When DC announced its New 52 initiative a year ago, I decided it made for a perfect jumping off point. After following DC for little bit more than a decade, I’d grown increasingly dissatisfied with their creative philosophy and the way it affected an ever-larger swath of the books, so when they said that they’d be sorta-but-not-really starting over again in a way that suggested an emphasis on everything I’d grown to dislike about them, it seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up. Sure, I’d miss out on stuff like J.H. Williams III’s Batwoman, or Paul Cornell’s awesome-sounding Demon Knights, but I could still rely on stuff like Young Justice and Superman Family for my DC fix. What’s more, the fact that they weren’t part of the main universe allowed them to do things which I’d always wanted or have been ignored by the main books–stuff like a fixed timeline that allows characters to grow older, a return of the Lois and Clark partnership, and pure, unabashed, fun.
Apparently, I missed the memo indicating that this was unacceptable.
So Dan Didio has confirmed that DC has pulled the plug on Stephanie Brown’s guest appearance as Nightwing in Smallville Season 11, replacing her with former Oracle Barbara Gordon, and suddenly I wish that Didio had actually stayed on the Puerto Rico Comic Con panel he was supposed to attend so I could ream him properly.
I mean, this defies belief. We’d gotten an announcement a month ago; this was a done deal, and one that made me (as well as many other Steph fans) incredibly happy, since it meant a) Stephanie’s first appearance in print after the series chronicling her tenure as Batgirl was cancelled last year to make way for the new 52 (nonwithstanding a few cameos on out-of-continuity titles like Tiny Titans and Batman: The Brave and The Bold) b) it’d be written by Bryan Q. Miller, who wrote said comic and was an integral part in making it a critical success, and c) it followed up on hints he’d dropped about Stephanie’s future on that book.
What’s more, the argument for her exclusion–that she’s apparently not “iconic” enough, and that Barbara would be more so in these particular circumstances–is ridiculous on the face of it. Yes, the character of Barbara Gordon is far more recognizable than that of Stephanie Brown, having the benefit of numerous TV appearances–as Batgirl, and occasionally, Oracle–throughout the decades, so if they’d announced that she’d replaced her as Batgirl, I’d think the decision had some merit even as I’d hate every bit of it. As Nightwing, however? She’s no more iconic than a non-iconic thing. The only recognizable character to use that identity is Dick Grayson, and he’s most recognizable as Robin anyway.
If we assume the argument is being made in good faith–and I don’t, for reasons that I’ll get to in a moment–then it betrays some very pernicious thinking from the part of DC. Yes, name recognition can be useful when developing, say, an animated series adapting a comic book; while it won’t guarantee success, it does give an early indication of whether a product will be able to support itself, which a good thing to have when one is spending so much money on an uncertain venture. However, this was not a concern here. Steph-as-Nightwing was not meant to be a sales draw. She was not supposed to carry the book. In fact, she was merely meant to be an Easter Egg for fans of the character in a book where the continuing adventures of the Smallville cast is supposed to be the draw. The fact that it actually appeared to have drawn interest from people who’d previously ignored the series but loved Steph was a bonus, nothing more. Not only that, Smallville already had a history as a series where things like iconicity weren’t always a concern: throughout the TV show’s history, we got Stargirl but not Batman, Bart Allen but not Wonder Woman. Stephanie Brown as Nightwing fit right in.
What’s more, if iconicity and name recognition are required for appearing in media, and characters are denied the opportunity to accrue name recognition by guest-starring on other people’s works, then you have a fictional universe in which only the oldest, most established characters will be kept in circulation, and no new characters would ever get the opportunity to shine. You’d see the same ten characters–mostly male, all white–make appearances over and over and over again, with no space for new concepts, new characters, and very little diversity. Creatively, this is a recipe for stagnation; as a reflection of its creator’s ideas of what the world should be, it’s ghastly.
However, if one looks at DC at the moment, one can see that–thankfully–iconicity isn’t really a concern driving books. One only needs to take a look at some of the changes they’ve made–the transformation of Amanda Waller from the middle-aged, confidently fat woman she’s been since her creation into something considerably less distinctive; Harley Quinn’s and Zatanna’s new costume, which retains none of the qualities that made the originals so distinctive and are worse in every possible way; or the fact that four male Robins* are given established places in the New 52 despite the continuity headaches it causes and the fact that some of them are not very recognizable at all–to see that that is not the case. What’s more, in a world where Alan Scott is considered “iconic” becuase he’s the fourth most recognizable Green Lantern, then, it’s clear the word has no set meaning, and is only there to be trotted out when convenient. Want a C-lister’s sexuality change to get big news coverage on a slow week? Call him iconic. Want to exclude a character? Claim that she’s not iconic, despite being in continuous circulation for nearly two decades and being the only person to be both Robin and Batgirl.
So what’s really going on? Given the circumstances–this had been a done deal, with art, an announcement by the writer, and a fanbase that had already been hyped up–and Stephanie Brown’s particularly troubled history–she had been “promoted” to the the position of Robin so she could be unceremoniously killed off and forgotten, only for DC to find a fandom that wouldn’t allow it–it’s kinda hard for me to see this as a case of an overseer’s personal animus against the character. If that’s not the case, then they’re certainly in no great hurry to disprove it.
And the thing is, I like Smallville, which I’m still surprised about, given that I never warmed up to the actual TV series and think it misunderstood the characters involved in several key ways. With Clark now Superman, those issues have been resolved and while the book is not the most exciting thing ever, it’s the closest thing DC has put out in years to the kind of stories the part of me that likes Lois and Clark and the Byrne era of Superman likes. I also really like Bryan Q. Miller’s work, and want to make clear that I wish to see more of it. And yet, I don’t feel like I can support the work of a company that clearly doesn’t respect either him or their audience.
* In other words, all the Robins, according to DC.