How DC Comics turned one of its most intriguing, independent, and strong female characters into a dull sexpot.

Most of my heroes are dead. By which I mean most of the DC Comics superheroes that I enjoy the most are either dead or have been significantly changed. It’s always sad when one of them dies, but the alternative is almost worse. I lament the deaths of Ted Kord and Vic Sage and Wesley Dodds, but nothing compares to having lost a character that lives and breathes (to the extent that comic book characters live and breathe) but has been stripped of everything that I liked and admired about the character.

There have been a few times when I’ve wondered if my distaste for Wonder Woman was simply because of her gender and her bucking the gender norms by being strong and commanding and whatever, but that concern folds when I realize that one of my favorite characters of all time, The Huntress, is female. The difference is that Helena Bertinelli, aka the Huntress, is what the writers try to make Wonder Woman, but manages to be so by being a complete character rather than an archetype. Or so it used to be.

A bit of background. The Huntress was originally Batman and Catwoman’s daughter, Helena Wayne. This was in a sort of alternate universe where Batman retired and his daughter took up the family business of crimefighting. Then DC changed their universe system and the character no longer existed. So they brought back The Huntress in the form of Helena Bertinelli, a sort of Batmanesque character but one that was initially kept at arm’s length1 and allowed to develop her own identity.

The original origin of Bertinelli was that she was a mafia princess whose family was shot down by a rival mafia. In fear of her life, she decided to take the offensive and hunt down her family’s killers. Her motives were not (originally) altruistic but rather practical. She was a very practical person. Unlike Bruce Wayne, she didn’t set out to become a hero. She didn’t decide to cut everybody off because of some obsessive crusade. She was stripped of her identity by virtue of the fact that she was being hunted and her previous identity was as the product of a family that did some pretty bad things. And her childhood was marred not only by being surrounded by relatively backward and dangerous people but also by the fact that her family’s crime games resulted in her being kidnapped and raped when she was seven or so. There were no fond memories of a wonderful life torn away from her. Not to minimize Bruce Wayne’s tragic loss, but she had far less choice to become what Wayne chose to be: distant, alone, and tough as nails.

She was also one of the most truly independent women I have ever seen in comics. Unlike Wonder Woman, she wasn’t shackled by the expectation to be representative of whatever the popular culture decided a woman should be. Unlike Black Canary, she did not have a Green Arrow to latch on to. Originally, she didn’t even have sex appeal as the creators went out of their way to make her look rather plain and unappealing2. She had the help of a former family enforcer, but by and large she made her own way. She did hold Batman up as a sort of role model, but even there she elected to be who she was rather than win his approval. Indeed, she remains one of the only costumed characters in the DC Universe to point out Batman’s hypocrisy. and the only character I’m aware of to push back against his dominating character that wasn’t a top-tier Justice Leaguer or a Robin3.

Her series ended after 19 issues and she retired. She resurfaced a little while later when Chuck Dixon dusted her off and put her in Detective Comics. She’d relocated to Gotham City and had found a bit of peace as a schoolteacher, but was drawn back into things. It was actually here when her relationship with Batman was more fully explored as she joined the Batman stable of characters. Her costume was changed up a bit, but it still had the spirit of her original costume4. They ditched the plain-looking thing, which was the first real shift from the awesomeness of the original character, but since it was more aesthetically appealing I certainly didn’t mind5. And for a while, as a Batman character, she made her way. When everybody else was saying “Yes, sir, okay sir,” to Batman, she was the only one with the gumption to push back. As much as she wanted his approval, she refused to do the one thing she needed to do in order to get it. Batman had a don’t-kill-ever policy and if she did not believe that protecting the life of the guilty was more important than protecting their future victims. Agree with her or disagree with her, she was willing to pay a price for her convictions. Her costume also changed again, covering up the legs into a perfect utilitarian uniform. I didn’t like it at first, but it was hard to argue that trading sex appeal for utilitarianism isn’t something that Helena Bertinelli would do.

