Aug 6, 2015

One Brief Shining Moment: Rucka and Williams' Batwoman

In 2006, in DC Comics' landmark weekly series, 52, Greg Rucka helped introduce a new Batwoman. While there was a Batwoman named Kathy Kane decades prior, this one was named Kate Kane, and the mainstream media quickly picked up on it because Kate was (gasp!) a lesbian.

It's hard to not see Kate and her not-paramour Renee Montoya as landmark characters for LGBT representation in superhero comics. Amidst all the outrage and ballyhoo about her debut nine years ago, it's easy to forget that she never really actually headlined anything until three years later. In 52 and one of its subsequent miniseries, Crime Bible: Five Books of Blood, she was a supporting character in Renee's story, even playing the part, for Renee, of damsel in distress. She was the star of a very short story in one of the holiday specials (who actually read those? Show of hands?), focusing on her Jewish faith and celebration of Hanukkah. She made brief appearances in Final Crisis and its tie-in, Revelations. But this new, much ballyhooed character was never the focus of anything until DC decided to hand over their flagship title, Detective Comics, to Greg Rucka and JH Williams III to spotlight Kate Kane, Batwoman.

Now Rucka had written Kate before — he was, in fact, the writer or co-writer of just about everything I listed above. Williams would get a shot at writing her after Rucka left, as well. But their collaboration, seven issues and two storylines in total, represented what could really be done when a writer and an artist are on the same page. For whatever level of quality the Batwoman stories each did without the other, their collaboration represented the peak of the character's (admittedly short) life span.

Before the first arc, "Elegy," we know very little about Kate other than she's a capable fighter, she used to date Montoya (and it didn't end well), and she wore heels, which critics did love to point out. The first spread of the run automatically addresses that last bit while at the same time giving us a taste of the visual treats that are about to come our way.


Williams, known for his work on Promethea with Alan Moore, Seven Soldiers with Grant Morrison, and now Sandman: Overture with Neil Gaiman (and he also did Desolation Jones with Warren Ellis — as far as resumes go, that's not so bad, don't you think?), loves to use two-page units to lay out his pages, and it gives us these beautiful aesthetics that are just a pleasure to look at. I have, in fact, heard criticisms that the beauty of it takes away from the flow of the story, and story should come first, and while I get that, I don't really agree — I think the story still flows, and I think that each panel has a purpose. Here's Batwoman beating up a bunch of thugs.



Rucka and Williams also introduce a novel villain named Alice, who speaks only in quotes from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland books. The end of "Elegy" reveals that Alice is Kate's long-lost twin sister Beth, but unfortunately Rucka left the title before anything could really be done with that twist. (It may have been played on since; I don't know. I just would have liked to read what Rucka had in mind.)



As fun as "Elegy" was, it's the next story, "Go," detailing how Kate became Batwoman, where the storytelling really cut loose.  One thing Williams has done, at least since Promethea, has been to work with multiple styles, even on the same book, and he works in mainly two different styles for Batwoman. Aided greatly by the colors of Dave Stewart, the Batwoman scenes had more of a realistic, 3-dimensional quality, as is more expected of superhero comics, but the Kate scenes had more of a restrained, flatter quality, with more constrained layouts, with some of the sensibility of the non-Marvel/DC slice-of-life comics, or, actually, of David Mazzucchelli's work in Batman: Year One, detailing Batman's early escapades. Any criticism of Williams just being a guy with a bag full of artistic tricks is automatically dismissed by the Kate scenes set in the past, such as this one where she is faced with the choice of denying her own actions to stay in the military or to be honest and let go of her dream of serving.



That's a powerful scene. Here's the scene where she tells her dad what happened. That silent panel speaks volumes.



If I were to write out the plot of "Go," it would seem like your generic origin story. Kate's mom and twin sister are killed by terrorists when she's young. She dedicates her life to serving in the military, but is separated from the army due to homosexual conduct. She dates Renee Montoya, putzes around for a while, and is attacked one night by a mugger. She promptly beats the mugger up and then runs into Batman, who then inspires her to become a vigilante. Her dad finds out and sends her away for proper training and gives her a bunch of equipment. That's it. But so much of it is in the telling. Here's her meeting Batman — check out how the action amps up when she's attacked, with tilting panels, and it means we've entered the world of the Bat, who is rendered differently, even otherworldly, from Kate.




I also generally enjoy all the visual storytelling just in terms of the body language and facial expressions. When Kate is discovered by her dad, she shows off only the slightest hint of surprise and then gets in the upright military position — a sign of respect, as a lower-ranking officer, which she then ditches once she starts protesting about what he's saying and assumes the role of his independent daughter who can make her own decisions.


Rucka and Williams' Batwoman run in Detective Comics was a fun romp that introduced an intriguing cast of characters and set them up for future use. Unfortunately, Rucka left the company and Williams and his new co-writer, W. Haden Blackman, were not on the same level as Rucka when it came to fleshing out the characters and moving the story at a fast enough pace; so much of New 52 Batwoman felt like treading water, and without much to work with, even Williams' aesthetics seemed hollow.

But back in 2009 to early 2010, we had seven issues of top-notch storyteling, where things moved and everything changed at the drop of a hat. We had interesting characters, curious cliffhangers, and beautiful visuals, merging the superheroic and the grounded worlds in two different styles, but so seamlessly, as so few ever have. For a while there, Batwoman had her moment in the sun.



One brief shining moment.

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