal, guilt and angst after the event- even if it’s only mentioned in a couple of issues. A Robin seems ideal for this.
So, to engineer the event, they have to get rid of TimRobin. Who to fill the space? Why, the obvious choice is Steph! Already known to Bruce, already a vigilante, desperately wants to be accepted by the Batfamily, and, crucially, impulsive enough to start a gang war by mistake. It fits her character. It is believable.

I think it is worth pointing out something that Selina Kyle (Catwoman) mentioned in a War Games issue. She had found Steph-as-Spoiler in some Gotham ruins, and Steph’s guilt and anguish led her to explain to Selina what she’d done. To summarise, she found plans that Bruce had made for eradicating all crime in Gotham. This was to be done by engineering a meeting between all the crime bosses in Gotham, Batman would be in attendance in disguise as a criminal - Matches Malone. Unfortunately, Steph didn’t know this, didn’t tell Batman of the meeting, and so Batman-in-disguise didn’t turn up and a full scale gang war erupted because of this.

Anyway, after hearing this story Selina asks herself how Bruce could ever have had a Robin who didn’t know that Batman was Matches. I read this as removing all blame from Steph and placing it squarely on Bruce’s shoulders. Selina is an important person in Gotham life and in the Bat family, and I think her opinion and views carry weight. She was reproaching Bruce.

Maybe Steph didn’t need to have died – but then we’d lose a sense of the personal tragedy. And tragedy drives dramatic events. I have no problem with deaths in comics, but I love a bit of senseless tragedy and desolation. I admit that I haven’t read all of War Games, but I have seen the panels of her supposed death and the last conversations she had with Bruce. It didn’t strike me as inappropriate or disrespectful.

I’m not going to touch upon the lack of a trophy case issue – I haven’t read enough Batman books to know who he’s got a memorial too, I thought it was just Jason Todd. Suffice to say, Bruce’s explanation to Tim, regarding not putting up a memorial sucked – he suspected Steph was still alive. Really? And you didn’t want to mention that to Tim? Ever? I know I know, it’s an explanation dreamt up by writers, Bruce isn’t real etc etc, but that explanation is still going firmly in my Batdickery file.

I have written before on the importance of having female Robins and what they mean to me, as symbols of women in the real world, and women in the comics world. When I wrote that previous post I knew of the girlRobin in the Dark Knight Returns (and shock horror, I don’t believe she was a prostitute, Frank Miller, you astound me), But I was not aware of girlRobin in the Robin 1996 annual, Legends of the Dead Earth. This is a Robin who saves the lives and futures of an entire civilisation. It’s set on a vast spaceship which has lost it’s destination and ruled by tyranny. Batman is out to set things right and rechart the course. He dies and it’s Robin’s responsibility to set the right course. She does so and saves thousands and thousands of lives. Now that’s a girlRobin to be proud of.

I don’t want Steph to be Robin. She works better as the Spoiler. She’s too independent to be under Bruce’s thumb, and he’d just fuck her up. She don’t take orders and she likes to have fun – you can’t have genuine lighthearted fun as Robin. It’s better for her if she’s the Spoiler. She needs her own sense of identity and not to be dependent on another’s approval.

So I’m quite glad I’ve properly discovered her and I’m very glad she’s back. Any chance she’s gonna join the Teen Titans?

Constructive criticism welcomed.

*Yes, the Oxford English dictionary is my definitions bible.
**I know, I know, compared to today and the multiple Crisis’ crossover stuff happening, War Games isn’t very major, but lets just call it a major event for now.

Christ almighty that’s nearly 2000 words. Why did I find it difficult to write essays of that length at Uni???


kalinara said...

I like and agree with the majority of your post, but I think you either made a funny typo or probably ought to read a bit more comics starring Guy Gardner, since this part:

There are grown heroes in the DC universe who don’t dare disobey Bruce as Batman – Guy Gardener for one.

is pretty amusingly inaccurate

Saranga said...

I was going by the JLI ones I've just read where Guy is doing what Batman says..
And your right I haven't read many GL books. Will go edit the post now, thanks for pointing it out.

Saranga said...

Dammit, my grammar used to be much better. Please pretend I wrote 'you're' and not 'your'.

Sea_of_Green said...

A GIMMICK is using Barack Obama on the cover of Spider-Man.

A girl Robin, on the other hand ... I've always thought of that as coming straight out of Dark Knight Returns. The Carrie Kelly Robin has ALWAYS been popular with the fandom -- and, modern tastes being what they are, somehow the original Robin costume is more acceptible on a girl, anyway. Steph, to me, was just a way to bring "Carrie Kelly" into regular Batman continuity.

Anonymous said...

Bill Willingham has stated that he made Stephanie Robin because DC decided she was going to die, and he wanted to give her a bit of glory before hand. Sales did spike with the Girl!Robin issues. Part of it was gimmick, it even got news articles written about it and Wizard Interviews.

I disagree about War Games-however it's entirely opinion. As someone who followed Steph obsessively, I feel that yes, Steph is impulsive, but she's not STUPID, and I really can't see her implementing a gang war plan having no idea how it'd work. And considering Dixon wrote her as not giving a crap what Batman thinks- I don't think her going all flaily "Batman rejected me I'll show him!" is true to her character either.

Of course, the biggest problem I had with her death is how they made sure to put her as in provocative a position as possible while being tortured (magically, while chained up, her boobs and butt stick out the same time. That's sweet), and of course have Black Mask say disgusting things. And the insane amount of injuries they heaped on her-not only did she have to be tortured with a power drill of all things, but had to have a piece of glass shoved in her neck, get shot, and be kicked down the stairs. And this is a teenage girl character here. Gives it a extra layer of ick. The whole scene made me feel sick and angry when I read it, but then I'm sensitive and freakishly attached to Steph.

Then there's the whole Leslie business, which is just stupidity to the nth power. Thank God that's all gone now.

Nice post, anyway.

Saranga said...

Thanks for the responses guys.

@Nevermore: Your info gives me a much more rounded view on the subject. With that stuff, I possibly would have written a different post, As it was I was halfway through it before I found out about your wiki so wanted to continue with it as I had planned.
Bill Willingham has stated that he made Stephanie Robin because DC decided she was going to die, and he wanted to give her a bit of glory before hand.
Gah, DC suck so much at times. Still, I like the idea of giving her glory before her death. It makes me wonder how the power structures work at DC and exactly how plots and characters get decided upon. Mind you, I bet there's not necessarily just one method.

Re War Games, I assumed she'd read all the info re the gangs, of which I assume there was a lot because I think Bruce had it all plotted out in detail, and she'd researched it, and would see how it was going to work. It (c)would have worked, if Bruce had trusted her. He's def the one at fault here. (I like inserting my own back stories into continuity to make them the stories I want)

In Robin, I'd also read her as wanting Bruce's approval, but with an exterior of 'I don't give a crap'. I guess different people read stuff differently, and you'll have read a lot more than me.
And I do need to get a hold of war Games and read the whole lot.

@Sea: Steph and Carrie Kelly. I'm hopeless with getting publishing dates and timelines together so that hadn't even occured to me.