The troubles started when they started going in and changing her origin. They moved her early experiences from New York City to Gotham City, which by itself was not much of a problem because it made more sense. But it was the start of a number of unsettling changes. They took away the rape/molestation aspect from her past. This was more significant because it was one of the things that differentiated her from most other characters. And unlike other times where rape appears in popular entertainment, it was the most irredeemable and disgusting sort. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but it’s substantively different than the fact that Black Canary was raped in adulthood. They also had her parents killed when she was eight, just like Bruce Wayne’s. They made Batman her inspiration rather than her more unique path to the mask and cape.

And, of course, they started changing the costume again. First they added the shadow bat ears6 that Helena Wayne used to have. I assume that some liked it because it fit in tighter with the roots of the character. I disliked it for the same reason (let’s go forward, not backwards!)… but that’s more a matter of taste. But what really stung was the next change, put forth by the despicable Jim Lee7, which left considerably less to the imagination. And unlike the early costumes which showed off leg and (in her first one) arms, there is no utilitarian aspect to showing off her stomach.8 Oh, and they added these dangly ornaments from her earlobes9. It strikes me that ear rings are not something that Helena Bertinelli would wear in the first place, but that’s more subjective than the obvious problem that hooks in her ears that dangle and are easy to grab is exactly the sort of anti-utilitarian girlification that I had always appreciated that Bertinelli avoided.

Her personality also started changing. She inexplicably supported a presidential candidate on the basis of female solidarity10 . Thankfully, as far as I am aware she has not completely sworn off her formerly lethal nature. But she has become something of a member of the in-crowd and has lost the outsiderdom that helped me relate to her. She is the field commander for the Birds of Prey, a member of the Justice League for a while, and a participant in Titanesque11 drama.

I suppose to some degree this is an extension of the rape disappearing from her history. Early on, she had a relatively standoffish relationship with men such that I feared that she was a lesbian. She ended up sleeping with Dick Grayson (the first Robin) for no other reason than her daddy complex with Grayson’s mentor. She also slept with Arsenal in a rather casual manner. She also hooked up with Vic Sage for a while, though that did not bother me as much because (a) Sage is one of my favorite characters and (b) that was actually something akin to a relationship and he could have easily gained the trust for her to let her guard down. However, since the guarded nature of her character was tied into her early experience with men, I suppose it’s not so much of a reach. But it nonetheless strips her of one of the things that attracted me to the character in the first place.

When I was starting this blog, one of the first things I did was come up with pseudonyms. Mine had its own origin. The final four considerations for my wife included Helena. I’ve always been drawn to women that have a reserve of independence and strength and a willingness to do what needs to be done. And both command respect. Unfortunately, only one still does.

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1 – Probably a little too much so. Batman appeared in the last few issues of the series, but the series could have been more successful if they’d done something earlier and established her more as a Batman character. But I think artistically they very much wanted to distance her from her roots as Batman’s daughter.

2 – This lead to some complains in the letter columns. She wasn’t ugly, really. She just had sort of bushy hair and a long face. It might have been attributable to the unique art-style of the series were it not for the fact that other women looked better. The writers and editors were very unapologetic. They said that if you wanted sultry dames to check out Justice League. It’s worth noting that Huntress became a part-time member of the Justice League at the time, though it was never mentioned in her series. Notably, in her appearances in the Justice League, she was smokin’.

3 – Batman was always condemning others to act out of vengeance and felt like he was the only one worthy of doing what he did. His no-kill policy was fine, but even apart from that he would continually try to set up distinctions between him and people like him that didn’t exist. He was a control freak and it was a very unattractive quality of the character.

4 – They covered up her arms but ramped up the cleavage. With the exception of the cleavage, it maintained the spirit of the original costume. They also gave her a more conventional cape.

