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Wednesday, April 22, 2020 

How can Stephanie Brown's brief role as Robin be great when it was tainted by what came after?

Several weeks ago, Comics Beat ran a superficial interview with animation writer Amy Wolfram, who penned a story for a DC special dedicated to the 80th anniversary of the Robin role originated by Dick Grayson, which Stephanie Brown occupied briefly before she was turned into a sacrificial lamb in the Batman: War Games crossover a few months later:
Over the last 80 years, there have been five different canonical Robins, but lots of people only ever talk about four of them. The one that often gets forgotten is Stephanie Brown, who was Robin for four issues of real-time, or 71 days in-universe, and is almost always left out of things talking about the Robins. With Robin: The 80th Anniversary 100-Page Super Spectacular, I was worried that that’d be the case again, but it turns out that Amy Wolfram teams up with artist Damian Scott to tell an untold Stephanie Brown story. [...]
And this is another of those kind of interviews and articles that glosses over the bad intentions, ill will and insults to the intellect the tale was built around, ignoring how, soon after she took up the role, Batman decided to boot her out of it over a Thoughtcrime for coming to his rescue in one instance, and later culminating in War Games, where Steph wound up tortured with a drill by Black Mask, and originally died as a result. When you put 2 and 2 together, that sours whatever impact Bill Willingham's story allegedly had, when you realize the Dan DiDio-led staff set out to troll the audience most revoltingly.
The Beat: For this special, you wrote about the shortest-lived Robin, as Stephanie only had five issues (three in her own series, one issue of Detective Comics, and a guest-spot in Teen Titans) in the role before getting summarily fired. What was it like to be able to expand on her story?

Wolfram: It was definitely a challenge to find a story that worked in her short timeline. But I loved getting to know her and being able to lean into her journey as a female superhero.
Be that as it may, did she love the hack job Willingham did on Chuck Dixon and Tom Lyle's creation? What does she even think of characterizing Batman as a control freak all these years?
The Beat: For this story, you worked with Damian Scott, who was the artist on Robin for Steph’s brief tenure on the book. Was it fun to see him take another crack at the character?

Wolfram: It was great working with Damian. I tried to keep the storytelling close to the original style, including multi-action panels. My favorite page is the rollercoaster panel. I was blown away by how he made the action come to life.
And what does Scott think of the followup crossover embarrassment, also written by Willingham? The pall of that monstrosity hangs so low over the Robin tale, it's hard to view Stephanie's brief run as a female Teen Wonder as a masterpiece in retrospect.
The Beat: This is a very different Robin than the ones you’ve written in the past with Teen Titans: Year One and the Teen Titans Go! cartoon. How did that past experience inform what you did in your Robin 80th story?

Wolfram: There is no Robin without Batman, whether it’s the beginning and working with Batman, or later trying to break free and become his/her own hero or leading a team. It’s a powerful dynamic, and I was excited to explore how that would be different with a female sidekick, especially one who had already been a superhero on her own with her own way of doing things before joining Batman.
I'll give her this - there is validity to what she says about not being one without the other. It's something most of the aforementioned Hollywooders don't seem to care about, not even Dick Grayson's role as Teen Titans leader. They may want to have a go at writing Batman, but they don't seem even remotely impressed by Bob Kane and Bill Finger's early introduction of Robin to the lore in the Golden Age as his teen sidekick. So what's the use of claiming they're Bat-fans?

But how can you explore the "dynamic" of working with a girl sidekick when the setup renders it moot and insulting? It does remind me though, that, having done a little research, if there's anything fortunate from recent years, it's that not only is Steph thankfully revived, it appears Tim's father, Jack Drake, was resurrected too circa New52/Rebirth. It's very lucky after at least a decade, justice prevailed and many of the worst aspects of Identity Crisis were de-canonized.

