Monday, February 16, 2004

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

When we last left off in the history of Helena Bertinelli, aka The Huntress, things were looking up for the woman who had once been the black sheep of the Gotham City vigilantes. She was a member in good standing with the JLA and had finally won the begrudging respect of Batman when she took several bullets and resisted using lethal force in a situation (Joker attempting to kidnap several infants) where even Batman might have been tempted to kill. It appeared that Helena had learned to control her anger and had become a more traditional superhero.

Yet all this progress would be tossed by the wayside within a few short months. And so would begin a constantly repeating cycle as Huntress’ would once again waffle between desperately begging for Batman’s approval and going out of her way to annoy him.

This would have been consistent with her portrayal in the past, but was completely unneeded after the end of No Man’s Land. She was in the JLA. She had Batman tell her “good job”. What could go wrong?

Five words: Grant Morrison and Greg Rucka.

In JLA #39, during the World War III, storyline, Huntress threatened a disabled Prometheus with a crossbow bolt to the head. Batman arrived in time to witness the exchange and fired Huntress from the team; no explanations asked. Helena’s actions here were sudden and unprovoked and did not fit her portrayal at the time, which was that of aggressive but not lethal fighting. And then came Greg Rucka…

Now, I know a lot of you are big Greg Rucka fans and I’ll be the first to say that his work on such independent titles was pretty good. “Whiteout”, for example, is a great graphic novel. That said, when he took over a lot of the Bat-Books for DC, his understanding of certain key concepts was… a bit lacking. In fact, he was quoted as summing up Nightwing’s character as “a horndog” and didn’t know about the chronic running gag that Oracle did not know Robin’s secret identity. (Which there was much wailing and gnashing of the teeth about on the ol’ Dixonverse boards, boy let me tell you…)

Of course, Rucka did get better and his closing arcs on Detective Comics were pretty riveting stuff. Sadly, that doesn’t change the fact that his biggest work with Huntress, “Cry for Blood”, did a lot more to muddy the waters of Helena’s character than to clear things up.

I shall leave the greater brunt of the story a mystery. What concerns us the most about this mini-series is the reboot of Helena’s origin. At least, I assume it was a planned reboot and not a bad history resulting from a lack of knowledge in the character’s background as there are too many “clicking” details to assume otherwise.

In this retelling, Helena is eight years old when her family is gunned down before her at dinner. Word came that the entire Bertinelli family around the country was being killed, so Helena Rosa Bertinelli was sent away by her Uncle Tomaso Panessa to live with his brother in Sicily, where his family had a good deal of power. Helena’s care was entrusted to her older cousin: Salvatore Asaro (aka Sal) who taught her how to fight at a young age.

She was sent off to boarding school, where she had no inkling that her family were criminals until she read of her cousin and uncle’s arrest as Mafia Assassins in the paper. After that, she began to despise her family who she saw as parasites living off the weak… and of course there was the fact that someone in the organization had to have been responsible for the hit on her family. She became inspired after Batman attacked a Christmas party her relatives were throwing. She devoted herself, much like Bruce Wayne, to the study of crime (specifically, the Mafia) and continued to train herself to become a crimefighter, returning home to Gotham after she felt she could wait no longer.

This new background reflects a bit of Helena’s original Post-Crisis origin with a few minor changes.

* The death of her family occurs at a much younger age and in a more private setting. Originally, Helena lost her family when she was a college student at a wedding. This new origin closely mirrors that of Bruce Wayne, who also lost his family at the age of eight.

* (A cosmetic name change is made (Helena Rosa sounds more Italian than Helena Janice, I guess….)

*Helena is sent into hiding by her Uncle, not her Father. She is sent overseas instead of to a private school at a young age. She does however later attend a private school.

*She is still given basic training by a member of the Mafia named Sal, though there is a more personal bond between them in the modern origin.

*She was directly inspired by Batman in the modern image whereas she had adopted the Huntress identity on her own in the past.

*Her time in New York is not mentioned in the new origin; she has always lived in either Sicily or Gotham.

*Reference is made to Mandragora and Helena dealing with the man who killed her family and the man who authorized the hit, as per the Post-Crisis origin. The new Post-Zero Hour origin, however, adds a wrinkle- someone else asked Mandragora to organize the Bertinelli family hit!

Perhaps the biggest and most interesting change that came about as a result of this origin is the revelation that Helena still has semi-regular dealings with her extended family. Though many of them do not approve of her, she is still accepted as family. Rucka plays with this a bit in the mini-series, suggesting that Helena is using her position to find out how things are flowing in the family business and then acting accordingly. And the aforementioned revelation regarding one more person behind the death of Helena’s family provided a rather interesting twist.

So why then could this series be regarded as something of a disaster for Helena’s characterization? Well, in short order…

1. She loses her job as a teacher as a result of her disappearing to train with Richard Dragon for a few months. This killed off one of the more interesting parts of her character; her desire to give back something to the world as well as protect it, in favor of her becoming a full time vigilante living off the family fortune.. aka blood money. Which is a worthy use for it, I am sure, but Helena had always been portrayed in the past as loving her teaching for what it let her do on a deeper level.

