[26 July 2010]
Not many superheroes get headlines in the mainstream press like “The red-headed lesbian is unleashed at last” or “Holy Lipstick Lesbian!” DC comics’ new incarnation of Batwoman has garnered both praise as a compelling character and wholly predictable criticism from homophobic culture warriors.
Batwoman first appeared in Detective Comics #233 in 1954. Her character, Kathy Kane, was meant to be a romantic interest for Batman and to counter claims by early ‘50s comic book critics that Batman and Robin’s relationship had homoerotic overtones. (Rather ironic, given her current incarnation, don’t you think?)
The reinvention of the modern Batwoman has been a major achievement. Only tangentially connected to the Batman mythos, Kate Kane’s story holds in tension all the themes of identity, trauma and vengeance that are at the dark heart of the Dark Knight narrative. Suffering through standard issue superhero childhood trauma (with a twist), Kate Kane hoped to find fulfillment in the army and came close with a sterling career at West Point. The military’s altogether stupid and embarrassing policy regarding “homosexual conduct” ended her career but opened the way for her to find a new one.
Que cape and cowl, plenty of gadgets and a secret bunker under her house. All of these wonderful toys are provided by her army colonel father, an incredibly charming character whose bond with Kane becomes the most moving element of this tale.
Greg Rucka’s Batwoman is not the first openly gay superhero, although you don’t need the fingers of one hand to count the rest. However, this is no after-school special (not that American doesn’t need one on the topic). Kate Kane has become much-beloved by fans and critics because of Rucka’s well-known ability to add depth and dimension to his characters. Rucka builds in dialogue that drags you, delighted, into the narrative. He combines realism and an ear for current idiom that gives his fantastic world a lived-in feel.
The art of J.H. Williams takes this well-wrought tale to the level of high art. Williams refuses to recognize any of the proprieties of panel placement. His page arrangement sometimes appears as jagged bolts of lightening or broken glass, each shard offering up a narrative moment. His iconic two page spreads are incredibly kinetic. Williams rejects the stylized monumentalism that sometimes creeps into the drawn narrative. Perhaps the best reason to pick up this book is to watch a major formalist experiment in image and narrative unfold in front of you.
Batwoman:Elegy finds this creative team working at the height of their powers. What doesn’t always work is the use of magical and supernatural themes. In Elegy, Batwoman struggles with her previous nemesis “The Religion of Crime”. These covens dedicated to an ancient religion of chaos bring a whole boatload of hocus-pocus into the story. This sometimes has a jarring effect given that the world of the Batwoman feels like it should be all about gritty-street level crime.
Nevermind though. Rucka and Williams know what they are doing. They skillfully make use of the magical elements of the story to reconstruct Kate Kane’s inner worlds and prepare us for the big reveal at the end. We see the dénouement coming for quite a few pages but it still surprises with its power. What could have been Lifetime movie of the week melodrama in the hands of some becomes almost Homeric here.
A special treat awaits Rachel Maddow fans. The popular left-leaning talk show host loves Kate Kane, and Rucka’s storytelling chops, and so writes a brief introduction to this collection. As perhaps the most articulate public opponent of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tale,” Maddow’ love and support for this character has a wonderful symmetry.
Sadly, this project was Rucka’s elegy for the character he created. He announced in the spring that he was leaving DC and working only on creator-owned projects. The good news is that the loss of Rucka’s ability to cause us to fall in love with his characters may not hobble the franchise. DC has announced that Batwoman will be an ongoing title with Williams providing the art and taking over some of the writing duties, as well.
Batwoman lives, much to the chagrin of Gotham’s criminal underworld and the conservative commentariat.