SHE HAS NO HEAD! – The Superhero Comic I’ve Been Waiting For
I’ve been wanting to talk about Batwoman/Detective Comics since I first started writing this column and I’d been resisting because I’d already written about Greg Rucka’s Stumptown. However, I realized this week that it’s silly to punish Greg Rucka for doing TWO great things. He should be rewarded, not punished.
I L-O-V-E Detective Comics. If I could buy only one monthly book, Detective Comics would be it. If I was buying two books I think it would be Detective Comics and Stumptown.
Hmmm. Greg Rucka: 2. The rest of comics: 0?
I was one of many skeptical people when Batwoman “debuted” in Detective Comics #854. I’m not sure why I was skeptical other than the fact that I felt like all eyes were on the book (and the character) waiting for it to fail and for a marquee mainstream lesbian superhero to have to go back to the drawing board to be ret conned or reworked for some other day.
While I immediately liked what I saw in the book, my skepticism remained. I, like others, was primed to pick it apart at the slightest mistake.
As someone completely new to the Batwoman character (I knew about 52, and the mini with Montoya, but I didn’t read them) Rucka did an unbelievable job of introducing a newbie to the always complicated world of a Bat. I found Alice interesting as a villain, though a bit frustrating (as the crazy ones are wont to be) and there were enough details about the Religion of Crime and The Crime Bible to let me follow what I needed of the plot without getting lost.
Solid writing, plotting, and art aside though, I still wasn’t falling in love. There was nothing to pick apart and complain about (well, nothing significant) but I couldn’t quite commit. Until issue number 858 that is. In issue #858 we got a significant chunk of Kate’s back-story, and a huge reveal about her nemesis Alice that raised the stakes on everything. And what #858 started, #859 nailed down into cold hard fact by doing three amazing things and still managing to tell a hell of a story at the same time. [SPOILERS]
1. Rucka’s deft handling of Kate and Renee’s loving but tumultuous relationship blew me away. Kate and Renee had a realism and intimacy that we rarely see in mainstream comics, and far more importantly, it is the first time I’ve seen that realism for a lesbian couple in mainstream superhero comics. It was beautiful and yet also completely matter-of-fact, as it should be. THIS is a complex and satisfying superhero book. A superhero book I’ve been waiting for A LONG TIME.
2. Rucka established the incredible bond that Kate has with her father, in a heartbreaking scene in which she comes out to her father after being kicked out of the army for being gay. The scene is perfectly handled. Kate never actually says she’s gay, but rather she and her father speak in a way that seems authentic to me for a military family that likes to keep things low on the drama. Kate just takes her sunglasses off, looks her father in the eye and confirms his mostly unasked question. There’s a beautiful silent panel of acceptance for her father, and then they move on. It’s a page that speaks volumes about both the characters and their relationship to one another. And I was moved.
3. As if the frank portrayal of Kate and Renee’s relationship and that of Kate and her father’s wasn’t enough to send me over the moon, we also saw in #859 Kate’s first encounter with Batman, the encounter that inspires her to take up the mantle. I was impressed by its simplicity. I know a lot of people thought it was insignificant, but I found it organic and natural. Not every origin story has to be all flash and lights. Sometimes it can just be someone talented and driven and lost that suddenly finds purpose in one perfect moment. And something that I feel like people are ignoring is that Kate’s brush with Batman is particularly significant because he didn’t actually have to save her. She saved herself. There’s something really important in that I think. Kate saving herself allows Kate to be inspired by Batman and yet also see herself on his level. That moment inspires the kind of confidence and belief in yourself that you have to have in order to think you can strap on a costume and do what he can do. In the end it totally worked for me and Williams’ powerful pages were certainly a huge part of why it worked.
And we do have to talk about Williams’ art, because it is certainly the strong right arm of Rucka’s story. While Williams work was maybe the best I’ve ever read in a superhero comic from his first Batwoman pages in #854, it was in issue #858 when he started switching between Kate’s past and present that he started blowing me away.
Williams is using radically different, though equally beautiful styles to convey Kate’s past and present. For Kate’s past he’s using a more John Paul Leon meets David Mazzucchelli style, with a muted color palette and very traditional panel layouts. For Kate’s present it’s all hard and dark and super saturated with wild groundbreaking graphic design inspired panel layouts.
The two styles working in such perfect harmony together really adds a whole other layer to this comic that I feel is terribly rare in mainstream comics.
