Review: Batwoman: Elegy deluxe hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, July 19, 2010

Much as I like having Batwoman Kate Kane in the DC Universe, it might've been interesting to see writer Greg Rucka write Batwoman: Elegy in an Elseworlds setting. That is, Rucka's Batwoman is such a perfect representation of what a Batman-type character would be like if it was introduced in the early twenty-first century and not the mid-twentieth that it would have been fascinating to see Rucka write Batwoman as the Bat(person) and not just as a member of the Bat-family.

But what we have from Rucka and artist J. H. Williams is more than good enough. You've no doubt already been told to go and read this book -- don't wait another minute.

[Contains spoilers]

In "Go," the second story collected in Elegy, Rucka finally tells the origin of Batwoman. Williams channels his inner David Mazzucchelli in these chapters with a touch of Michael Lark, such that one could easily mistake it all for Batman: Year One (and, as Kate gets closer to donning the cowl, is it Neal Adams that Williams riffs on next?).

There's the requisite family death, though this time involving terrorism and not a mugger in an alley -- but the greater change is that rather than Kate exercising her childhood away like Bruce did for the vague moment when she can become a vigilante, Kate does what any sensible person might do and turns her impulse to save lives into a career in the army. With amazing ease, Rucka sidesteps the 1940s holdover of Bruce Wayne as a child one moment and a superhero the next, and instead gives the newest Bat-character a good reason, for once, for donning cape and cowl over some other public service -- that she has to resign from the army rather than lie about her sexuality.

The rest of Rucka's updates are icing on the cake -- that Batwoman has her own Bat-cave, but above ground, with a tree growing inside it; that her Batombile of choice is a motorcyle; and that her Alfred is her tough-as-nails father; her Commisioner Gordon is Captain Maggie Sawyer, complete with a burgeoning love triangle between Sawyer and Kate's two identities; and her Joker might just be her long-lost sister. All of this turns the established Bat-mythos on its head in a way that makes the elements feel fresh again, and all of it, in just a few issues, suggests stories for Kate Kane for years to come.

The "Elegy" story that begins this book returns two of my favorite Rucka creations, both the Religion of Crime and the werewolf Abbott. I first became aware of Greg Rucka, after No Man's Land, in his work on Batman: Evolution with Shawn Martinbrough -- not only does this volume feature brilliant art and coloring, but it's a great Ra's al Ghul story and includes Abbott. Batwoman, therefore, brings my Greg Rucka reading experience full circle just as Rucka prepares to leave DC Comics. I won't even start on how much I enjoyed Rucka's Checkmate; you can be sure I'm eagerly awaiting when he comes around again.

As a continuity wonk, one aspect of "Elegy" I especially enjoyed was Rucka's inclusion of Bette Kane, whom we all know as Flamebird and who's apparently Kate's step-cousin. I hear there's more on Flamebird in the next Batwoman story "Cutter" (not yet solicited for collection, unfortunately) but with Grant Morrison having mentioned the original Batwoman Kathy Kane in Batman: RIP, I'm very curious to know now about all the family connections and what's still considered canon regarding the original Batwoman and what's not.

Frankly, during the tempest-in-a-teapot "controversy" about Batwoman's sexuality when the character first appeared, I was surprised there was less attention given to the irony that the original Batwoman first served the purpose of allaying fears that the public would think Batman and Robin were gay. With credit to Rucka, DC Comics does well in coming full circle from a Batwoman created out of fear of homophobia to a Batwoman whose sexuality is part of her origin, and in that way undeniable in any incarnation of the character.

There's little I can say about J. H. Williams's art in Elegy that hasn't already been said. It's beautiful. It sets a standard for what comics can look like. My favorite part, aside from when Williams vamps into Batman artist styles across the eras, is when he mixes what looks like line drawings and paintings. The scene where Kate meets Batman is exceedingly fantastic not just because of the power of the scene, but because Williams makes Batman glow, painted as something almost otherworldly in comparison with Kate and the scenery. I'm reading the deluxe edition, and some pages seem like something out of an illustrated storybook, and not just because of the Alice in Wonderland quotes spouted by the villain -- it's altogether just gorgeous.

Greg Rucka writes a brilliant reconstruction of the Batman concept of a whole in Batwoman: Elegy, and then J. H. Williams does him one better by drawing the hell out of it. I've already said it, and I'll say it again -- this one's got my highest recommendation. Go read it.

[Contains full and variant covers, introduction by Rachel Maddow, two script pages by Rucka with Williams's pencils, Williams's sketchbook]

That's it for today. More coming soon -- you know where to be!
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11 comments:

  1. Wait, that cousin is Flamebird? (Only read NEW KRYPTON up till volume two.) What the heck?

    But yeah, this book was fantastic, though GO was by far the stronger story.

