Stephanie Brown has always been a better superhero than we earned. In over twenty-five years of comics, Steph has been an untrained, un-monied Gotham superhero who could keep up (with full effort) with the rich, super-trained bat-family, the Robin, and the Batgirl. She has always been Steph. She has been the highlight of a solo ongoing, the breakout charming side character in another, the central fall girl of a sequence of terrible crossovers, star of some fun short comics, and DC higher ups once had the hair color of a little girl wearing her costume on Halloween recolored to look less like her.
Stephanie Brown Saved Me
by Travis Hedge Coke
It can be complicated to keep track of Steph’s appearances, her continuity, but it is never hard to be Stephanie Brown fan, even when the comics, themselves, make a mess.
Created by Chuck Dixon and Tom Lyle, the future star of one of USA Today’s Top 10 comics of 2010 was the underdog who was, legitimately, the underdog. The fanciest thing about Steph Brown through the early 90s, was her hair. Her hair was big. That is a joke.
When a superhero is labeled underdog in superhero comics, usually what we have is, for example, Daredevil, “he’s Batman without the money and cars,” who is a high-powered attorney with super powers who frequently owns entire buildings in the middle of New York City; Spider-Man, with his model/soap actress wife, inherited castle in Scotland, Manhattan penthouse flat with skylight. We make Batman look like the guy at the bottom by comparing his physical strength to Superman’s. It’s a shill.
Alisa Kwitney, writer of, The Love Song of Stephanie Brown, told me, “part of Stephanie’s special sauce is her tenacity and resilience and humor. She reminds me of the character Tess in Working Girl — she works hard for her wins, and she is easy to identify with, and she is fun. But she is not the better fighter.”
Stephanie Brown was not the smartest, fastest, best fighter, most trained, and often did not even have lunch money, much less mad money or a bat-daddy who would buy her a new car if she crashed one. She was a teenage girl who did decent in school, living with her single mom while her deadbeat dad was either in prison or finding a new way to get locked up again.
As an occasional supporting character in the Tim Drake Robin’s solo title, with spot appearances elsewhere, Steph (aka, Spoiler) was never going to bust out as the best at achievements, her brand of superheroing is vested in personal accomplishment, in measure against herself. As Spoiler she did not even have a mentor or the support of the local superhero community. Steph had no leg up from Batman or Huntress, and Tim, more than half the time, tried to stop her before she got started, thinking he was being supportive, thinking, in his very very mansplainy, young boy way, that he was helping.
Spoiler happened because Stephanie Brown made her superhero career happen.
Stephanie was also the cheery low-income kid. Steph was the low-class kid who did not know all the ins and outs of crime. Superhero comics are so frequently and casually classist that Steph not being angry at her own lower middle class existence, her not being deep in “I did what I had to” rhetoric, is on its own superheroic. She was not Batman or Daredevil with their fancy homes, but she was not Cloak or Dagger, either, she was not a slum stereotype or a suburbia gag. Steph might not mind hanging out in an abandoned warehouse for a night, but she was not indulging in crime.
Bryan Q Miller, who wrote her entire Batgirl series, to acclaim, says, “Stephanie (then) was a bit of a beacon of positivity for me as a writer. And, hopefully, for everyone who was reading, too,” concluding, “There are some things I might do differently now as a more experienced writer, but I don’t think my general approach to Steph and her place in the world of Gotham would be substantially different.”
Everyone I spoke to directly, fans and writers, artists and cosplayers, on or off the record, share a uniform, if individuated enthusiasm.
Surprisingly, even Steph’s baby was not treated as a condition of her class, in the sometimes-unconsciously class conscious bat-comics. Giving up the baby for adoption was treated as something that happens, especially to young single mothers who have no money. A thing that can happen, and can happen without cosmic judgment.
There may be editorial judgment, though, or publisher.
During the writing of Batgirl, Miller says, “The one thing I was never allowed to touch or address was Stephanie’s child she put up for adoption (from WAYYYYY before I came on board).” So, maybe some judgment, there, for someone in the chain of decisions. He notes, “Some of the sentiment of legacy under Steph that I would have gone for there showed up with little Nell.”
