To celebrate the release of The Dark Knight Rises, July is “Batman month” here at the m0vie blog. Check back daily for comics, movies and television reviews and discussion of the Caped Crusader.
When I read Batwoman: Elegy, I couldn’t help but feel like I just didn’t get it. I mean, it’s good, it’s really good, but everybody and their mother had been going on and on about how it was the best Batman book in ages, and how it really was redefining what you could and couldn’t do in mainstream comic books. I liked it, but I didn’t love it, and it’s hard to put the finger on why – I suspect it’s something purely aesthetic. As much as I appreciate the fantastic art of J.H. Williams, it all seemed rather conventionally plotted by Greg Rucka. It was your standard cookie-cutter superhero story, which meant that the art just looked like pretty window dressing on a fairly routine storyline.
I’ve always treated the relationship between writing and art in comic books in the same manner that I would on film or television. I can be impressed with either on their own, if one of the two happens to be particularly stunning, but in order to be truly impressed, both need to be working really well. It doesn’t matter how well you shoot a conventional action movie, it’s still a standard action movie. And it doesn’t matter if you give a substandard director a great script – the end result might be good or very good, but it’ll always be more fascinating than truly great. And Batwoman feels more fascinating than truly great.
Even though I love J.H. Williams’ art, which really pops off the page, I get the sense that I’m not quite an enamoured with it as most people seem to be. Taste is undoubtedly personal, so there’s no problem with that, but I really couldn’t help feeling like I was seeing the same stuff I’d seen before. Whether working with Paul Dini on Detective Comics or Grant Morrison on Batman, the old “double-page spread including a Bat symbol” is something of a “J.H. Williams special”, and he uses it again here. It’s an effective page layout, but it’s lost something in repeated execution. It’s the law of diminishing returns – I can’t help feel like I’ve seen this before once too often, and each subsequent iteration of the layout loses a little impact.
And there’s nothing that really matches that sort of visual impact here. There’s one lovely sequence where Maggie Sawyer and Kate Kane dance at a charity fundraiser (the type they always seem to have in Gotham), but nothing had me staring at the page for minutes on end. There were some nice moments – for example, a double-page spread featuring Kate’s apartment laid out as if in a plan – but nothing jaw-dropping. It felt like Williams was simply illustrating within a language he’d already defined, rather than giving me anything new or stunning.
Of course, that sounds like trite criticism. When was the last time any artist managed to blow my mind? Every artist settles into their own style, and Williams is no different. He has his own “drawing a Batman comic” style, and shouldn’t I be happy that it’s a lot more creative and innovative than the work of any other artist on a major Batman book? It is well drawn, and I’d never argue otherwise, but it’s not any more stunning that Williams’ Batmen of All Nations arc or his The Beautiful People one-shot. Maybe I should be more thrilled with his artwork simply because there’s more of it, and I’m certainly glad of it, but it simply looks really good, rather than mind-blowingly awesome or any other hyperbolic term. Again, it’s probably a case of heightened expectations.
And you might be forgiven for assuming, from my introduction, that I don’t like Greg Rucka’s work here. That’s not really fair. It’s not as good as his sensational genre-bending work on Gotham Central, but it’s not bad either. It just feels like middle-of-the-road Greg Rucka, rather than anything truly special. Perhaps part of it is the fact that I felt a bit tired of his recurring plot elements feeding into Elegy, the first story collected here. I liked some of his work on Intergang, and “the Religion of Crime”, but it really feels like there should a reading list provided before jumping into the book. The basic concepts are clear enough to grasp, but some moments seem to come out of the blue. Why are there werewolves all of a sudden, for example?
Indeed, the first four-part story collected here, Elegy, feels almost like Batman-by-the-numbers. It feels like Rucka is pretty much following “the Batman playbook”, right down to the use of a psychotic villain inspired by Lewis Carroll, something Batwoman herself points out is a tad derivative. “Didn’t anyone give you the memo?” she asks, “Gotham already has one Carroll-inspired freak.” Actually, I counted several, but I think Paul Dini did well to connect his new creation (the Carpenter) to the pre-existing Alice In Wonderland villains, rather than suggesting that she evolved separate and distinct. Speaking in quotations from the book is cute, but I’m not sure it’s enough to make Alice into a compelling villain – and I couldn’t help but feel like that “evil supervillain twin” thing was a played out cliché at this point.
