Comic Characters – Cassandra Cain

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Cassandra Cain, created by Kelley Puckett and Damion Scott, was the second Batgirl, and the first to take the position after Barbara Gordon was paralyzed by the Joker. First appearing in the Batman crossover “No Man’s Land” and formally taking the Batgirl role in 2000, she is the first Batgirl to headline her own series. She is also probably never going to appear in a comic book again, though not for lack of trying. Creators like Grant Morrison and Gail Simone have pitched stories that bring her back and had them rejected every time, and if an artist tries to give her a cameo in the background, DC will send the issue back to have her removed or changed. For some inexplicable reason, she is persona non grata at DC, which is a shame because she’s the most interesting Batgirl.

Cassandra Cain’s hook is that she cannot read, write or speak more than the simplest words, but she is fluent in body language and the language of violence. She is the child of a loveless union (honestly, a business transaction) between two assassins. Her father wanted to try an experiment that would rewire the language section of the brain so that for her it stores and reads physical movement as if it were a language. As a result, she can read her opponent’s moves and intent perfectly, but she cannot learn any “normal” language. It is pure comic book nonsense, but fun.

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People have asked why Bruce Wayne or Barbara Gordon don’t simply teach her sign language. The truth is, Barbara does try, but Cassandra has no interest in learning. Her unique way of thinking could easily let her communicate to others through movement, but she has no interest in communicating because (like many of these super characters I’m writing about) she doesn’t consider herself to be worth caring about. From birth she was tortured, her sadistic father would occasionally just shoot her for fun, and she had no concept of the outside world or that other people existed. When she performed her first assassination at the age of 8, her abilities meant she read her target’s pain and fear the entire time she killed him. She saw what it was like to die by reading his body. It terrified her and filled her with shame, so she fled and vowed never to take a life again.

Now that is a lot of guilt for a kid to carry. Even when she can’t be blamed for the abuse she suffered, but it means she hates herself too much to do anything other than fight. When Batman offers her the position, she throws herself into it, hoping that by dying for his cause she can be redeemed. So why does Batman offer her the position in the first place?

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I think it is incredibly telling and important that he offers her the job of Batgirl specifically. She is the first Batgirl who is offered that title by Batman instead of taking it for herself. Barbara, the original, was never asked to join Batman’s war on crime. She just figured out how to do it on her own and proved herself over time. When Batman does ask someone to join him, it is usually as a Robin. In our world, putting a kid in a circus outfit and having him fight murderers is disgustingly cruel, but in the comic book world it is the kindest thing Batman can do. Robins exist to show that Batman is changing the world for the better. Every Robin is one kid who won’t grow up to be Batman. Dick Grayson watched his parents murdered by criminals, but he was then given a family and a chance at justice that Bruce Wayne was never given. He’ll grow up to one day be a social worker, teacher, or civic practitioner who continues to fight against injustice, only now out of costume. Cassandra Cain was not made a Robin because she can’t be saved that way, and because Batman isn’t interested in her as a sidekick. He’s interested in her as a successor.

Here’s a child who knows suffering and hardship at the hands of criminals like he does, and who doesn’t have the same attachment to the outside world or a family that the Robins do. She’s completely committed to the cause of fighting crime and as a bonus she’s one of the greatest martial artists in the world. Batman sees in her a kindred spirit, and one who could continue being a Bat even when the others retire to real jobs and families. She idolizes him for his sense of purpose, and is the only member of the Bat family that never calls him “Bruce” because to her, Batman is all he really is. When he is his most cynical, he believes that too, and appreciates that she doesn’t pretend otherwise.

But that isn’t healthy. She dreams of dying or suffering in his fight to redeem her from her past, and hides from others even when she could easily make friends and family. Batman is being uncharacteristically selfish, not realizing that even though he’s planning on leaving her his legacy, he’s also preventing her from ever saving herself.

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In comics, especially Batman comics, mental illness is the realm of villains. “Crazy” people are murderers who get locked up in abusive asylums and can never be fully healed or trusted. Cassandra’s mental disability is entirely fantastical, but is still somewhat relatable to anyone who suffers from a real one. Sure it would be great to see a super hero who actually has tourettes, ocd, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, but at least there’s finally SOMEONE in Gotham who suffers a neurological impairment who is not an amoral demon clown. People assume that her disability keeps her from connecting to others, or from thinking “normally” but the truth is her disability isn’t holding her back, her own guilt and shame is. Her disability means she will always think and understand people differently, but it doesn’t mean she won’t have friends, family or lovers.

That’s where the rest of the Bat family comes in. Barbara Gordon, Dick Grayson, Tim Drake, Stephanie Brown and the others can offer her the friendship and love that Batman can’t. Batman’s love is tempered by his mission and the standard he unfairly holds her to. Through others genuinely caring about her, she is able to forgive herself and believe she is worth letting others care about her. This in turn makes her a better hero as well as person. Cassandra Cain’s journey isn’t about overcoming impossible odds and being the best crime fighter. She’s already one of, if not the best martial artists on the planet. She won’t lose many physical fights, so the tension isn’t there. Her journey is about becoming whole and learning how to connect her mission to the larger world.

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To bad she’s a woman and a visible minority. Can’t let Batman’s chosen successor be either of those! The only official rationale given for her not returning is that Barbara Gordon is more “iconic” a Batgirl. I don’t think it is fair to say that we should have to give up Barbara Gordon (or Stephanie Brown) to get back Cassandra Cain. Too often, comic companies manage to convince readers that they have to pick between the ever shrinking pool of female or minority characters. You can have ONE Batgirl, and all others must go away. This is BS for many reasons, one of which is that Cassandra Cain doesn’t need to be Batgirl to work, but even if you did you could still easily have two Batgirls in a logical, non-brand-weakening way.

Here’s my New 52 Cassandra Cain Batgirl pitch: introduce her in the pages of the current Batgirl as a street kid who helps run errands and intel as part of Batgirl’s posse. Batman becomes aware of her and notices her “disability” for what it actually is, and gives her a mission as a test.  She succeeds and, against Barbara’s explicit wishes, Batman offers her a position in his organization. She takes the name Black Bat and throws herself into the mission to an almost suicidal degree. Caught between Batman expecting her to be perfect and Barbara expecting her to learn in a way her brain isn’t wired, she begins to slip and finally fails in a battle against none other than the League of Assassins that first made her. She attempts to sacrifice herself to save her new family, hoping this will finally redeem her and allow her to die in peace, but is shocked to see that both Batman and Barbara return to save her at any cost. In the aftermath, she feels ashamed that she failed to die her “noble” death, but is also moved that she finally has the family she never felt she deserved. Having begun the first step on her new journey of self care, she is asked by Barbara to help train another crop of young, vulnerable super teens and formally accepts her invitation to take the name Batgirl. She finds her unique abilities pushed to the limits as she tries to connect and communicate with her new team of Kid Metamorpho, Static Shock, Duela Dent, Aquagirl, and the new B’Wana Beast. This leads to the comic’s name change to Batgirl and The Outsiders.

You’re welcome DC.

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