Sunday, August 29, 2010


There was no expectation I'd actually like this.

Greg Rucka usually leaves me cold, I'd always appreciated J.H. Williams III art, but never really seen anything I thought was definitive work, and Batwoman . . .well.

Batwoman was rolled out in such a cringeworthy self-congratulatory way around the time of Infinite Crisis that I and a lot of people weren't expect that much from the character. Given the nature of the press release announcing her (and the alleged "controversy" ginned up to get DC on CNN on a slow news day) referring to her as a "lipstick lesbian,"; announcing Devin Grayson was going to write her (as much of a seal of doom as having Judd Winick write it--this, thankfully, never materialised); DC's inability to do anything interesting with their universe that didn't involve ridiculous levels of angst, blood, and gore; and the whole tone of how they announced a character they weren't 100% sure what to do with (and actually proceeded to do very little with for the next few years, if memory serves) well . . .none of this screamed "success."

Well, so much for assumptions. Batwoman: Elegy is not only good damn comics, it's my favourite comic of the year so far. Yes, I know it's a collection. In fact, I would compare it to the Manhunter strip from the early 70's (Fun fact: Manhunter is one of my favourite comics ever, so this is about as high praise as I can give it) in terms of having its own style and rhythm completely separate from anything else going on in DC's universe. It's been ages where a mainstream superhero book was allowed to be this individualistic (and as everything gets slaved to crossovers and homogeneity in tone, isn't that something to be celebrated on its own) in terms of story, art, and character, and it's worth a closer look at all three of these elements, as they're crucial to the success of the whole.

Rucka keeps things lean and keeps the story moving fast as a result. The hook of Batwoman being gay isn't that big a deal (which is how it should be treated--in handling characters of any minority stripe, I feel like to make it not a Big Deal is to treat it as a given. Otherwise you end up with a lot of stories wherein everything is about The Character being gay/a minority/whatever and that way leads that feel like one is ticking off boxes and/or didactic and we should all aspire to be better than that) even in the scene wherein she's drummed out of west point because of being gay. The story point turns on the question of her integrity more than her sexuality: this is a person who's honesty and ethics are so iron-clad when given a chance that leads to fulfilling her ambition, she turns it down because the cost of compromise is too high.

One of the big challenges you have with introducing a new character into the Batman family is that they all tend to be subsumed into Batman's orbit. Some of that's inevitable, but some of it's just lazy and a way to covertly con you into buying a bunch more Batman books that don't have much (if any) Batman in them and nothing else to recommend them.

Batwoman doesn't do that. Her Gotham is recognisably the same city, but has it own mise en scene separate from what we've grown accustomed to seeing from Batman comics. Superficially there is a similar dynamic between Batwoman and her father and Batman and Alfred, but how it plays out is far different--somewhat more father and child/commanding officer and subordinate, but with unmistakable affection on the part of both characters.

Not that that bond doesn't get a little strained over the course of the book. The Religion of Crime (one of the really cool ideas from 52, I thought) is back in Gotham, and Batwoman is on the case, having all the incentive she needs after they cut her heart out, There's a new woman in charge of their religion and she may or may not have ties to Batwoman. In between that, we learn how Kate Kane was inspired to become Batwoman and her relationship with her father and Abbot, a now-heretical member of the Religion who functions as an occasional ally to Batwoman.

Not the deepest plot ever minuted, but really it doesn't have to be to succeed--it just needs to be played out elegantly enough and not larded down with didactic or teeth-gnashingly obvious dialogue. Rucka comes close to with the scene of Kate and her girlfriend in bed having a rather on-the-nose argument about homosexuality, but I think he just about gets away with it because the scene is more about Kate's ennui and lack of an outlet for her energies and the fact that her and Montoya are obviously going in different directions and that's when your most painful arguments start happening, innit?

What's gotten as much attention, justifiably, is J.H. Williams III's art. As far away from the 9 panel grid as one is perhaps able to get before you transcend paper, his page formats are some mix of expressionism and art deco that in places seem like Matt Wagner's Hunter Rose stories which are in the process of exploding as you look at them. Everything is angular--panel breaks follow the impacts of action in one moment, the elegant musical notes tinkling through a social occasion in another. Moments can be rendered with fine detail in one panel, soft, almost David Mack-esque abstraction the next.

This should be a recipe for disaster, as it initially make look unreadable or sacrificing the flow of story for the sake of over-designing the pages, but after the initial shock, it reads very smoothly. I'm especially struck by the fact that Williams doesn't go the usual route of making his pages "cinematic"--there is no way you could do any of this in any medium other than comics. I also really like the way Batwoman and Kate are given entirely separate body language, even down to their line widths--Batwoman is rendered more aggressively and forcefully, Kate is light and delicate, but can occasionally, with a glance, come across as Batwoman as well.

