June 30th, 2009
Detective #854 surprised me. I expected JHW3 and Dave Stewart to knock the ball out the park, what I didn’t expect was to be so impressed by Rucka’s writing. Admittedly there was little in the way of conceptual, narrative or formal pyrotechnics – the sorts of things that I look for in Morrison’s work – but then with JHW3 on board there didn’t need to be. Instead Rucka provided us with a rock solid set-up issue on which to hang the astonishing art. Perhaps Rucka’s writing is usually this sturdy and it took this particular art team to get me to pay attention. Perhaps not. Either way the issue clicked like a gun being cocked. Time will tell whether it’s gonna jam.
But you know all this: you’ve read the book, you’ve read all the reviews worth reading, you’ve nattered about it with your mates. It’s one week later and ‘Tec 854 has thoroughly bedded down in your brain. Roll on 855. Shut up the Mindless Ones, late to the party as ever.
So instead of reviewing the book, in typical Mindless fashion I want to go off on a tangent. What really excited me about this issue was the way in which Batwoman was delineated in terms of iconography and concept. Alex Ross did the original design work, modifying his updated Batgirl costume to fit the new Batwoman concept, but here JHW3 makes it his own, and a very beautiful thing it is too. The minimal detailing (until we get up close and see the functional detail on those gauntlets) and pared down red on Black construction has an effortless elegance that eludes most contemporary costume designs. The red hair, of course, harks back to Barbara Gordon and consequently lends superheroic weight to the costume’s aesthetic, but the decision to make the hair a wig, a deliberate choice on behalf of Kate Kane emphasised by Batman’s comment on the inappropriateness of her hair length, creates a sense of ownership of her strnd of the batverse and helps to create the sense of Batwoman as a character distinct from those that have gone before. At risk of sounding obsessed by hair, I would like to add that the wig underlines the point that Batwoman’s hair is unambiguously red (not a whimsically coloured ginger) and an instrinsic part of an overall and carefully considered visual package. The hair also points strongly to the idea that in becoming Batwoman something of Kate Kane is lost/changed in that something which looks like a physical transformation has taken place. She hasn’t merely donned a cape and pulled down a cowl – this is more fundamental, more basic, more akin to what happens to the hulk: her hair has grown, goddammit!. This shift is a hammered home by Rucka’s careful attempts to give Batwoman her own voice, manifesting both through dialogue and situation: kate gets pwned by her girlfriend, Batwoman pwns fullstop; Kate is informal and intimate, Batwoman speaks in declarations. The two are almost at odds with one another.
This kind of transformation, from the mundane secret identity to the sublime alter-ego is a trope we’re all more than familiar with, but the art team and to some extent Rucka seem to fetishize it here. It’s as if William’s art and Stewart’s colours herald what could, if one were hyberbolically inclined, be described as a shift in the ontological structure of the fictional universe, as the rigid, traditional panel structure evident in the Kate Kane sequences gives way to layouts built from lightning bolts and batsymbols. Kate Kane doesn’t merely change into Batwoman, the transformation forces the comic into new shapes and opens up new formal possibilities, which, among many other things, is a really interesting way of bolstering a fledgling character’s status.
In his excellent review, Jog compares and contrasts two pages which are identical in their panel layout, but differ in their focus: the sequence where Batwoman persuades the Rush to talk, and the sequence where Batwoman encounters Batman. The first sequence focusses on Batwoman and becomes progressively warmer, both visually and emotionally until we are literally bathed in the golden light of Batwoman’s embrace. The second sequence pulls away from Batwoman and pulls us into Batman’s perspective. This sequence feels much cooler as the shadows, which we associate with Batman, rush in to reclaim the frames and the camera pulls away. Both sequences contain a final panel in the form of a stylized bat symbol which works to punctuate the creative intent: Batwoman’s warm presence in sequence one, Batman’s spooky presence in sequence two. Yes, Batwoman might be the ostensible focus of the second sequence’s bat-panel, but Batman is the one doing the focussing. He is barely seen, but Willaim’s would appear to understand that the Dark Knight can be most present when he is visually absent, just like the denizen’s of a hundred horror movies. Looking at these two sequences it’s as if JHW3 intends to place the characters on an equal footing: two aspects of the Bat, two very different characters. In JHW3′s schema Batwoman isn’t subordinate to the Dark Knight just different, a point reinforced over the page when Rucka has Batwoman demonstrate that it is possible to be get step ahead of the Dark Knight in the detective stakes.
This idea of a different kind of Bat is further built upon by the powerful blood red elements of Batwoman’s costume, particularly the blood red bat-motif, which, when combined with William’s design sense, serves to steal a whole load of bat-thunder. The incorporation of the colour channels a set of associations that have little to do with Batman and considerably more to do with a certain count from Transylvania. The scarlet cape inlay, the glinting teeth and ruby lips, the blinding white skin, those white dead eyes, and the blood engorged bat. Fuck it, even the blazing sun had me thinking vampire in that it’s an important component in vampire mythology (yes, I know the sun kills vampires, but still…). In fact I count not one but two sequences where Batwoman dominates a character in a highly vampiric fashion: the forementioned Rush sequence, and towards the end of the comic where she looms in a predatory fashion over a terrified, female Crime Bible-basher. Which brings me to another point: vampires and lesbianism, whatever you think of the relationship, go hand in hand. By tapping into this conceptual wellspring Batwoman takes another step away from Batman, and into new territory. Just the sort of territory where one would expect to find Hammer House baddies like the Cult of Crime and their human sacrificing ways, it seems to me.
But let’s go back to the lesbianism for a second. My gut reaction to a lesbian character in a DC book is usually “Oh God, yet more bloody wank fodder for the fan boys”, but it occurs to me that treated with respect the explicit* lesbian component could serve Batwoman well in that it immediately places her beyond the sexual reach of Batman, and his grim ‘n’ sexy dominance. The rest of the female character’s in Gotham should be so lucky. By removing this component, again we are forced to consider Batwoman on her own terms, and not as just another wrinkle in Batman’s pants.
*The oft implied bi-curious leanings of villains such as Poison Ivy simply position them as straightforward fantasy objects, after all they all clearly want the bat-cock, and want it bad
After reading 854 I was left with the feeling that what we have in this Batwoman is a character who would make sense in a world where Batman had never been created. A character which makes sense on her own terms (I haven’t even touched upon her motivation – let’s just say that it struck me as rather good), and inhabits a world beset with it’s own dangers, and that has its own shape. The question I am left with is how much of that is down to JHW3′s spectacular design sense, and how much is built into Rucka’s vision for the character. On the strength of this first issue the art team would appear to be doing the lion’s share of the work, taking sequences which would simply have moved the plot along very nicely thankyouverymuch and injected them with hardcore doses of meaning and significance. In the long run, however, that might just be enough to get Kate Kane firmly established in the minds of the superhero fancying community as an icon in her own right.