More than that, though, it was hard for me to ignore the rather heavily similarities between Rucka’s Batwoman script and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. There are quite a few elements of overlap: the reveal that the villain is somebody the hero used to trust, but thought was gone from their lives; the “irresponsible” play-acting routine at a posh party to establish the hero’s alter ego as a careless socialite; a secret society of bad guys who compare Gotham to any of the historical “fallen” cities (“this is Sodom and Gomorrah to them”); and even a climax involving a chemical or biological attack on the city, ending with the ‘death’ of a villain despite our hero’s vow not to take a life. There’s nothing wrong with borrowing elements like this, but it just feels sorta… routine, to be honest.
On the other hand, the second story collected here, Go, is much stronger – because it feels a lot less like a paint-by-numbers or fill-in-the-blanks superhero story. It works well because it does actually explain why Kate Kane would dress up as Batwoman, and manages to give us a plausible explanation for a character dressing up in tights to fight crime. Of course, I think any superhero origin told in Gotham suffers from sitting in the shadow of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, but Rucka feels a little more on-form here, even doing a good job explaining why Kate would coopt Batman’s symbol, instead of crafting her own identity.
“That Bat they shine in the sky,” she explains. “Civilians think it’s a call for help. The bad guys think it’s a warning… But it’s more than that, it’s something higher. It’s a call to arms.” Here Rucka has a very good idea, and one which seems to foreshadow Grant Morrison’s Batman Incorporated, as well as hitting on some of the smarter aspects of Christopher Nolan’s Batman mythos, about the power of the individual as measured against the power of a symbol. “I’ve found my way to serve,” she tells her father. “I finally found a way to serve.”
In fact, Rucka offers a smart observation through Kate’s father, one that might apply to Bruce himself. He shrewdly applies a military rational to the struggle, and makes some interesting observations, ones that might have some bearing on Batman, and perhaps explain how Rucka see’s Bruce’s “war on crime.” Offering some advice on her campaign, Kate’s father insists:
“Make no mistake: you do this, you’re going to war. Define the goal. Define the objective. Define the terms of victory. Because if victory means bringing your mother and sister back, you’ve already lost. If victory means taking revenge for what happened to them, you’ve already lost. But if your objective is to save just one life… to protect one innocent… to keep one person from having their life shattered in violence… and to come home alive when you’re done… then you can prevail.”
You could almost offer the same advice to Bruce, just replacing “your mother and sister” with “your parents.”
In fairness, there are several aspects here that work really well, and suggest that Rucka might have worked a lot better on the title if he’d stuck around for the relaunch. In particular, there’s the use of the twins – Kate and her sister. Above, I stated the reveal that Alice was Kate’s “long-lost twin” was just a bit too much “daytime soap opera”, and I stand by that. Even if the fact that Kate had a sister came up before the reveal, it still would have seemed hackneyed and forced. Even if Elegy had followed Go, rather than vice versa, I’m not sure I could have gotten on board with the whole “evil twin” thing.
However, despite making her stereotypically evil, the fact that Kate had a twin plays really well into the whole “duology” thing that the Batman mythos tends to do really well. Superman has always seemed like a fully-integrated personality, but Bruce has always seemed a bit distinct from the Batman since Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. I think that’s why Two-Face works so well as a counterpart to Bruce, despite the fact he is easily one of the hero’s most inconsistantly-written foes. The idea of putting on a mask immediately suggests a fundamental duality to a character, and it’s perfectly expressed by making Kate a twin – one half of a set, evoking the image of Gemini, the twins.
The idea of a “shared life” between the two is absolutely fascinating – the idea that the pair are so similar in every way that they can fool Larry Quinones and Mr. Dougherty. It hints that neither lives a complete live without the other, perhaps hinting at the relationship that would exist between Kate and her future secret identity. It’s a wonderful little plot point, and I hope it gets thematically explored in later adventures, because it’s one of the more interesting ideas from Rucka.
And then there’s Kate’s sexuality, which is perhaps the most talked-about element of the series. I genuinely wish that comics were diverse enough that this really wasn’t such a big deal. Still, Rucka is very familiar with this sort of plot, having won awards for handling life in the closet during Gotham Central’s Half a Life arc. Here, Kate faces a more subtle and insidious form of prejudice, not one that is outwardly disgusted at her sexual preference, but one that merely asks her to hide it. Rucka very skilfully presents the unsettling depiction of a society that claims not to have any fundamental objections to Kate’s homosexuality, but just asks her “not to wave it in their faces”, so to speak. It is, sadly, a depiction of modern institutionalised (and occasionally socially accepted) prejudice that is far too wide spread.