2. She wins Batman’s trust, even in the wake of her accidentally shooting him. He tells her he trusts her to clear her own name in regards to the murder charges pending against her and that he believes she will not use violent means and actually gets an offer of help if she needs it. This is all thrown away in the wake of…

3. Huntress. Big time “I hate the Mafia and everything it stands for” Huntress, winds up making a deal with the Mafia to solve the big problem posed in the final chapter of the miniseries. Ignoring the totally out of character way this is handled, the fact that the solution is ripped right out of “The Godfather” (she asks for a hit to be placed, on the day of the Don’s daughter’s wedding) and the casual manner in which Helena does all of this, it wound up destroying all the progress and development that Helena had made in the past five issues of being manipulated, coming to peace with herself, getting all that she wanted and then blowing it all for revenge.

Of course a case could be made for Helena being so obsessed with revenge that it will overcome all of her other wants, including acceptance and approval for her work. The fact is that her portrayal up to this point does not back that case up and that “Batman/Huntress: Cry For Blood” did a lot more to hurt Helena as a character than to help her, despite having tied her background more closely into the mythos of Gotham City.

Helena didn’t see much action since then, aside from the occasional shot in the background of various Batman titles. That was until Gotham Knights #35, where a disgusted Huntress informed Batman that she wanted nothing to do with him or “the family” ever again in the wake of Batman’s attempts to help Bane on a personal mission of his own.

She quickly returned in Gotham Knights #37-40, when CheckMate tried to recruit Huntress as a member of their team, in order to better spy on Batman. After kidnapping her and using Scarecrow and Mad Hatter to learn more about her past, she escaped and was found by Batman and Robin, whom she warned before passing out. She would later agree to join Checkmate, but with Batman’s blessing and the understanding that she would be a spy for him. Quite a quick change in attitude, all of this coming from one writer in six issues: Scott Beatty.

About the same time, Helena would develop a prominent role in the “Batman: Hush”, mini-series appearing in a new costume and on a new motorcycle. It would later be revealed that these were donated to her by a mysterious patron (Hush) whom she trusted only because the money was clean. This begs the question of why would Helena need such reserves? She was shown as having a nice sports car while she was working as a teacher and her background suggests that she still has the Bertinelli family fortune to fund her activities. Has she fallen on hard times in the wake of her actions in “Cry For Blood”? Or did she decide not to look a gift horse in the mouth after making sure the money was clean? Jeph Loeb never said. Though this has no baring on Helena’s character, it is nonetheless a sore point that should be addressed as it does indirectly tie in to her willingness to be a team player and take help when it is offered.

More recently, Helena appears to have stabilized and become somewhat accepted in Gotham again. At the very least, she has gained the begrudging tolerance of Oracle (no mean feat considering the Batrgirl thing, the “you’re a killer” thing, the “you slept with the guy I have a crush on” thing…) and the friendship of Black Canary. Credit that to Gail Simone, who appears to have finally gotten Huntress to where she should be; the hardass with a heart of gold, who can play with the team provided she is respected and not pushed into following orders. Very much like Power Girl as written by Geoff Johns in JSA.

Then again, Judd Winick (who seems to be getting a lot of characters out of character of late) recently wrote Huntress as having fallen back into her old ways of being one part Veruca Salt and two parts Mule in a recent Outsiders issue. More disturbingly, she seemed to be in the issue mostly to annoy Nightwing, who had always been one of the few people in the Bat Family who tolerated her presence.

Then again, Dick’s feelings on Huntress have gone all over the place too…

· Acceptance - (pre-Nightwing/Huntress miniseries)

· Mild-flirtation - (post-Nightwing/Huntress for about three months)

· Major hatred - (Nightwing’s own series, where Chuck Dixon was asserting “Dick and Babs 4-EVER”)

· Awkward Love (during No Man’s Land)

· Love (end of No Man’s Land)

· Cautious Mistrust & Puppy Dog (Cry for Blood)

· Indifference (Post-Cry for Blood to Present)

What’s my point? Here’s some things we need clarified ASAP.

1. Helena’s Family Relationships – Is she still on good terms with them openly? Is she still going to all the parties and what not? This could be a gold mine of material to explore- woman on the inside and all that.

2. Helena’s Financial Situation – Is she living off the family fortune or what?

3. The Checkmate Situation – Is Helena still involved with them?

4. Killing or No? – Is Helena totally committed to non-lethal force now? Has she ever directly killed someone? (Not through inaction or arranging a death?)

5. Character Relationships – Where does she stand with Batman? Oracle? Robin? Nightwing? The Question?

Of course it is possible that I’m thinking too much about all of this and that perhaps my plead for a little continuity and common ground rules is unreasonable.

That’s not going to stop me from taking a look at the spotty portrayal of the Green Lantern Power Battery next week. ;)

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

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