Review: Batgirl: Redemption trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, April 25, 2011

In writer Adam Beechen's Batgirl: Redemption, artist J. Calafiore draws Cassandra Cain relatively straight and angular, a far cry from artist Damion Scott's first depiction of the character -- rounded, small, often almost disappearing into corners of the panels until she might spring into action. There's a tendency among many, myself included, to decide in this difference that Beechen and Calafiore's Cassandra Cain is not "our" version of the character; rather I came to understand this change in presentation later as an indication of how much Cassandra Cain has grown as a character since her first appearance.

[Contains spoilers starting right now]

In Redemption, Batgirl Cassandra Cain embarks on a Heart of Darkness-type journey to find her father David Cain, encountering him finally in just the wee final pages of this book.  It's only there at the end of the story that a way to rationalize the recent controversial changes to Cassandra Cain really crystalized for me. David Cain taunts his daughter that despite her protestations that she's not the assassin he raised her to be, it only took minimal drug inducement by the villain Deathstroke in the pages of Robin, Supergirl, and Teen Titans to get Cassandra to kill again. Fan outcry over Cassandra turning rogue in those pages was loud and ardent, but I think I finally get it: Cassandra Cain fell off the wagon.

That is, David Cain raised Cassandra to be an assassin, and we know she was one, too. We haven't seen overmuch of Cassandra's pre-Batgirl life, but we know she killed at least one businessman for Cain, and possibly others. If we grant that Cassandra was indeed raised as a "killing machine," that killing comes somewhat naturally for her and that forsaking murder was a late-life decision when Cassandra left Cain and joined Batman, then Cassandra's turn bad suddenly makes sense to me. Deathstroke set free what's essentially always underneath the surface for Cassandra; the "evil Cassandra" is as much in line with the character (or not, depending on your view of the following examples) as the Dark Supergirl or Smallville's Clark Kent under the influence of Red Kryptonite.

Granted, Beechen himself contradicts this when he has Cassandra argue that, at another time, what Cain took for her bloodlust was instead Cassandra's amazement at the toys and signs of happiness that a murdered family possessed. Cassandra envied not the murder, but the domestic bliss; Cain only thinks Cassandra has that darkness within her. Indeed the theory of Cassandra Cain as a "natural born killer" won't hold up with every fan either, and admittedly to an extent it's just excuses for the change in story direction from bad Cassandra to good. Beechen has to devote two dialogue-heavy pages at the beginning to explain away all of Cassandra's bad behavior, and doesn't even quite succeed; Beechen concludes one of Cassandra's new murders took place after she was supposedly cured (I'd have just flubbed the timeline, myself), an issue never quite resolved.

Redemption is essentially a good example of a phenomenon I'd venture is somewhat limited to serial comic books and political agendas: a mid-stream course correction. Had Cassandra Cain the villain been wildly popular, Redemption wouldn't exist. And it is a good and at times thought-provoking story that pays homage to many of the high notes of the Cassandra Cain Batgirl series -- her relationship with Oracle, her conflict with Deathstroke and Cain, her begrudging alliance with Deathstroke's daughter Ravager, and the loss of Cassandra's boyfriend Zero -- but especially in the first chapter, one can just about hear the tires squealing as Beechen forces Cassandra's trajectory 180 degrees away from where it had been headed in no less than three other DC Comics titles.

In the end Beechen does offer Cassandra the redemption of the title, but I think he tempers it in a wise way (or at least takes good advantage of external circumstances). First, Cassandra essentially lets Cain die, and it's only by virtue of some good luck that Batman saves him; Batman gives Cassandra a pass, but the reader understands that Batgirl is more Manhunter than Superman at this point. Second, Batman offers to adopt Cassandra, taking her in a hug and promising the family she never had, as long as he lives ... and Calafiore adds a rather unusual tombstone shadow coming off Batman with the letters RIP, most definitely a reference to Batman RIP minus some monthly issue text copy.

