The Huntress is Awesome
Travis Hedge Coke
There are two women called Huntress in DC comics, both with the birth name, Helena, the earliest Huntress being the legal aid Helena Wayne, daughter of Bruce Wayne, the heroic Batman, and a retired-from-crime Catwoman, Selina Kyle, the other Helena Bertinelli, heir to a mob family and traditionally a schoolteacher (except now, in the current standard continuity, she’s a spy). I encountered them both at roughly the same time, approximately twenty-five years ago, and I’ve been seriously on their side ever since.
It’s a funny thing to say, “Well, I’m on the side of the superhero,” but what you have to understand is that, with either Huntress, their side wasn’t necessarily the side of any other superhero, other do-gooders, of any other character in the stories. Helena Wayne and Helena Bertinelli walked their own paths, and those paths were just, and righteous, but they were also often loaded with condescending allies, manipulative criminals who talk a good game, and people who just figured they knew better the Huntress. Huntress has, traditionally, provided an example of the superhero glass ceiling, particularly in the DC Universe.
“Ralph Nader would be very comfortable working here,” wrote Paul Levitz of the public interest research group with whom Huntress was employed, “but the same isn’t necessarily true of Helena Wayne.” Why? Well, her colleagues are condescending, from Roger Demarest’s blatant horribleness (“We both know what she contributes to the firm… her curvaceous form, her father’s money, and no legal talent whatsoever!”) to the elderly Cranston’s patronizing, fatherly toleration (“Clearly,” he says in response to Roger’s statement, “anyone who was valedictorian and editor of the Law Review and graduated Harvard Law at 21 should be an important part of our firm. Your beauty and your father’s benevolence aside.”). What makes circa 1978 Helena Wayne a target where, apparently, Ralph Nader is not, or the various men she works with? It’s not the “father’s money,” because the men she frequently locks horns with or suffers under clearly have money and mostly come from it. It’s not that she’s pretty or overly sexualized; the men are all fairly good-looking and Roger tends to more sexualized poses than anyone. Cranston and District Attorney Harry Sims are more overly emotional than Helena “woman being all ‘womany’” Wayne. But even a cop who shows up after Huntress and Supergirl save police in the middle of a firefight can’t say thank you so much as “I ain’t sure if I should be letting you help.”
It’s simply and clearly not a woman’s place, in the estimation of these men, even those who will “let” them help.
And, the early talent on Huntress’ stories were obviously aware that this was a real-world imbalance that they were tackling. It’s not an imbalance lost to time, either, as the absurd and vigorously violent rhetoric of Gamergate/Quinnspiracy or “fake geek girls” opposition today will demonstrate. Paul Levitz structures his plots and dialogue to deliberately put us on Huntress’ side, and Joe Staton - and underrated talent if ever there was one - draws his women with human body language and reasonable clothes, while his superheroines stand tall, upright, strong, unlike the slinking and back-arching, butt-projecting body language many even exceptional comics pencilers can fall into. Huntress may have teamed up with Robin or Power Girl back then, but she never took a backseat to another superhero or became the girlfriend in distress, something that era’s superhero women, from Wonder Woman to Lois Lane, were usually cursed with.
In Levitz and Staton’s … Last Laugh, Batman makes an appearance while she pursues the Joker, but he’s just there to see Huntress kick ass. It’s Huntress who lays out the macabre clown-faced gangster.
The later, second Huntress, Helena Bertinelli, doesn’t do much better in terms of those dynamics, in-story, and, unfortunately fares worse in terms of how the talent handle her. Bertinelli tended to be drawn with more prominent swayback, and for some time sported a belly-window on her costume, something that, along with her frequent (extending back to the original, Helena Wayne Huntress) bare legs just seems progressively idiotic on a non-superpowered vigilante who frequently runs through fire getting shot at.
The great thing with Helena Bertinelli, though, is that the more she’s handled poorly by a writer, penciler, or editor, the better she comes off to her (even casual) fans. That stupid belly-window galvanized her fandom. Her abrupt removal from “continuity” roused up a wave of love for her that her actively existing in that continuity didn’t seem to equal. (Bringing her back, recently, seems to have done nicely for DC, however.) Grant Morrison bringing Huntress into the Justice League was massive and beautiful, and him writing her out (at an editor’s request after the incoming writer didn’t want her on the team) annoyed, rightly, pretty much everyone who read that comic. For those who don’t have it encyclopedically stashed in their memory, it’s towards the end of World War 3, where she’s facing a villain who once brought down nearly the entire Justice League, who has been partly responsible for a global war, untold (and mostly off-panel) murder and decimation. Huntress is prepared to put an arrow in his face, or at least is considering it, and Batman shows up and fires her. Right there and then.
And, nicely, a lot of her fans seem to have hit those panels and immediately gone “Hey! That’s uncalled for!”
