It may take a year for Batman: Eternal to reach the point where Gotham burns and Batman is seemingly defeated, but readers have known since early this year who holds the key to stopping that eventual disaster:
In Batman #28, which teased what was coming in 2014-2015 for Batman, the final pages showed Selina Kyle, acting as the new kingpin of crime, informing Batman that Stephanie Brown, in her Spoiler costume, is "the only one in the city who knows how to stop what's coming next."
Now that Batman Eternal is a few months old, readers are learning how Stephanie found out about the secret plot to burn Gotham, and her in-story reaction has been a sort of Spoiler origin story in the New 52.
James Tynion IV, who came up with the Eternal plot with Scott Snyder, said he's hoping to not only please existing fans of Stephanie Brown with her role in Eternal, but also win her new fans. "We want to introduce a whole new generation of readers who may have never read a Stephanie Brown story before, to see why she has such a huge fan base and what makes her a great character," he said.
So what is it about Stephanie Brown that makes her worthy of such an important role in the Eternal story? And why is this character, who's not one of DC's more recognizable icons, someone with a "huge fan base?"
First Female Robin
One of the reasons that Stephanie is such a surprising fan-favorite is that DC didn't intend for her to be so beloved. Her popularity and eventual fan support was more of a groundswell than a company design.
Stephanie was first introduced by writer Chuck Dixon and artist Tom Lyle in 1992 as the daughter of a villain called the Cluemaster. Her whole reason for becoming the Spoiler was to get back at her dad — to spoil his plans.
"I joked with the editors when I put her into the first story that she'd probably become popular, since I only had her in mind as a plot device for a single story," Dixon said.
And his predication was right.
A year later, Dixon brought the character back due to popular demand, putting her into his ongoing Robin series. As part of the stories about then-Robin Tim Drake (she even dated the Boy Wonder for awhile), Stephanie wasn't exactly brought into the fold of the Bat-family.
But her stories dealt with tough, realistic problems like teen pregnancy (she gave the baby up for adoption) and Stephanie's mother being addicted to prescription medication. And readers responded positively to her survival in the face of these obstacles because she had a tough attitude to match.
Yet while readers were admiring her tenacity and snarky dialogue, DC editors were planning to end Steph's story violently — a plan that was set into motion when writer Bill Willingham was hired for Robin.
"I knew coming into the Robin series that Spoiler was doomed to die," Willingham told WordBalloon. "And I wouldn’t have done that, but that was already locked in even before I came on Robin, so I had no point at which to say you shouldn’t do this.
"But, I did I have this hair-brained idea that, well, if she was going to die — she was such a frustrated character…I mean, everything she wanted out of life she pretty much didn’t get. So, can we give her one little reward before she dies and let her become Robin for awhile?"
Sure enough, Stephanie Brown became Batman’s first female Robin—the Girl Wonder. But it only lasted a few issues, with Batman citing her recklessness as he took away the Robin mantle. Soon after, the character was brutally murdered by a villain during the "War Game" crossover event in 2004.
"There was a nice spike in sales during [the time she was Robin] and I wish her death hadn’t been so as locked in, because when it started going really well, what I would have liked to have said was ‘let’s follow this for awhile,'" but that wasn't an option, Willingham said.
After the storyline that killed Stephanie Brown ended, fans of the character were not only upset that she had been killed so soon after becoming the first female Robin, but there appeared to be very little mourning or remembrance of her within the Batman universe. While the other deceased Robin, Jason Todd, had been given a memorial within the Batcave, there was no such recognition of Steph.
Soon, fans at conventions and on internet message boards were demanding more recognition of Stephanie, particularly a growing audience of female comics readers. An emerging network of female bloggers adopted Stephanie as a symbol to support their efforts against the violent demise of female comic character — even organizing a letter-writing campaign.
Whether it was the outcry or just the need for fresh faces in the DCU, Stephanie finally returned in 2007, as it was revealed that her death has been faked. Steph was back to her role as Spoiler in Gotham City, and she once again became a supporting character for Tim Drake.
By 2009, when she was offered the role of Batgirl, she enthusiastically took it. And the character not only proved herself in the costume, but she became even more beloved by fans — and by critics, who hailed the new Batgirl series by writer Bryan Q. Miller.
That wasn't the end of the outcry from Steph fans, though, as the character was once again eliminated from the DCU when the publisher rebooted its comics line in 2011. The questions started again at comic conventions and on the internet — when are we going to see Stephanie Brown?
Last year, Batman scribe Scott Snyder was finally able to announce that Stephanie Brown would return in Eternal. And now that readers have learned she's one of the central characters who can save the whole Batman universe, readers are becoming hopeful that the fan love for Stephanie is finally spilling over into DC's editorial offices.
Why So Beloved?
All that history adds up to one word: Tenacity. Not only were readers tenacious in their demands for more stories about Stephanie Brown, but the character herself ended up being a tough survivor who was determined to do good.
"In our very first arc [on Batgirl]," said Miller, "we had Steph embrace the mantra 'I am who I choose to be.' Prior to her time as Batgirl (now a null point from a continuity standpoint), Steph was a troublemaker, stubborn, short-sighted and a little bit selfish and impatient. Those traits mixed together led her down a very dark road that didn’t end well. But what she had, despite all of it, that pulled her through and helped get her on her feet as Batgirl, was determination. She never quit."
In Batman Eternal, Stephanie Brown is fighting against her past again, as she works to "spoil" her father's evil plans — and the machinations of the unseen villain who's directing the Cluemaster behind the scenes.
Miller said that determination has always been at the core of the character. "She chose to be more than the sum of her parts and past, and to leave her baggage behind. She embraced and propagated 'hope,'" he said. "A hope that she could do the same for Gotham. A hope that she could become more."
According to Tynion, he's hoping Stephanie's role in Eternal makes her into the type of "something more" that Miller described. "When we pitched [the new Spoiler's role in Eternal] to DC, they agreed, that this was the moment — the moment is now," Tynion said. "This is the time to bring Stephanie back into continuity.
"We love that Stephanie has such a huge fan base," he said, "but our goal in this story isn't just to tease that fan base, but also to, like, triple the size of it."