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  2. That's Flamebird as in Betty Kane, late of Geoff Johns' Beast Boy miniseries, among other appearances. It's all something of a continuity in-joke; pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths (and [pre-Barbara Gordon), Betty Kane was Bat-Girl, niece of the Kathy Kane Batwoman. Betty was a member of the original Titans West; post-Crisis, her name changed to Flamebird, a tribute to the (then out of continuity) Kandorian identities of Superman and Jimmy Olsen, Nighwing and Flamebird respectively. Since that time, DC has restored some of the Kandorian legend of Nightwing and Flamebird and suggested that Nightwing Dick Grayson's name came from that legend, but not necessarily Flamebird Betty Kane's. Indeed whereas DC took Nigtwing Dick Grayson out of commission at the same time as the New Krypton Nightwing appeared, we do technically have two Flamebirds running around the DC Universe, one Superman Family and one Bat-Family.

    What I'm curious about is whether Batwoman Kate Kane's stepmother, Katherine Kane, is indeed the original Batwoman (whom Grant Morrison suggests is still in continuity) or not.

    Sorry 'bout that Jeffrey; ought have realized that might be confusing to New Krypton fans.

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  3. Yeah, Bette has a way bigger role in Cutter. I enjoyed the whole Batwoman run enormously and I read it in single issues. The collection must be amazing!

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  4. One item we haven't seen in the 2011 solicitations is a collection of Cutter. Hopefully DC includes it with the first trade of the new Batwoman series, and doesn't overlook it entirely -- I imagine a number of Batwoman fans wouldn't be happy about that.

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  5. I had been considering getting this trade but wondered if it was too far outside of the Batfamily to be worth it. I guess it's closer than Azreal.

    Is it Dick or Bruce as Batman?

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  6. Thanks, CE.

    Liang Xiu: it's deliberately left vague which Batman this is.

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  7. The Batwoman story has been waiting at DC for publication for a while now; I believe it was written when Bruce was still Batman, and then shoehorned into the current events. The original issues touted the "Batman Reborn" header, so technically it's supposed to be Dick here, but it could be read either way. I'm curious to see the "official" first meeting of Batman and Batwoman.

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  8. Fantastic collection. Yes, it's deliberately vague on the identity of Batman, but it certainly feels a lot more like Bruce Wayne than Dick. For one, this guy is grim, and Dick made some cracks (about redheads, I think, but maybe it was an internal monologue) when the two originally met in 52. But you could say that this is Dick putting on a show.

    JH Williams draws the hell out of this. I think I need to pick up the Promethea collections in order to refresh myself on his work (I originally had the single issues, but sold them off)

    Just recently re-read the Batman:Evolution trade, and Rucka's reuse of characters creates a nice little "Rucka-verse" that can be explored in all the trades mentioned in the review.

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  9. I was actually kind of disappointed with this one. Maybe it was a result of being over-hyped, but I thought it felt fairly generic. The plotline with Alice never really went anywhere beyond "New villain develops dastardly scheme, is defeated," and the plot twist regarding Alice's identity felt shoehorned and tired. I wasn't enamored with the origin, either; I kind of liked my Batwoman shrouded in mystery, but this felt kind of didactic and not very inspired. I'm sad to see Greg Rucka leaving DC with a whimper and not a bang (sorry, folks, I didn't dig Blackest Night: Wonder Woman, either). At least he didn't hurt the character here.

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  10. I agree that the first part of Elegy wasn't the most dynamic, though sometimes an average-level story can be placed above average by the artwork, which certainly shines here. Understood about having Batwoman shrouded in mystery, too, though when the origin had to come, I appreciated the social relevance of it.

    One item I didn't like, that I didn't mention before, is how far removed this Kate Kane is from Kate's first appearance in 52 -- she's not a socialite, her appearance is generally rougher, etc. Nothing wrong with this per se if it had been Kate from the start, but I found the difference, as opposed to what I was expecting, somewhat jarring.

    And indeed, as much a fan as I am of Rucka's Wonder Woman run (see comprehensive review), Blackest Night: Wonder Woman tragically failed to capture that magic.

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  11. When this story was being serialized in Detective, a lot of people complained that Rucka's story was kinda just laying there while Williams was drawing the hell out of the thing. But the writing steadily picks up the pace, and I'm convinced that Rucka was "under-writing" on purpose.

    I'm reminded of Avatar. Lots of people pointed out that the film has a fairly simplistic story/conflict, and I've always thought the movie was so visually dazzling that you almost HAD to hold back the story to make sure the audience isn't overwhelmed. It's the inverse of that old saw about a production with limited effects budget having to be more creative to make up for the lack of flash. When you CAN bring an absolutely stunning degree of flash, maybe you keep the story out of the way for awhile.

    If that were the strategy, it wouldn't be a good idea long-term, but letting those first issues establish the look and language of the art, the mood of the story, before the tales really took off -- that really worked for me.

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