I should also give props to how he tweaked the costume as well. Obviously, the Batwoman suit probably isn't entirely realistic, but he adds in enough plausible and practical touches that it feels like it would work in a fictional universe where y'know, Wonder Woman tarts around in a bomber jacket.

Special notice needs to be given (and if I have one complaint, it's that he didn't get a cover credit) to Dave Stewart's colouring, which is some of the best I've seen in comics. Batwoman and Kate are given a signature shade of red (like Hellboy, which Stewart also coloured) that immediately identifies them on the page and draws your eye towards them. Batwoman is rendered in black-white-grey, the civilian scenes have a warmer tint, but even then Kate is a bit paler than the rest. Little touches like that add a tremendous amount to the comic and in a world where most colourists are determined to render everything in muddy shades of brown, that someone put this much thought into the business of comic colouring that they should get a medal, at the very least.

In short, despite the fact that this character was a retread of a character from the 50's who dressed like a banana and fought crime with hairspray, despite the fact that the character was embarrassingly mishandled, despite all this, this is a fantastic book, and well worth your time.


Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Troubled origins aside, I do think Batwoman is one of the best characters DC has created in recent memory. That Rucka/Williams run on "Detective Comics" was the first monthly DC title I'd picked up in over five years. Pity it didn't last long, but I certainly enjoyed it while it lasted.

I love the contrasts between Bruce and Kate, that for her being Batwoman is practically a military operation - she doesn't have the kind of support system as Batman and Robin, but that makes her adventures so much more exciting; it's not likely she's got Bat-Shark-Repellent Spray in her utility belt, after all. :)

I also loved that Rucka put Montoya in the backup strips - the stories never intersect, but it helps cement Batwoman's position in the DCU when you see that her ex-girlfriend is the Question, and she's out fighting crime too.

The Religion of Crime doesn't really work for me, though that's probably because I skipped "52" and therefore have no idea what went on with that shapeshifting animal people. Didn't affect my reading too much, though.

I do hope Williams is up to the task of keeping Rucka's momentum going - the book's apparently coming back in November, and I'll certainly be checking out the first few issues. How's that for innovation, something's actually going on the pull list again. :)

Kazekage said...

I think so as well, primarily because she's so much not a typical "Batman Family" archetype. I missed the individual issues, but the collection offered me a chance to catch up. While it may not last long, and I hope the new series doesn't tarnish this, I'd rather have an effective run in isolation that worked.

I rather liked that too, and I think that almost complete divorce from the Bat-family is why it works so well--there are similar beats, but they're different enough in style and tone that they feel fresh. Batwoman is a bit more like a practical version of Batman, and as such, stakes out territory all its own. I also like that her father is less Alfred and more Q. :)

I haven't read the Question backups, but given how the Kate/Renee affair was played up in Kate's half, it is rather intriguing in terms of format choices that two characters are so estranged are running on parallel paths. I don't know quite what to make of it, but its certainly food for thought.

I kinda like it--I think it adds to the individuality of the book to have her own milieu rather than whichever villain the main books weren't using that month. God, I notice I keep saying "I like this book because it's not the usual Batman book."

I hope so too, and I just added it myself, actually. I really don't know as we need Batman as a franchise (sorry, Grant) and I seem to remember an initiative from before to pare down the glut of only-thinly-related-to-the-core-book Batman titles not so long ago, but I'd be perfectly happy if all them were allowed such an individual voice as this one :).

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Just goes to show you how far a simple breath of fresh air can go in a very, very stale genre. :)

I think Rucka might have been building towards eventually making Batwoman and the Question an official "crimefighting duo", which certainly would've been a dynamic worth exploring...

Given that neither of us are reading any other Batman books, I'd say that sums it up nicely. :)

The only caveat is that it all depends on whether Williams can keep the book on the same level as Rucka did - the character isn't nearly established enough yet to survive a real drop in story quality.

Kazekage said...

Yeah, especially with the Batman books, which I would have previously said I was burned out on for all time, really. Not that some of them aren't good right now, I just think I've read all the Batman stories I need to read for . . .ever.

I dunno if I'd like a permanent team-up (Montoya has always kinda left me cold) but a one-off to kind of tie up those loose ends would be a great moment but as for a permanent team-up . . .uh, I dunno.

Very true. 'm kinda dreading the inevitable Batwoman vs. Joker fight, though. That way leads to homogenization.

