Why Can't Bette Catch a Break?

I'm an admitted Flamebird fan. We're rare, but we do exist. So I hope it doesn't sound incredibly stupid when I say I looked forward to the ongoing Batwoman series mainly because it would feature Bette Kane in some capacity. I clung onto every new bit of information, I cursed every time the series was delayed, and now, while it seems every other reader is hailing the new Batwoman series, I am disgusted at how it's started treating Bette. Please; I implore you to try not to view me as a fuss-pot making a scene over the shafting of a relatively-unknown character who isn't the focus of the book, and read on.

Ever since I remember reading about Bette Kane, she's been regarded as a worthless joke of a heroine by almost all other costumed vigilantes, and I must say I feel that this cold shoulder is a lot more than she really deserves. I get it; Bette started her superhero career under goofy circumstances. She was a fangirl to Robin, at a time when most people regarded Robin (whatwith his lack of pants and tendency to spout oaths beginning with "Holy") as horribly uncool, and as the original Batgirl, she felt pretty arbitrary since back then, they had a tendency to slap the prefix "Bat" onto anything. Since then, the entire Silver Age has fallen victim to the "This is dumb" sentiment, and it seems that while Batman, Nightwing (formerly Robin) and most of the gang had moved on (either that or just gone away) Bette got turned into a different heroine but retained some of her Silver Age lightheardedness--but so what?

I feel that ever since Batman and Teen Titans took a sharp turn for the darker in the 1980s, Bette's had a stigma hanging over her just because she isn't "dark" in any way. At least, that is the only explanation that I can think of, because from much of what I've read of her, Flamebird isn't really as inept as everyone in-universe seems to think. In the Technis Imperative crossover between the Titans and Justice League, for example, she fought on more or less equal terms with Huntress, one of those "dark" characters who had come to dominate graphic novels, and later, in the Birds of Prey story arc, Between Dark and Dawn, they fought again--Huntress eventually won, but complemented Flamebird on her abilities. So where does the negative perception of Flamebird really come from?

Try, if you will, to look at her another way: Bette Kane was not born as a superpowered alien. She was not the heir to a fortune. She does not have a tragic past in which her parents were murdered, or she did something she regrets, or both. She merely started as a goofy, airheaded, blonde fangirl, and she still got to where she is today. It doesn't qualify her as any sort of Mary Sue, because Bette's abilities aren't excessive, and she does have a background as a professional athlete to back up them up. However, her original motivation was still petty compared to most heroes, yet she pushed herself to lengths few would go based on that motivation, and eventually became a capable heroine despite her petty origin. That's admirable in its own right. Countless normal Joes and Janes have grown up looking up to the superheroes they read about. Bette Kane was a (relatively) normal Jane who looked up to a superhero, and actually became one because of this admiration. Why does so much of the DCU treat this sort of character, who should be plenty relatable to their audience, as such a non-entity? Why does every hero's passion for heroics have to be fueled by their resentment over the past--can't we have some heroes whose passion comes from a dream of a better future instead? Why does everyone automatically read dark and cynical as the only path to competence?

I complain of this, I should mention, not just because I resent the way that Flamebird has been treated, but also because, frankly, I'm getting sick of darkness. I'm sick of all the edgy, creepy, bloody aesthetic that keeps spilling into more and more titles. I'm sick of seeing grungy urban environments and nothing else. I'm sick of the extreme hypocrisy of a company writing heroes against killing, while simultaneously tantalizing readers with the question of "Which Teen Titan will we kill this time; buy the book to find out." I'm sick of a world where Spider-Man makes deals with devils, or where people think giving his movies a dark and gritty reboot is a good idea. It seems that in the minds of many these days, darkness has come to mean quality, and that attitude needs to stop.

For some heroes it works. Batman should be dark and cynical, because he's a product of a film-noir style of literature that was itself a product of a time when organized crime permeated the old Eastern cities of the US. Not everything gels with that style, though. Bette Kane is a product of glitzy, glamorous, self-indulgent, arguably-shallow but often-happy, Southern California culture. Plenty of readers have grown up in that sort of situation, too. I was a So-Cal child, and you can bet I knew plenty of preppy, optimistic, blonde athletes while growing up. Just as Batman is a hero who does a good job representing his environment's bleaker culture, Flamebird is a good exemplar for this different environment; simultaneously a product of it and elevated above the indifferent/unremarkable norm. This culture's exemplar hero deserves the same respect as another's.

Which is why, after a long period of being alternately shunned in-continuity, and just ignored by writers, it enrages me that we get a writer who announces that he's going to do something big with Bette Kane, and the moment she shows some initiative in the book, the first thing Batwoman does is burn her costume and treat her like dirt; reducing her to zero and acting as though nothing she did in the past ever mattered. Haden Blackman might think that this is a necessary step towards changing Flamebird from a living blonde joke into a tough heroine that people can take seriously, but here is the problem with his attitude: That "step" already happened years ago. Bette already got a major role documenting her maturation in Beast Boys and Girls miniseries. There, she shows up to the scorn of nearly everyone else, initially being played as the goofy, airheaded blonde that everyone resents. She gets reprimanded by none other than her former rolemodel, Nightwing, he tells her to give up because she causes more problems than she solves, and instead of taking his advice, she opts to get serious about things. She cuts her hair, dawns a brand new costume, and kicks some ass along with Beast Boy in the climax. That was her big moment of truth; she got over her old idolization of Dick Grayson, she overhauled her image, she proved she could fight, and she did it all by herself, without the help of another heroine who hasn't even been around in the continuity as long as she has.

I mean no disrespect to Batwoman. She probably is the best new (for all intents and purposes) character added to the DCU in years (and I mean considerably more years than it unfortunately took Kate Kane's book to get off the ground), and for once a character's homosexuality is played for something other than "Look at us; we made a gay character; aren't we hip?" However, as a longtime fan of Batman, I still have to view Batwoman as something derivative of his line of stories. Flamebird had become something different since dropping her brand association to the Bat Family after the Silver Age; a heroine of a different (but not necessarily lesser) persuasion. Now, her treatment at the hands of Batwoman is a slap in the face to everything she had accomplished through her own dedication and hard work, and effectively an allegation that bright, cheerful heroes are worthless until put through hell by the dark and brooding ones, and perhaps, until they become dark and brooding themselves.

I had hoped, in hearing the plans for this new series, that Bette Kane would finally get the respect she's earned over the years. Unfortunately, it turns out that it's just one more bit of scorn heaped onto a character whom I never remember being as incompetent as everyone else regards her as being. People have been beating on Flamebird just for being Flamebird for so long, that I don't even think anyone remembers the real reason. She needs help from a writer, in the vein of Geoff Johns, whose plans for her, after revamping her in the Beast Boy mini, died with his proposed Titans LA series. She needs a writer who respects her for what she is, not one who believes she needs to be made into something better. She needs somebody, for once, to treat her right, and if she ever gets out of this one alive, I hope that she goes back to being Flamebird the way she was before, fighting crime to the beat of her own drum, but this time gets appreciated for it.

17 Comments