Batman & Robin Eternal may seem like an odd title to pick out to be a moment for sober reflection, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that this is the territory that the title and its architects have staked out for it. As this issue in particular dives deeper than ever before into the circumstances that molded Cassandra Cain and lays bare Mother’s methodology, it offers up a particular moment of reflection on the fact that we’re on the cusp of being exactly thirty years removed from the most dramatic and decisive tonal shift that comics as a medium have ever witnessed.
The mythology of 1986 as the year that transformed comics forever is simplistic of course, but it’s the narrative and the legacy that endures. The shift was understandable for its time given the peak of Cold War era tension between the USA and Soviet Union iconically invoked by The Watchmen and the influx of UK based creators weary of Thatcherism, but that shift never came with a dialogue about how to manage the plunge into the depths of darkness that the medium has never truly made a concerted effort to return from. Whether it was works as disparate as Jamie Delano’s Hellblazer or John Ostrander and Kim Yale’s Suicide Squad there was a purpose and a place for their engagement with the darkest impulses in human nature. That wasn’t a value that ever transferred evenly across the medium, resulting in a lot of storytelling that luxuriated in nihilistic violence or caused alienating, irreparable harm the way that The Killing Joke did.
The lessons of the era are as many as they are rarely taught, with successive decades seeing high profile returns to gratuitous and ill judged acts of violence and cruelty, typically against female characters like clockwork. Cassandra Cain originally emerged from the wreckage of No Man’s Land which is a difficult event to easily judge as a whole, but, is best remembered as being the Batman canon’s equivalent of the Book of Job, pushing Bruce towards an even deeper emotional and spiritual nadir than the death of Jason Todd and Cassandra wore an equivalent amount of unexamined trauma as a result. As I’ve said throughout her re-emergence, there was never a satisfactory accounting for the monstrousness of what was done to her or an equivalent opportunity for healing because these were never judged to be the necessary counterbalances to evoking the misery she was born from.
Even so, it isn’t enough to say that this issue, or even the series leading up to it, takes us into Hell because our working definitions of what it is and why we go there have been sadly diluted. When I say this issue takes us into Hell, I mean to say that Ed Brisson is charting a course into the same waters that Ostrander and Yale took Bronze Tiger, Vixen, and Oracle through. This is a painful journey for what is so far for honest reasons.
I wasn’t entirely sold on Dick’s lashing out at the close of last issue and I remain skeptical of it, but that takes a backseat as The Sculptor reasserts control over the psychic journey they’re undertaking and she makes it readily apparent for him just how personal and painful this is for her. She asserts several times throughout the issue that what she, Orphan, and Cassandra were subjected to is abuse. I’m certain that this will cause no lack of eye rolling among certain segments of the readership and critical establishment, but the context here is ludicrously important when it comes to re-establishing who Cassandra Cain is and what she was subjected to. The monstrous abuse she was subjected to in her original incarnation, which differs only slightly from her newly revised origin, was never accounted for properly and was more often than not presented as something that empowered and strengthened her, if she had any agency over it whatsoever.
By explicitly labeling it abuse, the narrative opens itself up to be able to accommodate a truly meaningful discussion about the kinds of trauma that are framed as “growing up” or “toughening” children in the real world. Certainly, the monstrousness of what Cassandra was subjected to challenges even the kinds of trauma that child soldiers such as the protagonist of the recent Beasts of No Nation are subjected to, but there definitely are analogies that are dangerously fetishized and require proper examination. What we’re beginning to see in stark clarity this issue is how cycles of abuse function and how someone like The Sculptor or even David Cain could be twisted into perpetuating the kinds of trauma that Mother enacted on them onto another generation, which we see Cassandra herself drawn into at the close of the issue. There remains a great deal to unpack in what we see spread across the issue, particularly how The Sculptor describes Cain breaking away from Mother’s doctrine of not enjoying the violence they enact, becoming an unrepentant sadist, but these are dynamics that will have to be explored further before anything conclusive can be drawn from them. The only real surprise this issue is the implication that Cain is not in fact Cassandra’s biological father as we see him pull a girl implied to be her from a car wreck that apparently killed her parents, which, if true, is a radical departure from her origin as the product of an eugenics like arrangement between Cain and Lady Shiva.
There’s incredible promise here, promise that has steadily unfolded over the last three months, but the work is hardly done here. As we see Cassandra drawn back into the cycle of violence at the close of this issue, horrified at what she’s been manipulated into enacting, it has to be remembered that these kind of nadirs have been presented before with disastrous results. As recently as this year, Batwoman appeared headed for a frank discussion of emotionally abusive relationships and violations of consent only to balk spectacularly, causing an incredible amount of harm to the integrity of the story and character, and so it remains critically important that heading in a given direction is all well and good, but what requires the toughest resolve and most nuance is preserving the agency of the victim and remaining consistent in the framing of the abuse. This was a hard issue to read, but there are times when fully mapping out the nature and scope of trauma like this is the only honest thing to do.
The narrative we’re privy to around The Killing Joke is that it was simple to have Barbara shot. “Go ahead, cripple the bitch,” was the response Moore was purportedly given when asked for permission. Earlier this year when the prospect of an animated feature based on The Killing Joke was raised, Ostrander revisited the conversation he had with Yale, his late wife, about the shooting, which eventually lead to the creation of Oracle. Ostrander was candid, describing the extent of the injuries that they hypothesized Barbara would have sustained. This kind of violence can be executed thoughtlessly, but it took much more difficult conversations about physical and mental trauma in order to even begin planning Barbara’s rehabilitation. That Ostrander and Yale were willing to have that conversation and build from it is what defines their legacy and Suicide Squad as being one of the greatest comics of the era. Their legacy is easily evident in titles like Gail Simone’s Secret Six or Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher’s re-examination of The Killing Joke earlier this year with Irene Koh, but in a broader sense they remain one of the primary yardsticks for how to guide characters honestly through trauma in a way that connects meaningfully with the readership.
It’s something that we’re seeing Tom Taylor and David Lopez navigate with X-23 as well as Patrick Gleason with Damian Wayne. The creative choices that lead these characters to be depicted witnessing and enacting extreme violence at incredibly young ages are dubious at best, especially in the case of X-23 who was recruited into what was effectively a death squad as a teenager shortly after having been coerced into murder and sex work, but all of the writers and artists handling these characters have thus far shown themselves willing to shoulder the burdens of previous mistakes, and perhaps this is the result of a generation who grew up in the shadow of 1986 and have known little if anything else.
There certainly is a vision in place for a Cassandra on the other side of the trauma she’s experienced and what she’s yet to traverse, and the strongest element of her execution so far has been to establish who she is beyond the violence she was brought in at the earliest available opportunity. What remains is seeing her through the darkness and out the other side, and as of this issue, I remain fully confident it will happen.
Written by Ed Brisson from a story by Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV
Drawn by Javier Pina and Goran Sudzuka with colors by John Rauch
Letters by Corey Breen
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Emma Houxbois is a fiercely queer trans woman from the wilds of Canada, most recently spotted in the Pacific Northwest. She is a two time IWC Women’s World Champion and has written about comics for the web since 2005 for sites including Playboy, Bitch Media, and Graphic Policy.