I hope so. He has some good ideas from what I've read, so I have high hopes. That said--he has until the end of the first arc. :) $4 per issue doesn't get you the leeway $3 might.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

I think it goes back to the problem I had with "Under The Hood": Batman's become such a flat cipher these days that his stories really are repetitive. There's only so much you can do with a character who reacts to the discovery of a biological son the way he reacts to the recovery of stolen "Madagascar" DVDs from the Penguin.

She had her moments in the animated series, but what really interests me is the concept of a crimefighting duo where the dynamic isn't romantic but formerly romantic. I can't recall a single example of that... it's like what the Fantastic Four might be with Sue as Reed's ex-girlfriend rather than his wife. At the very least you'd be able to avoid the old Moonlighting cliches.

Unless she takes him out in a way that's unique to her - it'd serve as yet another point of distinction. Of course, this being the Joker...

Quite right. :)

Kazekage said...

I don't know if it's even that, really. It's . . .you know, it's kind of like how I feel about Daredevil--barring a fresh take on things that gets away from the same five beats Frank Miller has been wittering on about for the entire span of my life because I'm now at the point where I'm totally burned out and even with the small steps in the right direction (Grayson as Batman is really good) it's not enough.

That's an interesting angle, and I may actually give them a read to see what Rucka does with that. what I'm trying to do in GMB with Kienan and Silhouette, actually--the idea that you sometimes have to work together even after you're together and trying to sort through the former intimacies and hurt feelings that characterise those relationships.It's a totally different dynamic than what you usually get.

Well, even then I need more than that. I'm so tired of the usual Joker story that I need something interesting done with it. If it's "Joker comes in and kills a whole bunch of people, puts Kate in the position of having to kill him--" they're better off not even bothering. Much like Batman Beyond (the TV series, not the utterly stupid comic)there's no reason to plumb the Batman Rogue's gallery unless you can do something new with them. Of course, then they made Terry into a Bruce clone, which proves they're not infallible . . .

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Of course, if you stick with the Daredevil metaphor, the danger in deviating from a formula is that you can end up with the equivalent of Ann Nocenti's Demon Vacuums and Toxic Waste Soapboxes: something so far beyond the established framework that it either reads as parody or poorly-written fanfic.

Exactly. And there's so much you can do with that dynamic that isn't normally explored: for example, you can have romantic tension without being obligated to collapse it into a Will They/Won't They scenario, because They Already Have; you have a whole backstory to explore at your leisure (ie: how the relationship started and how it ended); you can legitimately have them pursue other love interests... all sorts of possibilities.

Well, I personally thought they'd hit a snag a bit earlier than that, as I was fully prepared to embrace Tim Drake as the new Joker only to find out that it was the original Joker preserved through some ridiculous contrivance.

As for the comic, everything I needed to know about that book was that it was being written by Adam Beechen. Thanks but no thanks, DiDio. :)

Kazekage said...

I dunno, I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the Demon Vaccuum. I can't decide whether that was what Nocenti wanted to write all along, or the point where she just kinda lost her mind a little. It's not good but it's written with such an earnest conviction, and even though it's utterly dire, when it comes to DD, I would read that about someone's "Born Again" fanfiction, because that horse has been beaten to the point of resurrection and killed again. We need to let the Frank Miller approach rest for a LOOOOOOOONG time or just put the character on the bus until such time as where he's missed and a new approach can be attempted. No, not six months later, Marvel--be serious.

Yeah. And you can also have the spectre of Will They Again hanging overhead, because naturally it will even if you never pay it off, and that's a good way to keep the screws of drama turning.

I don't know--I kinda liked it. It's the idea of the Joker as this ghost that hangs over all of them made literal, and the movie is the exorcism of that. I can see how it'd seem a bit dopey, but then they did come up with the explanation for Terry being a Bruce clone which was wayyyyy dumber than Joker-on-a-Chip, I thought. :)

I know, right? Apparently now they sell comics pre-vomited-upon now. It's the prismatic foil of the day.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Given that we're talking about Ann Nocenti here, it was probably a bit of column A and a bit of column B. :)

Well, isn't that ultimately the problem we're having with superhero comics in general right now? I mean, I'd love to read an X-Men story that isn't about Sentinels or bigotry or the Shi'ar, but there's so much resistance to genuine innovation, and after a while it all becomes dull, monotonous tripe.

It's such an interesting setup, I have to wonder why it isn't used more often... too complicated for the Viewers Are Morons demographic?

It certainly was, but two wrongs don't make a right. :) The RotJ reveal frustrated me more because they already had a clear psychological explanation for Tim being the Joker - they certainly weren't shy about showing what happened to him - and instead they went with the notion that a turn-of-the-century criminal psychopath was able to imprint his entire mind on a tiny microchip which somehow physically transformed Tim into a living duplicate.

