Batwoman: Hydrology, the first Batwoman collection of the DC New 52, will be a source of joy to Batwoman fans and a source of confusion to new readers. Hydrology is enjoyable, painstakingly drawn by writer/artist J. H. Williams (with co-writer W. Haden Blackman), but its roots in the "old" DC Universe -- subsequently delayed so as to emerge in the New 52 premiere -- are well on display here. The Batwoman saga was a continuity puzzle before and now it's even more so, but that does not negate the pleasure of the Batwoman series in general.
[Review contains spoilers]
There is nothing wrong necessarily with Williams and Blackman's story here, but the star of the show is Williams's art. Though a little something went away with the departure of former Batwoman writer Greg Rucka (Williams's panels tend to be very straight, like architecture, whereas under Rucka they twisted and curved across the page), Williams still makes Batwoman infinitely more visually detailed than, say, the entirety of Static Shock.
This is not just in Williams's paneling, but in how he (and the effects team) make Batwoman Kate Kane more dimensional and the other characters flatter, and how Williams imitates himself across a number of different styles. When Williams depicts Batwoman hallucinating an image of her own younger self, it is not just young Kate -- it is Williams imitating his depiction of young Kate from the "Go" storyline in Batwoman: Elegy, which was itself Williams doing his best David Mazzucchelli impression in a homage to Batman: Year One.
Williams's art isn't all of a piece, but rather it's different styles all with layers of meaning, sometimes interweaved on the same page. If this were the norm and not the exception, the comics landscape would be a different place.
Hydrology deals with Batwoman tracking a seeming water banshee that's been kidnapping children; she's also pursuing a new romance with Gotham detective Maggie Sawyer, training her cousin -- former Flamebird Bette Kane -- and feuding with her father over family secrets revealed in Batwoman: Elegy. Kate's interpersonal drama is more interesting and occupies more of the book than her conflict with the villain, which is not necessarily a bad thing; La Lorona is rightly weird in the style of Batwoman's last foe, the Lewis Carroll-quoting Alice, though there's less closure when Batwoman's supernatural foe dissipates than if she'd been able to send a "normal" rogue off to Arkham.
Scott Cederlund at the Wednesday's Haul blog recently praised Greg Rucka's writing for Rucka's willingness to let his characters make mistakes in their personal lives, and then to see those mistakes through. Williams carries this forward even without Rucka: Kate, spurred on by anger at her father, promises grieving parents that she'll bring back their children alive, a mission doomed to fail. Kate agrees to train Flamebird, making up for her father's absence, but finds she's doomed both her father and Flamebird by attracting the attention of Cameron Chase and the Department of Extranormal Operations.
In brilliantly choreographed pages, Williams and Blackman have Kate go to bed with Maggie even as a newly-fired Flamebird pursues a violent gang on her own. The juxtaposition of Kate's passion and Flamebird's bloody defeat is stunning, head and shoulders above what's happening in other comics.
It's always great to see Williams, one of Chase's creators, work with the character, though the DC New 52 Chase takes some getting used to. At the close of the 1990s Chase series, the character had closed in on Batman's secret identity but chose not to reveal it, signaling some softening of Chase's hard-line approach against "vigilantes"; Chase's subsequent friendly role in Marc Andreyko's Manhunter series was further evidence of this change. In Batwoman, Williams returns Chase to her roots, essentially the Bat-family's enemy, and this is surprising though Williams's prerogative with the relaunch.
The difference in Cameron Chase's character is only the start of the continuity issues that Hydrology unpacks, however. The story makes direct reference to Kate Kane's relationship with former Gotham detective Renee Montoya, also the second Question; it hasn't been specifically established in the DC New 52 that the Question doesn't exist, but given that the first question Vic Sage now has newly-mystic origins related to the Pandora character, Renee's time as the Question will be hard to explain.
Bette Kane herself is also a mystery, having been a long-time romantic interest and annoyance to Robin Dick Grayson as part of the Teen Titans, who now no longer existed prior to their New 52 iteration. This, as opposed to the Question, is easy to explain -- Bette could have been an amateur crimefighter and acquaintance of Dick Grayson without being part of the Titans -- but these explanations aren't found in the volume, suggesting that, at some point, the writers were under the impression that the reader would already know Flamebird's origins per the "old" DC Universe.
In essence, Hydrology puts to lie this idea that the New 52 is a complete reboot of the DC Universe rather than just a fresh starting point like "One Year Later." Hydrology is so steeped in "old" DC Universe continuity and plotlines that it's a surety that any new fan, starting with the New 52, will end up going back to read Batwoman's "old" DC Universe adventures before long. This comes as no surprise and should actually be some comfort to fans of the "old" DC Universe, but it also demonstrates how New 52 continuity, here at the beginning, varies from series to series and writer to writer.
None of that should give fans news or experience any pause in picking up Batwoman: Hydrology. The volume emerges just a step below Greg Rucka's Batwoman: Elegy -- Williams and Blackman's story is about Kate Kane, but the conflict is not so central to Kate as is her fight with Alice in Elegy -- but Williams's art remains top-notch. It's tough to figure where Hydrology fits in the New 52 tapestry, but it hardly matters; the book is so beautiful that the readers' confusion will be gone before they know it.
[Includes J. H. William's sketchbook and examples of script pages versus pencils]
Next week, more New 52 with the Collected Editions reviews of Frankenstein and Red Lanterns. The fun doesn't stop and neither should you!