Grumpy Old Fan | Sidekicks, icons and DC public relations

A brief indulgence before we get started: July 14 marked eight years since I started blogging about comics on my own little website, the now-dormant Comics Ate My Brain. Since one of my first posts was called “Robin Problems,” it’s a happy coincidence that this week we return to the original superhero-sidekick identity.

Although I’m not always happy with DC Comics as a company, I have a lot of empathy for the people who work on superhero comics, especially those who populate convention panels. Regardless of how we think they’re doing their jobs, those are still their jobs, and I wouldn’t want to go to work every morning facing a steady torrent of criticism from my customers. (We lawyers get more than enough workplace second-guessing as it is.) It also can’t be easy traveling around having to face one’s critics in person.

That said, if the alternative-fuels industry could harness avoidable fan outrage, DC Comics would be the new OPEC. Once again demonstrating a knack for how not to behave, its panelists practically laughed off legitimate questions about switching out fan-favorite Bat-protege Stephanie Brown for the “more iconic” Barbara Gordon.

After those original accounts appeared online (on Friday the 13th, no less), more details emerged to help explain just who did what. It’s still a situation where DC higher-ups asked to remove Stephanie (which, it can’t be said enough, is really asking for trouble); but apparently the series’ writer got to choose her replacement. Don’t worry, we’ll get into all the nuances.


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Some background, for those unaware: Stephanie debuted in early August 1992’s Detective Comics #647 as Spoiler, an aspiring crimefighter who soon developed a sweet, occasionally romantic relationship with the third Robin, Tim Drake. Eventually, she replaced Tim as Robin (in July 2004's Robin #126), only to be scapegoated, tortured,and apparently killed shortly thereafter as part of the “War Games” and “War Crimes” intramural crossovers. Those indignities led to calls for her to have a Robin-costume memorial in the Batcave (to match that of Tim’s predecessor, the then-dead Jason Todd), but the DC leadership didn’t exactly make that a priority. Instead, Steph returned to Gotham alive and well in 2009 as part of the “Battle for the Cowl” reshuffling, and traded in her Spoiler duds to be the new Batgirl. (Ironically, this also produced some outrage, since Steph succeeded the fan-favorite Cassandra Cain, whose own Batgirl title had run for some eight years.)

Written by Bryan Q. Miller (who also worked on the Smallville TV series), Stephanie’s Batgirl book quickly found its audience, but was canceled after two years as part of last September’s New 52 relaunch. Steph disappeared into a crack in continuity, showing up only in a Batman Incorporated special that attempted to bridge the gap between the previous and current timelines. Accordingly, fans welcomed Miller’s news that he would write a version of Stephanie as Batman’s sidekick Nightwing in the digital-first Smallville Season 11.

Aaaand ... that didn’t lasted very long. At Comic-Con, DC confirmed that Smallville’s Nightwing would be Barbara Gordon, invoking the I-word as justification shortly thereafter. I would brag more about getting that one right, but at this point DC tends to use “iconic” as shorthand for “whatever we feel like.”  Also, when I first read about all this, I didn’t know that Miller was able to choose Steph’s replacement, and that he chose Babs. I learned those things on July 18, when Gail Simone said so (on her Tumblr):

Today, Bryan told me it was his idea to use Babs, when asked to replace Steph. [...] I am not sure why he chose Babs instead of Cass or Helena, but I know the kind of person and writer he is and deliberately upsetting people is not his style at ALL. He loves you guys and wants to do right by you and the characters.

While that doesn’t change the fact that DC didn’t want Steph as Batman’s Smallville sidekick, interestingly enough it cuts against the “more iconic” defense. Presumably, if Miller had named Smallville’s Nightwing Cassandra Cain, Helena Bertinelli, or even Helena Wayne -- none of whom has Babs’ résumé -- there was a greater-than-zero chance the higher-ups would have gone for it. I’m not sure anyone outside of the DC offices believes that, but there it is.

We fans tend to be cynical in these matters because whenever DC reverts to some older version, more likely than not “more iconic” is the official reason. However, it’s not so much that “iconic” has been devalued as much as it’s become non-specific. What’s iconic to me may not be to you; and if my iconography prevails, you may well feel slighted. The criteria for “iconic” status also seem to shift based on circumstances. Exhibit A is the animated “Justice League”: no matter how many people it introduced to John Stewart/Green Lantern and Wally West/Flash, DC uses print-comics stature to defend emphasizing Hal Jordan and Barry Allen.

