Originally Published January 24, 2011
When fellow blogger Parick Ehlers and I decided to drive head first into DC Comics’ New 52, we didn’t count on there being so many series that we’d like – never mind this many series that we loved. To make up for lost time, here is a special Tuesday BONUS Edition of Patrick and Drew and the New 52. I’m hosting the discussion of Batwoman while Patrick is hosting the discussion of Swamp Thing.
Drew: It’s a blessing and a curse that Batwoman’s origin story (or at least part of it) won’t be able to stand the test of time. Sure, the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” is a big step towards the equality and acceptance of gays in America, but it also dates Kate Kane in a way that I’m sure will require a revision in a few year’s time, just to keep her from seeming too old. This is truly lamentable, as Kate’s origin — both why she devoted herself to fighting international crime and the circumstances that forced her to don a mask to do so — is one of the most compelling of any superhero. In spite of it’s complexity, her origin story is actually summarized quite succinctly by the origin copy that runs the title page:
Kate Kane survived a brutal kidnapping by terrorists that left her mother dead and her twin sister lost. Following in her father’s footsteps, she vowed to serve her country and attended West Point until she was expelled under ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ Now she is many things: estranged daughter, grieving sister, proud lesbian, brave soldier, determined hero. She is Batwoman.
To understand all of that, I would highly recommend picking up Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III’s Batwoman: Elegy, which covers that origin, and explains the “sister lost/grieving sister” lines in much more detail. In fact, Batwoman 1-5 and this review are going to give away a pretty dramatic reveal from Elegy, so consider yourself warned. Seriously, don’t read any further if you want the full impact of Elegy. That reveal, that the villain featured in Elegy, Alice, is actually Kate’s twin sister, doesn’t come until after Kate has failed to saver her from falling to her (presumed) death. She now feels personally responsible for her sister’s death, but also heaps some of the blame on her father, who had always known that Elizabeth may not have died all those years ago. All of this info is necessary to understand Kate’s mentality throughout this story, but is ably explained for those who aren’t looking to pick up Elegy (though you really should; it’s as good as this current arc, which is to say, really fucking good).
The first issue opens with two grieving parents detailing the abduction of their three children by an apparent ghost, as well as Batwoman’s attempt to stop said ghost. Who are they explaining this all to? Why Detective Maggie Sawyer, Kate’s current love interest, of course. Or, rather, her prospective love interest, as they don’t actually agree to go on a date until immediately after the grieving parents leave Maggie’s office. Back at the Heart (Batwoman’s Batcave), Kate has agreed to take on Bette Kane, her cousin, AKA Flamebird, as a sidekick. They eavesdrop at another crime scene involving missing children and that ghost, and bust up some low-level masked criminals. Kate isn’t convinced Bette’s heart is really in these missions, but their conversation is cut short at the arrival of Kate’s father. Kate isn’t interested in hearing what he has to say, and returns to that crime scene to collect evidence, where she is confronted by Batman, who invites her to join Batman, Inc. Meanwhile, the Department of Extranormal Affairs is preparing an investigation into Batwoman and her connection with a criminal organization called Medusa. Whew. That’s honestly just the first issue.
Issue 2 begins with Kate considering Batman’s proposition and Agent Cameron Chase (I know) of the DEO informing Maggie that she may just be a suspect in her Batwoman investigation. Kate and Maggie meet for their first date, where Maggie reveals that Chase is in town looking for Batwoman. After their date, Maggie is called to a crime scene involving some kind of battle between were-people and an unfamiliar gang. It’s unclear what exactly happened, but Maggie flexes some detective muscles, explaining what may have happened to a missing victim during the melee.Batwoman informs Batman of Agent Chase’s investigation. Batman can’t seem to impress upon Kate how dangerous Chase might be, only managing to drive home the point that she should be careful with Flamebird on the ghost case. Batowman then heads to GCPD to collect some evidence, but tips her hand a little too far when she’s confronted by Maggie. Maggie calls Chase to inform her that Batwoman is headed for the boathouse. Meanwhile, at the boathouse, Kate is grabbed by some nasty undertow.
