Monday, February 2, 2004

Looking To The Stars: The Hunt For Consistency, Part One

Is there any heroine in the stable of DC Comics heroines who has been more inconsistently portrayed than The Huntress?

True, there are a lot of heroines who have gotten some rather shabby treatment. Donna Troy is the queen of the origin reboot, getting a new story as to how she got her powers every five years now, it seems. Power Woman has played second fiddle to whoever was Supergirl that year ever since the end of Crisis. Jade has been depowered and repowered so many times that even we Green Lantern fans can’t remember if she still has plant control powers or not. But I put it to you all that when it comes to changing goals, erratic characterization and just plain “who the heck is this?” attitude, Helena Bertinelli is the most screwed up of the lot.

It all started out rather simply. On another Earth, Batman and Catwoman married and had a daughter; Helena Wayne. Helena followed in daddy’s footsteps and became a crime fighting vigilante called “The Huntress”. She had a back-up feature in Wonder Woman for quite a while, teamed up with Power Girl a few times and even guested in Infinity Inc.

That changed after the Crisis on Infinite Earths, when Helena’s Earth was erased from existence. That was the end of The Huntress until 1989, when Joey Cavalieri created a new Huntress that would fit into the new post-Crisis world.

Helena Janice Bertinelli was the daughter of Guido Bertinelli, head of the Bertinelli crime family. She grew up in the East Town district of Gotham City. At age six Helena was abducted and molested by a man named Vince (though she later called him “The Smiling Man”) on behalf of a rival crime family. Though she was rescued by the police, it was clear that the experience had taken a heavy toll on Helena. The once cheerful and outgoing girl became quiet and withdrawn.

Guido sent his daughter to school far away from the family, hoping this would make her safer. Guido also assigned her a bodyguard; Sal. Sal acted as Helen’s protector well into her late teens, when Helena went away to college. Leaving Sal behind to attend her cousin’s wedding (assuming she would be safe with all her family), Helena would see her entire family murdered by an assassin known as Omerta the Silencer.

A number of hitmen were sent after Helena after it was discovered that she was still alive. Thanfully, Sal found her first and taught Helena the arts of self-defense, including martial arts and how to use a variety of weapons, including her favorite weapon; the crossbow. In order to disguise herself, as well as increase her own growing confidence, Helena adopted a costume and a new name as she went forth to avenger her family: The Huntress.

Eventually, Helena avenged her family and tracked down the crime lord who was responsible for ordering the hit on her family; a Mafia boss known as Mandargora, who wanted to steal the Bertinelli fortune for himself so he could expand his empire into the United States. She tried to hang up the Huntress title after defeating both Mandaragora and Omerta, but found herself drawn into continuing to help the innocent. She moved to New York to become a vigilante there and would in time come to work alongside Justice League International. She turned down an invitation to join the team but later changed her mind thanks to the mind-bending powers Maxwell Lord possessed at the time. She quite after she learned of the manipulation.

Helena returned to Gotham, perhaps wishing to leave New York and its high metahuman population behind her after her unpleasant experiences with JLI. She found her hometown even more filled with corruption than before. The Mafia families now fought with costumed lunatics for control of the city. Taking on a job as a public school teacher (though still mostly supported by her family fortune, The Huntress took her battle to the streets of Gotham.

It is here, in the gap between her time in JLI and her first appearances in Gotham (Detective #652-653 and the Robin: Cry of the Huntress mini-series), that we find Helena’s first major change. Sometime between her time in New York and the migration to Gotham, Helena’s tactics changed. Whereas she had once been somewhat compassionate and sympathetic, she had become more violent in her methods. Whereas she had been reactionary, she was beginning to take proactive measures to fight crime; get them before they get us. Furthermore, whereas Batman and Robin would risk their own lives to save criminals from accidental death or suicide, Helena had no problems with a criminal blowing themselves up or falling off a building. This change can be credited to Chuck Dixon, writer of Detective Comics and Robin at the time, who turned Helena into a more conflicted character who regularly butted heads with the other vigilantes of Gotham over her methods.

Was this a needless or unbelievable change? On the whole, I think not. It is not unreasonable to think that after having been exposed to supervillains who could kill her at a whim during her time with the JLI, that Helena would feel a bit powerless. Given her past traumatic history and her using The Huntress as a shield personality to the danger around her, it is not unlikely that Helena would react with more force against those who she saw as doing wrong.

This was the status quo for a while; Huntress would be the loose cannon that Batman and company would have to contain as often as the criminals they both sought to stop. While Helena’s behavior as a character was fairly constant during this period during the early to late 90’s, many writers disagreed as to how far she went with her violence. While most had her roughing up thugs a bit more than Batman did and making threats with her crossbow that involved slowing shooting her way up a man’s pant leg toward the family jewels, a scant few stories had her turned into a Punisher who would gleefully shoot the bad guys if she could get away with it.

Still, Huntress did make some friends among the vigilantes of Gotham. She formed an uneasy bond with Robin (Tim Drake) who discovered her secret identity but promised not to tell Batman. She found herself an uneasy ally aside Black Canary and Catwoman on several occasions. She would later try to befriend Nightwing as well, though whether or not she intended to romance her way into the Bat-Family through him or whether their one night stand was something that just happened, is still a hotly debated point by fans today. (You can decide for yourself after reading the new Nightwing/Huntress TP collection of their mini-series.)