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Today, though, we’re talking specifically about sidekicks, which reminds me of the legendary Jules Feiffer’s thoughts on the subject. (We’ll get back to the “iconic” discussion soon enough.) In The Great Comic Book Heroes (his seminal look at the Golden Age), Feiffer didn’t mince words:

If the theory behind Robin the Boy Wonder, Roy the Superboy, The Sandman’s Sandy, The Shield’s Rusty, The Human Torch’s Toro [and] The Green Arrow’s Speedy was to give young readers a character with whom to identify it failed dismally in my case. The super grownups were the ones I identified with. They were versions of me in the future. There was still time to prepare. But Robin the Boy Wonder was my own age. One need only look at him to see he could fight better, swing from a rope better, play ball better, eat better, and live better -- for while I lived in the east Bronx, Robin lived in a mansion, and while I was trying, somehow, to please my mother -- and getting it all wrong -- Robin was rescuing Batman and getting the gold medals. He didn’t even have to live with his mother.

Robin wasn’t skinny. He had the build of a middleweight, the legs of a wrestler. He was obviously an “A” student, the center of every circle, the one picked for greatness in the crowd -- God, how I hated him [pp. 42-43].

To be sure, those early comics didn’t really exceed their own boundaries. For that matter, Feiffer’s reaction to Robin reminds me of my great-grandmother’s seething resentment of Barney Fife. For Grandma, Barney’s continued existence was an example that the universe was not a just place where the terminally negligent would otherwise have received appropriate punishment. (Grandma also thought Nixon got off too easily.) I suppose this means that after a while, she lost sight of one of The Andy Griffith Show’s main examples of forgiveness. Still, as sidekicks, both Barney and the Golden Age Robin had clearly-defined roles, neither of which left much room for development. For that matter, neither “TAGS” nor the Batman comics were quite the same after Barney left Mayberry and Dick graduated from high school ... but I’ll leave this comparison before I start contrasting Warren Ferguson with Jason Todd. (Besides, there’s no truth to the rumor that Ernest T. Bass beat Warren to death with a crowbar.)

At any rate, today we have an extended, multigenerational “Bat-Family,” the very idea of which has its own subset of devoted fans. Clearly fans are more than happy to picture themselves as someone other than the headliner. Apart from reader-identification, Robin was created to help humanize Batman; and today, that task is spread among a squad of associates. Last August, they included Dick/Nightwing, Babs/Oracle, Jason/Red Hood, Tim Drake/Red Robin, Stephanie/Batgirl, Cass/Black Bat, Damian Wayne/Robin, maybe Helena Bertinelli/Huntress and Selina Kyle/Catwoman, and on rare occasions Kate Kane/Batwoman.

However, relaunches tend to thin the supporting-cast ranks, as 1964's “New Look” did with the original Batwoman, Bat-Girl, Bat-Mite, and Ace the Bat-Hound. (Back in the 1970s, when an actual Batman Family comic had to fill its pages with characters other than Robin and Batgirl, it featured Man-Bat and the original Helena Wayne Huntress, and guest-starred the Joker’s Daughter and the original Batwoman.)

Of course, their fans haven’t forgotten them -- especially “Kyrax,” AKA “Batgirl,” a dedicated Stephanie Brown fan and cosplayer who previously took on DC’s female-unfriendly postures and who, this year at Comic-Con, asked persistently about the switch. Stephanie’s presence had been confirmed in solicits, including as part of one issue’s cover art, and bolstered with a quote from Miller. DC responded to her inquiries with derisive obfuscation of the “we’re not aware of such rumors” variety.

And here’s where I get agitated. Regardless of who on which panel knew what and when, that’s not the way to go. When you abruptly reverse course on a topic which obviously means so much, even to relatively few, there’s no reason to be snippy about it. You may be sick of the whole thing, including implications (or outright accusations) of misogyny. You may think it’s unfair, and/or rooted in the complainant’s own thin skin. You might just be having a bad day. Even so, isn’t it better to start with empathy, not condescension? Tell the fans you love what they love, tell them you’re sorry not everyone gets a spotlight, give them some hope that maybe their favorite(s) could come back -- but don’t give them this “oh, not you again” attitude. (From what I can tell, Wally West partisans don’t get that treatment.) If you know why the change is being made -- beyond the “iconic” dodge, which at this point sounds boilerplate -- and can say so without spoilers, why not say it? Heck, if you don’t know, at least let people down easy. We know Stephanie has lots of fans, and we were looking forward to seeing her in Smallville. We’re sure Bryan will do a great job with Barbara as Nightwing. How hard is that? At least Dan DiDio seemed a bit more conciliatory, saying, “maybe down the road we can do more” when “Batgirl” talked to him the next day.

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Still, by invoking Babs’ “more iconic” status, DiDio did exactly what I expected. I’ve said before that if DC were more serious about this whole “icon” business, it would mean rolling back about 40 years of continuity. Wally would still be Kid Flash, Dick Grayson would still be Robin, Barbara would be Batgirl (and maybe in Congress), and the only Nightwing might well be Van-Zee in the Bottle City of Kandor.

