3:00 pm EST, February 7, 2020

‘Shadow of the Batgirl’ review: Cassandra Cain finally gets the spotlight

Sarah Kuhn and Nicole Goux’s Shadow of the Batgirl is an evocative story of family, identity and heroism, and an absolute must-have for new and old Cassandra Cain fans alike.

Barbara Gordon is without a doubt the most famous Batgirl, but Cassandra Cain has long been my favorite one.

First introduced to the pages of DC comics by Kelley Puckett and Damion Scott in 1999, Cassandra Cain is the underrated, largely unsung hero for whom underrepresented readers like myself have long been waiting. The mixed-race Asian daughter of two of DC Comics greatest assassins — David Cain and Lady Shiva — Cass Cain was raised by her father to be the ultimate assassin.

Barbara Gordon — then Oracle — passed down the Batgirl mantle to Cass Cain in 2000, making her the first Batgirl to ever have her own self-titled series. This was the same time I — then an awkward and shy 11 year old — first started reading DC comics, which means that Cass Cain was the first Batgirl I ever knew, and has remained my favorite one ever since.

And though she did have her own series in 2000, Cassandra Cain has never been a character in the spotlight and has never achieved the same popularity as other characters who have donned the cape and the cowl. DC eventually erased her from the timeline for a time with the New 52 reboot, which was just one of the many, many things wrong with that reboot. They rectified their mistake a bit by reshuffling the timeline again with 2016’s Rebirth, which brought Cass Cain back with a new moniker — Orphan — but scrubbed the timeline so that Barbara Gordon was ever the only Batgirl.

So when I heard that DC was going to come out with a YA graphic novel centered on my favorite underrated superhero, I was excited and when I heard that it would be coming from author Sarah Kuhn, I was absolutely thrilled.

But better than the fact that Cassandra Cain is the star of YA graphic novel is the fact that both author Sarah Kuhn and Nicole Goux absolutely hit it out of the park with this one, giving Cassandra Cain the center stage she’s deserved all along and delivering an emotional, enthralling story about choosing your own path, finding your real family and learning the true meaning of heroism.

If you know Cass’ backstory, then what you read in Shadow of the Batgirl will be familiar, though still different enough to keep you interested in the story. If you aren’t familiar with her backstory, don’t worry — this novel requires little to no knowledge of who Cassandra Cain is in the pantheon of DC comics heroes.

Just as in the comics, Cass is the daughter of assassin David Cain, raised without real human interaction to become the perfect killing machine. This upbringing has rendered her mute, illiterate and largely without any real social skills — but with the ability to ‘read’ body language and kill opponents with all the expertise of a master assassin three times her age.

We meet Cass during what ends up being her last job as an assassin. Just as the Batman did before her, Cassandra Cain is reborn in a dark, Gotham City alleyway. However, while Bruce Wayne’s lifelong quest for vengeance began with the brutal death of his parents, Cassandra Cain’s road to redemption begins with an act of mercy.

When the man she’s sent to kill utters what should be his last words about his daughter, Cass is struck by the love and agony she reads in body language, even if she doesn’t quite know what his words mean. That — in her words — flips her world upside down, and from there we follow her on a journey that will eventually lead to her rebirth as the second Batgirl.

One of the things that initially drew me to Cassandra Cain was the fact that her existence as Batgirl began — for me, at least — to change the perception about who got to be a hero.

I mean this both in terms of what heroes look like and who heroes were before they became heroes. Most of major, popular superheroes of the 90s and early 00s were largely male and largely white, their road to heroism defined by some sort of intrinsic, inherent goodness coupled with — most of the time, at least — some kind of major tragedy.

Cassandra Cain broke both these molds. The inheritor of the Batgirl mantle was mixed-race Asian-American, with a white American father in David Cain and an Asian (of ambiguous ethnic ancestry) mother in Lady Shiva. And, unlike other traditional heroes, Cassandra Cain was a character who was essentially raised to be a villain, but whose journey was all about choosing to be a hero.

Her journey towards heroism wasn’t destiny, it wasn’t the result of a life-altering tragedy, it wasn’t what was expected; instead, Cassandra Cain’s journey as a character, and as a hero, has always been about choice — choosing to be good, choosing to be more than her past or her mistakes. In short, Cassandra Cain’s story has always been about heroism as a choice rather than as a chance vocation; about goodness as a decision we must make day after day, rather than an inherent trait some are born with.

Sarah Kuhn masterfully transplants this idea of goodness as choice into Shadow of the Batgirl, giving us an intimate look at Cass’ development as an individual and as a hero. Over and over again we see Cass struggling to define who she is and what her muddled, messy past might mean about her. We follow along as she learns about the world around her without fear or threat, rejoicing when she realizes that not only can she trust the people around her, but she can trust in her own belief that she can be more than who she was or what people wanted her to be.

As an educator who has primarily worked with middle schoolers, I’m absolutely overjoyed to have this YA graphic novel about a mixed-race female hero who has spent her life being told that she’s bad, but finds and chooses goodness in spite of it. The idea that you can be more than what people think of you, more than whatever your past or past decision’s might have been is a powerful and absolutely necessary message — one that I hope as many teens (and adults) out there read and take to heart.

Shadow of the Batgirl likewise brings in another one of my favorite elements from her initial comics run as Batgirl — the mentorship/friendship between Cassandra and former Batgirl Barbara Gordon.

Like I said earlier in my review, Cassandra Cain is my favorite Batgirl — but one of the reasons her story is my favorite is because it also includes Barbara Gordon as her mentor and friend.

Female mentors and friends have been invaluable in my own life and my own story, so to see that play out in the words and illustrations of Shadow of the Batgirl was an absolute joy. Here, Barbara Gordon not only mentors Cassandra Cain, helping her to realize her goodness and strengths, but she also acts as another example of the different kinds of heroism that often don’t get enough attention in the public sphere.

Just as Cassandra spends this story choosing a new path, so, too, does Barbara. We watch as the former Batgirl not only builds up a new iteration of Batgirl, but as she builds a new life and a new meaning of heroism for herself as well. While this is very much Cassandra’s story and her journey, it’s not exclusively so, showing us that girls and women are not only strong, but that they are strong in a variety of different ways.

And while Sarah Kuhn’s and Nicole Goux’s graphic novel hews closely in many ways to its comic book counterparts, it does include a new, delightful character whom I instantly loved. In addition to Barbara Gordon’s mentorship, Cassandra Cain also develops a relationship with Jackie, the older proprietor of a local pho restaurant who takes in Cass and becomes both mentor and maternal figure to her. Jackie reminded me of so many of my favorite aunties — a no-nonsense woman, provider of more food than you can eat and the best hugs in the business, able to kick the ass of anyone who dares hurt you and knock you flat on yours whenever you might need it.

Their inclusion in Shadow of the Batgirl makes this not only a story of identity, but a story of family — showing us while both can be given to us by birth, they can also be changed and forged by choice.

Shadow of the Batgirl is a tremendous story about the power of choice, showing us that you can choose your own, no matter where you might have come from or who you might have been. It’s an emotional story of the power of love, showing the ways in which it can transform us, mold our identities and shape who we call family.

In short, it’s a story that should be in your hands and on your shelf, and one that I hope eventually makes its way to all the young women in your life.

Shadow of the Batgirl is available now. Be sure to order your copy from DC Comics, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, or your local independent bookstore. Also, don’t forget to add it to your Goodreads “to read” shelf!

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