If I am completely honest, I will admit that the present tense style with the crazy panel layouts is not as effective for me. From a graphic design and artistic point of view I find it stunning and perhaps even important in the larger scope of comics, but from simply a readability standpoint, it does sometimes hurt the story for me more than help. That said, it’s hands down the most beautiful and effective book I’m buying right now, so I’m certainly not advocating that Williams make any changes.
So, I’ve raved about this book…does it really matter if it’s female positive if it’s just a damn good book? No, not really, but in this book’s case it is female positive and so it’s worth talking about the other reasons why it’s so good in that regard. So what else makes this book so powerful an entry in the positive women in comics arena?
1. How Kate is written. Kate feels real to me. She feels emotional and flawed but determined and clear in purpose. She feels like she comes with baggage, both emotional and physical, and that it’s the kind of baggage that makes her both good at what she does, and also potentially vulnerable. I can see the struggle in the character and I know that given the chance (cough >the best writers< cough) she will continue to evolve.
Kate doesn’t feel perfect like Bruce, which is good, but she does feel older and wiser and more considered than much of the younger cast (Batgirl, Robin, Red Robin, etc.). Kate feels to me, in a way that I didn’t really think another character could, the most like Bruce. And by that I don’t mean that she seems like a female Bruce, but rather that she is more her own woman, she’s powerful and independent in the same way that Bruce is. The fact that Kate is wearing Bruce’s symbol seems more like an homage to him than anything else…a sign of respect for something he built and that she acknowledges as her inspiration for finding purpose in her life. The line from her father in issue #860 about putting the bat symbol on her costume so “everyone will know whose side you’re on”…I thought was an incredibly simple explanation for how you end up out on the street with a bat symbol on your chest without ever having spoken to the man who created it. Kate also has her own support network in the form of her father acting as her lone confidante in the same way Bruce has Alfred and she seems single minded and uninterested in the drama that comes with being a bat in the same way that Bruce is. Yet she retains a sense of self that is wholly different (not better or worse) but different than the way Bruce feels to me.
I think the fact that Kate struggles with her romantic life, trying and failing at relationships is lovely, and like much of her arc thus far it feels wonderfully relatable. Though Kate struggles it’s obvious that she’s still in love with and forever looking for Renee both literally and metaphorically…which I also think is, sadly, pretty relatable. Her feeling for Renee only helps to humanize her, to make her real and a little bit tragic inside that suit.
Kate doesn’t have a lot of standard issue “badass dialogue” which I think is fitting, and is quite frankly a relief as I’m about tapped out on “badass dialogue”. In her Kate Kane life she speaks like I imagine any rebellious young woman with a disciplined military background might. Pushing on boundaries, but staying close to the line, maintaining a certain level of respect. In her Batwoman persona she’s more nuance than dramatic proclamations. She’s somehow almost subtle in her Batwoman persona…all visuals to the contrary.
2. Kate’s back-story. Over the last few issues we’ve been fed Kate’s back-story and it could have been a train wreck if not written and illustrated so beautifully. In Rucka’s hands, a story that on the surface is rife with clichés became enjoyable and emotionally resonant. Williams’ art only reinforced the unspoken connection between twins Kate and Beth, severed far too early in both their lives. And Rucka has done such a fine job in crafting a well fleshed out character in Kate, that even as a child it was easy to tell her apart from Beth on personality alone.
I love twin stories. I don’t care that they’re cliché…everything is a cliché by now…the important thing is doing something interesting with it. And I think Rucka has put in motion a story that has unlimited emotional potential. I mean, we all know Beth’s not dead. Part of me wishes she would stay dead, because I like it when character deaths have true importance, but we all know there’s no way she’s dead after that reveal…especially since there’s no body.
3. The way Kate is drawn. This of course has a lot to do with J.H. Williams III’s superior talent as an artist, and is unfortunately subject to change as other artists take on Batwoman, but I for one, hope they can take a cue from what Williams has done here and build upon it (hell, I hope other artists can see what he’s doing here and bring it to their own books and characters). I like variety in my comic figures (for both men and women, but since we’re talking about women in this column, let’s stay focused) and Williams does a good job of giving his characters a variety of distinctive body types. Kate does not look the same as her cousin Bette, or her stepmother, and while she does look similar to Alice, that obviously makes sense in retrospect.
And you know what Kate looks like? She looks like a superhero. She doesn’t look like a model or a porn star. She looks like someone that if well trained could kick your ass in a dark alley. Someone that could hold her own against Batman for a few minutes without breaking a nail, or a heel. In fact, I find myself mistaking Batwoman sometimes for Batman…in a good way. In a way that says she is commanding the page in the way that generally only Batman can in the bat books.
