The Batwoman kerfuffle of a few months back, which saw J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman leaving the book due to editorial disagreements, was one of the more devastating fan moments I’ve suffered in recent memory. Consistently one of my favorite titles every month, Batwoman was structurally unique, visually stunning, and elevated its protagonist to a near peerless platform through a mythical story with an epic scope and a nuanced delivery.
I used three words in that description that are tossed around pretty casually in the world of online criticism: stunning, peerless, and epic; for the record, I feel the need to emphasize that I don’t think I’m being glib – I genuinely believe that all of those words applied to Batwoman under the helm of Williams and Blackman. It is astonishing to me that a publisher could interfere with a book worthy of such heavy praise, but I’m not interested in pointing fingers and I recognize that the media circus was made worse due to Williams’ very vocal criticisms leveled at DC editorial via social media. I can’t say that I blame DC for not wanting to continue working with Williams after that, and I will begrudgingly accept that the separation probably had both parties interests at hand and, having made it through a bout of anger, followed by denial (couldn’t this be another Batgirl situation?!?), I’ve finally accepted the creative change, wishing both parties success in the future and resolving to at least give Marc Andreyko (who I’d never read, but enough people seem to love) the benefit of the doubt for a few issues, which is partially what I’m here to discuss. But first, I want to consider a few of C0-Publisher Dan DiDio’s words regarding the cancellation.
First we have that pesky issue of Kate Kane’s (Batwoman’s civilian identity) engagement to Gotham Police Officer Maggie Sawyer. DiDio made his feelings on this subject abundantly clear with following statements:
They put on a cape and cowl for a reason. They’re committed to defending others — at the sacrifice of all their own personal instincts. That’s something we reinforce. If you look at every one of the characters in the Batman family, their personal lives kind of suck…
Tim Drake, Barbara Gordon, and Kathy Kane — it’s wonderful that they try to establish personal lives, but it’s also just as important that they put it aside as they know what they are accomplishing as the hero takes precedence over everything else. That is our mandate, that is our edict, that is our stand with our characters.”
For what it’s worth, I thought the accusations of homophobia were out of line. DiDio’s comments were pretty unequivocally anti-marriage in a blanket statement kind of way, besides Kate’s identity as a lesbian had been treated with nothing but care by creators, editors, and the publisher since her debut in 2006. This really was just an attack on the concept of super-heroes getting married which, as a general edict, is utterly stupid. I can’t say where this editorial edict originated, one can speculate that perhaps it was a reaction to the stagnation that the Superman mythos saw with Clark Kent’s marriage to Lois Lane, or maybe it was a misguided attempt to view all masked heroes through the lens of puritan repression and obsessive self-discipline that applies to Batman. But Batwoman, in this iteration at least, is not a legacy character whose longevity could be damaged by a radical shift in her status quo, nor does she carry the same psychological burden as Bruce Wayne. To view marriage as some sort of written in stone conclusion for Kate Kane, and many other characters under the DC umbrella for that matter, would be foolish. Marriage is just another shape for a relationship to take, within even a happy marriage there can be ups and downs, marriages come and go. A marriage, in the context of storytelling, is a symbol of these two characters’ commitment to, and passion for, one another. It symbolizes something more intense than, say, just dating. Where there is intense commitment and intense passion, there is the opportunity for intense drama.
I don’t pretend to know what Williams and Blackman’s long-term plans for the character were, it’s possible that they weren’t even sure beyond a few issues into the future. Yet, Batwoman, with its fairly consistent creative lineup and relatively fresh start at the launch of the new 52, was uniquely situated as a book with the potential for sustained longevity. It’s not hard to imagine a run that culminated with 60 or 70 issues and saw Kate (and Maggie) through various highs and lows, regardless of whether the marriage ultimately lasted. I don’t think its a leap to imagine a series that saw multiple print collections, special editions, hardcovers, omnibuses, perhaps even outlasting this iteration of DC’s continuity (think Starman). Now their run is reduced to a footnote, a moment of creative innovation that ended in unfortunate controversy. It’s the type of business decision that highlights the short-sightedness that is endemic to both DC and Marvel, but which is a topic for another discussion.
Beyond the perplexingly sticky issue of marriage in comic books, however, Dan DiDio had some other thoughts on the comic in question. In response to a comment on Twitter criticizing his decision to can two Eisner award winners, he had this to say:
Eisner or not, we need the books to be exciting, entertaining, and part of a shared universe.
In a weird way I suppose I can see where this is coming from. Batwoman, as it was written and illustrated by Williams and Blackman, was an unconventional book. One of its noticeable idiosyncracies was in its handling of key action sequences. It often eschewed the conventional action-to-action transitions for elaborate two-page montages. The resulting sequences placed less emphasis on the kinetic build-up and cathartic release that tend to be staples of action-oriented graphic fiction. Instead, the emphasis was on a pervasive moodiness and a cumulative sense of experience. The terms “exciting” and “entertaining” are subjective, but I can imagine what DiDio was getting at. For my money, however, there are plenty of examples of the former style and far too few of the latter. The term “entertaining” loses all value when you can pick up nearly any book on the shelf if generic “entertainment” is all you seek.
A two-page spread from Batwoman #12
The “shared universe” comment is less oblique. Batwoman was noticeably absent from the bat-family crossovers, until the creative shift abruptly gave the book at “Zero Year” issue, tying into Scott Snyder’s ongoing Batman series. So Batwoman doesn’t play well with others, so what? lots of other books do, the shared universe is hardly lacking. Sales is what. Batman sells like crazy, tying the book in to that series, even if only every few months, could give its sales a substantial up-tick.
