By Reagan Anick
The daughter of a B-list rogue named Cluemaster, Stephanie Brown was originally introduced more as a plot device more than an actual character in Detective Comics #675 by Chuck Dixon and Tom Lyle. First appearing as Spoiler – a masked vigilante who spoiled clues left by her father Cluemaster in order to aid in his arrest – Stephanie wouldn’t appear again until Robin #3 (1994), almost two full years after her first appearance. Originally intended as a one-off character with the sole purpose of foiling her father’s plans, Stephanie would continue to appear in issues of Robin beginning with Robin #3 in 1994, also written by Dixon.
From there, Stephanie would recur in Robin, typically appearing in about one arc per year until 1996’s Robin #35, after which she became a series regular. From her first appearance in the Robin solo up until her death in 2004’s Batman: War Games, Stephanie Brown would remain an integral and well-loved member of the supporting cast of Robin. It was even suggested that she would ultimately become Robin herself.
On October 27, 2004, Stephanie died. Her death was the culmination of War Games, an event which began on August 4, 2004 with Batman: The 12 Cent Adventure and ended on November 24, 2004 with Batman #634. It turned out that Stephanie’s time as Robin was intended as nothing more than a trick, her death a long-planned twist to shock readers. As writer Dylan Horrocks (Batgirl) said in a 2011 panel at Auckland Writers and Readers Fest:
“The whole way through it was planned purely as a trick to play on the readers, that we would fool them into thinking that the big event was that Stephanie Brown would become Robin but we knew all along it was a temporary thing, and she was then going to die at the end of this crossover story.”
Horrocks, along with Nightwing writer Devin Grayson (who was at the time the only woman writing a Batbook) expressed discomfort with the storyline, with Horrocks essentially writing his book out of several key plot points of the event. In the aforementioned 2011 panel, Horrocks mentioned Grayson’s work, and raised issues with the fact that DC was always killing off women and non-white characters.
While Grayson hasn’t talked about War Games in many interviews (only one interview where she takes about War Games is listed on her website), in a 2004 interview conducted by Randy Burtis for ComicBoards Grayson refers to War Games as “the first time [she’d] ever seen editorial have a basic outlined prepared before getting any input from the writers.” At that point in time, Dan DiDio was Executive Editor, a position he held from 2002 to 2010, when he became Co-Publisher along with Jim Lee. It was a title he held until leaving DC in 2020. Grayson further alludes to interference from higher-ups in a in a 2014 interview with The Batman Universe:
“I went from nearly ten years of rarely being asked to rewrite a single line to months of never receiving fewer than six complete rewrites on every script – not because the quality of the scripts had suddenly changed but because something in the fictional universe had shifted and needed to be accounted for. DC went from a model of group editors pre-approving story arcs to upper management micro-editing finished scripts.”
This treatment of female characters in superhero comics as expendable for the sake of plot momentum (and for the sake of the development of other, often male, characters) was not new in 2004. Ten years before Stephanie Brown was killed off by creative, in Green Lantern #54, Kyle Rayner arrived home to find a note which read: “surprise for you in the fridge, love A.” As you more than likely know by now, the “surprise” in the fridge is in fact the corpse of Kyle’s girlfriend, Alexandra DeWitt, who’d been murdered by the villain Major Force.
In 1999, following online discussion between critic Gail Simone (who would subsequently go on to write comics at DC like Batgirl, Wonder Woman, and Birds of Prey) and some of her friends, that incident would inspire the concept of “women in refrigerators.” It was an idea which initially began as a list of women in comics who had been “killed, maimed, or depowered”. The list included characters like Scarlet Witch – whose decades of mistreatment would take an entire paragraph to fully outline – and Barbara Gordon, who was paralyzed by the Joker in The Killing Joke. As Simone said on the homepage of the Women in Refrigerators website: “it’s not healthy to be a woman in comics.”
Compared to their male counterparts, female characters are disproportionately murdered, raped, and otherwise dehumanized – often multiple times over the course of their existences.
