Batwoman in Red
One of the oldest characters in the DC canon made her live-action debut on Tuesday, in a teaser for the CW’s “Elseworlds” crossover special that will introduce Batwoman into the beloved Arrowverse.
Ruby Rose, fresh from shark-hunting in this summer’s “The Meg,” will play the superheroine, who may eventually get her own series.
It’s been quite a few years for Batwoman. In the summer 2016 DC Rebirth event, which “rebooted” the DC comics universe, she regained her solo title, which had been canceled the previous May. She also had a major role in DC Comics’ namesake series, Detective Comics–where the Batman first appeared in 1939–leading the “Batmen,” a dysfunctional group of superheroes he gathered to save Gotham for various outside forces.
The teaser, however, raises more questions than answers about how CW will fit Batwoman into the Arrowverse, the collection of superhero shows which began with 2012’s “Green Arrow.” This is the first time any of the shows have confirmed that the Arrow-verse has a Batman–before now, there were only a few references here and there to Bruce Wayne. But is this Batman a real person or just an “urban legend,” as the teaser states? And if he’s not real, where did Batwoman come from?
The producers have emphasized that Batman won’t be coming to their universe, but left the rest of the details vague. (It’s pretty clear that DC and Warner Brothers have forbid the Dark Knight from going on live TV, for fear of diluting their most valuable intellectual property–how else to explain “Gotham” and the upcoming “Pennyworth?”)
It’s a tricky dilemma–canonically, Batwoman has always been inspired to put on the cape and cowl by Batman. Will the CW continue that approach? Or is there some other reason she dresses up like a bat? Both paths present perils. To make her a copycat of an unseen hero might make her seem limited, like she’s just a warm-up act. To remove him from the equation entirely will make her look more like the female version of the Batman–even more insulting to the character.
I’m sure the Arrow-verse showrunners have thought this through. I just think it’s an interesting illustration of the quandaries surrounding the Batman family characters–especially Batwoman and her one-time daughter, Batgirl.
They were both inspired by him. (Pretty much–more on that later.) But, unlike the Robins, they weren’t recruited by him. Hell, they didn’t even ask for his permission. They run their own operations, intersecting with Batman occasionally, acting as allies, not sidekicks.
As they grabbed more panel screen-time and eventually secured their own solo titles, these sexy butt-kickers grew devoted followings in their own right and inspired generations of women (and men) to read comics.
But they were still created to complement Batman, and that’s in their DNA.
If they were created today, no doubt they’d be different, without vestigial connections to the white male hero. But they weren’t–they were created years ago, and have grown up with the rest of us, with evolving re-examination of where they came from. (And it’s not just the ladies–“Fuck Batman,” Robin growls in DC’s streaming show “Titans.”)
Which is to say, their relationship with the big man is complicated. But when does Batman ever make things simple?
Batwoman is a historic character in more ways than one. When she was introduced in 1956, she was the first non-Batman human character with the “Bat-” prefix, following Ace the Bathound and the extra-dimensional imp Bat-mite. She was one of the first spinoff superhero characters in DC’s stable, two years before Supergirl and five years before the first iteration of Batgirl (then Bat-Girl), though Capt. Marvel introduced the Marvel family a decade earlier.
It was a time when the comics were widening–becoming brighter, sillier and more family-friendly. But Batwoman had a more specific agenda. Fredric Wertham published “Seduction of the Innocent” in 1954, helping to spark a moral panic over the corrupting influence of comics on America’s youth. Wertham claimed that, among other things, Batman–who lives and sometimes sleeps with his young ward Dick Grayson and doesn’t spare him the occasional needed spanking–could be inspiring feelings of conflicted sexuality in male teenagers. (Many of Wertham’s concerns are quite antiquated, while others–like the shortening of youngsters’ attention spans and promoting the objectification of women–seem contemporary.)
Congressional hearings were held, the Comics Code Authority was established, and DC Comics desperately needed a female love interest for Batman–fast.
And thus Batwoman was born. She was created by legendary sci-fi writer Edmond Hamilton, and has a faint vampy and femme fatale vibe, wearing a bright yellow body-suit suit with a spiky red mask. As a civilian, she’s Kathy Kane, heiress and former trapeze artist, and a devoted Batman fan who decided to follow in his footsteps. In her first adventure, she downed hoodlums using her compact mirror, powder makeup and hairnet–which is quaintly sexist and kind of awesome at the same time.
To modern eyes, if the goal was to cut down on Batman’s homoerotic subtext, giving him a semi-platonic glam female sidekick in a skin-tight yellow bodysuit was a pretty hilarious misfire. (As far as the love interest went, it barely even registered.) And in a weird example of history doubling over to repeat itself backwards, the character who was created to make Batman seem less gay was reintroduced in 2006 as the first major LGBT character in DC Comics history.
She was now Kate Kane, a (still wealthy) military brat and former West Point cadet who was kicked out after refusing to lie about a relationship with another student. Following some listless partying (her alcoholism is a vastly underexplored topic), she’s inspired to take up crimefighting after beating away a robber and witnessing Batman. With help from her father, a colonel, in training and equipment, she eventually gains Batman’s attention–he even pretends to mug her to test her skills.
