Review: Batwoman Vol. 5: Webs trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, January 05, 2015

After Manhunter ended, if writer Marc Andreyko's immediate next project had been creating Batwoman Kate Kane, I probably wouldn't have much to complain about for Batwoman Vol. 5: Webs. At no point here do I think Andreyko has written Batwoman poorly; indeed it's clear to see elements of Manhunter inspiring Batwoman, which might not be to everyone's tastes but were to mine. And like Manhunter, Andreyko populates Batwoman with a more diverse cast even than Greg Rucka, JH Williams, and Hayden Blackman did before him, which is nice to see in any comic.

At the same time, the story Andreyko tells is more pedestrian than what came before; it has great focus on and development for Kate, but the villains and conflict leave much to be desired. There's a bevy of artists here, some whom do better work than others (including a welcome cameo by Francis Manapul), but none that offer the sustained, ground-breaking vision that Williams brought to the book's art. Also the book's trademark special effects in coloring and the like are gone, something I'm sad to see sacrificed simply because of a creative team change. For all of these reasons, this is a good effort by Andreyko but not one of the Batwoman title's strongest outings.

[Review contains spoilers]

This book does start, happily, with the Batwoman annual by Andreyko that completes immediately the story Williams and Blackman started last volume. I am glad, at least, to see DC preserve the Batwoman storytelling continuity even if split between two books, instead of jumping a year later and telling the end of Williams's story in flashback or such.

I did not actively dislike Andreyko's annual as much as some, though I certainly grant it lacks the "oomph" and intelligence I would have expected from Williams and Blackman's story. Without the benefit of that original story (noted that JH Williams gave some hints to it on his blog), of course it's easy to say Andreyko gets it wrong, but at the same time, it seemed fairly clear to me in This Blood is Thick that Batwoman never truly means to unmask Batman for the DEO, running an operation to rescue her captured sister at the same time. Andreyko muddles that a bit in Batwoman fighting and then just-so-happening to team up with Batman even as her sister's being rescued, which seemed to me not as sophisticated as the "fake out" I expected from Williams and Blackman.

Additionally, neither can I quite believe that Williams and Blackman's original intention was for DEO Director Bones's goal the whole time to be to get to Kate's father, not Batman, nor for Bones to be obsessed with Jacob Kane but not have Kane turn out to also be Bones's father. Williams and Blackman were playing with some strange stuff here anyway, whittling the sci-fi Bronze Age origin of Mr. Bones down to "he's Jacob Kane's son," and it's equally far-fetched to think Kane's seemingly uber-genes gave birth to metahumans Beth/Alice and Mr. Bones and vigilante Batwoman, but neither does Bones simply being crazy feel satisfying, either. For what appears to be a narrative black hole, maybe Andreyko did as well as he could.

I was ultimately more satisfied than not with the book's main story, "Webs" (this is a long ten-issue trade, with the annual, a Zero Year tie-in, the six-part "Webs," and then the three-part Nocturna story). At the core of "Webs" is a mystery, the thief Wolf Spider's identity, with a fairly obvious solution, but I admit Andreyko fooled me and the surprise of the story's final revelation boosted it significantly for me. Certainly, it helped explain why Andreyko focused so gosh-darn much on Wolf Spider, which annoyed me in the middle of things since I'd have rather the spotlight been on Batwoman.

Though six parts is normal for a comics storyline, I did find "Webs" getting a little long in the tooth, especially in the later jaunt to Arkham Asylum that seemed not so different from a dozen we've read before. Also, Wolf Spider seems a rather poor challenge for Batwoman, and Batwoman too easily defeated, considering two volumes ago Batwoman went head-to-head with the mystical Medusa herself -- though I understand after the fact that Wolf Spider's challenge or lack thereof wasn't the point, so much as his connection to Kate. And I can't fault Andreyko for what's a significant amount of character work done here on Kate and Detective Maggie Sawyer; I wouldn't otherwise mind the smart soap opera, and I think it's only the combination of my impatience with other aspects of the story that made that feel a bit long and repetitive as well.

What Andreyko does here, as he did with Manhunter, is posit Kate as a cogent superhero but a personal mine field, almost revealing her identity to Maggie's daughter (a bit rather similar to the same between Manhunter Kate Spencer and her son). I think it's fair to say Rucka, Williams, and Blackman's Kate Kane was not so self-destructive, but neither is Andreyko's characterization a complete departure. Maggie suggests Kate get therapy, which Kate predictably resists but then acquiesces; it seems things are going better, until Kate gets the wrong-headed idea to sacrifice her relationship with Maggie so that Maggie can keep custody of her daughter. I rather love these kinds of heroic but emotionally stunted characters (House, M.D., and half the doctors on ER, to name a few) and so I'm very drawn to this Batwoman as I was to Manhunter, though I fully understand why this might displease others.

