While Young Adult literature is soaring in popularity due to its newly appreciated literary appeal, as well as the attention that particular form gives to adolescent protagonists (think John Green, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Twilight), superhero comics have had a hard time keeping their teen adventurers going strong in books -- when those books don't involve the amazing X-Men, that is. For DC, Teen Titans was a cash cow in the 1980s, but in the New 52, it languishes. At Marvel, their most popular adult heroes are selling steadily, but teen series Avengers Academy only got a recent boost in numbers because it tied into events going on in the greater Marvel universe. Taken together, these examples might point to the fact that teenagers and kids aren't reading and buying these books (they may not even be the target audience); recent surveys from DC agree. Not too long ago, nerds won the war in getting comics taken seriously as mainstream entertainment, with art and story progressing dramatically from the 1930s through the 2000s, with blockbuster movies and underground comix adding support for complexity along the way. But did we lose something on this journey? Comics were for kids back when they first appeared in tri-color, off-focus paper print; they were marketed to adolescents in the 1960s and 1970s. That audience grew up, still loved comics, and demanded sophistication. But why shouldn't there be a seat at the table for the kids' kids, who would appreciate a well-told story that reflects their adolescence?
Stephanie Brown is a perfect example of a complex teen hero who gets little love from some sources. For those who don't know who Steph's history, she first appeared as Spoiler, an amateur, bouncy-to-the-point-of-annoying crime-fighter, who donned a cape and mask to put a stop to her lame father's criminal schemes. (How lame was Poppa Cluemaster? This lame.) She was not approved by Batman, but won then-Batgirl Cassandra Cain over with her pluckiness, fell in love with Robin, and was reluctantly let into the Bat family as a new Robin. Because really? What could Bats do to stop Steph, first a magnet for trouble, then a kid sister following him around looking for approval? Lucky for the Dark Knight, DC Editorial snuck in and killed her off in one of the most brutal victimizations of a woman in recent comic book history. Protests against such treatment brought Steph back from the dead, and eventually Dan Didio crowned her Batgirl, a title she held for two glorious years before The New 52 de-aged Barbara Gordon and put her back under the cowl.
Since the DC relaunch, Steph's been underground -- until recently! Bryan Q. Miller, her former writer for Batgirl, announced that he would include her in the digital Smallville comic as a female Nightwing earlier this spring. However, come the San Diego Comic Con, things changed. In the interest of presenting only iconic (read: first) versions of DC characters in DC books, the alternate universe of Smallville would feature Babs as Nightwing, not Stephanie. (Miller had spent time suggesting Steph could become Nightwing in the mainstream universe, before picking up where the TV show "Smallville" left off. Maybe editors didn't read that?) Steph fans -- mostly women, I gather, from the nerd-feminist websites I follow -- were disappointed. However, laments grew thicker once it was revealed that Steph had been axed not in the interest of icon protection, but simply because DC demanded Miller replace her, PERIOD; Miller independently chose to use original Batgirl Babs in the Nightwing role.
Spoiler creator Chuck Dixon, well known for bringing together the kick-ass, all-female Birds of Prey, seriously thinks someone among the DC higher-ups hates poor Steph and wants to keep her out of books for as long as possible. I think that's a shame because if you happen to read Bryan Q. Miller's two-year run on Stephanie as Batgirl, you'd see what an amazing icon she could be for adolescent girls. Steph is a rich character, full of lessons for her readers. Her quest to teach Gotham it can believe in her, and subsequently, that everyone can gain second chances, is well-told through a mix of humor, philosophy and exciting action set-pieces. Her relationship with mentor Barbara Gordon grows from a reluctant partnership to a loving and supportive friendship, highlighting the importance of female relationships (the book also features two major disabled characters with little comment). And her journey of discovering how to become the person she wants to be is stunning in its heart, optimism and maturity. Steph's a true slatebreaker, to borrow a phrase from my favorite YA blog; she delivers more than one expects, and she carries you with her, so you learn that you ought to be just as hopeful, plucky and hilarious as her.
If the kid and teen experience were being emphasized as of value to either company, I think youth books would gain more of an audience, and Steph might still be with us. YA knows how to draw its readers in, make them welcome and comfortable, and tells stories tailored for them and built to stretch them. Maybe if DC wasn't only starting to welcome more age-diverse audiences, with the recent Tiny Titans and Super Best Friends Forever shorts on Cartoon Network, or the start-up of "Smallville" as a comic (once a successful drama targeted at teens), the company would know what to keep and what to ditch; they would have an audience that they knew how to listen to already. Either way, the only way to let the comics companies know that more diversity is essential in potential hero line-ups, is to write, post and send them waffles! Because Steph will return someday, by our good graces.
POST-SCRIPT: I seriously cannot recommend Stephanie Brown's tenure as Batgirl enough. The full two-year run is one of the most entertaining, empowering and enjoyable comics I've ever read. Check it out! No continuity knowledge required.
POST-POST-SCRIPT: Also, watch Super Best Friends Forever. Here, I'll get you started: