Retcons, Reboots And Resurrections #26: The Many Lives Of Stephanie Brown

by Scott Redmond

In life, they say only three things are certain: birth, death, and change. Within comic books, the three things that are certain are that there will be retcons, reboots, and resurrections. Retcons are elements retroactively added to a character’s history, reboots can either be revivals of a character/their title or extensive changes to canon, and resurrections are characters clawing their way back from the afterlife. 

Each week we’ll explore the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to Retcons, Reboots, and Resurrections.

Death and eventual returns are nothing new to Batman or any of the various young people that have become his allies and children. Most of the Robins at this point have been dead or were assumed to be dead at one point or another, and came back in some form. Already in the past, we got to dive through the death and various retconned returns of one Jason Todd

Today though we turn our eye in another direction, to the shortest tenured Robin who is most known by two other superhero names: Spoiler and Batgirl. Yes, we’re diving into the death, resurrection, and retcon surrounding Stephanie Brown. 

Stephanie has taken on various mantles and roles in the couple of decades she has been part of the Bat-family of titles, going from a supporting outside character to one of the core stalwart members of Batman’s found family group. Over that time though things have been often rough for the character, especially the time when DC Comics gave her a bold new role only to brutally snatch it and her life right away.

The Backstory:

Introduced in 1992’s Detective Comics #647, Stephanie became the crimefighter Spoiler because her father Arthur Brown was the masked criminal Cluemaster who had crossed paths with Batman numerous times in the past. Intended just for the three-part story in Detective Comics, she was so well-received that co-creator Chuck Dixon brought her back a year later when he kicked off the solo Robin title starring Tim Drake the third Robin. 

Stephanie remained as a supporting character and sometimes love interest for Tim through most of the 90s and into the 2000s, sometimes crossing over with other Bat characters and books at the time. In 1998 there was a very divisive teen pregnancy storyline centered around Stephanie, that eventually saw her giving the child up for adoption. 

These early days saw her relationship with Batman as a rocky one where he would offer to train her only to declare she wasn’t fit to be a hero and send her away, forbidding others to train her, and suggesting she hang up the cape for good. This same rocky relationship carried over into the stories that led to her death. 

So in 2004, there came a point where Tim’s father Jack discovered that his son was actually the hero Robin, soon after Tim entered a bit of a depression after seemingly killing one of his foes Johnny Warlock, after they harmed Stephanie. This led to Tim giving up the mantle and trying to live a ‘normal’ life, including going to a boarding school. Stephanie tried to surprise him there but saw him talking to another woman and assumed that he was being unfaithful and their relationship was ended. 

Returning to Gotham, Stephanie created her own Robin costume to start patrolling the streets and she showed up at the Batcave to demand that Batman take her on as the new Robin. He accepted. 

Unfortunately, this choice to become Robin was one of the things that led to Stephanie’s controversial end.

The Nitty Gritty:

After spending months training her, Batman tossed Stephanie to the curb rather quickly after they went on a mission and she disobeyed him in order to save his life. How long did that time last as Robin one might ask? Well, it lasted only three actual issues of the Robin series with one-off appearances in a few other books at the time such as Teen Titans, Batgirl, and Detective Comics. 

Refusing to follow Batman’s orders after she was fired, Stephanie went back to being Spoiler and decided to prove that Batman was wrong about her. Turns out she had stolen a particular file from him before she left, a plan that was meant to allow him to essentially take over and control the mob families in Gotham. Putting the file to work, she watched as the various mob bosses all showed up for the meeting only to turn on one another in violence becuase the key figure that Batman needed there didn’t arrive. 

That key figure was Matches Malone, the undercover criminal alter-ego of Batman himself, a fact that Stephanie was unaware of. As the city was plunged into a chaotic gang war where all hands were on deck, Stephanie tried to rectify her mistake. At the same time, Black Mask took full advantage of the gang war to gain control of his own. When Stephanie tried to help Orpheus, the undercover hero that worked was Batman and was the one the plan would have had uniting the gangs, Black Mask killed Orpheus (and would later masquerade as him for control) and captured Stephanie. 

