Any conversation about the greatest martial artists in the DC Universe inevitably turns to the mistress of martial arts: Sandra Woosan, the unconquerable Lady Shiva. Batman and Oracle’s files alike have listed Shiva as a potential threat best avoided if possible, as her skills in single combat surpass even the Dark Knight’s own. Based on this, one might imagine that Lady Shiva could be counted among Batman’s greatest villains, but the truth is much more complicated—it would be just as incorrect to call Lady Shiva a villain as it would be to call her a hero.
Since the 1970s, Shiva has worked alongside some of the greatest heroes and villains on Earth, from the Birds of Prey to the League of Assassins. As a figure who doesn’t fall within the traditional spectrum of good and evil, Shiva has always been a difficult character to define in typical DC terms. Lady Shiva is not motivated to protect or subjugate others, but by a solitary quest of self-betterment. Wherever Shiva can find a new adventure or experience, wherever she can find a new skill to further her dual interests in creation and destruction, that’s where you’ll find her—no matter Batman or Ra’s al Ghul is pulling the strings.
Shiva has been many things under many writers, but despite what you may have heard, her most important trait is not that she can defeat even the greatest fighters with one finger. It’s the experience of being humbled by an insurmountable foe and the perspective gained from that loss. Shiva is a woman on a neverending quest for self-definition. And, in that process, those whose lives she enters gain a better understanding of themselves.
Lady Shiva was originally created to fill a vacancy. In the 1970s, Denny O’Neil and Jim Berry authored a pulp novel borrowing heavily from the tropes of contemporary kung fu films of the day called Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter. As a writer for DC, O’Neil and Berry adapted their short novel into the first four issues of a martial arts comic of the same name. The only problem was that by the end of issue #4, they were out of the story and down a leading lady. The hero Richard Dragon’s love interest, Carolyn Woosan, had been killed by the end of the book.
Now alone on the title, Denny moved the story forward by introducing Carolyn’s sister—the avenging Sandra Woosan, who placed the blame for Carolyn’s death on Richard himself. By the end of her first appearance in Richard Dragon, Kung-Fu Fighter #5, Shiva and Richard had hashed out their differences and a genial personality came out that was entirely unlike her reserved and bookish sister. The Lady Shiva of the 1970s was a daredevil thrillseeker, joining Richard and their friend Ben Turner (who would later become Bronze Tiger) on an international mission of spycraft and adventure just for the fun of being there. She called herself Lady Shiva after the Hindu god of destruction and creation, and was always quick with a wry, ironic joke about her feminine frailty before beating anyone fool enough to oppose her to a raw pulp.
When Richard Dragon ended in 1977, Shiva vanished along with him for a full decade. She wouldn’t return until a new series written by Denny O’Neil in 1987, DC’s brand new take on a faceless hero they had just acquired from Charlton Comics, The question.
In the years which had passed since Kung Fu Fighter, O’Neil had turned from a superficial interest in Chinese action movies to a deeper yearning to explore Eastern philosophy, and the spiritual quest to become a better man. Before O’Neil’s work with the Question, Vic Sage was an ideologically rigid emblem of the ideals and politics of his creator, Steve Ditko, who insisted on the existence of objective morality. In Ditko’s world, the difference between good and evil was simple to understand. And if you pretended it wasn’t, that just meant you were probably trying to get away with something you know you shouldn’t be.
In The Question #1, Denny reintroduced a more mature Lady Shiva into the Question’s world as an almost mystic emblem of a world he couldn’t even comprehend. She was there, ostensibly, to seek new challenges and adventures as a mercenary for hire. But in her first encounter with a bona fide superhero, Shiva found something more interesting: someone she could build, perhaps someday, into a proper rival. All she had to do first was expand his mind.
She began with a two-step process. First, she destroyed him, in both body and ego, in a single fight. Then, using an unrivaled (and frankly, underutilized) skill in the healing arts, she returned him to life, leaving him in the care of her old friend Richard Dragon. Presented with a foe who would not only slay him without a second thought, but resurrect him with everything he needed to realize a better life, Vic understood for what may have been the first time that people were more complicated than he had ever imagined. Under Richard and Shiva’s watch, the Question grew into a more complex hero than he had ever been before.
It wouldn’t be the last time Shiva would change a hero’s life.
