Review: Batwoman Vol. 1: The Many Arms of Death (Rebirth) trade paperback (DC Comics)

Sunday, November 26, 2017

I've been following DC Comics's modern Batwoman Kate Kane for seven years now, and I felt a certain trepidation in starting Marguerite Bennett and James Tynion's Rebirth Batwoman Vol. 1: The Many Arms of Death. Despite Bennett's acclaimed work on DC Bombshells and Tynion's stellar Batman: Detective Comics, both writers are relative neophytes on the DC Comics scene, and before Detective, neither really had a DC ongoing that defined them. And indeed, Kate Kane is a character that I'd venture it's hard to get right; Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams did such defining work with the character -- often with a high bar too for the digital art effects -- that when the vision differs, as with Marc Andreyko's run, it really doesn't feel like Batwoman.

To that end, I was incredibly pleased that, if not by the end of the Rebirth special then surely by the end of the first issue, Bennett and Tynion demonstrate themselves aware of what it takes to spin a good Kate Kane story and that they're up to the task. And the book gets better as it goes, flitting through color schemes and art styles, and fantastically unlocked from time as past, present, and potential future intermingle. The creative team succeeds, where Andreyko unfortunately could not, in never quite achieving Rucka and Williams's perhaps-impossible standards but still accomplishing something that can authentically be called Batwoman, and that great coup perhaps makes future Batwoman writers' jobs a little easier.

[Review contains spoilers]

We have on Batwoman's first page a fractured profile of Kate Kane that shows vignettes of her life so far and also a glimpse at "soon." There is a gigantic amount even right here. We can't expect artist Steve Epting to be Williams -- though Epting is perhaps the most experienced of the book's team -- but he employs plenty creative paneling here and elsewhere (in this origin issue we also see him expertly aping Williams when he was aping David Mazzucchelli and Neal Adams from Batwoman: Elegy). In the writers recognizing the imperative for thematic visual continuity in a Batwoman story, this fractured layout reoccurs again and again. And "soon" gives way to a page set in the future, leaking back in a few panels later when Kate falls unconscious, and then further giving way to a whole future-set issue at the book's end (not to mention a couple "coming attractions" sequences). It's artful and it's unmoored, and gets in that way to the heart of what we want from Batwoman right from the start.

If not so far, then we are certainly sold by the end of the first issue. Epting does understated yeoman's work, to be sure, but in some respects this Batwoman comic is more straightforward than it has been previously; at the same time, there are little nudges -- a painterly panel when Kate thinks of former paramour Safiyah; the black, white, and red-haired flashback -- that distinguish this as something more than ordinary. The writers set up Kate and the reader's emotional connection to Rafael very quickly, such that by the time he dies in Kate's arms, we're hooked. And both writers and artist give the book a wonderfully dynamic paradigm, taking Kate out of Gotham, setting her up on a high-tech futuristic yacht, and rescuing the irrepressible Julia Pennyworth from limbo as Kate's sidekick, perhaps about the only acceptable substitute after Tynion's controversial job on Jacob Kane.

As such, Many Arms of Death is unstoppable though its -- smartly conservative -- first four regular issues, at which point it breaks, also smartly, for something different. The first of these is an almost-unnecessary (and better for that fact) issue-long flashback of Kate's time on the island of Coryana. The story is said and done at this point, so this tale of Kate as warlord Safiyah's pseudo-hostage is almost misplaced (unless Safiyah turns out to be the book's mystery villain) -- except for the fact that it's simply atmospheric, simply (destructively) romantic, and gorgeously painterly by Stephanie Hans.

The second is a post-apocalyptic story, with art by Renato Arlem, of a future Kate plotting to take down Batman Tim Drake. The plot is perhaps boilerplate, but the sheer weirdness of all of this sells it. We've no indication yet of how this story will intersect with the present, and I'm not eager to see Kate get a visit from her future self; I think Batwoman works better with realism (even including the supernatural realism of Williams's run especially). But Bennett and Tynion here are following well the playbook set out by mentor Scott Snyder, himself distilling the same from Grant Morrison before him -- a little absurdity, a little future, a little dream sequence, all blended up to accomplish an effect better suited to comics than prose or film -- and both this and the flashback issue contribute to Many Arms's overall success.

There's an idea here that in teaming up with Safiyah's cadre of power-brokers, Batwoman becomes somehow "badder" than Batman ("Batman would never make the choices I make. Batman would never choose killers for allies") that I find problematic. This is surely not the first time I've seen it, this sense that to distinguish Batman's allies, they must in some way be willing to do things Batman wouldn't do. To me this seems silly, as if Batman is such a bad judge of character that his apprentices should essentially by nature defy him; also it's clearly artifice for the sake of building this character up when we just saw Batman team with "killers" himself in Tom King's Batman Vol. 2: I Am Suicide.

Also, as good as the drama in this book is, the conflict basically turns on the savvy, powerful Safiyah falling ludicrously, ruinously, head-over-heels in love with Kate on first sight when Kate doesn't do much herself to warrant it (the writers' "meet cute" never quite lands). Equally, rival Tahani is willing to kill thousands mainly because Safiyah spurned her for Kate; all of that seems small, even slightly melodramatic, for ultimately such high stakes.

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But overall, Marguerite Bennett and James Tynion's Batwoman Vol. 1: The Many Arms of Death is a joy and a relief. For Tynion, it continues his Rebirth winning streak, and the writers are in fine company mentioned in the same breath as creators like Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams. Next June is a heck of a long time for us to wait for the next Batwoman volume; I'm hoping by some stroke of luck it doesn't actually turn out to be that long.

[Includes original and variant covers]

Summary
Review Date
Reviewed Item
Batwoman Vol. 1: The Many Arms of Death
Author Rating
4.5 (out of 5)
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1 comment:

  1. This TPB was a bit strange.

    The Rebirth issue was partially a recap/what will happen next issue. Nothing wrong with that, but I've seen a bot to much of it about Batwoman in the las few years.

    But what I didn't get was that the Batwoman #1-4 was told like a sort of recap story, but still taking place in present day. I understand leaving things unsaid to be revealed later, but this just felt as if parts of the story were missing because all of it needed to fit in those 4 issues.

    The fifth issue was well written, it had some really nice art and felt welcome as the first full story. In 1 of the last pages when she's being saved (the page with multiple "Breath" on it) there is an image of her in her future costume, I didn't really get that.

    The future issue was a Grant Morrison like issue. It was fun to read, but nothing to special.

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