Back in 2004, years before Bryan Q Miller, the talent on the Batman-related comics were told an upcoming Event, would involve two specific things: “some kind of gang war” and that “Spoiler was gonna die.” What followed, Dylan Horrocks, then-current writer on the Robin title, called one of the most depressing weeks of his life. For one, while the plans did develop the angle whereby Stephanie would be promoted from Spoiler to the new Robin, it was always designed as a fake out, getting readers and press worked up over a new Robin and then the death of a Robin. They were jobbing her. They were fridging her. Binning her. That was the plan.
Devin Grayson, one of the best bat-writers in the last twenty years, was another in the talent pool who was beyond under-enthused, and another person who was ignored, as they moved forward anyway.
Writers other than Grayson and Horrocks turned in comics, as part of this event, where Steph is a Robin but also locked out of the inner circle, still; comics where Batman is sexist, where Batman is racist (Batman literally threatens someone, during questioning, with prison rape by black inmates). The War Drums/War Games/War Crimes event is poorly-paced, with frequent indulgent misogyny, awkward characterization, and problematic gender, race, and class content.
A character created decades before Stephanie Brown, Dr Leslie Thompkins, was also removed during the Event, having seemingly mercy killed Stephanie. Dr Thompkins, a life-long pacifist, whose most prominent roles over the years, had been to shine a light on how quick to violence Batman and other superheroes can be, killing a teenage girl, because, and then going away so that no one would have to deal with the effects. Bill Willingham, who wrote a fair chunk of this disaster, later said he “never cared for” Dr Thompkins, and that he was asked by DC to, “give her one good moment in her life before we crush her like a bug.”
As Horrocks put it at the Auckland Writers and Readers Fest in 2011, “It was really seedy, and I think about two days into it, I basically said look, I don’t want… because they planned this big long torture scene, I said I don’t want to really have anything to do with that. And there was another scene which was… I was Pilate, I was Pontius Pilate, I don’t want any of that in Batgirl, in effect what I did is I wrote my comic out of the key events in the story.”
Since the 1980s, there have been memorials for dead Robins in the Batcave, even memorials for retired Robins. There was, Steph having been murdered in an almost pornographic scene, no Steph memorial to be seen.
At Wizard World Los Angeles in 2007 DC Executive Editor, Dan Didio, justified the lack of memorial, by saying, “She was never really a Robin.” Willingham has clarified, since the Event, that he was asked to get her back from being Robin to Spoiler, to at least get her out of her Robin costume before she died, so they would not incidentally or accidentally botch another Robin murder.
When writers or artists put on a memorial for Stephanie Brown into a comic, it was removed before the comic went to print. The only reason we finally had one, apparently comes down to Grant Morrison, who was, for a time, the prominent writer and directing voice for the bat-books. Morrison also pitched some of what became her return and turn as Batgirl, and had wanted to do more with her before DC reset much of its continuity and removed many secondary characters in 2012. But, that’s getting ahead.
In 2008, it was revealed in-story that Stephanie was not dead, having been secreted away to Africa to be a relief worker as some kind of penance, and her death and her horrible autopsy photos, etc, were all faked at Batman’s behest, because because because.
Unfortunately, during this return, her original creator, Chuck Dixon, wrote one of the most racist stories of his career. Dixon had, up to that point, been incredibly good with and to Stephanie Brown. It is a low, and he really does not get a chance, after, to do better on the character.
In 2009, Stephanie changes over from Spoiler to being the newest Batgirl, under the mentorship of original Batgirl, Barbara Gordon. Steph’s Batgirl lasted twenty-four regular issues, one Road Home oneshot by regular series writer, Bryan Q Miller, and sporadic appearances elsewhere, including an issue of the team-up title, Batman Inc. For the first time, ever, she was being taken fully into the confidence, and was fully supported by other Gotham superheroes, specifically Oracle and Batman, though Tim Drake, now Red Robin, was more supportive than he had been.
Stephanie, in Batgirl, also made friends and fought evil with multiple superheroes, including Supergirl, Klarion the Witchboy, Proxy, and then-and-now Robin, Damian Wayne. She developed fleshed out community, her mom was back in the picture as a recurring, regular character. Miller, with artistic geniuses like Lee Garbett, Pere Perez, and Dustin Nguyen, gave her life beyond life.