However, I have to recognize how much my own history with these characters affects my perspective. Dick was Robin for 44 years before ditching the short pants, but he’s been Nightwing for almost thirty. More persuasively, Wally was Kid Flash for twenty-five years (1960-85), and the Flash (or “a” Flash, at least) for about as long (1986-2006, 2007-11). Then, of course, you get into arguments like “more people probably read Barry’s adventures in the ‘60s and ‘70s because comics sales were higher” versus “more people watched Wally on ‘Justice League’” and soon it comes down to “we do this because we can.” Indeed, when Smallville-the-show started introducing established DC characters more frequently, it didn’t always use the older (and presumably more iconic) versions, opting for Bart Allen/Impulse, Mia Dearden/Speedy and Jaime Reyes/Blue Beetle.

As hair-splitting as this stuff may appear, clearly it matters to a significant portion of DC’s fanbase. For decades, DC has been encouraging its readers to identify not just with Robin as a gateway into Batman’s world, but with Dick, Jason, Tim, and Stephanie as individuals. (I’m not sure who’s supposed to identify with Damian.) Moreover, making the costumes transferable created another layer of status: Stephanie’s stint as Robin was a kind of victory lap, making up ahead of time for her ignoble fate; and talk that the New-52 Tim may not have actually been a Robin isn’t sitting well with his supporters.

Exacerbating all of these twists and turns is the Internet’s impersonal intimacy, which can make the most innocuous business decision All About You. I’m not saying that the Steph/Babs switch was innocuous -- DC must know by now to handle Stephanie with care -- but even as part of superhero comics’ diminished audience, online fandom is apparently not that representative. Once again we turn to Gail Simone:

I don’t agree with it, but everything that has INFURIATED the internet fanbase lately has sold really well....

I don’t agree with [the theory that DC and Marvel incite fan outrage to goose sales], and even if I did, I think it’s a mistake to deliberately upset loyal readers, it’s uncalled for. But some people do believe it.

The thing that I do believe, and this upsets people every time I say it, but the vocal contingent on message boards and social networks sadly do not seem to reflect the readership at all. I’m not sure if they ever did. I know this is sometimes sad to hear, but it’s true, it’s absolutely true.

If it were true, the best-selling books at DC would be Batgirl and Secret Six and at Marvel, they would be X-23 and Young Avengers, and so on.

If it were true, the top ten books, with a few exceptions, would sell almost nothing.

I know it stings a bit. But the vocal internet community is an elite part of the readership. They are like gourmet readers, in my view. They have very good taste as a rule … but the books they love the most sell nothing and the books they hate are huge hits.

We have to address it, we have to quit kidding ourselves. Critical acclaim is lovely, but Tumblr buzz bears no relation to a book’s actual success, in general (I’m sure there are exceptions).

So, I think we have trained publishers not to take internet upset too seriously at this point. If we are outraged and disgusted by crossovers, and they continue to sell like hotcakes, eventually, publishers listen to numbers and not to bloggers.

I wish this weren’t the case … I don’t know if it’s the same for prose and film and music, but in comics, people will rave and rave about a book, it sells nothing, and then because they have raved about it so much, the poster or blogger feels that the company hates them personally because that book was so loved.

But no one bought it.

When DC’s legacy-character structure really took off in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it offered readers -- especially new readers -- any number of gateways into its shared superhero universe. Wally, Tim, Kyle Rayner, Jack Knight, Kate Spencer, Ryan Choi, et al., could be effective guides because they were finding their way around too. Evidently, that sort of personal identification can also create some pretty strong feelings for fairly-specific versions of what were intended as rather broad figures. Complicating things is the perception that the “more iconic” versions (say, from the Silver Age) are demonstrably more boring.

In other words, for a good long while DC made it easy to like its newer characters, and then figured it was better off going back to the classics. If Simone’s assessment is accurate, DC may well be OK with losing those small-but-vocal online fans, particularly if it wouldn’t have to listen to them anymore.

Even so, DC does itself no favors whenever it appears to act capriciously. Fans are generally realistic about the chances of seeing their favorite characters, and they know when someone’s trying to blow smoke up their orifices, but nominal amounts of empathy and transparency go a long way.

Ultimately, this shouldn’t have been an issue. Smallville’s Stephanie would have been the sidekick to a supporting character in a book about one TV version of Superman. It would have been a nice way for Miller to work in one of his favorite characters, and of course it would have been good for Steph’s fans, but I doubt seriously that it would have affected the story significantly.

Instead, there’s all this hoo-hah about “more iconic,” which probably has more to do with a nebulous notion of “brand synergy,” and/or not confusing those hypothetical 20 people who expect to see Babs as Batman’s main sidekick because they saw her in the “The Batman” cartoon and read Batman Earth One and know absolutely nothing else about the characters. I’m not saying DC should necessarily listen to every vocal faction -- but when you reach out positively to a group of potentially-hostile fans, and they respond in kind, why would you want to yank that away?  Why upset one group to court another group which may not care?  It ends up being no good for either side. Fans have one more reason not to trust the publisher, and the publisher has one more example of fans never being satisfied. Is that the kind of relationship DC wants?

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