Today, Patrick and Drew are discussing Batwoman 19, originally released April 17th, 2013.
Patrick: Early in this issue, DEO Agent Cameron Chase says to her sister: “I think I’m about to do something horrible.” This isn’t an admission of guilt, she isn’t asking for absolution, and she certainly doesn’t want to be talked out of doing this horrible something. But Chase isn’t the only person in this series that’s about to do something horrible. The whole cast of Batwoman imposes personal sacrifices on each other to the benefit of… well, of what exactly? Love? Honor? Duty? The very thing they’re sacrificing?
The issue opens on Agent Cameron Chase’s conversation with her astranged sister, Terry. It turns out that the Chase sisters’ father was a costumed crime-fighter back in the day, and his lifetime of punching dudes in the face was cut short when he was brutally murdered. This, naturally, soured Cam on superheroes — and is why she’s willing to work so hard for the DEO and manipulate Batwoman. This scene plays out at a leisurely pace — taking up a quarter of the issue’s real estate — and contains the most straightforward messaging in the issue: Chase wants to shut down superheroes to spare their families the grief of losing them. The irony, of course, is that Chase ends up putting those same heroes in mortal danger. Pointedly, she also ends up putting herself in harm’s way over and over again.
I like this scene for a lot of reasons. While the conversation plays against a simple beach backdrop, the sisters have a kind of common-memory shorthand. It’s like when you reconnect a friend you haven’t seen in a long time and you find yourself suddenly experiencing memories of the great times you used to have with this person. Trevor McCarthy slots one of these images from their shared history into the middle of every page — with the unsettling semi-exception of page one. The interjection on the first page is half memory and half something else. Is it the inevitable future? Or just Terry’s worst fears?
The shocking image of Chase bloodied and beaten on the floor is so arresting because it’s presented with the same kind of authority the rest of the memories are. Terry and Chase connect on through this fear the same way the connect on their childhood memories. The relationship between the characters is so clear, and considering this if the first real look we’ve gotten at Chase’s personal life, it’s remarkably effective.
The rest of the issue is harder to get a bead on. Maggie has been having nightmares as a result of Kate dosing her with Scarecrow gas. Kate played it off as an accident, but in reality, she used the gas to keep Maggie from getting too close to discovering her connection to the DEO. (…somehow — whatever necessitated weaponized fear-gas is never disclosed). Even as Batwoman, Kate pushes her support network away by refusing to come clean with Bette about working for the DEO. Appropriately agitated, Batwoman goes to see Director Bones, but Bones has a mission for her: help him uncover Batman’s secret identity. Batwoman repeatedly refuses, until Bones reminds her that they have Beth.
That last one is a bit of a bombshell — we saw that Beth / Alice was coming back two months ago, but I think we all expected her to be the next big bad guy. What we see here is so much more heartbreaking: she’s another bargaining chip for the DEO to use against Batwoman. Having that trump card is especially important now because it seems like Batwoman’s getting harder for the DEO to control. After all, the old “we’ll send your dad to jail!” threat is met with a hearty “fuck you, Bones!” from Kate. But with Alice in their pocket, the DEO shouldn’t have any trouble getting Kate to turn on Batman. Which is an interesting turn for this story to take — it’s not like there’s a lot of love lost between Bats Man and Woman at the moment. She even spends some time trash-talking him to her cousin:
But that’s the beauty of this series. Kate can’t be motivated by her petty differences with Batman, she must be driven by something more fundamental. In this case, she’s driven by concern for the sister she already felt responsible for killing. But just as Chase ends up putting herself, and the people she cares about, in danger to protect them, Batwoman does the same. For heaven’s sake, she drugs her girlfriend and keeps Hawkfire in the dark about the VERY REAL SHIT the DEO is up to.
This theme also turns up with Col. Kane’s story. Jacob has a history of training his girls to be super soldiers, which ends up getting them maimed or killed. And when his wife discovers what he’s up to, she’s outraged, but rather than pulling the plug on the whole thing, she doubles down on the danger. She offers to act as a nurse and confidant for Hawkfire, effectively enabling the behavior that she disapproves of to continue.
Maybe this is just the cost of doing business in a world populated by superheroes. You know how they say “you always hurt the ones you love?” In normal-people terms, it means that emotional availability is hard. But when everyone puts on masks and capes and works their feelings out on the streets, shit’s bound to get dicey.
Drew, I didn’t mention the cyborg Shard hunting for DEO agents or the content of Chase’s dream at all. Both seemed like subjects too big and too unrelated to fold into my analysis (I mean, Shard mentions the Religion of Crime — that’s a whole other can of worms). There’s so much in here that rings true, and most of it in unison, that it’s incredible that there room for that kind of plotty stuff. You think that’ll come around into the same thematic area or are we just seeing the groundwork for the beat-em-portion of this series?
Drew: Oh, it’s all related, Patrick. I suspect the “thing” the DEO stole from the Religion of Crime was Beth. It seems that their sole reason for recovering Bath was to leverage her against Kate, but it seems like they may have also done a little counter-brainwashing out of the goodness of their hearts. Until now, we’ve only ever seen “Alice” speak in Lewis Carroll quotes with that peculiar white-on-black lettering, but here, we get the slightest hint that Beth might just be in there somewhere.
It makes me wonder if the DEO always meant to hold Beth over Kates head, or if this is just a lame plan B. After all, if they can capture Beth with no help from Kate, do they even need Kate’s help anymore? Wouldn’t Beth-as-double-agent be a much bigger boon? Wouldn’t Kate be more willing to work with the DEO if they saved and deprogramed her sister rather than making increasingly desperate and personal threats? Granted, Bones was pretty quick to threaten the Colonel in the first place, but it seems like there were many better solutions here.
But settling for non-ideal solutions is really the theme of this issue. As Patrick points out, just about every character is compromising their beliefs is some way or another, which I think does tie into Maggie’s dream. In skipping the immediate aftermath of the To Drown the World arc, we never really saw how Maggie came to terms with the reveal that Kate is Batwoman — bear in mind, this wasn’t just a trust thing, Maggie actually hated Batwoman. It turns out, she hasn’t really come to terms with it, at all. She’s clearly still traumatized by the whole Weeping Woman/kidnapped children case. She sees that trauma as her burden alone to bear, which is driving a wedge between her and Kate.
They’re having enough troubles even without the fear toxin thing, but the fact that Kate is lying about it emphasizes that the breech of trust hasn’t yet been settled.
Taken together, everything is related to that theme. This title is one of the best at this type of thematic study, and W. Haden Blackman and J.H. Williams III knock this one out of the park. Williams has commented that “sometimes the character IS the story,” and this issue maintains that tight focus on the characters, following them as they grapple with these themes — the way only the best serialized storytelling can.
For his part, penciller Trevor McCarthy delivers a gorgeous issue. As usual, there are the Williams-esque layouts, but McCarthy also picks up some of Williams’ signature ink washes, making for a stunning dream sequence.
The result is a Williams/McCarthy hybrid, combining two distinct voices into a third, producing a book that looks like nothing else on shelves.
Can you tell that I liked this issue? I’m always a sucker for pretty art and thematic unity, and this series continues to have a wealth of both. That it sets up a Beth/Kate conversation that’s been brewing since before the relaunch only excites me more for next month. The characters may have to choose between having their cake and eating it, but when it comes to the quality of this title, we get to do both.
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