Cassandra Cain is about to burst onto the big screen alongside Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn in Birds of Prey, but before she was a cinematic pickpocket, she was someone much bigger: Batgirl. Cass’ origin story evokes powerful themes of fighting your own trauma and choosing your own path — and it’s the focus of DC Comics’ latest YA graphic novel, Shadow of the Batgirl, from writer Sarah Kuhn and artist Nicole Goux.
While Cassandra Cain is Kuhn’s favorite Batgirl, she never expected to be able to do a book about her.
“As an Asian American writer, I’m always looking for opportunities to tell stories with Asian-American protagonists,” Kuhn told Polygon, but she assumed that DC Comics would be more interested in pitches about big ticket heroes like Wonder Woman, Harley Quinn, and the original Batgirl, Barbara Gordon. “[...] I was thinking that Cassandra was the long shot. I just thought that was something that would never happen.”
Created in 1999 by Kelley Puckett and Damion Scott, Cass Cain was the daughter of the greatest assassins in the DC Universe and Barbara Gordon’s first successor. By the time she donned her costume, she was also the first Batgirl in over a decade, gaining a fan following that made her the star of the first ongoing Batgirl series.
Cass’ tenure in the role didn’t last through the present day; in 2009, she ceded the mantle to a third Batgirl, and in 2011 a continuity reboot erased her from DC history. While she was eventually re-envisioned as the vigilante Orphan, Barbara Gordon is still the only person to have been Batgirl in the modern DCU.
As a pitch, Shadow of the Batgirl may have been a “long shot” on a forgotten character, but as a book, it’s a beautifully realized coming of age story about found family, women mentoring women, and choosing your own way. And it’s a great introduction to a great character, aimed at an audience that wasn’t even alive when she first hit comic shop shelves.
Given all of that, Polygon is excited to share a full scene from Shadow of the Batgirl, which hits shelves on Jan. 29, along with excerpts from our interview with Khun and Goux, all about how they retold the second Batgirl’s origin story for a new generation.
Goux, who joked that her background is in mostly “indie comics that are just teenagers sitting around talking,” had specific goals in crafting her version of Batman’s hometown.
“I wanted to create this world that felt both like Gotham — something that could be big and scary — but also had moments of calm and of home and serenity,” she told Polygon. “I really like quiet moments in stories, and I like having space to explore these moments in between the action and what’s happening.”
In her classic incarnation, Cassandra Cain’s assassin father raised her in a way that mapped the language centers of her brain to movement instead of speech. He forged Cass into a martial arts prodigy with an uncanny ability to predict her opponent’s moves, but at the cost of her ability to read, write, and speak.
With help from the Bat-family, Cass was able to become more and more verbal, but speech impairment is a consistent trait for her character in many incarnations, and one that Kuhn and Goux didn’t want to ignore.
“[Cass’ language impairment] did feel like a core part of the character [...],” Kuhn said, “Really the only language she has is body language. So we talked about that a lot, and I also wanted to show the struggle of her starting to get these first bits of language and trying to figure out what to do with them, and how they connect, and how they are used for communication.”
Comics are a marriage of text and image, and with much less speech on the page, the onus was on the art to carry much of the communication. To Goux, however this was “less a challenge than an opportunity to really showcase what art can do and tell stories through just imagery.”
“We had discussed ideas of putting imagery in word bubbles or finding some other ways of showing what she was thinking without using text,” Goux said, “But we landed on just relying heavily on the body language and expressions of the characters, which I actually think works really well for this story because that’s how Cassandra understands the world.”
“At first the voiceover was actually quite extensive,” Kuhn chimed in, “because we were trying to guide people through the story [...] but when we went back, and once we had kind of figured out [Cass’] voice and how it developed through the book a little bit better, we actually ended up cutting a lot of that. It’s always really exciting for me to cut words in comics, because the art is doing so much of the heavy lifting. And Nicole’s art is so beautiful and so expressive, I felt like it was telling so much of the story, especially in the beginning, that we didn’t need a lot of those words.”
After Cassandra rejected the path her parents set her on, she became a homeless runaway, and eventually fell under the mentorship of Barbara Gordon, who had retired from being Batgirl. Cass’ tutelage under Barbara was a large part of the character’s beginnings, in a superhero genre and era in which female characters were pretty thin on the ground — making female/female mentorships even rarer.
“There is something powerful about a female superhero mentoring a younger female superhero,” Kuhn told Polygon, “helping her realize who she wants to be, and helping her gain the skills that she needs. I always loved that [Cass and Barbara’s] relationship was unconventional and complicated, but so loving and so interesting. That was definitely something that I wanted to focus on and bring out.”
But Kuhn and Goux went a step further with one of Shadow of the Batgirl’s original characters, an older proprietor of a pho restaurant.
“I also wanted [Cass] to have an Asian lady role model — because that’s certainly been important to me in my life — we created the character, Jackie, who is her other mentor. I love that she gets different things from Barbara and Jackie and incorporates them into her own superhero identity along with things that she’s figured out she wants for herself. Showing that relationship was very important and I love that the three of them end up being their own kind of found family, helping each other.”
Your average teen was not raised by assassins as a perfect killing machine, Cass’ origin followed a time-honored comic book tradition: using outsized science fiction ideas as metaphors for more relatable experiences.
“I think it’s really important to note that [Cass] has been told all her life that she has to be one thing,” Goux said. “And during this very volatile period in her life — being a teen, which is crazy for anyone — she is faced with this decision to continue along the path that she has been told to go, or to pick a new path and decide what she wants to be on her own. [...] I think that is really powerful and really important, to tell girls her age that you get to choose who you’re going to be. [...] Even though Cass’ problems seem larger, they’re really the same problems but just on a different scale.”
“Cass is this badass assassin,” Kuhn said, “but on the inside she’s also a teenage girl who has never gotten to be a teenager. Who’s never gotten to be a child, who never got to have any of those things or those experiences. And so when she does start having them — making new friends, falling in love for the first time, getting cool new shoes, [doing things that] she chose rather than something her father chose for her — there is this sweetness about it. We wanted to bring that out as well.”
“I always loved that [Cassandra] was a character who was given all the tools to be a supervillain,” Kuhn said. “That’s her path, that’s what she’s been trained to do, she doesn’t know anything else. And then she chooses instead to be a hero. [...] I think there’s something powerful about saying to, especially young women, you can choose who you get to be. You can figure out your identity, and it’s OK if you make some mistakes, it’s OK if it’s not immediately perfect — but you have that choice, you have that power.”
Shadow of the Batgirl hits shelves on Jan. 29, 2020.