Sunday, February 16, 2020

Asperger’s, Birds of Prey, and Cassandra Cain by Nathanael Hood

[Much thanks to Santiago Mayaud for helping me find and credit all the art used in this article. Follow him on twitter at @JudgeAnon.]

Every superhero is autistic, at least a little.

A normal person, seeing their billionaire parents gunned down in a back alley, would probably cope with their trauma by going to therapy for a few years, maybe start a charity in their name, initiate a program of urban redevelopment in the neighborhood they were killed. A normal person wouldn’t spend the rest of their lives training and mastering every martial art known to man, style themselves after an airborne mammal, and embark on a one-man anti-crime wave. Likewise, a normal person, when faced with the deadly consequences of their contributions to the military industrial complex, would probably become an anti-nuclear crusader, speaking around the world and at the United Nations in the name of global disarmament. A normal person wouldn’t build themselves a mechanical flight suit with the firepower of several aircraft carriers and blow up anybody who tried to steal their technology.

These things are unusual. Abnormal. Atypical. Neuroatypical, even. For while the superhero impulse might be fundamentally rooted in the desire to do good, deep within it lurks something more subtle—the drive to hyper-fixate.

At least that’s how I understood it as a teenager and young adult with Asperger’s. In superheroes, I saw reflections of myself, a perpetual outsider who saw and processed the world differently, who fixated on specific things and obsessed over them until they consumed me. Similarly, superheroes, in a very literal sense, became embodiments of the virtues they espoused. Truth. Justice. The American Way. They saw a broken world (or neighborhood, or country, or galaxy) and fought to fix it, to clear away suffering and injustice until everything was set aright. They obsessed over their mission, learned every nook and cranny of their territory, devised every contingency plan possible. I loved reading about how Batman had detailed files on his Rogues Gallery, or how the Punisher had safe houses strategically placed all over New York City in case things went sideways. To me, a superhero always had a Batcave or Fortress of Solitude where they could collect, organize, and display battle trophies and flee from an overstimulating world—both of which are textbook Aspie tics if I know Aspies, and I do. A superhero always had a game plan like Peter Parker, snapping pictures of himself as Spider-Man and selling them to his boss at the Daily Bugle to make ends meet. A superhero was always tinkering, always building, always exploring like the Fantastic Four, eager to see new worlds and study their findings. Superheroes were perpetually dissatisfied, and only the promise of new stimulus seemed to keep them going.

Superheroes were different and weird and didn’t fit into the world at large. And neither did I. All too often I found myself jealous not just of their superpowers, but of their secret identities. How wonderful it must be to “turn off” one’s otherness. To me, that was more amazing than being born on a different planet or getting powers from a toxic chemical spill. Perhaps that’s one reason why I identified so closely with characters who couldn’t, the ones who were forced to live day-in and day-out with the things that made them strange and wonderful, terrible and terrifying. Swamp Thing with his vegetable body. Nightcrawler with his blue fur, fangs, and tail. The Spectre with his heavenly duties weighing on him like a noose and anchor.

And Cassandra Cain.

Penciller Damion Scott
To see her, one would assume she was another dime-a-dozen teenage vigilante grappling-hooking her way across the roofs of Gotham.

But Cassandra Cain was different. Very different.

Why? Because she’s the closest thing DC Comics has to an autistic superhero.
At least to me. It’s never been confirmed and it’s probably never even been hinted at. But in my eyes she’s always been very clearly coded as autistic, even if that was never the intent of her writers or creators. And hey, when you consider that the only officially diagnosed-as-autistic character in DC Comics is friggin’ Black Manta—a supervillain—you can understand why people like me would take any bit of representation we could get, even if it’s only imagined.

A quick history lesson. I promise I’ll try not to go full nerd on you guys. Bear with me.

Created by writer Kelley Puckett and artist Damion Scott, she first appeared in Batman #567 in July 1999 in the wildly popular “No Man’s Land” story arc that saw Gotham City scrambling to recover in the wake of a cataclysmic earthquake. The next year she received her own comic book series aptly named Batgirl which ran for about 80 issues and further explored her origins and her struggles to live up to the Batgirl mantle originated by her mentor Barbara Gordon.

Her gimmick—if you could call it a gimmick—was that she was the daughter of two of the deadliest assassins and martial artists in the DC Universe. From birth, she’d been trained to be the perfect killer. In a cruel twist, this included depriving her of all speech and human contact during her childhood, leaving her mute, illiterate, and mentally stunted. Violence, quite literally, was the only language she knew.

