Batwoman Vol. 4: This Blood is Thick certainly has characterization and intrigue to spare, but the absence of JH Williams on art duties in favor of a bevy of guest-artists affects the book significantly; it is by no means bad, for the most part, but it is lesser than some of its predecessors. There's also no disguising the damaging effect that the volume's anti-climactic ending (caused by writers Williams and Hayden Blackman's sudden departure) has on the story.
[Review contains spoilers]
I imagine that for issues of royalties or general neatness, it's to DC Comics's benefit to have Williams and Blackman be Blood is Thick's sole writers, leaving incoming writer Marc Andreyko's material for the fifth volume and beyond. And I do see the value in being able to say that this volume is part of the original Williams/Blackman run and this other volume is not; the reader knows who's responsible for what, which is not always so clear in every book. But I am hard-pressed to remember a book's ending so poor, and I can't believe the difficulties of including Andreyko's arc-ending annual in this book outweighed the benefits.
It is possible, returning to the other key problem with this book, that if Williams had been drawing it, he could have given the final page the kind of panache that would offset essentially pausing the book mid-thought. Instead, artist Trevor McCarthy (with, I believe, Sandu Florea) ends on a three-page panel, with each panel too large (a trend in the book) in a way that suggests not enough content to really fill the page. In the first panel, Batman, facing the reader, says, "Kate ... stop"; the middle panel shows Batwoman in the same position with no dialogue or sound effect. In the final panel, Batman and Batwoman have apparently leapt forward and are now holding each other by the throat, while Batwoman says to Batman, "No," even again as he's holding her by the throat.
I do grant that the trouble here may not be entirely McCarthy's, but rather perhaps some dearth of material from Williams and Blackman when they abruptly left the book. Irrespective, the page is oddly constructed; the first two panels are meant to parallel one another, but the lack of any kind of sound in Batwoman's panel makes it seem like the character is frozen, breaking the comics page's implied animation. That "No" probably needed to be in the second panel, and this would have additionally helped the third panel. Having the characters suddenly holding one another in the third panel is a movement or two too much to accomplish in the "space" between panels two and three, especially if it's only supposed to take as long as for Batwoman to reply; with the dialogue in panel two, it'd be easier to imagine a certain time jump to what happened next in panel three.
What we get instead is a stilted page that ends the book with a kind of thud. I continue to believe that the average comics reader has no sense of these creative team comings and goings, such that I imagine there would be some readers confused and dismayed by why this Batwoman book just suddenly ended. And there is no "Batwoman will return in ..."-type notice as there has been in every other Batwoman book of this run so far, which reinforces this sense of the book just stopping. That editorial disagreements caused Williams and Blackman to leave pleases no one, but I'm surprised more effort wasn't made here on behalf of the reader even if there was strife within.
The art is lesser elsewhere, too (see Chapter 3/issue #20, page 10 bottom, where Batwoman is drawn nearly as a stick figure), but perhaps one benefit is that the writers' take on the characters is sharp as ever. One reason Andreyko is a good choice to follow is his Manhunter series, which was something of a precursor to Batwoman. Andreyko's Manhunter Kate Spencer was a smart, dedicated superhero whose personal life was in shambles; Batwoman Kate Kane hasn't had it nearly so bad, but she's certainly shown a rebellious dark side from time to time. In that vein, in a particularly effective scene, the writers have Kate tearing apart her family for a variety of betrayals real and imagined, and Kate's fiance, Gotham detective Maggie Sawyer, calls Kate on her hypocrisy and pulls Kate off her pedestal. It's a moment that shines a light on the title character's bad personal actions, and I appreciated the writers' reminder that Kate is fallible.
In another such moment, Kate, scant hours before an important mission but guilty over accidentally dosing Maggie with the Scarecrow's fear toxin, does herself with the toxin to atone. It is both wonderfully self-sacrificing and ridiculously overwrought and unnecessary, the kind of bullheaded move that's fantastically enjoyable from a character like Kate. As a superhero, Batwoman is incredibly capable, but she's even more endearing when the writers demonstrate that, like us, Kate doesn't always have her emotions worked out and sometimes makes wrong or reckless decisions. We can't get the same from Superman, and this distinction makes Batwoman greater, not lesser. Much as I enjoyed Batwoman Vol. 3: World's Finest's Wonder Woman team-up, I'm very glad the fourth volume allowed the focus to return to Kate herself.
I am not completely sold on the writers' presentation of Flamebird Bette Kane, now Hawkfire, but I do like Team Batwoman as a concept -- Batwoman, Hawkfire, Maggie, and Kate's father, Colonel Jacob Kane. Their current mission under duress from the DEO is to discover Batman's identity, and specifically I like that first of all, they don't know who Batman is, and second, they're willing to try to find out for their own ends. In the Bat-universe there's a good amount of teeth-gnashing about living up to Batman's example or what's Batman's emotional state or how he's let his sidekicks down this time, all of which is well and enjoyable, but it's quite refreshing to see a group of Bat-characters not so drawn to Batman's aura and even working at cross-purposes against him.
I haven't cracked Batwoman Vol. 5: Webs yet, but I'm hoping to find Andreyko's annual right at the front (even if it wasn't published so quickly) to at least offer some semblance of conclusion before the next story. A creative team switch is tricky, and I'm also hoping Andreyko tries to glean where Williams and Blackman were heading; let's not overlook Jacob Kane's revelation, "I think I have a son," as bizarre as that might be if he means who I think he means. At some point, too, someone needs to explain what the relation is between Batwoman Kate Kane and Batwoman Kathy Kane, who as of Batman, Inc. both exist in the New 52; I had thought Jacob was married to Kathy, but in Blood is Thick she's identified as Catherine, and though she takes a larger role, it doesn't seem she has any prior superheroing experience. I wasn't sure if this was retroactive continuity on Williams and Blackman's part, or if it had been addresses or re-adressed some time earlier.
Ultimately, there is a Batwoman book in Batwoman Vol. 4: This Blood is Thick, but it's hard to find around the book's construction. I can't imagine someone finishing the third volume wouldn't want to read the fourth, but I wouldn't argue with the idea that stopping at the third makes for a better conclusion. I value, without a doubt, JH Williams and Hayden Blackman's run on Batwoman, following admirably from Greg Rucka's original, and at times this has certainly been one of the best books of the New 52. That their last volume was not so great is a shame, but maybe makes the parting a little easier to take.
[Includes original and variant covers, gatefold "WTF" cover, unused JH Williams cover]
Happy new year!