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Sunday, 16 September 2012

This chart is based on sales figures that Comics Chronicle back-calculated from reports by the Diamond distributor. It shows the relative performance of Batgirl (in black) and Robin (in red).

The protagonist of Batgirl in this period, as I’ve been discussing, was Cassandra Cain. She was a teen-aged protégée of Batman, dealing with issues of identity, values, and heritage, so her coming-of-age story was parallel to that of Tim Drake as Robin. But she was a new character, especially fresh since she was female and of Asian extraction.

When Batgirl launched in 2000, the magazine outsold the much older Robin by about 50%. Then its sales started to slide—as the industry has come to expect for all its titles. The sales of Robin could slide, too. The January 2002 rise for both magazines came during a crossover. The big jump in Robin sales in 2004 was when DC got a case of the Stephs. But the long-term trend is clear: while Robin bobbed along, Batgirl gradually ran out of its original gas.

And what was that fuel? I submit that it was the main character’s Unresolvable Foundational Conflicts. When Cass Cain’s story started, she was suffering the effects of a horrendous upbringing as a child assassin: she couldn’t read, could barely speak, and was haunted by her past deeds. Those burdens drove her quest for justice and made it much harder. They balanced out and humanized her preternatural martial-arts skills.

But then Cass Cain learned to read speak. She temporarily lost her powerful ability to read body language in fights, forcing her to recognize the trade-offs in her life—but she overcame that problem, too. Cass confronted and defeated her father, the nasty assassin David Cain. She confronted and defeated her mother, the slightly less nasty killer Lady Shiva. She overcame her feelings of guilt. She built friendships with other crime-fighters. In sum, Cass resolved all her main Foundational Conflicts.

And that left little fuel for future stories. To be sure, there were other factors—most importantly, the original creative team of writer Kelley Puckett and artist Damion Scott moved on. But other characters have survived such changes.

The fundamental problem was that Cass Cain won. Bruce Wayne and Tim Drake never resolved their Foundational Conflicts that way in the main storylines. Clark Kent and Dick Grayson did resolve theirs, in Alan Moore’s “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” and the Batman stories of 2010-11, respectively—but those storylines led immediately into reboots that restored the characters’ original Foundational Conflicts. In a series, the problem with a happy ending is that it’s an ending.

DC ended the Batgirl magazine with its Infinite Crisis reboot. I suspect that the company editors set out to restore Cass Cain’s Unresolvable Foundational Conflict by taking her back to her roots as an assassin. By editorial mandate, she reappeared as the villain in a Robin storyline.

Cass’s characterization in the resulting issues is almost unrecognizable—once non-verbal, she now filled panels with expository dialogue. Once almost suicidally committed to justice, she was now a supervillain. Far from restoring Cassandra Cain as an interesting badass, that story and subsequent, more creatively successful appearances alienated her old fans and brought in few new ones.

Bruce Wayne’s death led to a reshuffling of the team he had assembled, with a new Batgirl. Cass Cain simply disappeared for a while. Eventually DC portrayed her fighting crime back in Asia, still linked to the Batman team through Tim Drake but comfortable working on her own. She had traveled farther than any of Batman’s male protégés and come of age. But as a protagonist, as opposed to a supporting character, she had nowhere else to go—not without a new Foundational Conflict.

And in DC’s latest universe, Cass Cain hasn’t yet appeared at all.

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