One of the current Batman storylines has seen the Dark Knight travelling the world in search of his son’s corpse. The former Robin, Damian Wayne has been murdered by his clone brother and dug up by his evil grandfather and is being dunked in every life restoring Lazarus pit from Gotham to Timbuktu. But a while back there was a tantalising hint that another past incumbent might also be about to don her chunky goggles once more.
Carrie Kelley, the much loved Robin from Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, appeared for the first time in the official DC universe recently dressed in full Robin garb. But it turned out that this Carrie was Damian’s former drama coach in a Halloween costume. It might have just been a tease, but it did make me wonder – why has there never been a girl wonder?
Well, turns out there has, and quite a few of them too. Sort of. Way, way back in 1941 a year after the introduction of the Robin character another actress called Julie Madison briefly became the first girl to play Robin. She helped foil a plot by Clayface and then having had a taste of real action proceeded to dump her no good boyfriend Bruce Wayne, realising he could never match up to life with the Batman.
Over 60 years later another unhappy girlfriend, Stephanie Brown stepped into the green pantaloons. The on-off squeeze of retired Robin, Tim Drake took to her bedroom after their latest bust up and emerged a few days later in her very own handmade Robin costume.
Batman, despite some serious reservations about Stephanie’s abilities and attitude takes her on, prompting a very un-Robin like celebration. But Alfred is wary. Is Bruce simply taking the girl on as a way of luring Tim back to the cave?
If this all sounds a little soapy, it definitely is. By the time she becomes Robin, Stephanie has already taken revenge on her mob boss dad, had a baby (and had it adopted) and been out with the world’s greatest crime fighting sidekick. The Robin comic from this period reads more like one of the more melodramatic Marvel titles than the gritty tales of Gotham we’re used to.
Perhaps inevitably Steph’s story didn’t end well. Three issues in she was dropped by Bruce for not obeying orders. Ignoring his dismissal she returns under her former guise as Spoiler, unwittingly prompting an all-out gang war that ends in her brutal torture and eventual death.
In her brief tenure Stephanie Brown brought something fresh to the ancient Batman and Robin as father / son (or possibly gay lovers) dynamic. For the first time since the Dick Grayson model of the 40s we had a Robin who brought with her a sense of unbridled joy to the role. But Bruce, perhaps uncertain how to react to this new female presence treats her as an unruly puppy to be cowed and trained.
Batman has never seemed like more of a dick head. As well as using Stephanie as bait to lure the real Robin, he proves himself to be an unreconstructed chauvinist, berating her for fighting ‘like a girl’. He ultimately white washes her out of history; there was to be no creepy glass case costume memorial for Steph amongst the lost boy’s club in the Batcave. Happily though Grant Morrison cheekily rectified that sexist omission in a later dream sequence.
Stephanie’s story is also a reflection of the treatment of female characters in the DC comics universe. Step’s final battle is portrayed as a horribly sexualised graphic assault. Compare that with the doomy respect shown to that other failed Robin Jason Todd, where the camera politely pans away when he is blugeoned to death. Not everyone working on the Stephanie stories was happy about this. Batgirl writer Dylan Horrocks felt ‘It was really seedy, 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. . . .’
Of course it’s hard to really kill a comic character, and Stephanie implausibly returned from the dead to become an excellent Batgirl for a time. More recently, we’ve seen her along with the entire cast of Robins in a couple of off beam Bat titles, like the daft but pin sharp Tiny Titans.
In the cartoon spin off, The Brave and the Bold, all the Robins are brought together through time to save Batman’s life. Damian, perturbed by Stephanie’s presence asserts that, ‘Girls can’t be Robin’, but is given very short shrift by the cool incomprehensible Carrie Kelley.
When the big man finally steps out of the Lazarus pit Stephanie responds, as only she can, by flinging her arms around Batman.
Carrie Kelley also makes a reappearance in the Manga influenced Ame-Comi Girls series. She’s recast here as a dark haired, wise cracking lil’ kick ass, operating alongside her cousin Barbara Gordon. In this alternative universe only girls can be superheroes – and there’s no mention of the gunshot that ends Barb’s career as Batgirl, instead it’s her dad Commissioner Jim Gordon who is confined to the wheelchair.
Then there’s ‘Earth 2’, the ongoing multiverse saga first created in the 1960s (as if one overcomplicated universe wasn’t enough). One of its denizens is Helena Wayne, the daughter of Bruce and Selina ‘Catwoman’ Kyle. In the recent reboot her story we meet a very different bat family, the alternate Selina and Bruce somehow manage to play happy families and maintain their costumed identities.
Helena’s character, like Batman and most of the Robins, is defined by the death of both her parents. Her reaction to both of these is impressively realistic and movingly heartfelt – Selina’s killing is a world away from Stephanie’s exploitative demise.
With mother and daughter savagely torn apart, Robin tears off on a suicidal revenge mission. But Helena doesn’t need to mourn for long as she runs into the ample embrace of her super sapphic new pal Supergirl.
Girl Robins, like their male counterparts have a habit of growing up into less satisfactory spin off heroes. So Helena Wayne becomes The Huntress, Carrie Kelley is Catgirl and Stephanie Brown was resurrected as the latest in a long line of Batgirls. Now, the trouble with Batgirl is…