I take from this that what we need to understand about Cassandra Cain Batgirl is that she's a hard-luck hero; things are not ever going to be easy for her, up to and including that she's going to lose her Batman father-figure just as soon as Final Crisis brings Darkseid to town. If I had to project into the future, I wouldn't be surprised if Cassandra Cain gets in touch with her evil side a few more times (though DC Comics wouldn't be that crazy); the road to redemption will always be an uphill battle for her. We know that wasn't what DC was trying to say when they first turned Cassandra evil -- rather, I think, they just wanted a good villain -- but I think that's what Beechen is trying to say now. Again, that won't please everyone, but it makes enough sense to me that I think Batgirl: Redemption brings a satisfactory close to the matter.

[Contains full covers]

Adam Beechen Week continues on Collected Editions, including a Q&A with the writer and our review of Batman Beyond: Hush Beyond, both later this week. Be there!
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16 comments:

  1. Beechen did such a good job writing Cassandra Cain in this book, it only made it more apparent that the "evil Cassandra" plot wasn't his idea back when he took over Robin. I wish she had gotten a new ongoing after this mini series, but DC had different plans for the Batgirl legacy.

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    1. Good job? The character was butchered.

      The entire "David Cain as a manipulative bastard" plot point doesn't even work, because Cass cannot be lied to. Body-reading, remember? There is no way for David Cain to deceive his daughter.

      And if he had a horde of convenient spares, why would he so desperately attempt to recover Cassandra? Everything he didduring her original series, including sitting in jail, was to win her back.

      And why was the "climactic battle" between her father, whom she has many times proven her superiority over, instead of Deathstroke, who just a little while back not only drugged her but murdered her entire home city? Receiving no punishment for that, ever? Shouldn't the ending battle have been between Cass and him?

      The most bizarre omission was the simplest: cass didn't kick ass. I can forgive much, but never that.

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  2. I think I disagree with you about this book. I remember feeling crushing despair when it was announced that Beechen would be writing it, but I gave it a chance anyway. And it was pretty much everything I feared it would be.

    The biggest issue I have is that it legitimizes a lot of things that are harmful to the character. The first issue tries to explain all the things Beechen got wrong in his portrayal of the character in Robin (such as her being able to read and write). The problem is that he solves one of the character's primary struggles, something that is central to the character and her conflicts, in a flashback. You can call it character growth, but it's ham-handed. It's like saying "the character is different now!" instead of actually showing her overcome her struggles over time.

    The character has always been portrayed as a fundamentally good person who just had to overcome really awful circumstances. She wanted to die to atone for her one murder, for crying out loud. That's why I can't abide by the "well, she was always a killer, she just fell off the wagon" reading. She was never a killer. She had the power and knowledge to take life, but not the mindset.

    And then there was how Beechen portrayed Cassandra and her father as merely antagonists, when they were so much more under the pen of Kelley Puckett.

    I'll always be disappointed that this was the character's swan song, since they'd apparently already decided that her days were numbered when it was published.

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  3. Thank you for your well-reasoned response to this review, Nathaniel. You have good evidence for what you wrote, and I acknowledge completely that what you wrote is defensible and made sense.

    In my interpretation, I'm of two minds about the statement that Cassandra Cain "has always been portrayed as a fundamentally good person." Yes, I grant that Cassandra first came to Batman specifically to atone for the murder that she committed, but there's a certain look on the young Cassandra's face in the images we've seen of that murder, as she holds up her fist with the gore of the businessman's throat. Is that bloodthirst? I think it *could* be open to debate.

    Further, all of Cassandra's "sisters" trained by Cain have gone on to be killers except Cassandra, prior to the Robin situation. Is Cassandra different, and that's why she could become Batgirl? Or is she the same, and it's just harder to accept because she was Batgirl?

    I don't mean to convince you, and I'm not arguing that any of that is what Puckett originally intended, any more than the original creators meant for Green Lanterns to be part of an emotional spectrum or the Flash to generate the Speed Force -- writers build on and change things in comics as time goes on. For me, Beechen created a tenable explanation for something that was obviously, even, not what Cassandra's original creators intended, but I certainly appreciate that explanation won't work for everyone.

    Let me ask, out of friendly curiosity, what's an acceptable storyline you can envision in which Cassandra Cain goes bad? Superboy, for instance, went rogue in Teen Titans when Lex Luthor switched on his mind-control. To me, the more I've thought about this, the more I've wondered why all of this didn't happen to Cassandra *sooner*; it would seem to me a Batgirl who's part Batman, part assassin David Cain must at some point embrace her Cain side and have to be rescued by our heroes -- a drug-inducement seems an understandable (comics-wise) way to go about it.

