Sarah Kuhn and Nicole Goux’s Shadow of the Batgirl: What Does it Mean to Be a Hero?

A hooded and masked Cass Cain

What does it mean to be a hero? In Shadow of the Batgirl, writer Sarah Kuhn and artist Nicole Goux introduce a younger audience to Cassandra Cain, a teenager who has been raised to do only one thing: kill. But when Cass realizes that this life is wrong, she escapes, finding herself in Gotham, hiding in a library where she overhears a compelling woman talk about Batgirl. Hiding out in the library, Cass learns everything she can about this hero, determined to follow in her footsteps, but the evils of her past continue to haunt her.

A hooded Cass Cain on the cover, with bats flying up behind her

Shadow of the Batgirl is a touching story of a girl scarred by abuse and manipulated into becoming something she never wanted to be, not knowing how to be anything else. It’s a story of fighting through all of that to find yourself anyway, and learning to trust others. Kuhn and Goux give us an endearing Cassandra Cain who’s as vulnerable as she is deadly. Her journey of self-discovery is fun and funny, but it doesn’t shy away from the darkness that will always haunt a good soul forced to do evil.

With today’s release of Shadow of the Batgirl, Kuhn and Goux are busily doing the interview rounds, and have answered a few questions for WWAC along the way.

How familiar were you with Cassandra Cain before beginning work on this series?

Kuhn: It’s fair to say that I’ve been obsessed with Cass ever since she first appeared in the DCU. Of course I loved her because she was the Asian Batgirl—I grew up Asian American in a very small, very white town, and I loved superhero comics, but didn’t see myself in them very much. So any time I see an Asian superheroine, I get really excited—and then there was so much I connected to in her story. I was really drawn to how hard she just kept trying to be a hero, even when she felt like she wasn’t good enough—that she wasn’t enough, period. That being a villain was all she could be. She’s one of those characters I just want to hug, I just want her to be okay and have everything she wants. And after loving her for so many years, getting to write her was a dream come true.

Goux: Before the book I knew that there were multiple Batgirls, but I knew very little about Cassandra specifically. When I got the pitch and read up on her history, coming from being trained as an assassin by Super-Villains, overcoming a lack of speech and emotionally abusive parents in order to fight on the side of good, I knew I was interested in exploring her story.

Cassandra finds a pretty unique pair of shoes. What was the inspiration for the design of these shoes?

Kuhn: The shoes were really important, because they’re the first thing she really chooses for herself. And I loved the idea that she’s pawing through the Gotham Library’s Lost and Found and at first she’s looking at it with a trained assassin-type’s eye—what’s the most practical? What can I throw on to just get by? And then she pulls out these amazing, colorful sneakers and she’s just blown away and there’s really nothing practical about them except they are the coolest shoes she’s ever seen and she’s instantly in love. I remember us having a lot of discussions about the shoes, me and Nicole and our editor – Sara – and Nicole doing a lot of different tweaks on the design. What she came up with is perfect.

Goux: I wanted Cass’ new sneakers to be something that stands out and would really catch her eye. Cass has never gotten to choose a single item of clothing for herself so when she finds the sneakers they’ve got to be special! The design I landed on is inspired by the Nike Bonafide design. They’re sleek and athletic, just like Cass herself.

Cass walks through the library in her new clothes she found in a lost and found bin

What kind of research did you put into depicting Cassandra’s learning process, abilities, and fighting style?

Kuhn: I talked to a lot of people with various expertise and lived experience in these areas, which is always one of the first things I like to do when I’m writing anything—talk to people who aren’t me! I think we all wanted to make sure her journey and her struggles rang true every step of the way. I know most people probably can’t relate to being a teen assassin, but I think a lot of folks can relate to the emotional core of what she’s going through, or different facets of the everyday experiences she’s having—learning different kinds of language she’s never been exposed to before, opening up to people for the first time, struggling to fit in. And Nicole did a beautiful job of creating her physicality, her fighting style—you really believe tiny Cass could take down all these giant thugs.

Goux: I wanted Cassandra to feel slick and quick. Because her mode of communication is all about visual cues and body language, she can often tell what an attacker is going to do before even they do. She’s tiny but tough, using leverage and speed instead of brute force to take down her opponents. I used a lot of visual reference for fighting poses (often from martial arts manga) until I really got the hang of the way she moved.

What was the inspiration for the library design?

Kuhn: This was all Nicole. The most important thing for me was that the library would come to represent Cassandra’s Batcave, her superhero HQ and safe haven. I knew it was cavernous and had big windows and kind of a gothic feel—like, a magical place where you can get totally, blissfully lost. Nicole’s design brought that to life so beautifully—you can really feel what the atmosphere in that library is like, it just leaps off the page. I want to live in that library.

Goux: The library is a combination of what my idea of a gothic manor would be and one of my favorite libraries. I wanted it to feel romantic and special, with a tad bit spooky and dark. I imagined lots of dark wood and high stained glass windows, a sort of temple to knowledge and of learning, with darkened corners to hide and hole up in. The layout of the library itself (as any Toronto Comic Arts Fest attendees might catch) is based on the Toronto Reference library. I’ve attended the show a few times and have really positive associations with the place. That and the multileveled layout working well to see all our characters in different spots in the library at one time made it an ideal base to start with when designing Cass’ new home.

Cassandra is awed by the size of a library with many levels and shelves and staircases

If you got to live in a library for a day or two, how would you spend your time?

Kuhn: I would do what I think most writers would do and actually try to catch up on my TBR! Actually, I would love to be able to go back in time and visit the old SF/F section of my hometown library—I still remember that single wall of books, how it represented a bigger world and an escape from my tiny hometown. I got lost in that wall so many times, and I would love to be able to do that again.

Goux: Oh, almost definitely in the graphic novel or sci-fi/fantasy sections. Right now I would probably find a bean bag and a stack of Rumiko Takahashi comics and just hang out until they kick me out. I’m nothing if not consistent in my interests.

What would a book like this have meant to you if your younger self had gotten to read it?

Kuhn: It would have meant everything—I actually would have seen myself in the stories I loved so much. I’ve talked a lot about how never seeing yourself centered in stories—like, if you are there, it’s as a sidekick or cannon fodder or someone who’s there to teach everyone an Important Lesson About Racism—often means you don’t think it’s possible. I saw myself as a sidekick for a long time, even in my own life. But Cassandra’s the protagonist, it’s her book, it’s her face on the cover. That is still so powerful for me to see. And I think it would have been mind-blowing to see her go through this arc, where she really learns that she gets to decide who she is and what she wants to do in life and she doesn’t have to fit into someone else’s preconceived idea of who she should be.

Goux: One of the major themes of this book is that your future is in your control. As a teen I often felt like I was just following a path set out for me. Seeing Cassandra actively decide to go a different direction in spite of everything she’s been trained to do is a really powerful message, and one that I think would have made a difference for me. It’s hard to figure out what you want, especially when you’re 14 and are often dealing with things that feel more prescient, homework, romance (or lack thereof), bullies, but everyone goes through it, even trained assassins!

Shadow of the Batgirl is available today from DC Comics.

Wendy Browne

Wendy Browne

Publisher, mother, geek, executive assistant sith, gamer, writer, lazy succubus, blogger, bibliophile. Not necessarily in that order.