It was a tremendous lack of foresight that saw me declare Genevieve Valentine’s tenure as the best run ever on a Catwoman solo title, because it seemingly didn’t leave me with much more I could say about the title. Thankfully, Valentine has packed this issue with enough to discuss that I won’t have to claim that the cat got my tongue any time soon.
This issue opens with the investigation of the murder of PI and former GCPD officer Bill Turner, introduced last issue. Turner, as can be surmised by the logos he drew on his files, appeared to have been trying to hunt down the civilian identities of Batman, Batwoman, Batgirl, Robin, and Nightwing at the time of his death. Selina catches wind of this through a trade with Detective Alvarez that sees her give up the Calabrese’s man on the inside of the GCPD, but she soon discovers she isn’t the only Gotham vigilante sniffing around Turner’s death as Stephanie Brown makes her long awaited return as Spoiler.
When last we saw Steph -in the pages of Batman Eternal– she was kidnapped and made to give up her father by Selina so she’s none to pleased at their reunion, but words cannot describe my excitement for the return of the Eggplant Avenger. Most of the time it means something pretty significant when you say that you own most or all of a given character’s merchandise, but the only things to own out of her run as Batgirl are a t-shirt and an action figure. An action figure whose current asking price on eBay is -at cheapest- $200. Over ten times what I paid for mine when it came out. The first trade paperback of her Batgirl run is hovering around $50 right now, which is the first time I’ve seen it go for less than $100 in recent memory. I’m not sure if Selina or I made the bigger mistake in not ransoming our Stephs to the highest bidder, but the more salient point is that demand has far outstripped the supply of all things Stephanie Brown in the four years since Flashpoint. This is also true of Cassandra Cain, but her much longer run and marginally better assortment of merchandise don’t paint quite as stark a picture as Stephanie’s. Cassandra’s return is perhaps even more urgently needed as Steph’s was so my fingers remain crossed that I’ll get to see her again soon.
Had I been told that Steph’s return to the DCU would be as Spoiler prior to Babs’ relocation to Burnside I probably would have ground my teeth a bit in resentment, but the tremendous success of the current team in delivering a lighthearted, easily accessible college aged Batgirl has softened it, to a point. What I truly loved about Steph’s arc from Spoiler to Robin and Batgirl prior to Flashpoint is that she struggled constantly against gatekeepers to earn them. Tim Drake fought, gaslit, and blackmailed his heart out to try to force Steph off the streets as Spoiler. Not only did she overcome that opposition, she became the next Robin, the role he’d last occupied. She didn’t get handed the Robin costume either, she had to fight harder than any of her predecessors to earn Batman’s validation. This is a girl so stubborn that getting killed didn’t stop her. She came back tougher than ever and fought Barbara Gordon herself for the right to be Batgirl.
Fighting against gatekeepers to fulfill your dreams is a narrative that just about any woman, especially women in geek culture and STEM fields, can get behind but it also has a very special resonance for me as a trans woman. I have to struggle with gatekeepers of many different kinds on a daily basis just to validate my womanhood, and the tactics that gatekeepers within the political, psychological, and medical establishments have traditionally used to suppress us sure do include many of the things Stephanie Brown has encountered on her way to being Robin and Batgirl. So from my perspective there’s a lot more pain attached to losing all the history that was shorn from her in the wake of Flashpoint than any other character. I do, however, still have a t-shirt, an action figure, and all those comics that still symbolize all those things to me no matter what costume she’s wearing now.
The Steph who appears in Catwoman #42 is Spoiler in much more than just name or costume. Valentine imbues her with all the rage, conviction, and stubbornness that she debuted with all those years ago. She’ll stand toe to toe with anyone, which Eiko describes as a knack for pissing off the wrong people. Steph kicks off her debut by confronting Selina outside the murdered PI’s office which quickly escalates into a fight that knocks the Eggplant Avenger out cold. When she wakes up, it’s Eiko standing over her with an offer to take Steph under her wing. As much as I know this is a very questionable move on Eiko’s part given how new she herself is at being a vigilante, seeing Steph get a shot at the Cat side of things is the best of all possible options. We’ve seen Steph claw her way into the Bat way of doing things, we know what that trajectory looks like and the friction that came from Tim, Bruce, and Babs trying to re-shape her in their image.
What Steph never got to see was the alternative route that Selina could offer her, the one that Holly Robinson and now Eiko Hasigawa have traveled down. Bruce and Babs began their vigilante activities from positions of privilege, people for whom policing and the criminal justice system works for more often than not. Stephanie Brown, like Jason Todd before her, came from a background that made her more likely to be one of Batman’s targets than a beneficiary of his actions. If Batman severely injured or incarcerated her petty criminal father, her ability to feed herself, keep her home, and attend school would become incredibly precarious. This is one of the primary motivators that made her become Spoiler in the first place, taking the name as an expression of her intent to thwart her father in her own way, on her own terms. Thus, Selina and Eiko’s struggles with their own fathers’ criminal empires are a world that Stephanie can understand and be understood by far more than anything Bruce or Babs could ever offer her. There was value and incredible symbolism in Steph’s fights to be validated by an institution that would never fully accept her, but there’s equal power in embracing an identity that exists as a counterpoint to said institution. It’s also an equally queer narrative to her clashes with gatekeepers.
Steph’s entry into the story is also where this arc’s new artist David Messina truly proves his worth. I really enjoy his style but I was also ambivalent about losing Garry Brown’s unique sensibilities. Those reservations are gone now that Spoiler’s debut demands more kinetic action sequences, which Messina’s style is far more appropriate for. This is by no means any more a conventional superhero book than it’s ever been under Valentine, but it has expanded in it’s scope to give Steph enough room to strut her stuff the way she ought to. Interestingly Steph has also brought along an expanded palette with her debut, nudging Lee Loughridge into incorporating a new range of eggplant (“purple would have looked stupid“) into his pages. It’s an interesting synthesis of the clashing warm reds and cool blues that Loughridge has played up in the past as sparks flew between Eiko and Selina, perhaps suggesting that Spoiler presents either a middle ground or a synthesis. Whatever the symbolism at work here, it’s incredibly clear on both the writing and the drawing side of this issue that Stephanie Brown is here to stay.
Written by Genevieve Valentine
Drawn by David Messina with colours by Lee Loughridge
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.