    Isn't that what happened here? If not, why not, and how could Cassandra have gone bad like Superboy did in a way that would have been more palatable?

    Thanks again for chiming in (and shagamu, of course!); I appreciate it.

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  4. The end of her series set up a good heel turn, it just didn't get utilized properly in the Robin arc. At the end of her series, she realizes that she was born to be an assassin, and because she's rejected that part of her, people have died anyway (i.e. because she let Deathstroke and the Penguin get away in their encounters, Bludhaven gets blown up). It's not the same as "she was once a killer, so she falls off the wagon and becomes one again," because what we see at the end of her series is a character maturing and realizing that moral absolutism can have disasterous consequences. And even though she's struggling with that, she still arguably rejects it at the end where she kills Shiva, but puts her in a position where she will return to life.

    If they were going to make her a villain, I wish they could have done it in the pages of her own book as opposed to just setting her up as a Dragon Lady villain for Robin. Almost everything she did as a villain runs counter to the character: she monologues, has incredibly petty reasons for being evil (because her dad trained more girls), and just generally isn't the same character.

    Rather, they should have followed up on that plot thread at the end of her series. Have her debating whether killing for the greater good is worth the personal sacrifice. It's established that she can't just kill willy-nilly, since every time she takes a life she comes face-to-face with the horror of death. It has to be a very personal decision, and one that hurts her to make.

    Have her experiment by killing a mob boss that she knows would just game the legal system, and show that it has personal consequences as well as consequences within her adoptive family. She could become more and more desensitized to it over time, and she's starting to lose herself and become what she hates most: a mirror image of her mom or dad.

    But most of all, make sure she's still recognizably the same character. She shouldn't be giving evil speeches or doing what she does out of jealousy or anger. She's a noble, heroic figure, and her motivation would have to be convincing enough to turn someone like that to a life of crime.

    But that's how I would do it. I think it's more interesting when the character turns come from who a character is and what they believe, rather than "Supervillain X drugged them to be evil" or what have you.

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  5. For what it's worth, Nathaniel, I did my best to make the story come from character. In coming up with the justification for turning Cass "evil," my angle on it was that here was a girl who hadn't known parental love in the conventional sense. The closest she had to it (prior to meeting Bruce, Barbara, etc.) was her relationship with Cain. I figured he was a guy she had to feel incredibly, darkly conflicted about. On the one hand, he was terrible to her, denied her so many things, taught her so many other awful things. But on the other, he paid attention to her, and abused kids can confuse love with attention, even if they know better, feelings that can linger long after childhood. So in my mind, she had, for many years, based any sense of self-worth, however warped, on the fact that she was of importance to SOMEONE, even if that person was a turd like David Cain. She wasn't washed clean of that when she joined the Bat-Family -- no one's washed clean of stuff that happens in childhood, it gets properly healed, tamped down or continues to fester and cause problems, waiting for a trigger to set it off. For Cass, the trigger was learning Cain gave the same attention and training to other girls -- in her mind, that removed a big part of her identity, made her un-special, and made he feel like a tool (literally, a utensil) instead of a person...and made her see parallels to Robin, whom she tried to recruit to her side in a very warped way, and blah blah blah.

    It's entirely possible I didn't articulate that well in the story I told. It's also entirely possible that my thought process didn't create a strong enough impetus for her character change. I take responsibility on both counts. But in my mind, it did come from a place of character.

    The drugging of Cassandra was introduced in another book after her initial Robin storyline and before her reappearance later in the same book killing a shady pharmaceutical officer. As a bandage to explain the radical character change, revealing a character had been drugged is fine, but I wasn't very happy with the choice -- I wanted the change to have come from character. Unfortunately, the story with her murder of the pharm exec appeared after she was supposedly purged of the drug, so we had to do a LOT of tap-dancing in the Batgirl miniseries to explain it. Fudging the timeline WOULD have been an option, but it also would have felt like a cheat to me.

