Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

25 December 2010

Batwoman: Elegy

Collects: Detective Comics #854-60 (2009-10)

Released: June 2010 (DC)

Format: 192 pages / color / $24.99 / ISBN: 9781401226923

What is this?: The new Batwoman — how does she work this superhero game? How did she get here? What is that beautiful house? Is she right, or is she wrong?

The culprits: Writer Greg Rucka and artist J.H. Williams III

To me, nothing quite says “the birth of Baby Jesus” like pictures of people being punched and kicked in the face drawn by J.H. Williams III. But perhaps your idea of Christmas is a bit different than mine.

In any event, J.H. Williams week ends with Batwoman: Elegy. Unlike the previous entry, Promthea, Books 3 and 4, little the writer does can overshadow Williams’s distinctive art.

Batwoman: Elegy coverWilliams deserves the accolades he has received for his work on Batwoman. His range is simply astonishing. He shifts his style depending on the situation — superhero battles have are in a different style than Batwoman’s interactions with her father, which are different than her childhood days, which differ from war scenes … and it’s all outstanding. I was convinced there had to be guest artists for some of the issues, since the styles were so different. But it’s only Williams.

The most striking art includes his depictions of Batwoman in her battle vs. the Crime Cult. The layouts are simply unlike anything you see elsewhere, with traditional panel grids frequently forsaken for jagged overlapping pictures that manage to combine the violence of the action as well as play with the nature of time. This art is the prettiest, as well — as much as I like the Mike Allred-style art that depicts Batwoman’s childhood, few readers are going to choose it over that of the main story. Part of the appeal is the stark red and black palette used by colorist Dave Stewart; Stewart avoids muddying Williams’s finished art and manages to give the book a distinct look that readers can absorb without even deciphering the art. But even the other scenes in the book can stand out, as Williams is making choices everywhere in Elegy — in backgrounds, in interweaving symbols into the layout and art — choices that other artists don’t even consider.

Don’t get the idea that Williams is perfect; no artist is. (Even my favorite comic artist, Bill Sienkiewicz, has detractors who make valid complaints about his style.) As I noted in the Promethea review, Williams’s inventive layouts can sometimes be needlessly confusing; there were a half dozen times when I turned the page and wondered whether I had accidentally skipped a page. With Promethea, the overly daring placement of panels can be forgiven, as Moore’s often dry yet still intensely original story cries out for art that is different and inventive. Batwoman, not so much. I also have to fault Williams’s design for the main character a little bit. Starting off Elegy, Batwoman came across as a great design for a villain: that morbidly pale skin, those inhumanly red lips spread in a wide smile … that, coupled with the uncomfortable intimacy between Batwoman and the thug she’s beating up, fits better with someone who’s emulating the Joker than the Bat.

Writer Greg Rucka’s story doesn’t rise to the level of Williams’s art — of course, not very much writing in any medium does. (See: Sturgeon’s Law.) It’s not that Rucka’s story is bad; there’s nothing here that makes me cringe or bores me, and that’s an accomplishment of sorts. But the missing family member who returns from the dead to harass the living and the Alice in Wonderland villain are tired comic book tropes, and like most DC books, Elegy does not care to help you catch up with the continuity the book is based on.

There’s a lot here to like, though, although she does come across as a typical Rucka protagonist: a tough female who can deal out punishment as well as take it. There’s nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes; comics need more characters like that, and Batwoman is different from Rucka’s other characters. She’s a former West Point cadet who was kicked out for her homosexuality; although her stepmother disapproves of her occasionally outré appearance, her father embraces who she is, both in and out of costume, and even supplies, monitors, and advises her.

There’s so much to like I can’t figure out how Rucka makes me so ambivalent about the character. It’s always something with Rucka, and it’s usually something different. I’ve read his Atticus Kodiak novels, and I’ve never actually liked the protagonist or the people he surrounds himself with. I read the Queen and Country novel and was unimpressed with the story. I’ve read other comics of his, and other than Whiteout and Gotham Central, I haven’t cared for them either. In this case, I think it’s the tired family tragedy. The death of her mother and sister at the hands of terrorists doesn’t seem to add depth to the character; that’s just plot trappings that complicate without entertaining or improving the character. Nor does the Crime Bible / prophecy plot add anything, although Rucka’s choice to use that plot in Batwoman’s first lead outing is understandable. Her desire to serve while maintaining the iron core of who she is — unable to compromise on either one — and the sweet relationship she has with her dad are what I want to see more of. The rest … the rest is useless.

Based on Williams’s art, I wish I could give this book my unqualified approval. I can’t, though. I think it’s worth reading, mostly for the art but occasionally for the writing. But I don’t think for a minute that the story will be for all readers, especially those not already familiar with Batwoman’s story. And those who see something unique in Williams’s work will not see much that is different in the writing. Still, Elegy is a solid book.

Rating: Batman symbol Batman symbol Batman symbol Batman symbol (3.5 of 5)

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