Let's hope it crashes just as spectacularly. :)

Kazekage said...

And her burgeoning marijuana advocacy. It would explain the demon vacuum. :)

Well, as I said in a few other comments there just doesn't seem to be any point to anything anymore. Character dies? He'll be back. Turns evil? Be back soon enough. Universe goes kablooey? It'll be fixed. How can any change feel that meaningful under those circumstances?

Well, it doesn't implicitly promise a neat resolution to things. Unresolved sexual tension is effective because there are two clear outcomes--they'll either knock boots or they won't. With the other . . .well, who knows what could happen? They could, they couldn't, they could and end up regretting it, and on and on . . .

It was a bit pants, when you get down to it, and really, it wasn't necessary, but I suspect there was some reluctance to have Tim just snap like that, especially after all the buildup they'd given to him on the New Batman Shows. Cowardice? Probably.

We should be so lucky. They'll probably sell like pukey hotcakes.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

The demon vacuum, sure, but not Typhoid Mary. That was not the work of a mellow writer. :)

Not only are the changes themselves meaningless (because we've already trained ourselves as readers to expect the eventual negation), the intervals between resets is getting shorter all the time. Steve Rogers was barely gone two years before coming back, etc. Now, the good news is that this means stupid ideas like Osborn running the government or the Registration Act or M-Day run their course and are promptly forgotten... but this being Marvel, the next idea's either going to be as terrible, or worse.

It's also a useful shortcut around cliches, since most audiences have enough genre savvy to chart the course of your standard UST scenario blind. If you're starting from the point where your protagonists have already broken up and are interacting as friends-with-history, it's not so obvious where the relationship might go.

And, all things considered, I can forgive them that - if only because they'd pushed the envelope so often, and so successfully, that a stumble or two doesn't amount to much in the long run.

(Though I still refuse to accept anything Cadmus-related as canon. Just... no.)

If I didn't have a deep-seated loathing for everything the industry represents right now, I'd be looking into ways to exploit the gullibility of the average Marvel fan. Because if they'll buy Ultimate Comics Ultimate Avengers Ultimate, they'll buy anything. :)

Kazekage said...

Those "Inferno" crossovers were some bipolar shit. The "demon dentist" one is brimming with sweet, delicious anger about . . .something.

The problem is, since we already know they're ultimately meaningless, the general attitude I have is "well, why bother doing it in the first place?" I sometimes get to a point where I feel annoyed just by the time that'll be wasted wading through this latest bilge. Not enough to start a Movement like K-Box or anything, but just sort of like a girlfriend who doesn't love her boyfriend anymore and just stares at the ceiling while he jackhammers away and hopes he'll give up, roll off her and go to sleep already because she's got work in the morning.

No, but you have options above and beyond the basic UST binary, I reckon. Plus, awkward relationships like that are generally a lot of fun to write. :)

Well, some stumbles I forgave more than others. Heh. :)

Well, in the good old days, you just started a rumour that the first appearance on some shitty character who was about to break out and Play A Major Role in things was worth a lot of money, or would be. Now, you can't do that because comics are worthless, and justifiably so.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

You think when Chris Claremont plotted the crossover he knew those portals to Hell were actually gateways into the twisted psyches of the other Marvel writers? :)

That's... actually a very apt analogy. :) It's also the main point of contention whenever I talk to K-Box: I just don't understand how he's able to sustain so much anger towards something as banal as a transient status quo. Certainly, superhero comics have done nothing to maintain any level of loyalty among readers, so why shouldn't we abandon ship before our brains completely rot away?

And a lot of fun to read as well. :)

Honestly, the more I try to envision where comics as an industry might end up in five years, the less I'm able to imagine any kind of long-term improvement. After all, every time I said "there's no way things can get worse than this" they find some way to prove me wrong.

Kazekage said...

I think Chris Claremont is too obsessed with his own doorways into his twisted psyche, but like a bad influence, brought it out in everyone else. :) But then Nocienti is probably more vulnerable than most--the Fall of the Mutants Daredevil crossovers are pretty batshit crazy too.

Yeah, I don't know why I had to paint such a stark picture of a relationship gone bad to sell a metaphor that could have been sold without all that but then, that's just me. :) My thing is--I'm getting to old to go apeshit about the number of times comics insult my intelligence in some fashion. If I took to the streets every time comics did something to piss me off, I'd never sit down. And at some point, I feel like, "I can fulminate about this for 3000 words, or I can talk about something I actually like," and I find myself choosing the less emetic option more and more. "Spider-Man To Get Another Asshole Girlfriend; In other news, sun to rise in east tomorrow . . . " I got more fun shit to do, like poke holes in Apocalypse: The Twelve--oh yes, it's comin'.

