Lesbian Comic: Detective Comics

August 12th, 2009

What a week here at Okazu! Not only did we get to read that breathtaking interview with Nakamura Ching-sensei, but today I have a guest review written by none other than David Welsh of Precocious Curmudgeon. I’m all a-quiver with excitement at today’s review.

Some weeks ago on Twitter, David mentioned that he had gotten the Detective Comics series with the new Batwoman (zOMG a lipstick lesbian who never has a steady relationship! That’s NEVER been done!) and I asked if he’d like to review it for us here at Okazu. This may well be the first mainstream American comic ever reviewed here. History in the making. Anyway, not to delay a moment longer, David, they are all yours…)

When I consider comics, the binary that comes most readily to mind is what drives the book. Is it plot, or is it character? I tend to favor character-driven stories, where the events spring from who the characters are, and they couldn’t happen in quite the same way to anyone else. The binary is too limiting, obviously, but it generally suits my interests and priorities.

So if nothing else, Detective Comics 854 and 855 (DC) served as well-executed reminders of another category: the art-driven comic. Written by Greg Rucka, the comics serve as a proper introduction to DC’s much-ballyhooed lesbian Batwoman revamp. I think the character debuted in one of DC’s big weekly crossover series, but I haven’t picked up a DC comic since they set Sue Dibny on fire and all the heroes started crying and snapping at each other because they were all amoral failures.

Still, I’ve enjoyed many comics written by Rucka, and it’s rare that you have a GLBTQ character helming one of DC or Marvel’s flagship titles. (They generally tend to die in Marvel and DC’s flagship titles, actually.) For added interest, there’s the art of J.H. Williams III, with colors by Dave Stewart and lettering by Todd Klein. My first encounter with Williams’ art was DC’s short-lived, much-loved Chase, about an agent for the DC universe’s super-human monitoring agency. It was a neat series with a well-developed woman protagonist (look, a unicorn!), and Williams contributed a great deal to its appeal. He’s pretty much the whole show with the first two issues of Batwoman’s Detective run.

This brings me back to the concept of the art-driven comic, where the writer provides just enough of a framework to give the illustrator reign to go wild, metaphorically speaking. A fine example is Paris (SLG), barely written by Andi Watson and magnificently drawn by Simon Gane. (For added Ozaku interest, it’s about young women in love… with each other!) If a cartoonist is more illustrator than writer, he or she can give him or herself license to slack on story and character and concentrate efforts on images. That’s what I tell myself when I read manga by Arina Tanemura.

That’s what Rucka has done here, or at least that’s what it feels like he’s done. I knew very little about the character prior to picking up either issue of Detective; the New York Times told me she was a lesbian (pardon me… a “lipstick lesbian”) socialite named Kate Kane who fights crime. That’s still pretty much all I know about her, with the added details that she has difficulty maintaining relationships and some kind of troubled past that’s unfolding in drug-induced flashback.

Since everyone in Batman’s orbit has trouble maintaining relationships and a traumatic childhood experience or two, there’s nothing really left to distinguish Batwoman except for the visual iconography Williams brings to the book. Her sexual orientation is entirely equivalent in terms of relationship failure; the fact that she’s a lesbian has no more to do with it than the fact that Batman is ostensibly straight. After a rough night of beating up lowlifes in alleys, they’re too tired to commit.

It’s a gorgeous book, and instead of clumsily trying to explain why, I’ll just point you to Jog’s review of Detective 854. Unfortunately, I found it a strangely empty book as well. Nothing damaging or unpleasant happens to compromise Batwoman’s future as a character, but nothing really meaty happens either. The character is secondary to her rendering.

I had many of the same problems with the back-up strip featuring DC’s other high-profile lesbian heroine, The Question. I went in knowing a lot more about her, or at least her alter-ego, Renee Montoya. Renee did a long tour of duty as a detective with the Gotham City Police Department and played a central role in the generally excellent Gotham Central (DC). She even got a well-liked arc, written by Rucka, where she was outed to her hyper-masculine co-workers. I always found her an interesting, assertive character.

Something has happened since I last saw her, as she’s adopted the nom de guerre and most of the costume of an interesting c-list DC sleuth who wore a featureless mask and was obsessed with conspiracy theories. The featureless mask is still in place, updated with a crop top for no particularly good reason. (Crop tops seem so impractical for people who anger gun-toting thugs.) Renee seems to have left Gotham behind to wade through one of those TV-series premises where she finds people to help through a web site. At least I think that’s what’s happening, as Rucka doesn’t spend any more time on Renee’s back story or motivation than he does with Kate.

It’s competent enough, but artist Cully Hammer is no J.H. Williams. The back-up strip is welcome in the sense that it makes the comic’s $3.99 price tag seem slightly less like highway robbery.

Thank you David for what may well be the most cogent look at Batwoman ever written. And thank you for being our newest Okazu Guest Reviewer!

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17 Responses

  1. Mara says:

    I hear from non-credible sources that this sold very well considering. Is that true?

  2. @Mara – I haven’t the vaguest clue, but you might check ICV2 and see what they say.

  3. Julia says:

    Detective sold well enough to go back for a second printing. According to the Beat’s sales charts, it sold over 70K copies which is pretty good, but the tale will be how it continues to sell.