Also, while Kate is attractive, she has a variety of expressions that are not so attractive. I think it’s rare to see women in comics that are supposed to be heroes not looking sexy in everything they do, yet few people look super sexy while lifting weights. And Kate? Well, Kate looks like a normal person while lifting weights…not like some come hither sex kitten.
I know this seems simple, and maybe like it shouldn’t be a big deal, but look at your other comic books…it’s exceptionally rare. And I for one am freaking delighted to see it. This is a book and a writer and an artist that are willing to let Kate be both beautiful and less than beautiful…as we all are from time to time.
Kate’s clothing is totally appropriate. When she’s in her uniform it’s completely functional – I’m still not wild about the hairpiece/facemask thing but I get why it’s cool. I don’t love the red and black from a ‘running around in the dark unseen’ perspective, although according to issue #860 apparently red is not a “color that pops during night ops”. Having never been in the military I have no idea if that is actually true, but I’m willing to trust that Rucka knows what he’s talking about…and quite frankly I’m glad he dealt with it, because in Kate’s emerging origin, it seems, particularly with her dad’s involvement, very well planned and considered, not unlike the way Bruce runs his own show, and so I feel like it’s good that Rucka clarified such a distracting color. He did the same thing on Kate’s boots, which in stories prior to #854 I understand were not the practical combat flats Batwoman has here, but heels. Rucka deals with it in one line, and I think it’s smart. When you spend so much time making a character’s training and experience realistic and part of the origin, why would you not deal with the fact that she would never be so silly as to actually wear heels while fighting crime? It works. It shows not only foresight to address these issues, but a real concern for ‘getting it right’.
I know some people don’t love the pointy breasts aspect of the costume, but it doesn’t really bother me. It kind of fits Kate’s alternative meets retro style and Williams seems to have toned it down a bit in the last few issues anyway.
Kate’s costume awesomeness carries on well beyond her actual Batwoman costume. When Kate is working out, she’s wearing sweats and not a revealing spandex thong bikini thing. When Kate is going out to breakfast with her date she wears something a little sexy and alternative, high on impact, low on revealing. When Kate is working in the field pre-costume she’s wearing fully covered tactical military gear. When Kate is at a fancy benefit she’s wearing a sweet looking tux, possibly just to piss off her stepmother. When she’s in bed with her lover she’s wearing something sexy and fun. When she’s undercover she’s wearing something silly and low cut but we know she’s using it as one of many tools in her arsenal, and it’s even addressed within the comic by ex-girlfriend Renee’s reaction to the outfit. And there’s even a two panel “shower scene” in issue #860 that I should mention, because it’s well done. It’s just straightforward the way a shower scene in which you’re washing off toxic tear gas should be. Kate doesn’t reach coyly for her towel, or cock her hips suggestively as she washes. She’s just IN THE SHOWER. And it’s great. Everything Rucka and Williams have done here is all incredibly appropriate and considered, but it doesn’t feel overly telegraphed, and they’re managing to tell a hell of a story while they’re doing it.
To me it feels…right. It feels like all comics should feel when they deal with women.
And it shouldn’t be a big deal, except for it is. It’s a big deal because I almost never get to see a mainstream superhero book so well considered and getting it so right when it comes to women. And the result is that I end up feeling that both Rucka and Williams (and DC to a lesser degree) have incredible respect for Kate Kane and want to do right by her. They seem to want to get it right for HER even more than for any fans or critics. And I’ll be damned if that doesn’t come across to me in reading the book. I can feel that love and dedication, the care paid to every detail.
Detective Comics #860 marked the end of an arc, and also, sadly, the end of the powerful Rucka/Williams team up on Detective Comics (though it looks like #861 will have Jock penciling, which isn’t exactly bad news) and all I can say at the end of this first arc, this first piece of the ongoing Kate Kane story is “Thank you, can I please have some more?”
Oh, and “Don’t F it up.”
SIDENOTE 1: I also wanted to talk about Renee Montoya/The Question back up feature here, because my only real complaint about that story is that it doesn’t have its own book. However, I think Renee is deserving of her own post, so I’m going to hold off for now. For the record DC – I’d happily add another book to my monthly pull if it was The Question starring Renee Montoya.
SIDENOTE 2: According to Williams’ blog there is some development afoot on the Batwoman front regarding Rucka and Williams. C’mon MONTHLY BATWOMAN BOOK! C’MON!!!!