Batgirl was a tribute book for twenty-five comics. It was, in an era with very few of them, a sweet book. And, one, genuinely heroic comic.
Not everything came through from the original pitch, to production. But, when does it?
Says Miller, “The largest difference between my initial take and where we wound up was Steph being in high school vs. being in college. The first pitch was set at a magnet high school built on the grounds of the old Arkham Asylum. Her circle of friends was the same. Her relationship with Babs was the same. A lot of the story ideas were exactly the same. The backdrop and context were different. Editorial wanted her a little older, so we aged her up into college and kept everything else kind of the same.
“Mike Siglain was my editor/partner in crime for the first half of the run. All the way up through ‘vs, Dracula’, I think. Mandates didn’t really start coming in until the second half of the run – when you’ll notice there’s a steep drop in both Steph’s internal monologue and Oracle.
“When I inherited her,” says Miller, “and essentially became her custodian, she was in desperate need of both redemption and some self-realization. So that’s the way I went. She’s an object lesson for the reader that we can actualize and address our pasts without letting them define our futures.”
In the final Batgirl issue, Steph tells Barbara Gordon, and the readers, “It’s only the end if you want it to be.”
Barbara, in that issue, says that Stephanie Brown saved her. Ever polite, Steph says the same of her, in return.
In The School of Night, by Morrison and Cameron Stewart, we see how Batman should have treated Steph from the beginning. “Batman doesn’t leave you alone unless you can handle it,” she narrates. “I didn’t come here to learn… I came to teach,” as she beats up baddies and wins the day.
The world ended. There was a dramatic continuity reset and there had been no Spoiler, no Steph as Robin, no Steph as Batgirl, maybe just no Steph at all.
This is when she could not even be represented in out of continuity stories or by a kid wearing a costume like hers.
Alisa Kwitney stepped up to the plate, to write a two-part comic set in the Convergence sequence, a set of two-part stories bringing back characters/casts from earlier eras, and close out their personal narratives more satisfactorily than anyone had the chance to, previously. The Love Song of Stephanie Brown, found an out of practice Steph living with Cass and Tim in a post-apocalyptic bubble city, about to be pitted against a combatant from another reality or time period, while her friends doubt her ability to win that fight, the survival of their city hanging in the balance.
“So why was she chosen?” muses Kwitney. “I wanted to show her trying to find the answer to that question. I also needed to find the right antagonist for her, and that meant someone who shared certain characteristics with her. For me, Catman fit the bill—and then I threw in Gorilla Grodd to essentially give the antagonist an antagonist.”
Love Song resolved tensions that had grown in fans’ heads over the years, regarding Tim’s loving condescension, Stephanie’s anxiety about measuring up.
“In the end, I always write about emotional and psychological conflicts, whether characters are acting on the conflict with words or punches,” says Kwitney. “I read as much as I could about Steph to prep for writing her, and then decided to surround her with two of the characters who had the most history with her—her friend and another Batgirl, Cassandra Cain, and her former boyfriend Red Robin/Tim Drake. I was handed the overall predicament as part of Convergence, and as a storyteller I wanted to get the most emotional impact out of the situation as I could—and that meant giving her an arc.”
Her old life capped off beautifully, Steph was introduced into the new continuity she had, until then, been locked out of.
“Your guys’ love for Stephanie Brown has been so inspiring to us in this series and Batman in general and were really proud she can come back in this series. Thank you,” said Scott Snyder. Brought back in Batman Eternal, a weekly book, by Snyder and Company, with what he called, “a modern fresh take that honored the character,” she was very dialed back, less-trained, less-competent again, frustration-anger a little more at the fore than it had been since the 90s, if ever.
She guested in Genevieve Valentine, Lee Loughridge, and David Messina’s Catwoman, in what seemed like it would springboard into more.
Steph was part of a team, under Batman, Batwoman, and… well, it felt like she was under or less than everyone, and she left that under a cloud.
Could this be the end of Stephanie Brown? Can ennui, continuity garbles, weird editorial, and simply being a female character do her in?
It really is only the end if you want it to be. And, nobody who counts wants that.
Stephanie Brown is currently featured in Young Justice.
Stephanie Brown Saved Me
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