As we wish Robin a happy 80th anniversary in April 2020, we're giving thanks for the Dick Graysons and the Tim Drakes of the Bat-franchise. Yet, though we are grateful for the highlights, we can’t help but think of the Robins who didn’t exactly get their due. At the top of that list is Stephanie Brown, whose stint as Robin could have been great, but went awry at almost every turn.
After her catastrophic turn as Robin, Stephanie Brown was deceased and her story used as a warning to young crime fighters not to follow in her footsteps. Though she did return from the dead and even enjoyed a lengthy stint as Batgirl, that came much later in the game after a lot of fans expressed frustration over how her character was treated.
Stephanie’s first appearances were as the hero Spoiler, who is widely recognizable to all '90s Batman comic fans for her enormous purple cape and full face mask. She was the child of the villain Cluemaster and became a vigilante specifically to disarm the potential harm of her father’s schemes. Despite Batman’s disapproval of Stephanie (and literally any person he can’t completely control), Spoiler formed a strong bond with Tim Drake, and the two of them worked together and even began a romantic relationship.
When Tim’s father stepped in to put the kibosh on his time as Robin, he might have gone along with those wishes, but Stephanie was apparently secretly disappointed in him for doing so and doubled down on her training. After becoming frustrated with the period of relative inaction that followed Tim’s retirement, she made herself a homemade costume and showed up at the Batcave ready for duty.
Alfred advised against taking on Stephanie as Robin, but Batman did not listen. In the beginning, he was supportive of Stephanie and helpful towards her training, but did very little to offset her insecurity and her overwhelming desire to prove herself. She grew even more distant towards Tim, not telling him the truth of her new partnership. This is understandable because when he does find out, he makes it about himself by immediately assuming that Batman only recruited Stephanie to get to him.
An assassin attempts to kill the Tim Drake Robin by simply killing every young man she encounters who looks like they might be him, which is truly, absurdly inefficient. When a female Robin turns up, she takes that to mean that she must have succeeded. With Stephanie’s help, Batman tracks her down. He tells Stephanie to wait in the plane while he goes to fight the killer, but Stephanie sees him in trouble and goes to help. When they make it back to the Batcave, he tells her she can’t be Robin anymore because she disobeyed his orders.
The entire Stephanie Brown-as-Robin story moves at an accelerated pace; it only lasts for a handful of issues that are supposed to span several months, beginning in Robin #126 and ending with Robin #128, so we see very little of her. This reads back as nothing if not a missed opportunity.
Death and Rebirth
When looking at Stephanie Brown's story, it’s important to note that Batman fails in his job as a mentor. Setting two strict rules and completely casting her out when she breaks one with the intention of saving his life is harsh and shows greater restriction than he imposed on the other Robins. Rather than working with her on her grievous mistake, he tells her that all of her work was meaningless and that she can never be a hero, no matter how much she’s done to prove herself. Her next choices are foolish, but he should have anticipated them. His lack of concern or care for her while constantly comparing her to her male predecessors is highly irresponsible and not at all how mentors are supposed to treat the young people they work with. The responsibility and the aftermath fall entirely on Stephanie’s shoulders despite the fact that Bruce put too much on her and then completely cut her out the second she did something he didn’t like. Stephanie’s personality was always more questioning and defiant than other Robins, and Bruce should have allotted for that when he made the choice to turn her loose.
Stephanie stole Batman’s foolishly unwatched plans for shutting down the criminal underbelly of Gotham. Reeling from what was, for her, a world-shattering rejection, she attempted to commence with these plans on her own but accidentally started a gang war among Gotham’s crime bosses. Black Hand kidnapped and tortured Stephanie to death.
The aftermath of this is not pretty. Longtime Batman supporting cast member Doctor Leslie Thompkins admits to purposefully letting Stephanie die so that Bruce would stop recruiting children in his war against crime. That is, of course, beyond unethical. Ultimately, this story was stricken from the continuity books when the New 52 reboot occurred and reintroduced Stephanie, this time as Batgirl.
Though Stephanie did bounce back from the failures of her time as Robin, we’re never going to fully get past the fact that what could have been a great story turned out to be nothing more but another woman fridged to teach Batman a lesson. However, Stephanie was still a great Robin. Her active mind and her ability to question Batman and call him out could have made for a lot of character growth for him if the franchise hadn’t taken the easy way out and thrown her under the bus to achieve less interesting results. So it is that, while we will be holding our glass high in the air for all the great Robins, we still must shed a tear for the one who got away.