Kate’s stepmother is flabbergasted by the fact that Kate shows up to the ball in a tuxedo, a rather loud assertion of her rejection of conventional gender roles. Though Kate’s stepmother is quick to voice her objection, she does her utmost to disguise any hint of prejudice. “Not that I don’t approve,” Kate’s stepmother suggests, as is quoting from formula, “it’s your life of course. I just don’t think it’s appropriate for a formal event. It’s like you’re trying to draw attention to yourself.” It’s a chilling insinuation, and a strong condemnation of society’s attempts to suffocate self-expression by appealing to conformity.Of course, it doesn’t work both ways – Kate’s stepmother seems to have no objection to those countless society girls “trying to draw attention” by wearing expensive and flamboyant evening dresses.
One could imagine her just as quickly remarking “don’t make a scene!” or “don’t cause a fuss!”, while professing to respect Kate’s sexual orientation. That’s the disturbing “just so long as it’s in private” mentality, that claims to tolerate homosexual lifestyles, as long as they aren’t “too upfront” about it – the sentiment essentially expressing a desire not to have to concern themselves with it, and that such matter should be “kept private.” It’s akin to Chuck Dixon’s ill-thought-out comments about how homosexuality shouldn’t be inserted into comics – with the writer insisting that he’s not homophobic, he’d just feel better if gay people kept it to themselves. It’s okay to be gay, he seems to say, just don’t be gay around me or people. It’s a form of more acceptable bigotry, and it’s nice that Rucka has Kate face it. Indeed, Kate smoothly replies to her stepmother’s observation with a well-considered barb, “No, just making sure I don’t stay hidden.”
That’s the same sort of institutional prejudice that Kate faces in the army, a fascinating hook that Rucka plays quite well. Here, Kate is caught fraternising with a fellow cadet, and her superior offers to push the whole thing under the rug, if she’ll just disavow the whole thing. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is an absolutely disgusting social policy, and one that I’m surprised hasn’t drawn stronger criticism – it’s prejudice, but it’s prejudiced clouded in even more hypocrisy than usual. It attempts to disguise homophobia with the assertion that it’s okay as long as you don’t get caught.
“You can tell me right now that this is a mistake,” Kate’s superior tells her. “That it’s some joke, that you were goofing around. That it’s a simple misunderstanding. And that it will never happen again.” In essence, Kate would be required to hide who she was in order to serve her country. It’s an impossible position, and a disgraceful one to put anybody in. Rucka very shrewdly has Kate point to the Marine Corps Code, citing a reason why she can’t play into that comfortable little lie. “A cadet shall not lie, cheat or steal, nor suffer others to do so,” she answers. “I’m sorry sir, I can’t.”
Now, here’s the thing – Kate has a huge amount of difficulty lying about who she is in order to continue to serve at Westpoint, which is completely reasonable. However, I find it fascinating that she feels so comfortable wearing a mask and a disguise to fight crime, hiding even more of herself. I accept that hiding your identity is a necessity if you’re going to be an illegal vigilante, but it feels like Rucka missed a beat in his origin story.
If she wants to “serve” according to a code that won’t allow her to “lie, cheat or steal”, how does she justify a secret identity, which is a pretty big lie? Perhaps she no longer adheres to the Marine Corps Code, but then I find it strange that she still calls her father “sir” and runs Batwoman like a military operation. It’s an interesting dichotomy, and it’s an aspect of the character I wouldn’t mind seeing explored down the line. As it stands, however, it’s probably the weakest link in Go, at least to me.
(That said, I should confess I really hated that bit in Richard Donner’s Superman where Superman asserts he never lies. So maybe it’s just me. I’m not saying Clark Kent is a lie, or that Superman is a lie, but spending the opening sequences of Superman II refusing to acknowledge Lois is correct (and then wiping her memory) are pretty much lies. It’s the same thing here. Every time Kate makes up a story to explain why she was out late or is tired, it’s a lie. It’s a lie about who she is and – while obviously not as fundamental as what the military asked her to lie about – it’s still a pretty big one.)
I wasn’t won over by Batwoman: Elegy, if only because it seems like the two creators involved should be capable of so much more than this. It’s a perfectly standard Batman style story, with some very good art, but it doesn’t feel exceptional or incredibly or especially insightful. Still, it did feel like Rucka was setting some plot points up to pay off down the line, so it’s a shame that he wasn’t around to relaunch the book in the wake of Flashpoint. Ah well.
Filed under: Comics Tagged: | batman, Batman Incorporated, Batwoman, Batwoman: Elegy, Christopher Nolan, comic book, detective comics, gotham central, grant morrison, greg rucka, JH Willaims, JH Williams III, lewis carroll, Maggie Sawyer, paul dini