The actual definition of “fridging” – as the act of a woman being treated in these ways has come to be known – has shifted from Simone’s original intent when she coined the term. In the purest form, the term is no more than a list which points out just how many women have been brushed to the side in violent and horrifying ways, the thesis of which is a simple idea, as Simone says in an email published on the website:
“My simple point has always been: if you demolish most of the characters girls like, then girls won’t read comics.”
It’s an idea which rings true: if you remove women; if you dehumanize them; if you create an environment in which women and girls do not see as escapism? They will cease to consume what you created.
While reading War Games, I was struck by the truth of that statement. Stephanie Brown was always meant to die. That was the end goal of War Games from the start. When you ask the question “who killed Stephanie Brown?” the reality is that it was neither Black Mask nor Leslie Thompkins.
When combined with every other woman who has been killed in comics, the real example set by Stephanie’s death is that the way women are treated in comics is fine and doesn’t need to change. They’re brutalized at a higher rate than any other demographic aside from non-white characters and that’s apparently fine.
In War Games Stephanie triggers a plan intended to unite all of Gotham’s criminal syndicates under one leader, Matches Malone… who unknown to Stephanie is an alias of Bruce Wayne’s. Because Stephanie enacts the plane without Batman’s knowledge, Malone is unable to be present when necessary, and a gang war breaks out as a result of the meeting that was supposed to unite the city’s mob bosses. This leads to chaos in the city as the various factions battle it out for both supremacy of the city and the knowledge of who was responsible for calling the meeting.
As the fighting rages on, the city begins to spiral further and further into destruction, which culminates in Stephanie’s death. She dies as a result of a combination of torture from Black Mask and – in one of the worst decisions in this storyline, something which is a truly impressive feat when you think about it – from Leslie Thompkins withholding vital medical care in order to make an example of Stephanie to other kids who may decide they want to be heroes. Thompkins’ choice is something which understandably degrades her and Bruce’s working relationship.
If I’d started regularly reading comics at the time when Stephanie became Robin it would have been the first series I would have wanted to buy: after all, a girl as Robin was more than I ever could have asked for. As it turned out? It would have been too much to ask for. The betrayal I would have felt if I had read that book would then have been enough to turn me off comics entirely. After all, why would I want to read something that saw me as expendable, as little more than a twist?
Contrary to what happened after the death of Jason Todd, there was no memorial for Stephanie in the Batcave. After all, as Dan DiDio would say in the DCU: March to the Future panel at Wizard World Los Angeles in 2007, “she was never really a Robin.” Considering how darkly the shadow of Jason’s death looms so heavily over the narrative choices in Stephanie’s death, it’s a notable statement from the EIC.
During the same panel, Bill Willingham, who wrote Robin at the time that War Games was published, elaborated that her becoming Robin was entirely the result of him asking if he could “give her one good moment in her life before [crushing] her like a bug”. It was a request which DC obliged to on the condition that she was back to being Spoiler by the time War Games happened… because “the last thing we want to do to poor Batman is put another dead Robin on his conscience.”
In the end, despite the sympathy he had towards her, Willingham still killed her. And then DC pretended it was made better by her getting to have something she wanted. The fact of the matter is that a fictional character’s fictional feelings don’t even begin to matter as much as the feelings of real living people. Real living people were the ones who were most hurt by Stephanie Brown’s murder – not Stephanie; not Tim Drake; and not Batman.
It’s likely that we’ll never hear a full account of why editorial decided that Stephanie had to die, but even in 2022 we continue to see the impact of the edict. Like Simone said: people don’t read comics when the only characters they can see themselves in are constantly brutalized.
Detective Comics #809 “To The Victor Go The Spoils”
Written by Anderson Gabrych
Pencilled by Tommy Castillo
Inked by Bit
Coloured by Jason Wright
Lettered by Rob Leigh
Reagan Anick is a writer whose work can be found on sites like WWAC, ComicsXF, Comic Book Herald, and GateCrashers. As well as being a writer at GateCrashers, Reagan also works as an editor for their Marvel and Horror sections. You can follow Reagan on Twitter here!
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