I also appreciated that Andreyko explores Kate's life as a Gotham socialite, something Rucka, Williams, and Blackman didn't do as much. Different than Bruce Wayne, Kate actually grew up for a time enjoying her wealth, not training to be a vigilante, and it distinguishes her that Andreyko makes this a part. And it's not just incidental either, as Andreyko shows some knowledge that Kate gained "summering in the Hamptons" helping her as Batwoman in Arkham Asylum. Andreyko also peppers the character's dialogue with pop-culture references, making character Bette Kane and Evan Blake seem more real; with deference to the previous writers, I generally thought the everyday interactions between the gay characters in this volume seemed more realistic than in volumes previous.

The Nocturna storyline that ends the book is, again, pedestrian; Nocturna is a nicely classic Batman character, but Andreyko's presentation of Nocturna as a vampire who steals stuff just because isn't very compelling. Andreyko also brings back two hokier characters, Night-Thief and Killshot; the former has a historical connection to Nocturna and I'd rather Andreyko use these than introduce new, hokey characters, but they're both rather silly nonetheless. Once again, the real star of the story isn't Batwoman and her foes, but rather Kate arriving at her decision to break-up with Maggie and how it plays out. I recognize Andreyko may have some editorial mandate to put distance between Kate and Maggie, but it'd be refreshing in the next volume to see Maggie find Kate, tell her to stop being stupid, and for the two to reconcile. I don't dismiss that Nocturna's mind-control powers might play a role here, too.

Probably my biggest disappointment with the book is that some of the artistic choices that the Williams/Blackman team made, even when Williams wasn't the artist, were no longer preserved here. Kate Kane has traditionally been colored stark white, not I think for any stated reason but solely to set her apart; she also tended to be colored as Batwoman in an almost painted way, even when other characters in the same panel were drawn "regular," again as a way of setting Batwoman apart and adding to her mystique. All of that is gone here -- and Kate is slowly colored in white flesh tone more and more as the story continues -- and I'm not sure why. Even with Williams and Blackman gone, I would think it incumbent upon editorial to keep what distinguished the book going. It's a shame we lost this, along with those decorative "Batwoman will return ..." notices that had been at the end of the books.

Finishing Batwoman Vol. 5: Webs, it would be easy to say "Batwoman is ruined," but honestly I don't think that's the case. Returning to my premise, I think Marc Andreyko does some good work here that's well in line with the kind of work I'd hoped to see again from Andreyko. But, it's more than clear in reading this volume that JH Williams and Hayden Blackman's departure shook this book to its roots, and the book's impending cancellation suggests that was too much to recover from. I'd still happily buy a new Manhunter series by Andrekyo set in the New 52 continuity.

[Includes original and variant covers]

Coming soon, my review of Superman Unchained.
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  1. After the Williams/Blackman team left I only read the annual to get some sort of closure and boy was that a disappointment. I don't think Andreyko got any of the characters, they were all out of character so much that I thought I read bad fanfiction. And mind you, I didn't set out to hate Andreyko's work, for me it was just intended as an ending for the open storylines.

    The Bones reveal was disappointing, the setup was obviously intended for something more intelligent than a simple 'oh he's just a madman', and where was Maggie in the annual? I'd at least expected her to be somewhere during the end of the story.

    And then all those 'Kate...erm Batwoman' dialogue with like everybody! As if everyone suddenly became incompetent and unable to maintain secret identities! Ugh.

    I don't know if Andreyko's new storylines get eventually better but from what I read it's not the book I signed on in 2011. Another DC book I dropped :-(

    1. No disagreement; the annual was problematic. "Out of character" weren't the words I would use necessarily, but as I said above, I certainly think Andreyko was shooting in the dark with his Bones resolution (though we do have to acknowledge Andreyko keeping Chase and Bones alive in the 2000s in Manhunter). And I noticed too a lot of "slips" of characters using the others' real names; it's the kind of thing I think we commonly see when a new writer takes over a book and is trying to orient themselves with the characters (see also the larger role that Andreyko's new character Wolf Spider takes in the book over the already-established protagonists).

      I think it'd be hard for Andreyko's run to be "better" than what came before, if nothing else than for lack of Williams's art, but I maintain that Manhunter fans might find it interesting.

    2. I just still can't believe how out of character he wrote Alice/Beth. I am honestly pretty sure he never read the run before his.

    3. Can't disagree; at least Andreyko minimized Alice's role in the story, though it's hard to believe Williams and Blackman wouldn't have done more with her.

      I'm curious just how many people completely dropped Batwoman after the annual, without reading an issue of the regular series? Your choice is your choice, of course; I'm mainly just curious whether an annual had that much power (whereas annuals, circa the Legends of a Dead Earth era, were mostly skip-able).

    4. I was already thinking about dropping the book when Williams was no longer doing art for Batwoman. I guess the annual was just the last nail on the coffin.

    5. I was marginally enjoying Andreyko's work on the series but the annual offended me so much, I dropped it immediately. It just showed me he did not care about the characters.

    6. When DC finally released the annual, the series was already up to issue #30, so it wasn't like single issue readers could afford to wait for it to come out before giving Andreyko's run a try.

  2. By the way, there was all this talk about rape (as in non-consentual sex between the Vampire and Kate) on the web, is there anything to it?

    1. I just started to see a little bit of that as I was looking in to when Batwoman's last issue would be (next collection will be the last). I think those events are in that next volume, so I haven't read the scenes in question yet.