Now that Birds of Prey is in theaters, many moviegoers have met a young girl named Cassandra Cain. As portrayed by Ella Jay Basco, Cassandra is a loudmouth pickpocket who gets in over her head when she steals a priceless diamond coveted by crime lord Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), prompting the titular girl gang to step in and protect her from his many goons. Like most of the film’s major characters — including Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress, Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Black Canary, and Rosie Perez’s Renee Montoya — Cassandra is a DC Comics character from the greater Batman world. The movie version of Cassandra is significantly different from her comic book inspiration, but luckily DC released a new graphic novel just last week that serves as a perfect (re-)introduction to the original Cassandra Cain.
Written by Sarah Kuhn and illustrated by Nicole Goux, Shadow of the Batgirl is the latest YA graphic novel from DC. Like Mera: Tidebreaker and Teen Titans: Raven before it, Shadow of the Batgirl is a story told outside of normal DC continuity that brings its title character closer to the real world in order to focus on the things that make them unique. In Cassandra’s case, one of her unique traits is that she was the first Asian character to wear the mantle of Batgirl. But she didn’t start as a hero: As seen in Shadow of the Batgirl, Cassandra was trained to be a living weapon by her master criminal father, David Cain. He didn’t even teach her to speak or read, only to “read” body movements in order to make her a better killer. The only word she knows is “daughter,” because it’s what David called her. So when she hears it from the mouth of a man she’s supposed to kill, she runs away.
“I have been in love with Cassandra Cain since she debuted,” Kuhn tells EW. “I was so excited because I’m Asian-American and she was an Asian Batgirl. I grew up a big nerd, loving superheroes and comic books and sci-fi, but I didn’t see people like me centered in those stories. Something I always loved about her is she is someone who was really raised to be a supervillain. She’s a teenage girl who has been brought up to be a living weapon, but instead she makes a choice to be a hero.”
Kuhn continues, “Most of us cannot say that we were raised to be child assassins, but a lot of us have struggled with feeling that we’re not good enough, or we are struggling to figure out who we are and learning to navigate things we weren’t taught about. Until working on this book, I didn’t realize how passionate a fan base she has. One thing I really love is she resonates with a lot of different people for different reasons. She resonates with me because she’s Asian and struggling to accept that she’s worthy of the superhero mantle, worthy of being a main character, basically. I’ve heard from other people that they relate to her struggles with language and learning how to read, or the way that she is neuro-diverse, because she doesn’t necessarily relate to the world as a lot of other people do. I love that this character who is a teenage assassin is resonant with a lot of people for different reasons.”
As in Birds of Prey, Cassandra in Shadow of the Batgirl finds refuge with empathetic older women. After running away from her life of crime, she finds a way to the local Gotham City library, which becomes a refuge. There she meets a woman named Barbara Gordon, who is happy to help teach Cassandra how to read. Comic fans may recognize Barbara as the first Batgirl, but Shadow of the Batgirl channels her Oracle incarnation, when she used a wheelchair and fought for justice with inventions, computer skills, and technical knowhow rather than high-flying acrobatics. Oracle becomes a mentor to Cassandra, eventually informing her of the legacy of Batgirl and helping Cassandra design her own version of the costume.
“One of my favorite parts of Cassandra when she was a big part of the DCU was that relationship with Barbara Gordon, because I still think it’s a rare thing to have two female heroes form that partnership where they’re really learning from each other and helping each other grow,” Kuhn says. “I always loved the interest Barbara took in Cassandra, so I knew I wanted to focus on that. I figured if she’s out in the world and doesn’t know how to communicate with anyone… well, Barbara’s a librarian, so maybe they would meet at the library. Nicole Goux did such a good job as the artist on this book, she designed the library and drew all those books, which I feel bad about. [Laughs] We saw it as, the library should be her Batcave: It’s her headquarters, where she’s hiding out from her father and his henchmen, who are after her for most of the book, but really it’s where she feels safe. Libraries are always where i’ve felt safe, so i wanted to bring that out and show how she was learning to build a home and safe space away from the violence she grew up with.”
As a way of overcoming Cassandra’s lack of language, Kuhn says she originally wrote voice-over commentary as if the story was being told by an older Cassandra with better communication skills. But after Goux started drawing pages that depicted Cassandra’s emotions and feelings just in her face and movements, Kuhn discarded most of the commentary. Though there is no official sequel set yet, Kuhn says that she, Goux, and editor Sara Miller loved working on Cassandra so much that they’d “jump at the chance” to tell more stories with their version of the character.
Shadow of the Batgirl is on sale now. Check out some of Goux’s illustrations above.