03 October 2010

Batwoman: Elegy by Greg Rucka (A Brunch Review)

Greg Rucka, thriller novelist turned comic book writer, has crafted (along with talented artist J.H. Williams III) one of the finest DC stories in the past year. It stands up along side Grant Morrison's All Star Superman (which can be found in trade format Volume 1 and Volume 2, and the Batman classics, Batman: Year One, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Batwoman: Elegy fits nicely into the Batman universe, while being a piece that stands firmly on its own merits. To put the matter of this review succinctly, Batwoman: Elegy rocks. It is an instant classic. But brief blurbs won't convince you so reason demands I write a bit more.

About a year ago I too hastily said that DC comics had never grown up. I said this in more or less blissful ignorance of DC comics history. It is possible that I was basing this opinion on the treatment that DC characters recieved in non-comic book media. Anyone watching the dreadful Tim Burton inspired and produced Batman franchise, who grew up on a steady diet of Superfriends, and who never missed a chance to watch Adam West and Burt Ward ham it up on the small screen can, I hope, be forgiven for jumping the judgemental gun. Whatever rationales, I am offering up presently though, the simple fact is this. I was dead wrong.

DC characters, in both comic books, and other media have been at the topical edge ever since Superman helped defeat the racist Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s. I don't mean just in the comic books either, the effect of the Superman radio serials, and the in-between scenes messages were hugely influential in depicting and defeating the absurd KKK. DC comics have tackled all kinds of issues over the years, and often before other main stream comic companies. And they often dealt pretty openly with the issues, and did not hide them in allegory or metaphor. Where the X-Men of Marvel comics has always been a progressive series that made the case for Civil Rights for all, it has just has clearly been somewhat obscured by being embedded in the oft larger than life exploits of it heroes and villains (that is hardly a complaint, by the way, and could be said of all comic books, from all companies and from all times). DC has, more often than it has not, chosen to deal with topical issues of the day more directly. DC was the first company that tackled drug use, has had more openly gay characters, and to have important continuity characters dealing with HIV/AIDs.

That brings me to Kate Kane, current incarnation of the Batwoman, and to Elegy proper. This is a sly bit of story telling, and the dynamic duo of Rucka and Williams have a lot twists and turns, not to mention pure story-telling craft up their sleeves. So I will try not to reveal too much, but of course Batwoman: Elegy takes the form of a mystery. For Kate Kane, the mystery seems simple enough. Who leads the The Religion of Crime? And why do they continue to pursue her? No mystery in Gotham is simple, and this particular mystery is tied very much into the reason Kate Kane put on her cape, and her cowl to begin with. The mystery behind any mask in Gotham is also far from simple. The identy of the current leader of the creepily named Religion of Crime is also a mystery that will take us through the very heart of Batwoman herself. The character of Kate Kane is so well drawn we happily follow her down the rabbit hole, and into the dark spaces that inhabit Gotham and its heroes.

What can be said about Kate Kane is that she was a West Point star, and that she is a lesbian, and that those two facts meet in opposition prior to her becoming Batwoman. More I probably shouldn't say. It isn't immaterial, and considering Lt Dan Choi gave Greg Rucka some considerable technical advice for one of the issues, it will be no surprise to you how DADT (don't ask, don't tell) worked out for Kate Kane. Okay, okay, I'm coming dangerously close to loosing dreaded spoilers. Any comic book story, that runs the risk of transcending the genre will be built on robust characters, full of plausible motive, and history, and personal depth. With the, perhaps intentional, exception of Alice, the leader of The Religion of Crime every major character has this depth, either explored or implied.

Artistically, Batwoman: Elegy is a feast, and must rank as one of the most deliberately nuanced works of comic art in recent memory. The art itself bounces deliberately back and forth in tone, as it tells the tale. Elegy is both an origin story, and a noir mystery set in the present day and the art reflects this span of time in subtle ways.

There have been (at least) two "year one" stories in the Batman portion of the DC universe. One for Batman himself, and one for Dick Grayson, the first Robin. While penciled by different artists and written by different authors, Batman: Year One and Robin: Year One both evoke an older artistic style, deeply reminscient of comics of the late 1940s, 50s, and early 60s. They are rich in detail, but the color palate, is simpler, and the designs are clearly imply an earlier era. The effect almost effortlessly creates a sense that what is occuring is as new for the characters themselves as it is for us. Elegy uses the same artistic conceit when we begin to see Kate's origin in the middle of the book. As her origin unfolds the visual style slowly begins to change as Kate Kane becomes more and more the crimefighter Batwoman. Williams bounces back and forth with these tones as the second half of the story explores Kate Kane the child and Kate Kane the crime fighter.

Batwoman: Elegy is a perfect example of what happens when a writer, and artist, indeed the whole production team that creates a comic book, is on the same page, and deeply invested in telling the best story possible.
So don't let Batwoman's pale face scare you, its easily the most inviting face on the trade paperback shelf.

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Great article, and the book looks like good stuff.

I'll have to purchase it.

(bloody unreliable torrents ;))

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