Forgive me if it’s too cynical a thought, but could it possibly be that the marriage aspect of this was blown way out of proportion when it was really just a pretext to get creators on the series who were better team players?
It was my hope that when Andreyko took over, I would be able to see this new energy, that I would understand how DiDio saw Batwoman fitting in to the DC Universe in a more cohesive way and as a more active participant in the Batman mythology. Last month we got our first proper taste of the Andreyko era Batwoman (his first issue was the aforementioned “Zero Year” tie-in in November). I have to say, I’m a little perplexed (spoilers ahead).
The issue starts with a flashback to Gotham in the 1920s, where we follow a mystery man committing what appears to be a spiteful suicide. This is fresh and different, and at least a little intriguing. So far so good. Next, we’re back in the present day, watching a burglar (who looks a lot like a Talon from Snyder’s “Court of Owls” storyline, and the subsequent spin-off series, even though I’m pretty sure there’s no connection) whose attempted art theft turns murderous. We’re still not sure where this is going, it’s not altogether uninteresting, though not “exciting” or “entertaining” in any bold new way either.
Kate finally pops up on page six. In this sequence, I found Andreyko’s choices of setting, dialog and characterization to be delightful for entirely unexpected reasons. Kate and Maggie are attending a swanky party thrown by one of Kate’s old prep-school friends, named Evan (who’s also gay, as it happens) to show off his latest art acquisition (some obvious dots are connecting for the readers). As a member of the prestigious Kane family, Kate is expected to play a bit of a socialite when out of costume. Williams and Blackman pretty much ignored this part of her life, and its nice to have it back. Unlike her cousin, Bruce Wayne, Kate isn’t merely an actor when placed in social situations, there is a part of her that genuinely belongs, and bringing this setting back will be a useful tool in expanding her characterization, it’s something new to reconcile against her military identity, her sexuality, and her career as a vigilante. It will also serve as a useful venue in which her engagement can play out. After Maggie makes a goofy “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” reference that shows off her lighter side and proves that despite her working class background, she can hob nob with the elite as well as anybody, she makes an early exit and we are treated to this exchange between Kate and Evan:
Obviously, hints are being dropped that a fairy-tale romance might be too good to be true, but it’s also clear that the relationship will continue to play a prominent role in the series. There will be no abrupt retcon, the new arc doesn’t pick up six months later, hinting at a break-up. Though the marriage is presumably doomed at this point, these characters and their fondness for, and commitment to, one another aren’t going anywhere soon. I’m pleasantly surprised and satisfied with Andreyko’s take on the relationship. If anything, Andreyko has already added layers of interest to what I believe is DC’s best relationship.
So, with no abrupt change in Kate and Maggie’s status quo, there should be a noteworthy uptick in the aggressive action – but this aspect of the story left me scratching my head all the more.
Kate heads back to her cousin Bette’s place when they both get bored with socializing. The two are gabbing about how boring those social affairs can be while Bette is off-panel, presumably changing in a walk-in closet – and then…. voila.
And that’s how the real meat of the plot kicks off. Bette and Kate go on patrol because they’re bored. This struck me as lazy plotting from the get-go, but even more so after we learn whose house they find a crime to fight at:
They left a party because they were bored, and then went out to fight crime, because they were bored, and ended up at the same house that the party had been at, just by pure coincidence.
I had two issues with this: 1) It seems out of character, Kate Kane is a very purposeful vigilante, not one to wander around the roof tops in a costume just for the hell of it. There is apparently a gap between the end of the Williams/Blackman run, maybe something happened to make her a little more spontaneous and light-hearted, but I don’t think so. 2) Couldn’t Andreyko have gotten the two vigilantes back to Evan’s place with, like, actual storytelling. Maybe they saw something suspicious and then connected the dots, maybe they got a tip from Maggie after she left the party, maybe they expected the robbery and just went back out to survey the area, waiting for a suspect. Any of these off-the-top-of-my-head scenarios work better than the utter lack of scenario that we’re actually shown. This type of weak plotting where readers are just asked to accept ridiculous coincidences are unfortunately pretty common in main stream comics, and the worst part is they kill the “excitement” of a story. Plot is far more exciting than action, watching the pieces fall in place is where the “thrill” of a story comes from. There’s nothing “entertaining” about completing a puzzle by jamming together pieces that don’t actually fit.
Then, when Batwoman and Flamebird arrive on the scene who should they find. Obviously the talon-esque art burglar from the earlier scene, coming to rob Evan too. Aside from the fact they Evan is her friend and Kate understandably feels protective of him, it is worth asking:, why is Batwoman even bothering with upper class art theft? During Williams and Blackman’s storyline Batwoman fought Greek gods! She literally fought monsters, I think it would have been fair to leave the art thief to the GCPD.
On another level, the Williams/Blackman storyline revolved around unsolved child abductions; lower class and immigrant children had been mysteriously taken by a ghostly Weaping Woman. The last creative team creating a nice allegory that, without any heavy-handedness, used mythology and folklore to create a neat allegory for the marginalized victims of urban crime – you know, the kind of stuff Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman used to see ceaseless acclaim for doing in their superhero stories. In a comics landscape that places more emphasis on stopping villains than on helping their victims, it was a welcome change of pace and a genuinely interesting story. Andreyko has seemingly done away with the supernatural trappings that had previously defined the series, and now Batwoman is stopping burglars from robbing the penthouse suites of the 1%?
With the lesbian relationship still at the forefront of the book’s drama, and a storyline that is much less compelling in its creativity and its ramifications, I have to ask: what exactly are DC’s plans for this character going forward? Marc Andreyko and Jeremy Haun return next week for issue #27 so perhaps we’ll learn a little more, until we do I’ll continue scratching me head while wondering, what the hell happened here?