Review: Batwoman Vol. 2: To Drown the World hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, March 04, 2013

Batwoman Vol. 2: To Drown the WorldIt's a testament to how closely tied J. H. Williams's art is to the Kate Kane Batwoman that even though Batwoman Vol. 2: To Drown the World is still written by Williams and Hayden Blackman, it doesn't always feel like the same team as before without Williams on the art. To Drown the World is still nicely complicated as Batwoman stories are, and the end will whet any fans appetite for the third volume, but the book lacks the verve of Elegy and Hydrology. Indeed, Batwoman even seems a bit out of character at times, which ought not be the case because the voices behind her are the same; it's only the visuals that are different.

[Review contains spoilers]

Story-wise, Batwoman: To Drown the World reminds the reader in the best possible way of Ed Brubaker's masterful Catwoman story "No Easy Way Down" (collected in Catwoman: Relentless). The characters in Drown are in considerably better straits than "No Easy Way Down," but there remains, in telling Drown from six different characters' perspectives, a sense of somber isolation. The characters meet and interact through a complex, twisting narrative -- Batwoman/Kate Kane, Chase, Maggie, and Maro more so than Jacob -- but in limiting the perspective, there's an argument to be made that each character is alone -- Kate is lying to Maggie, DEO Agent Chase and Batwoman are just barely on the same side, and so on.

This doesn't make Batwoman an unhappy book -- though events seem to lean tragically at one point, the final scene with Kate and Maggie is actually quite hopeful. As with Marc Andreyko's Manhunter, however -- another of this book's spiritual forbears -- I do keep expecting something to go wrong, as if darkness suits the Batwoman character more than domestic bliss (though that's fun, too).

To Drown the World begins at the end, with Batwoman infiltrating the headquarters of the Medusa organization (alone, again, though we later understand she has backup), and then flashes back weeks earlier to relay how Kate arrived at that point through the book's six issues. The story of Maro recruiting Medusa's grotesque henchmen is nicely gory, though grows repetitive after a while; more interesting is the very middle, where Kate seemingly begins a romance with former Medusa member Sune (with shades of Rucka's great Question: Five Books of Blood). The book perhaps acknowledges this as the best part given that it's these key Sune scenes for which Williams and Blackman's script is provided at the end.

Second-most impressive beyond the narrative structure is just how far-reaching Drown is. This is a relatively self-contained story, as were Elegy and Hydrology, but Drown is also very directly a sequel to Hydrology, explaining and sharply recasting some of the events of that book. When the origin of the Hook is revealed in Drown, the reader suddenly sees where those same events fit in to Hydrology, and it becomes clear what a long game Williams and Blackman are playing. Batwoman met the Hook's alter ego, Rush, three years ago in the very first issue of Greg Rucka's Detective Comics (collected in Elegy), and he only appeared there for a couple of pages and not again until now; obviously Williams and Blackman plan to leave no speck of the Batwoman mythos unexplored.

Neither semi-regular Batwoman artist Amy Reeder nor guest artist Trevor McCarthy and the rest, however, can quite disguise the absence of Williams's art in these pages. Colorist Guy Major makes Batwoman shinier and more "present" on the page than the other characters, as Dave Stewart did in Hydrology, and this helps evoke Williams, but Reeder's style is wholly different than Williams's, more cartoony, distorting Batwoman's face and movements. It has the effect, too, of making Todd Klein's letters seem larger and bubblier, giving the sense the characters are sometimes uncharacteristically overwrought (which in turn makes the writing seem "off"). McCarthy does well in the scenes without costumes, like Maggie and Kate at the boat party in chapter four, but the fight scenes get chaotic and the faces have a distracting sameness to them.

While the idea that Medusa's henchmen are personified urban legends is a cool one, the result of the artwork is that the characters don't quite rise off the page the way they did in Hydrology. The water monster La Llorona, especially, seems in some panels to just stand still with static water behind her, whereas the reader could feel the water rushing in Williams's depiction in the previous book; to be sure, the reader has been spoiled by the earlier Batwoman collections. Why Medusa cell leader Falchion dressed like a poor Maxie Zeus was never explained, either, and I had to imagine Williams could have made the character more fearsome.

That aside, even the use of stick-figures wouldn't dampen my enjoyment of Batwoman: To Drown the World, a strong book with an especially well-realized supporting cast. J. H. Williams and Hayden Blackman get most credit for their attention to detail, whether it be the use of Rush or the return of Maggie Sawyer's daughter Jamie, a character probably not seen in over ten years and umpteen Superman creative teams ago. All of this underscores how much the creative team cares about these characters too, and it shows in how Batwoman keeps delivering book after book.

[Includes original covers, script pages by Williams and Blackman]

Tomorrow, Doug Glassman celebrates Will Eisner week, and later, the Collected Editions review of Justice League International: Breakdown.
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  1. I almost gave up on this series due to JH Williams no longer drawing it, but thankfully he came back and I've been back on board every month again.

  2. Hm, I don't know, even with Williams just writing the series and not drawing it, I don't know that I would give up the Batwoman title. Consistently one of DC's better character-driven titles.

  3. It was very different following this story month to month, in fact it was nearly impossible to follow only reading one issue a month. The timeline stuff was just too confusing for me and I was getting frustrated...Then the added slight of not being able to see some great JH artwork...I was really close to dropping it.

  4. I was extremly disappointed with this volume. I love Rucka's run on the character and liked the first volume of this series, but this second volume was really bad.

    The writing was confusing as hell and as someone who reads collections in multiple sittings, it got frustrating very quick. The art was not bad per se, and I knew it wouldn't be comparable to Williams, but they they tried to imitate Williams with the panel layouting for example and it just didn't work. The change midway through the arc from Reeder to McCarthy didn't help, either.

    I WILL get the next volume, though, but only because it is drawn by Williams again and because I heard good things about the Wonder Woman teamup. Hopefully, the storyline will end there, so I can stop reading the series at a reasonable point. Because volume 4 will be McCarthy again and I very much doubt I will be on board for that!

  5. Really interested and surprised to hear this. I guess I've always been a "writer's reader" -- art on a book may not be good sometimes but it's only when the writing lags that I tend to jump ship. Then again, I have a lot of patience for the Batwoman title (reading the flashbacks/forwards in the collection wasn't so bad) even with alternating artists, but on the other hand, the artist changed but the writer stayed the same on Green Lantern Corps and I am thinking about giving that one up (if there weren't all-new teams coming anyway), so I get your points.

    It is strange how, in using Batwoman, artists subsequently try to match Williams's style; it happened over in Batgirl: Knightfall, too. I guess it's a nice homage to what's going on in the Batwoman title, but sometimes it feels forced; I wonder if Reeder or McCarthy would be better off "doing their own thing" instead of emulating Williams.

  6. I think the art definetely would have profited from the artists NOT trying to emulate Williams. Reeder is a good artist and McCarthy is not bad, either. But here it just felt so forced.

    And don't get me wrong: I am a prime example for a "writer's reader". I follow writers like Greg Rucka blindly (Can't wait for Stumptown, Vol. 2 and Lazarus!). Batwoman is just an exception for me, because it spins out of Rucka's run.

    And Williams is one of just a few artists I give the benefit of the doubt. I liked volume 1 enough to get volume 2, but without Rucka AND Williams there is not much left for me.