Okay, so does that mean the War Games crossover is too? It still doesn't make the notion of putting more focus on Steph as a girl Robin work any better. What's wrong with spotlighting her in the costumed vigilante role Dixon originally created for her, Spoiler? Or coming to terms with that the reason the brief Robin role is rarely mentioned today is simply because the way it played out is such a colossal embarrassment?
The Beat: Steph’s had a lot of identities over the years. Do you have a favorite time period for her?

Wolfram: She really has done a lot, hasn’t she? I think what I like the best is that she’s a strong character, no matter which role she is in. And she has a sense of humor.
And here's where it's worth pondering what was conveniently left out - the War Games debacle. Was she a strong character in that? Hardly. It was so bad, a sense of humor wouldn't have salvaged it either, and the editors didn't leave room for one to work. Fictional characters can only be strong if the writing built around them is.
The Beat: I want to thank you for this story, as Steph is one of my all-time favorite characters in comics, and her run as Robin is so often forgotten. What other projects do you have coming up that you’d like our readers to know about?

Wolfram: Thank you. Stephanie is a favorite for many people, and I really wanted to honor her time as Robin. [...]
Hey, I won't say a girl Robin couldn't work, but basing it all on such an atrocious period in 21st century history is hardly doing the character honor, let alone Dixon and Lyle as her co-creators. The irony is that, if this had been done today, they'd be less likely to subject Steph to torture by drill, but it would probably still come at Tim's expense more than hers, and they'd turn it into a whole social justice mess not unlike Jason Aaron's rendition of Jane Foster as a female Thor. Which isn't saying the components for War Games weren't offensive. They most definitely were. But what if Tim became the victim of Black Mask and a drill instead? It'd still be just as offensive as the 2004 monstrosity, if not more so.

SyFy Wire took a deeper look at the mid-2000s history just a few days later, and they actually give more insight than Comics Beat's inexplicably ambiguous interview:
As we wish Robin a happy 80th anniversary in April 2020, we're giving thanks for the Dick Graysons and the Tim Drakes of the Bat-franchise. Yet, though we are grateful for the highlights, we can’t help but think of the Robins who didn’t exactly get their due. At the top of that list is Stephanie Brown, whose stint as Robin could have been great, but went awry at almost every turn.

After her catastrophic turn as Robin, Stephanie Brown was deceased and her story used as a warning to young crime fighters not to follow in her footsteps. Though she did return from the dead and even enjoyed a lengthy stint as Batgirl, that came much later in the game after a lot of fans expressed frustration over how her character was treated.
And it was all primarily due to the machinations of DiDio's staff. The same DiDio who subsequently fired Dixon from their employ, and though they actually rehired him later for some minor work on the characters he was instrumental in producing for the Batverse (Steph and Bane, for example), Dixon was ultimately banished and blacklisted by the ingrates.

And using the War Games/Crimes as a way to convey such an insulting "message", which came at the additional expense of Leslie Thompkins, was perfectly reprehensible. By that logic, it was wrong for Peter Parker to become a dedicated crimefighter as Spider-Man. Or for Dick Grayson to become the same. And here's the synopsis of what happened during Steph's short-lived moment in the Teen Wonder outfit:
Alfred advised against taking on Stephanie as Robin, but Batman did not listen. In the beginning, he was supportive of Stephanie and helpful towards her training, but did very little to offset her insecurity and her overwhelming desire to prove herself. She grew even more distant towards Tim, not telling him the truth of her new partnership. This is understandable because when he does find out, he makes it about himself by immediately assuming that Batman only recruited Stephanie to get to him.

An assassin attempts to kill the Tim Drake Robin by simply killing every young man she encounters who looks like they might be him, which is truly, absurdly inefficient. When a female Robin turns up, she takes that to mean that she must have succeeded. With Stephanie’s help, Batman tracks her down. He tells Stephanie to wait in the plane while he goes to fight the killer, but Stephanie sees him in trouble and goes to help. When they make it back to the Batcave, he tells her she can’t be Robin anymore because she disobeyed his orders.