However—much like brain surgery patents whose neural pathways re-write themselves to accommodate missing lobes—Cass very much learned language: the language of human body movement.

Images from Batgirl Vol. 1, issue #13 Write Kelly Puckett, penciler Damion Scott
She could literally read and predict her opponents’ movements. Facial micro-expressions, small fidgets, barely registrable flinches…she could read these as clearly as you or I could the letters of the alphabet. The result was that by the time she was eight she was one of the best hand-to-hand fighters on the planet. She was everything her parents had hoped. She was perfect.

At least until the time came for her “graduation”—her first kill.

Batman Vol. 1, issue #567, writer Kelly Puckett,penciler Damion Scott
When she carried out her first assassination, her ability to read body language made it so she experienced her target’s death throes herself. All his pain, all his disbelief, all his terror…all these things Cass read in his eyes, his face, his body.

Traumatized, she fled from her father and spent the next several years on the run, swearing never to kill again. Eventually she ended up in Gotham and swore allegiance to Batman, impressed both by his skills as a martial artist and his refusal to kill. As the years went by, she served as Batgirl for several years before passing the mantle on to Stephanie Brown, bounced around several superhero teams, got brainwashed and turned into a villain, got saved and turned back into a hero, yadda yadda yadda. Standard superhero stuff.

Yet no matter how she evolved as a character (and no, I’m choosing to ignore her One Year Later arc—that was bad, stupid writing then and it’s bad stupid writing now) she always remained autistically-coded in three ways.

First, there’s her learning disabilities. Despite what Hollywood and Rain Man (1988) might tell you, autism doesn’t give sufferers mental superpowers. In fact, many children with autism have difficulty learning to read, write, or perform mathematics. And Cass’ struggles to learn how to read, write, and speak clearly reflect the learning curve faced by many autistic kids.

Batgirl Vol. 1, Issue #58,writer Andersen Gabrych, penciler Ale Garza
One of my favorite moments of her original Batgirl run was an inspired bit of comic book wizardry that depicted how Cass could only understand written words by interpreting them as body movements.

Batgirl Vol. 1, issue #4, writers Kelley Puckett and Scott Peterson, penciler Damion Scott

Eventually Cass would be able to talk, read, and write, but always with difficulty and hesitation. Which leads me to the second way she was autistically-coded: her difficulty reading social cues. Because of her upbringing, she’d never been properly socialized, so the usual proprieties we take for granted about how to speak and act with other people remained foreign to her. Even after she started making friends with various members of the Bat-family, she never quite fit in, frequently exasperating them with her apparent aloofness and bizarre behavior. One particularly infamous and extreme example happened during her tenure with the Outsiders where she’d nonchalantly walk around naked in front of her team-members.

Batman and the Outsiders Vol. 2, issue #3, writer Chuck Dixon, penciler Julian Lopez

Much of the time she’s only be able to truly communicate with her friends and allies while training and while on missions—much to the chagrin of her bestie, the aforementioned Stephanie Brown whom she taught martial arts.

Batgirl Vol. 1,issue #28, writer Kelley Puckett, penciler Damion Scott

This leads into the third, final, and perhaps most telling way that Cass is autistically-coded: she hyper-fixates on being a hero. The thing about Cass is that if she’s not fighting crime, she’s training. If she’s not training, she’s training other people. And if she’s not training other people, she’s probably in a coma recovering from the last time she was fighting crime. Her drive to help other people—to preserve and protect life—borders on the self-destructive as she frequently pushes her body to the brink of collapse, something the people who love her are quick to point out.

But even more than fighting crime, Cass hyper-fixates on the idea of being part of the Bat-family, of wearing the Batman symbol. She’s fanatically loyal to it the way a soldier might their country’s flag.

Batgirl Vol.1 issue #50, writer Dylan Horrocks, penciler Rick Leonardi

Again, an Aspie knows Aspie behavior when they see it.

And yet, despite all of these tics and bizarre behaviors, Cass was always loved and accepted by her teammates, even getting officially adopted by Bruce Wayne as his legal daughter. She was a hero who succeeded not in spite of her issues, but because of them. And that’s a dream many autistic people have. At least it’s one I do.

So you can imagine my excitement when I heard she was going to be showing up in Cathy Yan’s upcoming (and exhaustingly titled) Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). At long last she was going to get the recognition she deserves. And Aspies who see her as one of us? We’d live vicariously through her success, too.

