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!