Batman, for his part, tried to ease Helena out of vigilantism by noting his disapproval of her and not accepting her as he has other vigilantes with other more violent methods than his own, such as Green Arrow and The Question. This spurning had the opposite effect and just made Helena all the more determined to keep fighting crime and more, to win Batman’s respect.

This would become the great dichotomy of Helena’s character. On the one hand, she wanted to be her own hero and not have to bow to the whims of anyone, following her own life’s experience where you were a victim if you were not totally dependent on yourself. Still, perhaps because of her own lack of family and Batman’s presence as a “father” for all the vigilantes in Gotham, she longed to win his approval.

Despite protesting that Batman is an arrogant and petty dictator as far as his kingdom is concerned, she has still tried to win his approval and endorsement. While he never gave it outright, neither did he act to stop her from fighting crime. He even turned to her to watch the city while he, Nightwing and Robin tracked down Ra’s Al Ghul during the “Legacy” storyline.

When it became clear that pushing against her only made her push back, Batman tried a new tactic in dealing with Huntress. Instead of pushing her away, he tried to subtly mold her. He sponsored her admission into the new Justice League, hoping that she might rise to the non-lethal example set by other heroes of her own accord rather than through constant lecturing and threats.

During this time period, Helena’s character was being written predominantly by Chuck Dixon and Grant Morrison. Dixon’s portrayal of Helena was much the same, save that Helena briefly became somewhat more aggressive during the Gotham “Cataclysm”. In one book, she left behind an opportunistic thug who tried to kill her in order to escape justice as Helena was trying to save the survivors of a subway car crash.

Morrison used Helena surprisingly little during her stint in the JLA, fueling rumors that she was added only to fit Morrison’s vision of the JLA as a “new Olympian Pantheon” with Helena firmly in the Artemis role; a role which had, until then, been filled by the new Green Arrow (virginal archer Connor Hawke) before the ending of his own title and his leaving the Justice League due to feeling ineffectual. Helena had similar feelings, finding some comfort and sympathy from the also unpowered hero Wildcat, during the “Crisis Times Five” storyline. Still, it seemed that she was slowly finding a place among other heroes and becoming more comfortable with the super-powered, even managing to work alongside (or inside) Plastic Man with relative ease to stop the future Flash in DC One Million. Still, despite her growing comfort and increasing ability to play well with others Helena showed very little signs of softening in her approach until the beginning of the No Man’s Lands year-long crossover between all of the Batman books.

Despondent over the fate of his city, Batman disappeared from the city as Bruce Wayne was seen living it up all over Europe. While he was away, the city was left unprotected, save for a few police officers lead by Jim Gordon and a network of informants formed by Oracle. Except for Huntress, the city was completely emptied of costumed protectors. Nightwing busied himself with his new base of Bludhaven. Robin was forced to relocate to Keystone City by his father.

Rather than revel in her newfound independence, Huntress wound up adopting the methods of Batman. Quickly realizing that she had very little reputation outside of the mobsters she usually plagued, Huntress changed her costume to resemble that of Batman from a distance, with a bat symbol and a full face mask to keep her feminine features from being seen from a distance. In this way, she became the new Batrgirl, despite the severe disapproval of Oracle (who was the first Batgirl, in case you forgot!)

Helena also stopped using potentially lethal weapons, favoring hand-to-hand combat in her new costume. This made her job much easier and even won her a small bit of acceptance when Batman returned, noting that while she was not approved, neither was she disapproved of so long as she did not cross the line.

Of course the identity of the new Batgirl was a hotly guarded secret at the time, which was revealed in the aftermath of “Claim Jumping” (Legends of the Dark Knight 119 & Shadow of the Bat 87). It was in this storyline that the new Batgirl (Huntress) was officially fired by Batman after failing to single-handedly stop a devastating surprise attack by Two Face’s gang that resulted in an entire neighborhood being slaughtered.

The Batgirl title and costume were then given (in a story that smacked of editorial mandate) to a newcomer; a mute girl with amazing fighting ability who was named Casandra by Oracle. In response to this snubbing by the entire superhero community (who by this time had gathered at Batman’s request), Huntress joined up with a group of rogue cops that favored death for all those who tormented Gotham City in its darkest hour.

Still, it seemed that her time in the JLA and as the solo vigilante in Gotham had an effect on Helena. For when confronted by the Joker and his men as she protected a group of twenty innocents, Helena resisted the urge to kill, taking three bullets for her trouble. She was rescued by Batman, who went so far as to say “Good work” before she fell unconscious.

Helena’s portrayal at this time was handled by a number of assorted writers, but predominantly Bob Gale, Greg Rucka, Chuck Dixon and Devin Grayson. For the most part, her portrayal throughout NML was a natural progression of what had come before. Despite focusing upon Gotham, she still found some time to work with the JLA and in one issue of that comic, she spoke with Superman about why the JLA did so little to help Gotham directly. (JLA #32)

Still, what would follow after the end of NML would send Helena back into her old habits and send heads flying as her character became more and more inconsistently portrayed. And oddly enough, these blows would come at the hands of the creators who had done so much to lift her out of the post of the generic trouble-maker and make her something truly unique.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.

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