She definitely shares traits with Batman–like Bruce Wayne, she’s an heir from an elite Gotham family. (Related to Bruce through his mother, also a Kane.) And she also experienced tragedy early in life, as well–her mother and twin sister were killed by terrorists when she was twelve.
She also shares Batman’s lonely personal life. Her relationship with Renee Montoya, a Gotham City Police detective, ended tumultuously. DC Comics forbid her to get married to her fiancee in 2013–prompting the series’ writers to quit–because, as co-publisher Dan DiDio emphatically put it, Batman family characters can’t get married or have happy personal lives. “They put on the cape and cowl for a reason.” (This is often misreported as “superheroes can’t get married,” but that’s not what DiDio said or meant. I was there.) This rule is, apparently, still in place.
Despite the similarities, she’s still her own woman. But the relationship is complicated. Her leadership of Batman’s team in Detective Comics has been nothing if not tumultuous.
(There’s at least one version of Batwoman who’s more or less disconnected from Batman–in Marguerite Bennett’s “DC Bombshells”–a series based on figurines based on mock WWII-era pin-up calendars featuring the major DC heroines–Batwoman is a former Spanish Civil War fighter and batter for Gotham’s League of Their Own-style women’s baseball team, who takes on a crime-fighting hobby. She saves the Waynes from a murderous mugging, preventing Batman from ever emerging in this universe.)
Batgirl’s relationship with the Batfamily is complicated, too.
Technically created in 1961 as Batwoman’s daughter and a love interest for Robin, the character didn’t really make a mark until the Adam West show of the swingin’ late 60s.
Oddly enough, DC Comics editor Julius Schwartz had jettisoned Batwoman, as well as the rest of the Batfamily characters, a few years earlier, in an effort to introduce a “new look” into the stagnant franchise.
The TV show, with its delirious camp, had taken off like a rocket in 1966–and was falling to earth just as fast. Looking to expand its demographic amid sinking ratings, the “Batman” producers decided to add a female character to the mix in its third season. This time, Batgirl was Barbara Gordon, Commissioner James Gordon’s daughter. Indulging in a cliche so hoary you probably forgot it existed, she’s a bookish librarian by day and a fearless, sexy adventurer by night, operating in secret from her father as well as from Batman and Robin.
The show didn’t explain this–(it never explained anything)–but the comics writers, working in coordination with their TV counterparts, worked out the backstory. Crafted for the page by the legendary Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino, Barbara created her Bat-suit for a Gotham Police charity ball, but stopped the villain Killer Moth’s attempt to kidnap Bruce Wayne on the way.
Just like Batwoman, this Batgirl was a Batman acolyte–but also like Batwoman, she started out on her own and operated independently.
But she lacked Batwoman’s noirish hard edges–a true child of the 60s, she was all about having fun. Which is probably why her popularity far outshone her spirit sister.
Batgirl failed to revive the show, but she lived on for years, fighting alongside Batman against Gotham’s Rogue’s Gallery while also facing more feminine challenges like pantyhose runners. (No, really.)
As the franchise darkened, her persona was a reminder of Batman’s more fun, dancing days. Her style creates a natural contrast with the classic Dark Knight elements. Batman put on the ears to “strike terror” into the hearts of criminals–Batgirl, if anything, encourages her opponents to underestimate her. Batman is self-serious and morose; Batgirl is light and self-effacing. She seems more motivated by a genuine sense of altruism and a joy in what she does–and while she’s experienced her fair share of tragedy over her life, she doesn’t fixate on it as a motivation like her mentor does.
But they’re both still bats. And it’s wrong to say that Batgirl doesn’t get darker or more serious.
Alan Moore’s iconic and controversial “The Killing Joke” left Barbara shot and paralyzed, part of yet another attempt to revive Batman by shedding his family. It’s remembered as a landmark Batman story, one of the best in the Batman canon. (It gets my vote.) But to critics, it relegated Barbara Gordon (she never wears her costume) to, once again, an ancillary role, only important insofar as she mattered to Batman. The Joker attacks her only to prove a point to Batman and James Gordon, as if Barbara’s perspective on her own assault didn’t matter. The 2016 animated film version tried to rectify this by giving Batgirl and Batman a truly baffling romantic backstory–yet another violation of Batgirl’s autonomy and an act of disdain to the unspoken relationship of trust and respect between the two.
Barbara’s paralysis was meant to end Batgirl’s adventures–(“cripple the bitch,” Moore claims DC editor Len Wein told him)–but it didn’t stick. Others took on the mantle of Batgirl while Gordon became the computer whiz Oracle, assisting Batman’s team from behind the scenes, until life-changing surgery allowed her to be Batgirl again.
Writer Gail Simone incorporated the trauma of Joker’s attack into her run as Batgirl’s writer–all the more remarkable considering that Simone is a strong critic of “The Killing Joke.”