As issue 3 begins, we see that that undertow was none other than the weeping woman, the ghost that has been terrorizing local families. As she pulls Kate down, Kate’s own guilt about drowning her sister starts to creep in. Kate manages to get ahold of herself just in time, and crawls her way gasping to the shore. Unfortunately, Agent Chase is waiting for her with a team of DEO agents. Kate makes short work of them, but the incident has shaken her confidence in keeping herself safe, let alone anyone she cares about, so she forbids Bette from joining her in the future. As all of this is happening, Maggie is waiting for Kate at another rock club. After Kate kicks Bette out, Maggie shows up, ready to confront Kate about being stood up, but ends up consoling her. Meanwhile, Agent Chase confronts Colonel Kane about his daughter, suggesting that the DEO may be closer to figuring out her identity than anyone may have thought.
In issue 4, Maggie and Kate find comfort in each other’s arms while Bette, convinced she has something to prove, heads out solo as Flamebird. Things don’t go very well for Bette, and she is left shivering and bleeding in an alley. The DEO picks up Bette, connects the dots that Flamebird is the sidekick they knew was working with Batwoman, and manage to get her to give up Kate’s name. Meanwhile, Kate figures out just who the weeping woman is, and begins figuring out how to exorcise her.
At the start of issue 5, Kate’s research and meditation pay off, giving her a plan to stop the weeping woman. She returns to the boathouse to confront the ghost, but of course must exorcise her own demons before she can do anything. Kate apologizes to her sister, but acknowledges that it wasn’t her fault. Kate’s plan to exorcise the ghost with fire works, but she isn’t able to get the location of the missing children, only that Medusa made her do it. Back at the Heart, Kate is confronted by the DEO, but rather than bringing her in, they offer to work with her. They threaten to imprison her father if she doesn’t agree, but the thing that pushes the offer over the top is the chance to finally serve her country, the way she had always wanted. At Bette’s hospital bed, Kate tells Batman that she had to take the DEO’s offer, which Batman says will put them at odds. Kate just wants to be able to continue her investigation, and returns to the family seen in the first issue, vowing that she will continue to look for their lost children.
That’s a lot of summary, but that’s fine, since it’s hard to have a lot to say about a book this good. The story and core mystery are rock solid, and the visuals are unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a superhero comic. Part of what make the visuals so compelling are the innovative layouts, from the idiosyncratic panel borders to the way space and time are represented. This title is so full of bravura sequences, it’s hard to pick even a few examples, but the standout for me has to be Maggie’s explanation of the crime scene in issue 2:
I’ve seen plenty of busy double-page spreads in my time, but none that also told a compelling story. This is form and function firing on all cylinders, making for a comic unlike any I’ve ever seen. It’s hard to express how good the art is. William’s brought the same game to Elegy, and he doesn’t disappoint here.
Equal praise belongs to Dave Stewart’s color work. His costume textures are so lavishly, painstakingly detailed, it sometimes feels like a book made of Alex Ross covers (I mean this in the best way possible). That no other scenes are colored in that way lend them an intriguing hyper-reality. Praise also belongs to Todd Klein’s lettering work, which is so good I noticed how good it is, which says a lot for lettering.
In the end, I think what I’m digging most about this book is how keenly observed its details are, as well as the sheer volume of those details. Everything from the floor-plan of Kate’s apartment to the clientele at the rock club feel real. Again, there are far too many good details to list them all, but my absolute favorite has to be that Kate’s ringtone is the theme music to the old Adam West Batman TV show. This is represented via notes on a staff, so is only recognizable to a fraction of the population. It’s a nice touch, and makes sense for someone who reveres Batman as much as Kate Kane does.
In the end, that might be my favorite thing about this character. Compelling origins and realistic depth are great, but I can relate most to Kate Kane because she is such a huge Batman fan. She wanted to fight international terrorism, but was left with few options when she was kicked out of the military. A brief run-in with Batman was all it took for her to see her new life’s calling. Her interactions with him always take on a kind of dreamy quality, which almost no ink applied to his figure. She’s still excited when she sees him, which makes her one of the most relatable character traits I’ve ever seen in a comic.
Patrick: As a proud family member of someone who is able to serve in the armed forces because of the repeal of DADT, I’m more than happy to date Batwoman’s origin by marrying it to that now-archaic policy. The modern understanding of who Kate Kane is and her role in the Bat Family is so new — the concepts that define her are so very much of-the-present — that keeping the character fixed in time suits her just fine. While the whole of the DC stable had to be reinvented for the new millennium, Batwoman is a fresh product of the last 5 or 6 years.