  4. Emma says:

    It’s only been two issues, so I find the complaints about the lack of plot/character development a bit premature. As for complaints about the premise- a “lipstick lesbian” who never enters a steady relationship:

    1) This is a comic book. The main characters rarely have steady relationships, and when they do something always goes spectacularly wrong, and that includes straight, gay and genderflexible couples;

    and 2) kathy kane (the new batwoman) actually has been in a steady relationship with renee montoya (the new Question.) It’s on again/off again at the moment due to the nature of their jobs, but expect them to meet up and interact sexily throughout the course of the series.

    I feel that this whole endeavour is off to a very promising start, and Greg Rucka has never let me down, especially where Renee is concerned. I loved Gotham Central, and she is an excellent, well rounded character. I expect rucka will do the same for Batwoman.

  5. Saranga says:

    Generally people have been gushing over this. Partly for the art, partly for the fact it’s Greg Rucka writing it.
    Some of us are less happy with it. There’s a couple of posts around concerning the presentation of the lesbianism in it. Retconning my brain has some good thoughts:

    http://retconningmybrain.blogspot.com/2009/08/
    lesbians-have-sex-appeal-too-damn.html

    http://retconningmybrain.blogspot.com/2009/
    06/more-lesbians-well-same-lesbian-then.html

  6. David Welsh says:

    Emma: I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect something substantive to have happened after $8 worth of comics, but I recognize that mileage on that varies. I wasn’t really complaining about the premise, in fact I noted that Batwoman can’t maintain a relationship because she’s Batwoman, not because she’s a lesbian. I think that’s fair game in this corner of comics, though it’s unoriginal.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Emma, that’s a silly argument.

    If it is always written as going wrong, it might not be a good idea to do the same, but to write it as going well for a change.

    And yeah, in comics it really goes worse for gay characters, usually. A change would have been good.

  8. @Emma – David replied first, but I want to say that I think he made it very clear that Kate’s lack of committed relationship was *because* she was a character in the Batman-verse, not *because* she was a lesbian. Also, I gather that her relationship with Renee is not committed, but on and off again.

    I would not characterize David’s comments about it being an art-driven series (and, therefore, having less plot/character development than other series) to be a complaint. I see it as an reasonable observation.

    My guess is that you really like Detective and are bristling more at a perceived criticism of something you like than anything else. David was not saying that it was not good – in fact, I think he did a good job of being objective, something I cannot and do not do. It’s up to all of us to decide what we like in this universe. Detective, by sheer nature of it being about a Bat-person, appeals to me not at all. That doesn’t mean I’m saying it sucks. Same with David – he simply would have liked more character/plot bang for his $8.

  9. @Julia – Thank you very much for weighing in with the stats on this!

  10. “he simply would have liked more character/plot bang for his $8.”

    Well I got mine for $5 so that compensates things a little on my end. I’m just happy she’s out of the nest and flying on her own.

    It could be worse. We could be reading a comic series based off of The Dark Knight’s character Ramirez! What a fake Renee.

  11. Anonymous says:

    What’s a ‘lipstick’ lesbian, anyway?

  12. Emma says:

    Actually, Erica, I mostly agree with David’s points- although I do feel that more than 2 issues are required to establish a plot, and am familiar enough with Rucka’s work to know to be patient on that front; I really believe that there will be one, and this won’t just be a very pretty series. My post was in direct address to your comment:

    “zOMG a lipstick lesbian who never has a steady relationship! That’s NEVER been done!”

    which did not strike me as a fair criticism, so I replied. Your comment is made in a frankly dismissive way, but I don’t feel the tone of my reply was particularly rude- if that is how it appears then I am sorry, because that wasn’t my intention. My main mistake was in not making clear who my reply was aimed at; and given that the majority of the review was written by David that was quite an oversight.

    And Erica, I know this is your site, and that your opinion is the one you’ll express here (and if I weren’t okay with that I wouldn’t come) but if it’s always so abrasive you have to expect people to bristle occasionally. Surely someone as strongly opinionated as yourself can cope with the occasional argument.

  13. @Emma – My mistake, I thought you were taking umbrage with David’s comments, not mine. I didn’t think your comment was in any way rude, btw.

    You must realize by now that I have not read this comic – and will probably never do so. It’s just a typical trope in TV, movies, comics, books, etc, that the “lipstick lesbian” – who is more acceptable to the mainstream because she is conventionally feminine – is also unlikely to get a permanent female partner. That was what I was commenting on, not Kate Kane in particular.

    I fail to see my comment as exceptionally abrasive, especially as compared with other things I have said here, but I’ll stand by this and say, this *has* been done many times. The reasoning for Kate’s specific relationships being impermanent is made no less valid by pointing out that it is an overused trope.

    I will be well-pleased if Detective Comics proves me wrong and does in fact give her a positive, long-term relationship. :-)

  14. @Erica – “You must realize by now that I have not read this comic – and will probably never do so.”

    But Erica! The main baddie in the story, Alice, has the potential to fill your EPL quota! She’s evil and psychotic! Whether she’s a lesbian or not remains to be seen, but she does fit the psycho bill nicely when she shines with glee while shooting her supporters just moments after she nearly suffocating to death from pepper spray.

  15. Super Vixen says:

    well at least the art is great.

    but I’m not sure if the fact that the book doesn’t really go into the character’s sexuality is a good or a bad thing.

    on one hand it would be nice if they did. But it’s also nice that they are treating Batwoman like any other character in the Bat-verse

  16. Spy Shop says:

    The title of the post looks attractive. I didn’t read this comic till today but its makes me crazy to read.

    70K copies had to be sold it means it would be obviously nice.

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