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Thursday, December 01, 2011

BATMAN THURSDAY 

Why we love Detective Comics

Stephanie Brown.

Stephanie Brown was the daughter of the Cluemaster, a Batman villain who could be called a second-rater if one were inclined to be charitable. Stephanie had quite a chip on her shoulder. She oozed attitude, full of anger at the world because of her disreputable, absentee father, and she always had something to prove. She was the Spolier, then she was Robin, then she died. Then she got better and got to be Batgirl for a while.

(I have no idea what she is doing today in the world of "The New 52.")

She didn't really have that much to do with Detective Comics. Stephanie was in a bunch of issues of Robin, and she had her own comic (recently defunct) when she took over the guise of Batgirl.

But when she was Robin, she made an appearance in Detective Comics #796 in a story that, for me, was a high point of the series for that time period.

I have been buying Detective Comics on and off since the late 1970s. About the time "Knightfall" began, I started buying Detective regularly and I didn't miss an issue (well, maybe one or two) for almost 11 years. Through thick and thin, through good and bad, I picked up Detective Comics on a regular basis from #658 to #786. And then I stopped. I got pretty darn busy, working on my bachelor's degree and then on my master's, and eventually I guess I realized I wasn't really paying that much attention to the issues of Detective I was purchasing, so I just didn't buy any more issues after #786.

But I did buy #796. I was probably walking by the newsstand in Hollywood, on my way to the bank or the library or something, and I thought I'd look at what was going on in Detective Comics.

Glancing through it, I was probably very pleasantly surprised. Nice art. Stephanie Brown - who I remembered fondly from the Robin series - was the new Robin. And the villain was Szasz, a very creepy serial killer who I thought was used very effectively in "Knightfall." Szasz preys on young women, and when he kills them - a task that he carries out relentlessly and efficiently - he cuts a tally mark on his own skin.

Or as Bats describes it:

"He keeps score, carving a mark into his own flesh with each kill."
To which Stephanie responds:

"Gross."
That's our Stephanie. No "Holy Self-Mutilation, Batman!" exclamations from her.

Once Batman figures out that Szasz is the perp, he tries to talk Stephanie into removing herself from the rest of the case. She fits the profile for Szasz's victims too well and she's pretty new at this kind of thing. Stephanie's not having it.

"Hey, look! I'm not gonna learn anything if you keep protecting me."
Fair enough.

Batman gives in, but he makes her wear extra body armor.

They catch up with Szasz in the subway, and the big conclusion is exciting, suspenseful, bloody and very well-written. At the very end, Batman and Stephanie discuss her mistakes, and the whole exercise looks like an excellent start to a new era for Batman. (It looked like that to me, anyway.)

I did not start buying Detective again, however. I picked up a few issues over the next few years, but it wasn't until quite recently that I started buying Detective again.

But here's what happened to Stephanie:

Immediately after the issue discussed above, all the Bat-titles were engulfed by another one of those multi-issue, multi-title cross-overs. It was called "War Games," and, over the following three or four months, the continuity went from "Batman" to "Robin" to "Legends of the Dark Knight" to "Detective Comics" to "Catwoman" to I-don't-know-what-all. At some point, Stephanie got fired from being Robin, but she decided to act on her own to show Batman how helpful she could be. Stephanie was captured and tortured by the villain known as Black Mask and she later died in the hospital.

I wasn't reading the Bat-titles at the time and I didn't know of Stephanie's death until much later. I would have been kind of pissed off had I read it at the time. But I do have to admit, it sounds like something Stephanie would do. I can easily see her getting in over her head like that and paying the ultimate consequence.

But did she really die?

It was kind of controversial. Stephanie's death seems to have largely been a commercial ploy to attach some BIG EVENT to "War Games," and many of the writers went along with it somewhat reluctantly. I haven't read any of "War Games," but it sounds like a blatantly commercial act, especially when you consider the care that went into Detective #796. I think the writer really enjoyed the idea of "Batman as teacher" stories with Stephanie as a headstrong pupil with passion and resourcefulness to make up for her inexperience and stubbornness.

But Stephanie got better and enjoyed a 24-issue run as Batgirl in her own comic.

But the Szasz story in Detective #796 is one of the reasons we love Dectective Comics.

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