    There were a lot of other mitigating circumstances that affected the storytelling as well (requiring us to dash over such items as how she learned to read and write -- there are ways to read the story that she didn't have to have learned those things to do the things she did, but that's immaterial. And in a side note, it always struck me as horribly irresponsible that the FIRST thing Bruce should have done on bringing Cass under his wing was to make sure she learned to read and write through whatever means possible BEFORE having her do anything else, and he didn't do it -- nor did he seem in any particular hurry to get it done. In any case, had I stayed on the book, we would have come back to an explanation of that, but I left of my own volition), but they're not interesting, and they don't change the fact that, as the writer, it's my job to get the story out, clearly and satisfactorily, regardless of the constraints. In this case, a lot of Cassandra's fans felt that didn't happen, and I totally understand and regret that.

    But I did try to make the story come from character, just so you know!

    Thanks for your comments,
    Adam B.

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  6. Thanks for the comment, Adam, I appreciate it.

    Yeah, one of my main issues was that the miniseries just dashed over her learning to read and write, since it's such an important struggle for the character. I feel like it took away a lot of her depth to just say "well, she knows how to read and write now!" instead of showing it as a work in progress. It was established in her series that it was extremely difficult for her to even try to read a single sentence, and it never rang true to me that she became proficient just by taking an ESL class during the OYL time skip. But more than that, it pains me that the potential story of her learning to read is pretty much gone forever now, and that character trait is no more.

    And yeah, I agree about Bruce not teaching her to read or write, but that was back in the days of a darker Batman. And I felt it worked thematically anyway, since a lot of her book was about how her biological and adoptive families end up using her in various ways (Babs tries to live vicariously through her, Batman sees her as a weapon first, etc.).

    And regarding Cain: I read their relationship differently. I think her series establishes that he does care about her (one of my favorite and saddest issues of her series is where he goes out of his way to acquire some films of her as a kid, because it's all he has left of her now). He's a horrible person, and does horrible things, and is horribly abusive, but I think he does care for her at his core. And that's what separates him from a lot of the other deadbeat dads in comics (like Deathstroke), and makes that relationship unique and poignant. I was a little sad that he ended up becoming a more one-note bad guy in the miniseries.

    I believe you when you say that you tried to make the story come from character. It just sounds like we have different views about the character and her past. It's sort of a lousy situation when you have to take a fan-favorite character and make them evil anyway.

    And heh, I remember her killing the pharmaceutical guy in Robin, and I remember being confused at the time, but I don't remember it being addressed again. Maybe I'll revisit the miniseries just to find out.

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  7. Thanks, Nathaniel.

    I'm not sure we're so different in our opinions about the Cain/Cassandra relationship. What I was talking about was Cassandra's perception of that relationship, and the mini was from her point of view. I remember the issue you're talking about with Cain and the films -- it was indeed excellent. I was just trying to focus on Cass' perception of the whole thing (or what I perceived that to be). Cain absolutely is a complex character, but I think in the situation we showed him, he was desperate and would say anything to help him accomplish his goal, up to and including manipulating his daughter, whether he believed what he was saying or not. Especially if he had trained many other girls the same way as Cassandra (and maybe he feels just as strongly for them as he does Cass), because I think he's more mercenary than father, and mercenary concerns come first. But that's nuance, and sometimes that doesn't come across in comics (or maybe just in my writing of them :-)).

    The reading/writing thing...It seemed to me that, in the year Bruce, Dick and Tim were away, Alfred (and Barbara, to some extent) would have the opportunity to pay much more attention to Cass (and being compassionate souls, I figured they'd wanted to for some time), and so would throw himself into making sure she learned how to read and write. I freely admit I didn't understand how big an aspect of her character that was to the fans...To me, it never rang true that, in all the time she'd been with the Bat-Family (and it had been awhile), they hadn't really made it a priority to see to her "education," as it were.

    Maybe it goes to my view of Batman. I was fine with the dark Dark Knight until I started writing Robin and thinking about Tim's (and Dick's) relationship to Bruce, then my opinion really changed. I mean, here's a guy who (at the time I started on the book) had essentially adopted three children. Surely, he had some sense of love for them, some paternal feelings, in addition to just seeing them as crime fighting partners. That was something we never really got to see much in the books. So, in Robin, I tried to show more of that side of Bruce -- the loving, understanding, teaching Dad. Then I started thinking how that jibed with Batgirl-Why had he never adopted her? And would Cass have asked herself the same question? And with no viable answer, would she be hurt? I think so. And then, when presented with evidence that her relationship with her actual father had been, to some extent, a lie, could those things dovetail? Seemed reasonable (and still does) to me.