The entire Stephanie Brown-as-Robin story moves at an accelerated pace; it only lasts for a handful of issues that are supposed to span several months, beginning in Robin #126 and ending with Robin #128, so we see very little of her. This reads back as nothing if not a missed opportunity.
Well I suppose they got that right. But maybe it would've been better if Stephanie remained in her original Spoiler role, or moved onto the Batgirl role provided it didn't come at the expense of Cassandra Cain, to say nothing of Batman himself? Anybody who believes the post-DKR characterization for Bruce Wayne is the only way he's ever been written, or the only way he should be written, is unqualified for the task of scripting him.

And the setup for Batman dismissing Stephanie from the Robin role was insulting, right down to how Willingham made the most significant adversaries in those stories women, and a heroic woman either doesn't have what it takes to challenge a female crook, or, isn't supposed to. Also:
When looking at Stephanie Brown's story, it’s important to note that Batman fails in his job as a mentor. Setting two strict rules and completely casting her out when she breaks one with the intention of saving his life is harsh and shows greater restriction than he imposed on the other Robins. Rather than working with her on her grievous mistake, he tells her that all of her work was meaningless and that she can never be a hero, no matter how much she’s done to prove herself. Her next choices are foolish, but he should have anticipated them. His lack of concern or care for her while constantly comparing her to her male predecessors is highly irresponsible and not at all how mentors are supposed to treat the young people they work with. The responsibility and the aftermath fall entirely on Stephanie’s shoulders despite the fact that Bruce put too much on her and then completely cut her out the second she did something he didn’t like. Stephanie’s personality was always more questioning and defiant than other Robins, and Bruce should have allotted for that when he made the choice to turn her loose.
Dixon once pointed out how, when he developed the 1995 story where Green Arrow would seemingly die (to make way for his illegitimate son Connor Hawke taking up the bow), the editorial mandates dictated it would end up rendering Superman as a failure, so obviously, this lead-in to War Games and War Crimes suffered a similar problem, right down to the aforementioned control freak mentality for the Masked Manhunter. If their idea was to make Supes and Bats into failures in the same way Spider-Man was when he failed to save Gwen Stacy, they screwed up gigantically because it was all so forced and contrived. And it didn't stop there:
Stephanie stole Batman’s foolishly unwatched plans for shutting down the criminal underbelly of Gotham. Reeling from what was, for her, a world-shattering rejection, she attempted to commence with these plans on her own but accidentally started a gang war among Gotham’s crime bosses. Black Hand kidnapped and tortured Stephanie to death.
So Steph's not good enough to be Batman's sidekick, and this is compounded as she's turned into a scapegoat for starting a gang war. And it got worse:
The aftermath of this is not pretty. Longtime Batman supporting cast member Doctor Leslie Thompkins admits to purposefully letting Stephanie die so that Bruce would stop recruiting children in his war against crime. That is, of course, beyond unethical. Ultimately, this story was stricken from the continuity books when the New 52 reboot occurred and reintroduced Stephanie, this time as Batgirl.
Steph was revived even before that in 2007 (and Thompkins cleared of all wrongdoing), but DiDio did everything he could to continue her marginalization, seeing as she was virtually barred from being turned into merchandise to boot, lest it benefit Dixon. Not that I think licensed merchandise like toys and cartoons ever did comicdom any favors, but still, that was serious mistreatment of a guy who'd worked hard to build the Batbooks up into something worthy, and they return the favor by trashing the best developed parts. As for the insulting theme of children not being suited to serve the war on crime in a surreal world, Marvel's sure coming close to that with their new Outlawed event, and it's no help either.

And such a pity Comics Beat didn't have what it took to bring up this major embarrassment that taints the tale of Stephanie as a female Robin. Considering DiDio's already gone, it'd surely be easier to critique the mess and learn some lessons from the past. But they keep up what appears to be the norm now, tiptoeing around bad storylines that did more harm than good, and tarnish what might've been decent - if not perfect ideas - told on their own.

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