Batgirl’s tone can vary wildly author-to-author–even today, she’s still a selfie-taking party girl. But Simone wove stories just as filled with Gothic pathos as her male counterpart.
Her now-irreplaceable presence, though, is a reminder of the diversity and breadth of the Batman universe, which has stretched across 70 years by adroitly adapting to its times.
Batgirl’s relationship to Batman has evolved, too.
In “Batgirl: Year One,” published in 2003, writers Chuck Dixon and Scott Beatty supplied Batgirl with a new origin story, adding a few sly twists. She still began her crime-fighting career at a Gotham police costume ball. But she was no fan of Batman–she only picked a Batman costume that night to needle her father, the true hero in her life.
“I never wanted to be Batman,” she says to herself as she fights off Killer Moth. “Something I could never be inspired by, someone I would never want to be. Truth be told, when it comes to inspiration, I side with fishnets over leather.”
Calling herself Batgirl wasn’t her idea, either.
Dixon and Beatty figured a way to break out a 50-year-old, seemingly iron-clad foundational aspect of these spin-off characters–that they’re always admiring followers. Batgirl and Batman’s relationship wasn’t based on admiration anymore, but pure happenstance and begrudging respect. It may have just been the writers’ way of acknowledging what was plainly true, that Batgirl and her fan base had grown beyond Batman’s shadow.
When Simone got the chance to re-write Batgirl’s origin after a universe-wide reboot (not the reboot I mentioned earlier–another reboot), she struck a note down the middle.
This time, Babs was getting a tour of GCPD and came across a Batman suit reconstructed by police, just as the building was attacked by a gargantuan Canadian thick-necked brute. (Yep, from Canada.) She donned the outfit and took care of things before Batman arrived, and thus her crimefighting career began.
“I admit it, I liked the rush. I said it was to help people, and it was…but I liked the rush.”
Gordon didn’t seek out the opportunity to copy Batman–but it also wasn’t a complete coincidence she was viewing the Batsuit when shit went down. She was looking for it, with literal wide-eyed fascination.
“This is what I really came for. The Bat. Sorry, dad.”
As much as I love Dixon and Beatty’s iconoclasm, Simone’s approach feels truer. It’s just hard to believe that the cowl doesn’t mean something to Batgirl. (And shouldn’t she be more in control of her identity, than for it to be dictated by fate?)
Batman’s hardly the only superhero with spinoffs–there’s Supergirl, Spider-Woman, She-Hulk. But he feels unique, both quantitatively and qualitatively. It was only months after his creation when Detective Comics added Robin, after Bob Kane and Bill Finger found it frustrating to write detective stories without a Watson to repartee with. That role quickly became superfluous as Alfred grew from bumbling comic relief into Bruce’s surrogate father and enabler in his Batman crusade–but Robin stuck, surviving jokes, sneers, and (quite literal) attempts from editors and fans to kill him off. Today, Robin’s duties are split across several characters, including Bruce’s son Damian and a large gang of teenagers recruited by Alfred.
The movies don’t much like Robin–he’s either been cut entirely, dead, in embryonic form, or relegated to the dreaded Schumacher-verse–but many Batman fans claim he, and the Batman family, are the crucial part of the Batman mythology. It’s not a coincidence, they’ll note, that Dick Grayson, the first Robin, and many of the others are orphans or have survived similar traumas.
It’s an argument you’ll hear DC fans get into like clockwork at conventions and subreddits–is Batman best viewed as a solo character, or is his most interesting attribute his family? It’s a contradiction built into the heart of the character, who seems like he’s supposed to be a Chandler-esque loner, yet can’t stop collecting proteges and allies. And it’s not like he’s easy to get along with. The quandary has been explored by Scottish writer Grant Morrison–“The first truth of Batman…the saving grace…I was never alone. I had help”–as well as current Detective Comics writer James Tynion IV, and even the Lego Batman Movie.
Robin had an early solo run in Star-Spangled Comics in the late 40s, but it would take several more decades before these sidekicks and spinoffs started getting their own adventure stories–in series like the Brave and the Bold, Batman Family, Teen Titans, and Birds of Prey. And it took even longer before they got their own titles–Robin with Nightwing (his unencumbered persona) in 1995, Batgirl in 2000, and Batwoman (after a stint as the main character in Detective Comics) in 2011.
They’ve all built up strong fan bases, including many who are indifferent if not hostile to Batman himself. Just as, say, one not need to be a Michael Jordan fan to root for Dennis Rodman, everyone relates to the team based on what their particular personalities find appealing. (Current Batman writer Tom King said he grew up reading Nightwing, for instance.)
I’ll confess, I tend to fall on the loner side of the great Batman debate. But it’s hard not to admit that there’s something compelling about Batman’s family. Batman really is a genre, not a person–an oddball mix of pulpy Gothic sci-fi, heroics, and sci-fi. That genre doesn’t just revolve around one person, but has built up a cast of characters all dealing, in their own ways, with a world that’s just a little more fallen than ours.
After all, not everyone can be as great, or flawed, as Batman.
This piece was originally posted at The Parks Dept.