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.