At the same time Denny O’Neil was writing The Question, he was also becoming the Group Editor for DC’s Batman titles. When Shiva crosses Batman’s path in A Death in the Family As a potential candidate for Jason Todd’s birth mother, she fights Batman to a standstill for the first time. From this point on, comics would recognize Shiva as not merely a great fighter, but one of the best—a legend which would only grow with time.
As all prominent non-powered DC characters eventually do, Shiva was folded into Batman’s orbit. When the Dark Knight was broken by Bane in Knightfall, it was only Shiva who could retrain him back to his prime. When Batman finally acquiesced to Tim Drake’s insistence that he needed a Robin in his life, it was Lady Shiva who got the new Boy Wonder ready for the challenges to come. Shiva would even, for a brief time, join Oracle’s Birds of Prey, with a similar eye on Black Canary as a pupil and rival as she once had for the question, and Richard Dragon before him. But her most important connection, and the relationship which has come to define her for the past twenty years more than any other, was to Cassandra Cain, inheritor of the Batgirl mantle.
At first, Lady Shiva’s interest in Cassandra was seemingly no different than her interest in other gifted martial artists in whom she saw potential. By challenging Cassandra in her skills and ideals, Shiva brought out the best hero she had ever been—once again, as she had done with the Question, through destruction and resurrection. Eventually, their familial bond rose to the forefront, as Shiva was revealed to be the birth mother to one of Batman’s adopted children after all.
From this point onward, the question of who Shiva was, where she came from, and what she represented became a matter of debate. Gail Simone wrote of a young Sandra in Birds of Prey from a small Chinese village, raised in a tradition of violence to claim the name of Shiva as a title of her ferocity. In batgirl, Andersen Gabrych developed the picture of a deeply disturbed Shiva whose thrillseeking drive for dangerous challenges and rivals worthy of her skill covered an all-encompassing deathwish. Beginning around Batman: Hush, And quite recently, Lady Shiva was until continuing as a Heavy for the League of Assassins, little more than a threat to punctuate an action scene which could raise the stakes for those who remembered the importance of her presence once carried.
This trend would be bucked in 2019’s Batman and the Outsiders, when Shiva is once more apparently under control of Ra’s al Ghul, only to defect at the first opportunity and join her own daughter on Batman’s black ops team. Without dulling Shiva’s edges, writer Bryan Hill used this story to bring Shiva a little closer to her roots as an ally to the likes of Richard Dragon and Ben Turner, and as an opportunity to bridge the gulf between Cassandra and her mother. Unlike Cassandra’s father, the true Shiva, as understood by O’Neil on The Question in the ’80s, felt no need to see her daughter become the ultimate weapon—only her best, fully idealized self. And in her company, Shiva was proud to discover that her daughter had nearly become exactly that. All that was left to Cassandra was a choice: either embrace the identity she craved as Batgirl or find a new purpose away from Batman’s pull. It was Shiva’s insistence, and her pride, which helped Cassandra make her decision. And sure enough, you can find Shiva’s daughter right now as the star player of Batgirls.
The true legacy of Lady Shiva isn’t the people she defeats, but the people whose lives she changes through their defeat. Richard Dragon, the Question and Cassandra Cain would never have achieved true knowledge of themselves if they had not been confronted with an obstacle—and who, in their destruction, would provide the tools to build themselves back into something more. As James Tynion IV wrote of Shiva in Detective Comics, she only serves any organization for as long as she requires to learn what she needs. And then, she moves on.
Shiva is a seeker of knowledge, going to any lengths to improve upon the skills for destruction and creation, that cycle of change and rebirth, which keeps the world moving. So, no. Lady Shiva is not a Batman villain. Nor is she a hero. Lady Shiva is a destroyer. A healer. A student and a teacher of life.
She’s also the baddest mother to ever walk the earth. Watch yourself should you cross her path, or she just might beat your ass so hard that it changes your entire worldview. And once your bones finally reset and your muscles reknit, mark these words—you’ll thank her.
Alex Jaffe is the author of our monthly “Ask the Question” column and writes about TV, movies, comics and superhero history for DCComics.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AlexJaffe and find him in the DC Community as HubCityQuestion.
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this feature are those of Alex Jaffe and do not necessarily reflect those of DC Entertainment or Warner Bros.