The life experience that provides grist for the mill, well, not so much, but turning it into fodder for stories is an example of the judo we perform on life every day and thus surmount our emotional baggage. :)

Yeah, and to be honest I've . . .kinda given up reading the tea leaves. Because as you say, the news is always bad or dismaying and after awhile, you wonder if you mightn't rather be happier than right, eh?

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Crazier than the actual storyline with the Native Americans and the dinosaurs in downtown Texas? :)

See, that's exactly the approach that I've taken, except I can't seem to muster up any Muntzian taunts for the golden oldies either. I find I'm just burnt out on everything to do with comics these days, except for the occasional story that's actually readable (I'm rather sure we left "good" a few stations back).

Quite right. :)

I think we're at a point where only a very specific set of circumstances would have any hope of turning things around, but as time passes those circumstances become less and less likely, at least in the short-term.

Kazekage said...

YES. Because it was so utterly "and now, a roadshow production of The Warriors breaks out during an X-Men crossover for no adequately explored reason." :)

You have to find something passionate about, whether it's comics or not. Even if it's Star Trek or in your case Dragon Age. You will find something to write about because you need to keep writing. At least that's the way I look at it.

Well, I'm sure the solution is to yell at Alan Moore on the Internet some more, isn't it? ;)

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

I suppose you could make the case that since the Adversary represents chaos, of course any stories around him are going to be batshit insane. Though that's probably giving Marvel too much credit.

Absolutely. At that point it just comes down to time management - not a skill I've ever been able to master. :)

After reading his most recent work and nearly throwing up, I strongly advise caution at even mentioning Alan Moore online. You never know if he's got some Candyman mechanism set up where you say his name five times and a Lovecraftian demon turns up to do things that could only be shown on HBO or Showtime.

Kazekage said...

Yeah, there's no way that the absolutely fucking crazy mood whiplash that was Fall of the Mutants was intentional, except as a self-diagnosis of collective schizophrenia, maybe. I recently thumbed through it recently and I was amazed at how dangerously insane it was.

I usually have to either give up sleep or not do something else I want to do, so I'm right there with you.

Yeah, I've been reading recountings of it and . . .wow. Somehow he managed to find something more uncomfortably icky than Your Favourite Children's Characters diddling each other and decided that was a worthwhile thing. God knows why, really. Maybe it's a long, cruel joke on comics as a whole. Not very funny, tho.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

And not the good sort of crazy either - just frantically neurotic and without much of a point.

It's been especially crazy lately, which frustrates me to no end because this is supposed to be my big writing period and Life Stuff keeps getting in the way.

If you ask me, he's finally gone around the bend. Very sad. I mean, if you'd asked me five years ago whether I would ever say "I'm done with Alan bloody Moore"...

Kazekage said...

Well, yes and no. It was an entertaining and bizarre kind of crazy, but that kind of lunacy that really insane people let out at unguarded moment and eveyrone else just sits and stares at them because they're like "aw man, they fucking let the crazy out!"

As I write this, I myself am operating on about 4 1/2 hours sleep because I was up finishing pictures in Photoshop the past few days. Ideally I would have things more in balance to where I wouldn't have to give it up, but c'est la vie.

One can hardly blame him. Given the state of things to day and the behaviour of various comic "lifers," maybe insanity is what happens when you stay in too long?

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

I don't mind craziness in self-contained doses, but when they interrupt an ongoing narrative so their characters can fend off dinosaurs and offensive Native American stereotypes, "Why?" becomes too pressing a question to ignore. :)

It seems to me that the choice is between consuming narratives - which for me means a three-way split between TV, video games and books - and creating narratives/reviews. The problem is that I keep getting "stuck" in the middle of things, so I can't just disconnect myself for a month to do some proper writing. Quite frustrating.

Exhibit A: Charlie Sheen? :)

Kazekage said...

I guess I see more value in it because in retrospect it's this lovely little stick to jam between the eternally spinning wheel of people who just want to do Frank Miller's Greatest Hits a and so any oasis of . . .well, not that, is welcome to me, even if it's incoherent, stereotypical and utterly demented. :)

I break it back down into bits--all my DS9 reviews are done by DVD so 4 episodes, a little time to cogitate, write it down, and back to start. Scheduling it bite-size chunks seems to help, because otherwise the amount of stuff yet to go would melt my brain.

Don't even get me started on Topper Fucking Harley. :)