    Anyway, good conversation, and you bring up some really good points. Thanks for making me think even harder about the characters. And I hope having some insight from the "horse's mouth" is helpful and interesting for readers like yourself.

    Best,
    Adam B.

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  8. IMHO Beechen wrote a pretty good Batgirl given the circumstances. Though now I'm still up in the air on how much of it was Beechen's idea & how much editorial mandate, if any. I disliked the drug thingy patch given to explain away her dark side. It was somewhat like blaming the Parallax entity for Hal Jordan's perversion...as Beechen says, it takes away from character development. But for me, Batgirl was the person epitomised by Kelley Pucket, Scott Beatty & Damion Scott. The 1st 4 trades were the best someone could ask. Batgirl was pretty much silent there, with cameos from the Bat Family.
    I have to agree with Beechen on the education thing. But I still liked the way things turned out, the early issues were fluid, like real widescreen fashion...loved em like anything.

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  9. Yeah, that sheds some light on your portrayal of Cain. I think it goes back to the fact that I'm not as interested in hyper-competent mercenary Cain as I am the sort of broken shell of a man Cain that is in Cass's series. I didn't much like the Bruce Wayne Murderer/Fugitive storyline because it also has a kind of cackling supervillain version of Cain, but it does have one of his most defining moments: when Cass tells him that he has to make things right, so he willingly turns himself in. What other evil dad in comics would do that? The Cain that has his best years behind him and is abandoned by his greatest triumph but still wants what he deems best for her is the version of the character I can get behind. And that's why I didn't care for the introduction of Cass's 'sisters,' since it threw a wrench into that dynamic and made the relationship less powerful. It made Cain's obsession with Cass seem a little false, given that he has who knows how many other girls like her. And I realize that's what you were going for, but I think it weakens their dynamic rather than adding a new, interesting variable.

    Regarding Batman: I can really get behind either the dark version or light version of the character depending on the story. I think he ultimately proves himself to be a good father figure for Cass in the course of her series, though not one without flaws. His biggest character flaw has always been obsession, and I think that's what leads him to see Cass as someone who can fight crime better than just about anyone first, and someone in need of becoming a well-rounded human being second.

    I think the problem is that thanks to Cass's situation in comics currently and over the past few years, there's not much that can be done to not make him seem like kind of a jerk to her. You tried to make things right by having him adopt her (though did that ever actually happen, since I thought the implication was that he died before it could happen?), but then he apparently gave her orders to give up being Batgirl, leave her family, and go to Hong Kong, where he doesn't even visit her upon returning.

    The most true words in the original post are that nothing will ever be easy for Cass. And I'm diverging off-topic, but it does frustrate me that so little is done to make her seem like a part of the Bat Family these days.

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  10. As someone who kind of jumps around with his trades and have almost nothing with this Batgirl, I find this thread really intriguing. This is some serious insider baseball. I really enjoy Stephanie Brown as Batgirl. Is the tone of her ongoing title a response of sorts to the Cassandra Cain Batgirl?

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  11. I don't recall reading anything that stated the more humorous tone of Bryan Q. Miller's new Batgirl Stephanie Brown series is meant as a direct response to the darker Batgirl Cassandra Cain series (which was dark even from the beginning), though indeed the tones do differ drastically. Cassandra is in the opening pages of the new Batgirl series, by the way.

    Separate but related, however -- and I said this in my review of Batgirl Rising and I'm surprised no one called me on it -- inasmuch as I really, really like the Cassandra Cain character and followed her from the beginning, I think Stephanie Brown is a better choice for the Batgirl role. Cassandra is a good second generation Huntress, maybe, but Barbara Gordon was always a bit lighter and a bit cheerier than her Dynamic Duo counterparts, a little more flip and joyous, and that's what I think Stephanie brings to the role; I think Stephanie's a better successor to Barbara than Cassandra was. (There, I said it. Dissention welcomed.)