And the movie itself? It was fun! I went into it knowing that all the characters I’d known and loved from the comics were going to be altered, and they were. (Except for Margot Robbie’s Harley who remains pretty faithful to her current Maniac Pixie Dream Psycho characterization in the comics.) And truth be told, I actually liked the changes. Not at first, of course; my inner comic fanboy was initially taken aback. But as the movie went on I realized that these alterations were probably necessary so the characters wouldn’t seem so identical. Because, let’s be honest, in the comics the ladies hit a lot of the same beats: Renee Montoya is a headstrong Dominican who don’t take shit from nobody; Huntress is a headstrong Italian who don’t take shit from nobody; Black Canary is a headstrong…er…white woman who don’t take shit from nobody.

I kid, I kid, all three women are much, much more nuanced than this. But the point I’m trying to make is that despite the cosmetic changes the film makes, all three characters are still the same characters: Renee might be a doofy parody of 80s police clichés, but she’s still a committed cop desperate to do good in a broken system; Huntress might have apoplectic rage and self-confidence issues, but she’s still an avenger of the weak who struggles with her inner sense of justice and her need for vengeance; Black Canary might’ve needed to be coerced into becoming a hero, but she’s still driven primarily by her need to protect those important to her.

But this Cass? She’s just…not Cass. At all.

Cassandra as directed by Yan, written by screenwriter Christina Hodson, and performed by Ella Jay Basco is a bitter, foul-mouthed, self-centered pickpocket. Literally the only things she has in common with Cassandra Cain from the comics is a) she’s a young Asian woman, and b) she comes from a broken home. But that’s it. Everything else was changed. She’s literally a completely different, completely new character.

I want to pause here for a moment and make something very clear. I’m not mad at Yan, Hodson, or Basco for their interpretation of Cass. I’m not some fanboy foaming at the mouth with rage that they weren’t faithful to the comics. They didn’t “rape my childhood” and they certainly didn’t ruin my favorite character. I’m reminded of the time somebody asked crime novelist James M. Cain if he was upset by how Hollywood changed his stories for the big screen: he answered “they haven’t done anything to [my books, they’re] right there on the shelf.” The Cass I know and love is safe in my trades on my bookshelf and the floppies on my Comixology account.

And besides, I have a theory about what might have happened. I think the Cassandra Cain we ended up getting in the movie was very different from the Cassandra Cain that was originally envisioned. I think she probably had much more in common with her comic book counterpart with maybe a few of her edges sanded away to better fit the plot. But as rewrites and reshoots happened the things that made Cass, well, Cass slowly got jettisoned until all that was left was this changeling masquerading as her.

So again, I’m not mad at anyone who worked on the film.

So why then am I still sad about this? Why did I find myself crying on the subway ride home from the theater after seeing it?

Maybe it’s because I was promised a character I think of as a close friend, a character I see as an extension of my own struggles with Asperger’s and mental illness, a character who promised that my disability isn’t a disability at all but a blessing in disguise. And instead I got…well…the exact opposite.

I know, I know…how dare I, a straight white guy, get teary-eyed at a lack of representation? Birds of Prey is a film about female empowerment, after all. It’s about women fighting back against loneliness and oppression in a misogynist, male-dominated world. It’s about sisterhood and bucking societal expectations about what being a woman means. I get that. And I personally know women who’ve found the film exhilarating and empowering. And I’m overjoyed for them.

But I’m still broken-hearted for all the other autistic people who will have to settle for this not-Cass. It makes me wonder if Hollywood will ever take neuroatypical characters—even neuroatypically-coded characters—seriously. If the closest thing Marvel and DC Comics has to an autistic superhero after 70+ years is noted asshat Reed Richards, then what hope do we have for Hollywood to ever tell our stories? Stories about autism and disability, the agonies of “fitting in” and “passing” for normal when every nerve-ending of our brains and bodies can’t stop screaming that everything is wrong. We know that Hollywood can treat traumatized superheroes with at least some level of decency and respect—the depiction of Tony Stark’s PTSD is one of my favorite arcs from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So why can’t they devote those resources to…us?

Maybe I’m dreaming. Maybe I’m over-reacting. Maybe I’m just a spoiled white guy crybaby. I don’t know. All I can say is that I’m very sad.

I wasn’t sure how to end this piece; I couldn’t think of any high notes or hopeful predictions. So instead I’ll leave you with this scene from Detective Comics #958 where Cass acts out a scene from Shakespeare’s The Tempest with former Batman villain Clayface. It’s one of my favorite Cass moments ever, and not only because we get to see her doing Shakespeare. It’s because of what Clayface tells her at the very end. It’s the kind of validation every Aspie kid dreams of. May we all one day find it.

Writer James Tynion, penciler Alvaro Martinez

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