Fandom is funny. Huntress’ actual fandom is fairly small, so when an article or discussion board talks about “fan” reaction to a Huntress comic, what they usually gauge is general comics fandom not people who really love the Huntress or comics she’s actually in. But, I think, too, I’m the rarity in being a fan of both Huntresses, to a strong degree. Ivory Madison tried to merge the two, a bit, the best of both worlds according to her tastes, in her Year One miniseries, but two small, tenuously connected fandoms and a market of, essentially non-fans or casual readers were not all that pleased. Madison, a law school graduate, and herself once the Editor in Chief of a Law Review a la the Huntress, expressed her own dissatisfaction with her Huntress comic, and even though I like it more than most fans, trying to combine the Helenas, is like trying to find a Jim Croce song that is simultaneously punchy as his punchiest and sappy as his sappiest. Sometimes you got to pick a horse and let it finish the race. Year One tried to call every horse in the race at different points, from the Levitz/Staton stories to Devin Grayson’s Cosa Nostra, Greg Rucka’s Cry for Blood, and half a dozen other takes, and by the finish line, the bet was completely confuzzalated. In a much more awkward fashion the recent Huntress mini that launched a new World’s Finest by giving a bait and switch seemingly out of nowhere, starting clearly with Helena Bertinelli as Huntress and in its final pages revealing her to be a facade adopted by Helena Wayne. The real money is on someone from on high deciding it was Wayne shortly before that final issue was put to bed, otherwise it’s just incredibly sloppy from talent I don’t want to think can get that sloppy.
But, in any case, Huntress fans persevered - or just disregarded what they didn’t want. If anyone can teach you how to do that, it’s Huntress. The four or five different origin stories she had, even those ostensibly set in the same continuity, don’t jibe, but do fans particularly care? By and large, the fans select the important truths, enjoy the visceral and heroic thrills, and move forward, instead of worrying how to make all details of all versions run smoothly together. The diehard Tim Drake fans will be tying themselves in knots trying to gel all his continuity snaggles into an entirely agreeable backstory, but Huntress fans just pick their horse and cheer it on in the race. Year One does not have to step on Cry for Blood and that didn’t invalidate Huntress who used to jump across realities to team up with Batgirl, or the Huntress on television, who wore no mask and eschewed the traditional jobs of white women and black men in superhero comics of schoolteacher or community-based law to tend bar. Helena Wayne or Helena Bertinelli, or Helena Kyle (as the TV version was styled) aren’t about getting hung up on orderliness and expectation, but about seeing injustice clearly and working directly to put that injustice to an end.
In Cosa Nostra, aka Nightwing/Huntress, the grown-up Robin, Nightwing, says to Huntress, “I understand… I can’t let a man go down for a crime he didn’t commit. It compromises the whole system everything we…” and she cuts him off. “No,” she says, “People like [that career gangster] compromise everything we believe in. And I don’t care what it takes to bring them down.”
In Identity (John Francis Moore and Stefano Guadiano), Batman insists Huntress stop breaking up an active criminal organization because there is an ATF agent undercover with them, to which she responds, “I don’t care. I don’t work for the ATF or you. As far as I’m concerned, [they] need to be shut down now. The Feds can make their case later.”
She isn’t policing on the streets or upholding the structure of law enforcement, she isn’t preaching or teaching killers or racketeers to be better human beings. To clear the field for those who are learning and/or teaching, for her work as a legal aid, teacher, bartender, or whatever to better the lives of folks who aren’t stealing, killing, raping or just plain using a system that’s set up in their favor to cheat those whom the system has stacked itself against, she is not fighting crime, she is not pursuing abstract justice, she’s hunting down crime.
Huntress, second-wave feminist and superheroine, either the child of a superhero and supervillain or born the last living soul in a prominent crime family, is never about the kind of “peacemaking” that really means appeasing the empowered while giving a little more to the victimized. Batman and Superman, Green Lantern and Spider-Man are generally about suspending criminal activity. They arrest criminals and let the cops pick them up to hold them a bit, then they’re out and doing it again, they’re the kind of superheroes who let a multiple murderer, death-ray user, and serial rapist like Lex Luthor be President of the United States, while the Punisher or Thorn are just out killing or mutilating criminals regardless of the scale or nature of their crimes in an attempt to permanently shut down human beings and thereby curtail injustice. Huntress is not tolerating crime or cruelty, she’s not interested in avoiding the consequences of hard and serious corrections, of socially permissible cruelty or theft. A District Attorney like Harry Sims, a superhero like the Flash can afford, sometimes, to ignore an assault because it is domestic or graft because it is couched in religion, Batman more and more regularly permits Penguin to act as a fence, dealer, and racketeer because he keeps a balance amongst worse criminals, but no version of the Huntress is going to play that. Huntress’ pursuit of justice is in a true balancing of the scales, not in appeasement but in vindication.