5 – Who doesn’t enjoy looking at pleasantness more than plainness? As with the distance from Batman, the writers and editors were wrong about her appearance. From an artistic view it was interesting, but from a commercial point of view it was not a particularly good idea. They didn’t need to go quite so far in the opposite direction and turn her into a sexpot, but a pretty face would have gone a long way.

6 – You can see what I’m talking about in the second image (or to the right). They’re not really “bat ears” in the normal sense, but they point up above her head like that so that they look like bat ears on her shadow. It made a little sense for Helena Wayne in a universe where Batman no longer existed, but I’ve always considered them out of place for Bertinelli.

7 – I’m sure Jim Lee is a fine human being. But the damage that he has done to the comic book community both artistically and commercially cannot be overstated. He wasn’t alone in this, but he was one of the big players.

8 – This is not without its upsides. In the comics I hate it. When I see con-pictures of young women in the Huntress costume and the bare stomach and legs…. well it is not without its upsides.

9 – I believe they call these things “ear rings”. You know, on one hand it’s an odd coincidence that three of the four most influential romances or would-be romances involve women that didn’t so much as have their ears pierced. On the other hand, despite not having the same aversion to earrings that I do to, say, nail polish, I doubt it’s a coincidence.

10 – Helena strikes me as someone that, if she cared about politics, would be a pretty natural Republican. Both because of the better and lesser aspects of her personality. Ultimately, though, she does not come across as the type of person that would care about politics in any event (except maybe for a brief period after 9-11) the same way that, say, Tim Drake would. But while her feminist solidarity may push her towards a female Republican candidate over a more conservative male counterpart, it is a betrayal of character that she would cite gender alone as a reason to vote for a character. It would have been less out of character for her to vote Democrat.

11 – She was never, to my knowledge, a member of the Titans teams. She was a member of the Outsiders, though, and that iteration of the team essentially counts as it was staffed with Titans that they decided to make not Titans anymore because they didn’t fit with the cartoon. The issue here, though, is that the Titans was a romantic drama of sorts that worked very well for the characters they had but it was an atmosphere to which Helena Bertinelli did not belong.


Category: Theater

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4 Responses to The Betrayal of Helena Bertinelli

  1. Kirk says:

    About the costumes: I remember back when Xena: Warrior Princess was on, all the male warriors wore lots of armor, while the female warriors all ran around with bare midriffs. In scenes showing multiple warriors of both sexes, it was unintentionally funny.

    And it is interesting, to see how utterly demure the top Huntress is compared with the one at the bottom. How many years did it take for the first to change into the second?

  2. trumwill says:

    Basic timeline,

    In 1989, she got her original series with the original costume which had open legs and arms (with long gloves) and a little bit of cleavage showing.

    In 1992 or so, she returned with a costume that had open legs, closed arms, and open legs.

    By 1994, the cleavage was covered up.

    By 1998, her legs were covered up. The first picture above.

    In 2005 or so, they went with the “Jim Lee” costume. The second picture above.

    That’s the best that I can find. If I have any googlers that have more information, they’re welcome to share it.

  3. Barry says:

    The original (to me) Flash, Barry Allen, was long my favorite super-hero for many reasons. First and foremost, our names matched and that was an early adopter. Then I liked his humor, his relationship with his wife, the fact he was different than the other JLA’ers in many ways… I loved his villains, especially Captain Cold and Gorilla Grodd.

    Years later, after I’d stopped following comics I heard his character had been killed in the Infinite Earths Crisis (whatever it was called). I actually found a copy of the issue he died at a comics show and bought it. It now has a nice place in my collection of stuff.

    But I don’t find myself dwelling on it a whole lot, simply nostalgia for a passed-on hero. I can’t imagine how bad it would be if they’d just completely tinkered with and altered his history, like they’ve tried to do with Superman (my other favorite, along with Green Lantern).

    Oh, and if they did indeed tinker with and alter his past – I don’t want to know about it. Even if he’s now still alive.

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