I did a fair amount of research for this write-up. Usually when I dig into superheroes’ histories I discover volumes upon volumes of convoluted craziness, which is fun for making a few quick jokes at the expense of the weirdness of comic books. While there was a Silver Age Batwoman, she disappeared with little pomp in 1964: phased out for the younger Batgirl. When DC got around to cleaning up pieces of their insane continuity in Crisis on Infinite Earths, they wiped Batwoman from the history books altogether. The character doesn’t show up again until the 2006 event “52,” which details the lives of the lesser heroes in the wake of Infinite Crisis and the year-long absence of the big 3 heroes. Mind you, this was just a tease. It’s not until 2009 that the character got her own run in Detective Comics featuring the guiding voice and artistic visionary we’re reading right now.
I didn’t realize it when I picked up my first copy, but this truly was Batwoman #1 — we didn’t need a fancy, line-wide renumbering to accomplish that. When we decided to get invested with DC Comics on an I-buy-monthlies basis, I felt like I was getting in on the ground floor with kicking off the New 52. But we really are in on the beginning of something spectacular with Batwoman. I hope to high-heaven that Williams’ visual style remains central to the identity of this series and this character because it is so fucking compelling. The storytelling is smart, nuanced and mature enough to put most other titles to shame, but it’s in the dizzying layouts and spellbinding artwork that Batwoman shines the strongest.
This series also manages to surprise me pretty regularly. One big surprise comes straight out the gate with the introduction of the Weeping Woman. I know I’m reading comic books, so forgive me when I say that I was expecting more realistic conflict. A child-drowning ghost? Not high on my list of things that could possibly be a problem in reality. Even without the explanation of Kate letting her own sister drown, it is clear that water is an adversarial theme against which Batwoman will continue to battle. And I respect that this isn’t given any science fiction (or even pseudo-scientific) explanation — it’s a ghost, that’s it. Not only does it mean that the villain can be emotionally exorcized by the end of the fifth issue, but it keeps Kate’s relationship to the danger personal. It’s not like the villain is someone who was caught in a dam explosion and became a water entity (or whatever) — that implies a greater danger, less personal, more generic. It’s odd to say it, but the supernatural explanation is more grounded than a sci-fi explanation ever could be.
Another thing I find interesting is Batwoman’s relationship to Batman. Earlier, I mentioned that she is part of the Bat Family, but that’s not entirely accurate. She’s happy hear him out — and not afraid to drop his name when she thinks it’ll help — but there’s not a lot to suggest she wants anything to do with Batman. She resisted the invitation to join Batman Inc., and is eventually forced to decline it when the D.E.O makes her an offer she can’t refuse. Batman, Inc. is such a force in the DC world, though — Grant Morrison will be returning with a Batman, Inc. series in a few months, and we’ve already seen the adventures of one of the Bat-franchises in Batwing. It also sounds like Batwoman will not be participating in the Night of Owls cross-over event, making her about the only citizen of Gotham City not getting bogged down in that action. It’s incredibly astute of you to point out Kate’s ringtone is the 60s Batman theme, and her desire to be a hero like Batman is evident, but I like that neither she nor the stories told about her have to be defined by what the rest of the Bat Family does.
There’s a lot to this character — that’s my point.
The art throughout is of a quality so ridiculously high, I can’t believe I get to own so many of these pages for $2.99 a month. As stand-alone pieces of art, they’re stunning and evocative. As pieces of a superhero narrative, they’re dynamic and exciting. It’s impossible to do right by the art by tossing around superlatives, but ask anyone who’s read the series to describe it and that’s exactly what you’ll get. This and Flash are the two series that we’re reading that have a lot of the story being generated by the artists and I think that’s the key. Penciling a monthly super hero comic book for DC has to be one of the more time consuming things a body can embark on, imagine having to find the time to pitch out and refine the stories to boot. J. H. Williams III very clearly loves this character, just as Francis Manapul very clearly loves The Flash. I am convinced that it is love we are seeing on the page, and it is that love that elicits such a strong response the readership.
Here’s a list of what we’re reading. The list is Batman heavy, and we’re not going to write about everything. That being said, feedback and suggestions on what to read and discuss are welcome. Overlapping books in bold:
Animal Man, Batgirl, Batman, Batwoman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Justice League, Nightwing, Swamp Thing, Wonder Woman, Batman and Robin