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  12. Well, they're two different characters. I kind of hate how everyone tends to compare Cassandra and Stephanie as successors to Barbara. You can't tell the same stories with Cassandra that you can with Stephanie, and vice-versa. You're never going to get a storyline about Stephanie battling Lady Shiva, and you probably wouldn't get one about Cassandra having a sleepover with Supergirl.

    I think you're right that Stephanie recaptures the lighter tone of Barbara, and I'm sure that's what their intention was, especially since the original plan was to have Barbara reprise her role as Batgirl. When that didn't work out, they chose another character that is very similar to young Babs. But I'll always prefer Cassandra just for being something different. And I'll always prefer her series (at least the original run) for being something unlike most other comics, both in look and feel, whereas Steph's comic is more about goofy one-off stories. And admittedly, I don't really read Steph's book because I'm still upset with how it just tossed Cassandra out like the dirty dishwater in the span of about two pages.

    I'd be all about another team-up involving both of them, though, and it sort of confounds me that it hasn't happened yet. Especially since the Batman world is currently all about having multiple Bat-people. Why not two Batgirls, since they both have distinct personalities and can work in different kinds of storylines?

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  13. Oh, Nathanial, but don't you know comics is all about "which is more powerful, Red Hulk or Electric Blue Superman?" What would we have, if not "who's a better successor?" :)

    Agreed the original Kelley Puckett Batgirl run was "something unlike most other comics." See my top ten list of DC Comics collections with female protagonists, where I list Puckett's Batgirl as an example of "master comics storytelling."

    That said, I encourage you to check out the new Batgirl series. It is more, I think, than just "goofy one-off stories" -- it is humorous, but not silly, and the Batgirl Rising story is especially reverent to the Batman and Batgirl mythos that came before it.

    What do you think of Cassandra Cain becoming the new Nightwing?

    (Also, Electric Blue Superman once moved a planet in JLA, but I understand Red Hulk is pretty strong.)

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  14. I've read some of Steph's series, I just can't get into it because the first issue was such a major disappointment for me as a Cassandra fan. It's colored everything that's come after it for me, and I just don't enjoy it. I've never really been a fan of the Spider-Man-esque 'everyman superhero that juggles school/job and their costumed life while quipping incessantly' archetype, either.

    I'm not in favor of Cassandra becoming Nightwing, because I think she needs her own identity. The Nightwing mantle would get her some exposure and possibly her own book I suppose, but the problem is that I don't imagine that Dick will be Batman #2 forever, and if he needs to be Nightwing again, there's no doubt in my mind that Cassandra would get thrown under the bus again like she was when they wanted a new Batgirl.

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  15. Hi Anonymous:

    To my knowledge, Bryan's excellent Batgirl series is not a response to the Cassandra Batgirl in tone or anything else...but my knowledge about the editorial decision-making process is pretty limited. I think they just thought there was an opportunity for some good tales to tell...and I think Bryan's doing a great job of it.

    Glad you like the "insider baseball" thing. I would always love it when the Comics Journal (back when they covered mainstream comics) would occasionally really dig in with a writer about their thought process and how they regarded characters. Amazing Heroes rarely went that deep, and Comics Interview only did so a little more often. To me, those are the kinds of questions I'd want answered. Hmm...Maybe I should start a blog called "4-Color Baseball." :-)

    Nathaniel, I think maybe what we need is a new book called "Cassandra Cain," eh? :-) (Don't worry, I'm not hinting at anything, and certainly not dropping a rumor I'm writing anything to do with Cassandra -- just empathizing) BTW, I was as shocked as anyone at Cassandra's abrupt abandonment of the role -- I had no idea that was coming at all. Even the Batman RIP storyline was a complete surprise to me...I was told about it while in the middle of writing the last issue of the Batgirl mini... and it changed our ending from what I hoped was going to be a genuinely happy one to a much more melancholy and foreboding one (the gravestone shadow was Mike Marts' and my last-second idea-- concocted as I paced in the hallway outside the offices of The Pink Panther animated series I was working on at the time -- to acknowledge what was coming). Maybe more in keeping with the character, but in all honesty, I was hoping to give her a happy ending for once.

    Best,
    Adam B.

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