She’s her own (Bat)woman

June 30th, 2009

detective comics 854

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.

batwoman-iconography

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.

batwoman-vamp

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.

26 Responses to “She’s her own (Bat)woman”

  1. Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » July 1, 2009: Fifteen friends Says:

    [...] [Review] Detective Comics #854 Link: Nina Stone and the Mindless Ones [...]

  2. The Beast Must Die Says:

    I thought this might be a real cse of turd-polishing, but Rucka delivered a nicely paced, suitably intriguing introductory episode. Basically a nice package, and exactly the sort of quality, stand alone comic that DC should (but won’t) publish more of.

    JHW£ great blah blah amazing etc

  3. Zom Says:

    Man, 99% of artists simply aren’t capable of doing what JHW3 does. Point being that they’re not going to be capable of putting together many teams like this

  4. amypoodle Says:

    I’d really like to test the truth of that. there’s loads of people who want to get into comics illustration and I bet there’s a shit storm of good artists out there. I wonder if the problem lies not with the artists themselves but with the people doing the selecting. It wouldn’t surprise me if an awful lot of people in the industry had very bad taste (judging from much of the writing in offer).

    Perhaps I’m being too harsh. I know artists have to hit deadlines, that it’s always a trade off, etc….

  5. James Says:

    I didn’t think I’d read anything else about this comic as good as Jog’s review. I was wrong, Zom – you did it! Bravo.

  6. The Beast Must Die Says:

    Well Amy, an artist has to hit pretty severe deadlines and the fact of the matter is that someone like JHW3 simply can’t do that (see also: Quitely, Geoff Darrow JG Jones…the list goes on). There has to be a trade off between artists who can get shit done quickly and still tell a story (which in itself is a feat) and the artistes. Jack Kirby used to draw fuck loads of pages every week, and despite the fact that it’s often wild and woolly it’s also dynamic and engaging. David Lapham manages to write and draw 22 pages a month with no delays, Steve Dillon never missed an issue of Preacher.
    I’m happy with both kinds of art in the world. I don’t mind waiting for months to see a Quitely comic, but I also want stuff that comes out regularly and dependably.

  7. Andrew Hickey Says:

    I’m not even sure that it’s the people doing the selecting who have the bad taste – I’m pretty sure it’s the fans. After all, if you look at Newsarama or those kind of places, they’re full of complaints about the ‘ugliness’ of Frank Quitely’s art, and praise for the likes of Ed Benes (or they were, last I looked, which was quite a few years ago now…)

    I think, sadly, that the average comic fan doesn’t actually like or care about good art…

  8. Zom Says:

    Very kind, James.

    In addition to Jog’s thoughts, and Andrew’s, I liked what Nina Stone had to say. Her unencumbered take was refreshing.

  9. Zom Says:

    The FBB guys also had a few worthwhile words to say

  10. Bill Reed Says:

    I kinda regret waiting for the hardcover on this. You’ve got me positively salivating.

  11. Marc Says:

    This is a bit of a tangent, but did anybody else look at Alice… the pastel colors, the soft outlines, the stilted postures, the combination of childhood imagery and brazen sexuality, even the squiggly, sperm-like word balloons… and think Williams was drawing her as a Melinda Gebbie character?

    Great design, even if the (lack of a) name will probably disqualify her as a great Batman-style villain. But between her and Professor Pyg, I’m glad that Morrison and Rucka are trying to add new pieces to the story.

  12. Zom Says:

    I almost wrote a paragraph or three on Alice, but I thought I might save that until next time. She’s cool looking baddie, and no mistake. The white costume and the twin holsters reminded me of Fantomex.

  13. Zom Says:

    Oh, and it’s nice to hear from you, Marc!

  14. James Says:

    Zom: Welcome. And yeah, Nina’s was great – nice to get the POV of someone completely unfamiliar with the character. Will read Andrew’s… NOW!

    Good comics = good blogging, I guess.

  15. Zom Says:

    Good comic certainly encourage me to blog. Bad comics only encourage sadness and tears

  16. Thrills Says:

    Alice is a fantastic design, with the sort of intense, convincing fashion detailing that you rarely get outside of shoujo manga covers, which makes sense as JH Williams III is definitely going for a gothic lolita thing, and there’s a kind of Henri Privat-Livemont delicacy of line and colour to her (the colouring in this comic was just amazing, full stop).

