Review: Batwoman Vol. 6: The Unknowns trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, July 28, 2016

It pains me to find fault with a book that includes Ragman and Etrigan the Demon, but unfortunately Batwoman Vol. 6: The Unknowns is an ignominious end to this title. What particular pizazz this title had, especially due to artist JH Williams, is gone, and in its place is standard and not particularly nuanced superheroics.

I give writer Marc Andreyko -- whose work on Manhunter, I always want to mention, I adored -- credit for taking this particular Batwoman concept far out of its comfort zone, but it's an experiment than unfortunately fails. A story about Batwoman Kate Kane in space, fighting wizardry, feels no more a Batwoman story than if it starred Aquaman instead.

Further, Andreyko backs himself into a particularly sticky corner with a storyline that ends up involving sex and consent. I don't think Andreyko means ill, but his solution to it is problematic. Layered on top of a low-grade story, this only mars the book further, and the title's cancellation is an unfortunate mercy.

[Review contains spoilers]

In the previous book, Marc Andreyko had the unenviable task of ending JH Williams and Hayden Blackman's four-volume run on Batwoman; Andreyko's conclusion was not without its troubles, but I make allowances for the tough spot. In the rest of Batwoman Vol. 5: Webs, Andreyko wrote again a rather straightforward Batwoman story, without the previous team's dips and turns, but at least it was a tonally-appropriate street-level Batwoman story, and with greater role for gay characters than in Williams/Blackman or even Greg Rucka's runs.

Unknowns left-turns from the start, with an entire in medias res issue that finds Batwoman, her sister Red Alice, Ragman, Etrigan, and Clayface in space battling Morgaine le Fey (of King Arthur fame); the subsequent issues flash back to show how they got there. That's gutsy on Andreyko's part, and obviously shaking things up by taking Batwoman off Gotham's streets is a purposeful decision. Andreyko is the same writer who gave Manhunter Kate Spencer some of Azrael Jean Paul Valley's weaponry and included Obsidian as a member of her supporting cast, and so it's right in line that Andreyko should spotlight second-tier hero Ragman, and to build for Batwoman an eclectic team that includes Ragman, Etrigan, and Clayface-turned-good.

But daring doesn't necessarily guarantee success. Williams and Blackman teamed Batwoman with Wonder Woman against the mystic Hydra, so this is not to say Batwoman doesn't work in extra-normal roles, but Andreyko's book can't quite sell it. The art by Georges Jeanty and others is generally fine, but lacks Williams's majesty such to overcome the character/plot misfit. And Andreyko does not have Kate Kane's voice down, making her far too chatty and sarcastic; Batwoman is arguably one of the most focused Gotham heroes outside Batman, and Andreyko gives her a flippancy better saved for Nightwing or Batgirl. Kate is equally single-minded in her emotional decisions (sometimes wrong-headedly), a facet Andreyko wrote well for Kate Spencer; that Andreyko sends Kate Kane grudgingly to therapy in the last volume felt in character, but her rooftop gabbing about her feelings to recently-psychotic sister Alice does not. Andreyko had similar problems with Batwoman's character in the previous book, but it was mitigated by a story where Batwoman fit; here, the odd circumstances only emphasize the character problems.

A variety of plot holes worsen this too, because the story lacks the "reality" necessary to make the fantasy believable. How exactly Batwoman and company are able to commandeer a rocket ship, complete with space suits, etc., is never quite clear. And even respecting the permeable walls between titles, it's very surprising Morgaine le Fey could attack Earth from space and no other hero would get involved but Batwoman. When the team returns to Earth, it's equally unclear why they're now in a medieval village -- it's magic, of course, but we don't know to what extent regular people are aware of the difference or how far it reaches or really what Morgaine's plan is besides a generic lust for power. Also I feel certain Andreyko does not expect us to believe Red Alice is truly rehabilitated, and instead that she's got her caretaker, she and Kate's father, tied up somewhere, but the rosy end to the story (maybe sudden due to the cancellation) makes it seem absurdly like all is well.

At the end of the last book, Andreyko had Kate come under the thrall of apparent-vampire Nocturna. I knew already that there was some controversy as to whether Noctuna has sex with Kate while mind-controlled, and so I was curious to see if any sex was undeniably suggested; there is assuredly a trope in which vampires bite scantily-clad people such to suggest the vampiric metaphor for sex, and I wondered if these things were being conflated. As it turns out, it's almost entirely possible to read the book and believe Nocturna only kisses Kate and bites her neck (which itself turns out to be an illusion), and that any "relationship" the characters have is just for show. But then, toward the end, Andreyko reveals that Nocturna and Kate did have sex but that Nocturna is "no rapist" because Kate was attracted to Nocturna.

I don't expect I have to unpack this very much to explain that just because the victim in this piece had a previous unconscious attraction to her assailant does not imply consent in an instance of impaired judgment. Andreyko didn't have to go here -- he could have kept all the vampire material but simply have Nocturna laugh off in the end that they didn't have sex, not that they did. Ultimately Andreyko is trying to lessen it, making Batwoman supposedly not a victim, but only by making the events the fault of Batwoman and her own attractions. That's messy, without a doubt, and the only benefit of Andreyko sweeping it under the rug is that it is indeed swept under the rug and won't haunt the Batwoman character further. (I'm not sure if it would be brave or foolhardy for James Tynion to re-open this particular can of worms in Detective Comics; I imagine all of this is still semi-in-continuity given Clayface also appears in Detective.)

Bookending Batwoman Vol. 6: The Unknowns is Jeremy Haun's Secret Origins story and Marc Andreyko's Futures End tie-in. Both further signal the book's unevenness; the origin runs through Batwoman's previous adventures at breakneck speed with all of the story but none of the emotion, whereas the last issue explores a future where Batwoman really is a vampire, despite the book already demonstrating that as an illusion. That final note of uncertainty caps a book that doesn't quite work, and more's the pity for a title that was once the shining jewel of DC's line. I'm optimistic for Batwoman's role in James Tynion's Detective, but equally I'm hopeful maybe something can be done now that Greg Rucka's back at DC ...

[Includes original covers, Futures End alternate cover]
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1 comment:

  1. Yeah, that ... meta-explanation of the rape was awful. Seemed like the only reason that it didn't get much controversy was because so many people had dropped Batwoman by that point.

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