Cassandra Cain gets the spotlight in DC’s newest middle-grades book, this time by an Asian-American writer who’s been a long-time fan of the character - and an artist who gave Cass a floral cape.
Written by Sarah Kuhn with art by Nicole Goux, Shadow of the Batgirl picks up Cassandra’s story when she’s still an isolated young assassin who’s been trained and manipulated by her villainous father to commit murderous acts.
But after a crisis of conscience, Cass decides to stop her villainous ways and instead figure out who she wants to be. And when she’s inspired by Barbara Gordon's Batgirl, she ends up having to decide what kind of hero she will become, making her own costume - including a floral cape.
Kuhn, known for her Heroine Complex series about Asian-American superheroines, has identified with Cassandra Cain since before she got the chance to pitch a story to DC - and she actually pitched two stories, convinced that her dream gig wouldn’t happen and the Cass pitch wouldn’t be accepted.
But DC gave Kuhn and Cass a chance, teaming the writer with Goux, who came up with a look for the character that emphasizes her evolution - from a hardened child assassin to a much softer and self-confident young woman.
The book is due in comic book stores on January 29 and other bookstores on February 4. Newsarama talked to Kuhn and Goux about the story, the double-pitches the writer submitted, and the thinking behind the heroine’s floral cape.
Newsarama: Sarah, were you a fan of Cassandra Cain? Is that why you chose to pitch her character to DC for this book?
Sarah Kuhn: Yeah, I have always loved Cassandra Cain. She’s always been one of my favorites. I was obsessed with the original run of comics. At the most basic level, of course I love her because she’s the Asian-American Batgirl, and I’m an Asian-American writer, so of course I want to write a story about her.
But I also love that she’s really a character who is set up to be villain. She has all the tools to be the most bad-ass supervillain. And instead, she chooses to be a hero. And I think there’s something really powerful about that.
Those two things are really why I was obsessed with telling a story about her.
Nrama: So how did that turn into this story? How did you get the gig?
Kuhn: I got the gig, like, I’ve written the superhero prose novels. I have a series called Heroine Complex, which is actually about Asian-American super heroines.
So my agent, when DC was starting their Y.A. and middle-grades line had gotten this list of characters that they were looking for pitches for, and on the list was Batgirl. So my agent asked if this is Barbara Gordon, or is it any Batgirl? Because she knows I love Cassandra and that I would basically die if I got to write a Cassandra Cain story.
And they actually said, it can be any Batgirl.
So I wrote the Cassandra Cain pitch. It was just a little paragraph. I also turned in a Starfire pitch. I thought that Cassandra was the long-shot. I just never imagined - for whatever reason -that I would get to tell that story.
But then it just kept going. We kept giving longer pitches. We had some meetings where we talked more about the character and delved deep into what we thought makes her special.
And to my delight and surprise, it got greenlit! And I was totally excited the day I got that call.
Sometimes, honestly - like, I know we have a printed book now with a finished cover and she’s on the cover and everything, and sometimes, it still doesn’t feel real.
Nrama: Tell me about your version of Cassandra Cain. Where do we pick up her story?
Kuhn: In this book, at the very beginning, she is an assassin. She’s been trained from birth by her father to be one thing and one thing only, and that is a killer, because he is a supervillain. And he wants her to go out and do his bidding and basically be his perfect weapon.
So she’s very skilled in all the martial arts, all the manners of sneaking up on people and killing them.
And she is confronted with this situation - and this is very similar to what her original back-story was; I always loved that and I didn’t want to change it too much - where she goes to kill this man, because that’s what she does all the time, and there’s a moment where she’s going to strike the killing blow and he’s dying, but he’s kind of dying slowly. She’s maybe messed up a little bit from her usual clean kill.
And she looks at him, and because her main language is body language, because she hasn’t been raised with spoken language and written language - she doesn’t know how to read - she knows body language so well. She just looks at him and she feels what he’s feeling. She feels all the pain that she’s caused him. She feels all the suffering that he’s going through as he’s dying.
And then on top of that, he says to her, “Please tell my daughter….” And he doesn’t quite finish what he’s saying, but he says this word “daughter,” which is one of the words she thinks she knows. And in that moment, she realizes she has never seen this love and does not know what this words means.
So she realizes she’s actually doing something really bad, and she has this crisis. And she runs away.