Brutally tortured by the villain, she eventually was found by Batman who rushed her to his longtime ally Doctor Leslie Thompkins for care. Unfortunately, the wounds were too much and as Batman assured her that she was always a Robin she died in Batman #633. Except, that wasn’t exactly what happened. 

A few months later in Batman #644, we learn that Stephanie very much would have survived her wounds, but Dr. Thompkins withheld medical care in order to let Stephanie die because she wanted to prove a point to Batman. About his crusade and the lives that it ruined as he allowed children to be vigilantes with him. She had hidden the evidence, burned her license, and fled to Africa but Batman followed and confronted her and warned that he had alerted authorities so she could never return to the U.S. as she was now another criminal. 

This was the status quo for a number of years, with many fans upset at not only the character’s death (and the way it went down) but also the fact that, unlike Jason Todd, Stephanie got no sort of memorial or any remembrance by Batman or others. In this time current Batgirl Cassandra Cain has visions of a ghostly Stephanie, Barbara Gordon/Oracle uses pictures of Stephanie’s autopsy to try and discourage a new young vigilante, and other references to her death pop up here or there. 

This is odd since in Robin #173 returned writer Dixon reveals that Stephanie had been alive the whole time. Using retcon magic, it was revealed that actually Dr. Thompkins didn’t let Stephanie die but faked her death and then took her to Africa to allow Stephanie to recover and hopefully be persuaded to not pick up vigilantism again. It doesn’t work, as she returns and works undercover for a while until finally revealing herself to Robin and Batman. Batman then goes on to claim that he always suspected she was around and that’s why she got no memorial (rather than telling others or trying to find her apparently). 

After this Stephanie eventually took up the mantle of Batgirl after Cassie quit, during a time when Bruce Wayne was thought dead and Dick Grayson was Batman. Working with Oracle, she got to have a pretty short but well-received career as Batgirl before the coming of The New 52 wiped that away and also wiped her out of existence. 

Fans once again were left angry as Stephanie was not part of the new universe, and they took on campaigns to bombard DC about this. This remained her fate until finally in 2013 (two years after she was wiped out) the character returned in the weekly Batman Eternal series as a new version of herself where her origins of ‘spoiling’ her father’s crimes help her become the hero Spoiler again. 

After that, she was taken under Barbara Gordon’s wing again, and during the DC Rebirth era of 2016, she was brought on board Batman’s team in Detective Comics alongside Tim, Cassandra, and others where relationships were reestablished and the characters began to reflect a bit more of their pre-New 52 personalities and statuses. In the recent events of ‘Joker War’ and ‘Fear State’ across the bat-books, Barbara has become Oracle again and both Cassandra and Stephanie are operating as Batgirls and even have their own ongoing title with the three of them together. 

The Verdict:

This one is truly an up-and-down situation. The original death and even the retcon are pretty weak as the damage that was done to Stephanie and the lack of agency for the character are pretty damning. Even the way Dixon tried to brush off the utter lack of respect of no memorial in the cave for the presumed dead character. Jason Todd was retconned to have not been dead for long, but the memorial was still there for him. 

The overall way that the death was handled and the way that Batman used her in the Robin situation was made more egregious by reports that editorial planned the whole thing as a trick on readers to throw them off the trail, which didn’t sit well with some of the Bat-line writers at the time. None of how this went down made any sense, as it also marred long-time ally character, Dr. Thompkins, at the same time. 

Out of this mess the only ‘good’ thing that came from it before the reboot was the Batgirl title for Stephanie, but that title could and should have happened even if they hadn’t chosen to kill her off in such a horrible way during the ‘War Games’ story. At long last though Stephanie, Cassandra, Dr. Thompkins, and others are in a good spot in the line again and have their roles and titles. 

Next Week: The Mighty Hero Everyone Forgot Born Out Of Retcon

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