    I really like when comics artists pay attention to making clothes look good (and I don’t just mean ‘draws seams in the clothing’).

    Greg Rucka done good, too. As already mentioned, it’s hard to tell if it’s great writing, or good writing elevated by fantastic art, but then, hey! It’s comics! The fact he art and writing work together to create something awesome is what they’re supposed to do, ideally (though this rarely seems to happen).

    I really liked Rucka’s No-Man’s Land stuff (the only other work by his I’ve read, I think?), so I’m going to stick with it.

    It’s going to be the first time in a while that I’m regularly buying two bat-verse comics, that’s for sure.

  17. Zom Says:

    I have to own up to liking it when artists draw upon contemporary fashions. The fact that Kate has a bob haircut – women, these days, have bob haircuts. They’re trendy. My wife has one.

    Whatever your attitude to the winds of fashion, those sorts of details add weight and depth.

  18. Neon Snake Says:

    And yet Alice’s design, despite ticking a whole load of boxes (visible panties? Tick. Cleavage? Tick. Stockings, suspenders, knee-high boots? Tick.) didn’t elicit the same eye-rolling response from Mrs. Neon Snake as, say, Gotham City Sirens, which prompted a quick game of “how many arse/boob shots can we find in each page?”

    Despite being fetishised, it still seemed somehow non-sexualised, or somehow managed not to pander to that drooling 15 year-old* with a box of tissues.

    *15 my arse. 35 more like.

  19. Neon Snake Says:

    I had a moment of struggle after reading this, actually, whereupon I wasn’t sure whether I liked it mainly because of the art, maybe in spite of a slightly pedestrian storyline.

    Then I realised that that’s a bloody unusual struggle to be having, when normally we get “serviceable” but oh so generic art, or art which actively requires one to kind of gloss over the edges. Now and then, it’s great to get something which really, actively uses the visual side of comics to tell the story, and reminds us that the artist has as much to do with the enjoyment as the author.

    I decided it probably wasn’t worth struggling, and just went with “OMG wow!!”

  20. Zom Says:

    Some reasons why your wife wasn’t eye-rolling:

    1. The lolita goth imagery represents a real and complex fashion trend not just the fantasy life of the 15 year old lust-brain

    2. TA just wasn’t as evident in this comic as it clearly is in others. It was there, but it wasn’t horribly, horribly there, right in your face, almost squashing your nose.

  21. Neon Snake Says:

    Yeah. There were few shots where you could see her PVC-clad butt, and those where you could had the focus shifted away from it by, for example, her kicking people in the head with a pair of non-high-heeled boots. Power-symbol vs sex-symbol, I guess.

    Good shout on the transformation into Batwoman, incidently. I’ve long hated the “who is the mask? Bruce or Batman?” question, seeing it as essentially irrelevant. It’s interesting to see a character where arguably “one of” her personalities is a mask for the other.

  22. Gunderic Mollusk Says:

    Almost continuing on the Vampire motif of Batwoman, the sooty eye makeup and goth-y date clothes on Kathy, not to mention her apprehension around her ladyfan really struck a cord with me. She doesn’t have Batman’s extreme coping mechanism of creating a waking persona far beyond her Batwoman fiction suit. It really felt like something happened to her that she never shook, leaving her with some intimate connection to death imagery beyond surface apotropaic leanings. Her romantic life and her transpersonal life have a similar lurid quality, despite Kathy’s gentility and Batwoman’s smoldering aggression.

    Alice has me wondering about the “Looking Glass” themes prevalent in the Matter of Gotham. Hatter/Liddel/Tweedle gang wars?

  23. Papers Says:

    For some reason I see Alice as a method of preventing gang wars–she would, I imagine, initiate the Hatter into the Religion of Crime quite easily.

  24. amypoodle Says:

    having just read it – and i really liked it – i think you’re bang on the money, thrills, wrt alice and the henri privat-livemont comparisons. she just has that same glow, doesn’t she?

  25. Comics Should Be Good! @ Comic Book Resources » Sunday Brunch: 7/5/08 Says:

    [...] then the uncanny Zom, of the Mindless Ones, cracks open one’s skull and stirs the brain soup some more: It’s as if William’s art and Stewart’s colours herald what could, if one [...]

  26. Jonathan Burns Says:

    Puta bullet through my 1850 Hetherington original! My doors are closed to the hussy.

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