That’s how she starts her journey, breaking away from her father and the life that she’s known all her life.
Nrama: I was thinking about the word “shadow” in the title of Shadow of the Batgirl. I know it probably has multiple meanings - like the shadow that she’s lived under, but also her aspiration to be something better, like Batgirl Barbara Gordon. Is that right?
Kuhn: Yeah, yeah, of course. I think it is a lot with those things. It also has to do with, as young women, we are struggling to figure out who we are. We are sort of setting these goals for ourselves that sometimes feel unattainable, or feel like they aren’t real.
So I wanted to really dive into that. And I think that’s one of the shadows she’s existing under, is she is trying to figure out who she wants to be.
Also, when she starts learning about Batgirl - the Batgirl who was in the City of Gotham in the past, who is Barbara Gordon — she sees her as this sort of perfect heroine, this paragon of what a hero is supposed to be. And it takes her awhile to realize, I could be that hero. I could be that person.
I mean, it’s kind of a struggle I’ve gone through. It took me a long time to see myself as a protagonist. You know, growing up Asian-American in a really small, really white town, I did not see a lot of people who I necessarily considered role models. Like, that person is like me, and that person is doing what I want to do.
A lot of women of color, at least when I was growing up, were often sidekicks in stories, if they existed at all, I found myself for a long time, as a sidekick, as someone who could not be the hero, the protagonist, the person who really has the central story.
And so that was kind of, I think, the story we’re telling as well, is that she has to really work to see herself as someone who can be the center of a story, who can be the protagonist, who can be a hero like Batgirl.
Nrama: Nicole, once you found out you’d be working on Cassandra Cain, what were your thoughts about how you wanted to draw her in her world?
Nicole Goux: I was not super, super familiar with Cassandra before I got the job. I learned most of it by going through some DC archives and reading about her and reading our scripts and our outline. And I tried to understand it through, like, a newer lens.
Because I come from a slightly different place, I think I was able to see her, maybe, a little bit softer than some people would come at her as a character.
She is this assassin, she is this hard person, she is trained from birth to be a killing machine, but she’s also a teenage girl. I wanted her to be relatable to other teenage girls. I wanted people to be able to see themselves in her, and to be able to see that, like, even if you are told that you are this one thing, you get to be who you are on the inside. And if that means you’re really excited about ramen, or you are really into shoes - which you never knew before, because you never had the opportunity to do that - then she should be allowed to have those things and enjoy those things and be soft,.
And so, she is hard, she is tough, she is an incredible athlete and a killer - or was a killer, rather, at the beginning of our story - but she also has this other side to her.
I think that I was, if I could say, somewhat successful in making her feel like a person, like a whole person who can be soft, and who can be sweet, but also be tough.
And I think that my characterization of her was really intentional to give her this kind of two-sided personality.
Nrama: She also goes through an evolution in this book, although you also had to portray action throughout the entire book. How did the visuals reflect her inner mind change while still portraying her high level of fighting ability?
Goux: At the beginning of the book, she is dressed more streamlined, dressed more like an assassin, but her progression shows as she changes what she’s wearing - her kind of softening up and becoming more of a normal teenager.
But I kind of keep that hardness in the action, in the places where she kind of butts up against who she used to be, whether it’s someone reaching out to her and her reacting very intensely, or later in the book when there are more fighting scenes and those kinds of things.
Nrama: You mentioned her clothes. Can we talk about her cape?
Goux: Yeah, this version of her has a floral cape! It’s much softer than the Cass that we’ve seen before with the full black mask. It is a very different portrayal of her, but I made sure to show - mainly through her movements - that the fighter is still there.
Nrama: So Sarah, does the ending of this book leave room for more stories?
Kuhn: I think we did! I mean, you know … I guess spoiler alert, but Cassandra Cain does become Batgirl. But it’s not until the end of the book, really. Most of the book is her figuring out what kind of hero she wants to be, making her own costume - with the great floral cape that Nicole just talked about. So I feel like, at the end of this book, I - even as a reader - I’m like, oh my god, I want to know what happens next. I want to know what happens on her first, like, official superhero mission.
And I want to know more about what the narrative is that builds up around her. We give a hint at the end about how people are talking about Batgirl being back, on social media and in news articles and stuff.
So I would certainly love if we got the chance to explore that. I would love to come back with this team - Nicole and Sara Miller, our amazing editor - I would love to explore this character more.