Have you heard the story of the hero, orphaned as a young child when their parents were brutally murdered, who eventually became Gotham's avenger? If your mind went straight to Bruce Wayne and Batman, that's not a shock, but the masked vigilante we were referencing was in fact Helena Rosa Bertinelli, otherwise known as Huntress.
While Huntress isn’t exactly an unknown character, it’s a fair bet that she’s going to become a lot more popular after her scene-stealing turn in Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). Played to perfection by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, the movie’s Helena is short on words, intimidating in action and has something of a brand-identity problem (if you’ve seen it, you know what we’re talking about). So, if you find yourself curious and wanting to know more about the Crossbow Ki—we mean Huntress, then you’re in the right place.
Created by Joey Cavalieri and Joe Staton, Helena Bertinelli was first introduced in 1989's The Huntress #1, which is slightly ironic as she was actually the third DC character to take on the mantle. Artist Stanton already had a connection to the lore of Huntress as he was the co-creator of the Helena Wayne version of the character alongside Paul Levitz, Joe Orlando and Bob Layton. While that version of the Huntress was the daughter of Batman and Catwoman, after the universe-streamlining events of Crisis on Infinite Earths, Helena Bertinelli was introduced without any connection to the Caped Crusader at all.
Though the grim streets of Gotham are mostly known for their weird, wonderful and often wacky inhabitants, Helena Bertinelli reflects a vital yet sometimes underserved part of Bat-lore. Gotham's organized crime syndicates have long been one of the most of the city's biggest and most insidious threats. While the Joker spreads fear via mass murder and mayhem, the mob destabilizes the city through dodgy deals, assassinations and wonton power grabs. But on one fateful day they messed with the wrong family and created a threat almost as big as themselves.
In the pages of The Huntress #1, readers discovered a despondent young girl who was the daughter of one of Gotham's most powerful organized crime families. The post-Watchmen comics landscape led to many creators exploring darker and more brutal stories, and Helena's was no different as when she was a child, she was kidnapped by an opposing mob boss, tortured and horrifically sexually assaulted all while she was only six years old. Years later, Helena would take on the mantle of Huntress after seeing her family killed in a mob assassination. Though her origin would change throughout her comic book career, the loss of her family would always be the driving force behind her transformation into the hero known as the Huntress.
The so-called New Earth version of Helena Bertinelli established the hallmarks of the character which would define her for decades. A highly trained assassin driven by revenge, an empathetic young woman traumatized by loss, and eventually a hero who turned her back on her gruesome past to become a force for good in Gotham. She even had a short-lived stint as Batgirl during the No Man's Land crossover event, but after failing to protect Gotham against a battalion of Batman's most famous villains, she retired from the Bat-Family and took back her own title of Huntress once again.
That wouldn't be the last time that Huntress teamed up with some of the city's biggest heroes, though. In fact, her eventual crime fighting collaboration with Barbara Gordon and Black Canary would make Helena Bertinelli's Huntress one of the most well-known heroes in the DC Universe (well, to comic readers, at least). As one of the core members of the iconic female superteam, the Birds of Prey, Helena became part a found family with Oracle taking Huntress and Canary under her proverbial wing. But Barbara's desperation to control and "fix" Helena led to conflict which would see Helena leave the team before confronting Babs and later rejoining as a fully-fledged and trusted member.
In 2014, after Flashpoint and The New 52 took Helena out of action for a few years, the hero’s path would change for good as she embarked on a new, unexpected career that would put her in the path of one of Gotham's most beloved sons. Just like Helena’s 1989 debut had thrown Gotham into a noir-inspired world of grim gangsters, Tim Seeley and Tom King's Grayson introduced readers to a slick spy-thriller centered around the mysterious agency, SPYRAL. Playing a key role in this complete shakedown of the status quo, Helena was no longer a masked vigilante and was instead one of Dick Grayson’s partners within the espionage organization, hiding from both her mob family and the crime fighting authorities of the world.
During her time at SPYRAL, Helena would strike up a still-referenced romance with Grayson and end up leading the agency after a series of betrayals and disasters that left the organization in dire straits. But after discovering the truth about her time with SPYRAL and helping Grayson defeat the puppetmaster behind it all, the heroine would put on the domino mask once again, reuniting with her former teammates in Batgirl and the Birds of Prey. This time, though, Babs was back working under her most famous mantle and the team was back protecting the city that had made them all heroes.
That more or less brings us to where we are now, at least as far as the comics are concerned. Helena has had a pretty great life outside of them, though. She appeared in several episodes of both Justice League Unlimited and Batman: The Brave and the Bold, including a Birds of Prey-influenced episode written by legendary Birds writer Gail Simone. And it’s not just been animation. Although we're about to see Helena make her big screen debut, Bertinelli's Huntress was previously brought to life by Jessica De Gouw in The CW's sprawling Arrowverse, while her Earth-2 counterpart, Helena Wayne (played by Ashley Scott), was the leader of the network's short lived Birds of Prey TV series.
Birds of Prey may offer the most true-to-the-comics version we’ve seen yet, however, complete with her brutal mob-world origin. We’ll have to see what future this version of the character may have beyond the Cathy Yan-directed movie. But whether Winstead’s take lives on or not—and we certainly hope it does, hopefully with the rest of the Birds along for the ride—there are plenty of other places to delve into the twisted psyche of one of Gotham's most brutal and brilliant heroes.
Rosie Knight writes about comics, movies and TV for DCComics.com and DCUniverse.com. For more from her, check out her article on DC's history of girl gangs and female super teams and be sure to follow her on Twitter at @RosieMarx.