Review: Batwoman Vol. 1: Hydrology hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, July 26, 2012

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!
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6 comments:

  1. This was the first New 52 storyline that I read (before Justice League, even), and it felt pretty much like a continuation of the pre-Flashpoint Batwoman story from Detective Comics. Pretty understandable considering they likely had a bunch of issues "in the bag" long before the reboot (considering Issue #0 came out around January I think, long before the September relaunch).

    I really enjoyed it, and was pleased that it wasn't radically different from the Rucka story.

    I actually considered dropping this title after I heard that another artist came on, but it turned out that was temporary and Williams is back to drawing it. Also, I think that Volume 2 is largely a continuation of what happens in this story, as opposed to a whole new story arc.

    One comment about Williams' Batwoman (both the Detective Comics run and this series), is that it's probably the single worst comic series to read on the iPad! So many two-page spreads, with so much going on in them, that it requires a lot of zooming (which I rarely do on regular two-page spreads on other titles on the iPad). When I read Elegy, I wished I had bought the TPB instead of the digital versions. With the New 52 I've gone "all digital", so I guess I'll live with it, but this is the one series that I might have to make an exception for (storage space be damned).

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  2. I can't wait to get my hands on this one!
    I absolutely adored CHASE (thanks for the recent Omnibus TPB, DC!) and loved the 1st Batwoman hardcover.

    this book really feels like "the old DCU" more so than any other title (Starman's THE SHADE aside) - which is a ood thing in my eyes!

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  3. The Kate/Renee relationship was pre-Question so that's not even relevant. The interesting thing about that quick scene was that it looks like she's on some sort of Wall of Fallen Heroes, which doesn't look good for her current status in the New52.

    The magic of the art in this series is Williams' conscious changes in art style based on the character. Batwoman is drawn wish ink washes and Kate Kane has a more open type of line work. Chase is drawn in Williams' old CHASE style and sometimes you'll see a mix of two or three on the same page, making for one of the most unique books out today.

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  4. Y'know, when I saw Renee's picture on that wall, I had "old DCU on the brain" and it never occurred to me it might signify, rather than being the Question, that she was dead. Curious. To be covered in the second Batwoman #0, maybe?

    Mark -- Interesting point about how Williams's stunning art, in print, might not lend itself so well to digital. Let me turn this around and ask, digital-first books aside, what are some print books that look the best in digital?

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  5. I can't give any specific examples off the top of my head, but I've found that the books that look best in digital are ones that don't use too many two-page spreads (and when they do, it's one big action scene, unlike Williams' jam-packed spreads), and have detailed backgrounds so if you happen to zoom in (or are going panel-by-panel), you're not looking at a bunch of heads with no faces drawn in.

    Other than Detective/Batwoman, and the recent Mark Bagley issues of JLA (where he's using panels, but tends to go all the way across both pages), most modern comics have been easy to read on the iPad, even without guided view. I've found some of older stuff can be more difficult because the text is grainier/blurrier, but that's probably because those stories were scanned from old printed issues, as opposed to the newer stuff which came from digital to begin with.

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  6. I really hope that BATWOMAN #0 (#2) covers Renee/Kate's relationship. That would be GREAT.

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