Monday, January 30, 2012

Batwoman by J.H. Williams III, Greg Rucka & W. Haden Blackman


Shining A Spotlight On Cutting Edge Lesbian Literature

With Special Guest Reviewer ANN McMAN
2012 Lavender Certificate winner & author of the best selling novels, Jericho and Dust

Book(s):     Batwoman: Elegy
                  Batwoman: Hydrology
Author(s):  J.H. Williams III and Greg Rucka
                  J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman
Publisher:  D.C. Comics

Author Ann McMan
I grew up in a small town on the banks of the Allegheny River in northwestern Pennsylvania, a stone’s throw from Lake Erie. Believe me when I tell you that up in those parts, you had to figure out how to make your own fun.

You did this with varying degrees of success.

In the wintertime, you went ice-skating on any one of a dozen frozen branches that eventually dumped into the big river. Or if you were like me, and didn’t yet have your own skates, you’d strap on your big sister’s old ones—the scuffed-up white ones with the beater blades—cram socks into the toes so they’d stay on your feet, and trudge out to that low section of back yard that my father would flood for the little kids—those of us who couldn’t yet be trusted to know what parts of the “crick” were safe enough to support our weight.

In the warm weather, we’d ride our bike (we had one, and we took turns)—or we’d play Kick-the-Can on that large gravel lot next to the house.

Those were the most intoxicating times—those hours after dinner and homework when the four of us could linger outside until the pink light faded, and the sun dropped behind the hills.

But we always had to do our homework. It sucked.

And on Saturday mornings, if we had been very good—which, in northwestern Pennsylvania parlance, meant you’d lived through a whole week and didn’t break any windows, try to jump start the old ’48 Chevy pickup, lie about eating the last cinnamon roll, hit anybody, get caught smoking Dad’s Salem menthols in the basement, or put the cat in the dryer…again…you’d get your allowance.

Allowance. A magical thing.

It should have been called “dispensation.” It came every week, just like manna from heaven. Fifty-cents each. A fortune. A treasure trove. The key to unlock exotic worlds that existed far beyond the one we knew—just like all those places described in that set of Illustrated Classics that our mother made us read.

My brother Steve and I would always get up early on Saturday, take our four shiny quarters, and walk two and a half miles to the small tobacco shop and newsstand that was a landmark in what passed for the nearest “town.”

We bought confections, of course. Fireballs. Chum Gum. Pixie Sticks. Well. I bought Pixie Sticks—Steve was already far too manly for that. Sometimes, we’d splurge and buy a big Phillie Cigar—then pretend not to get sick while we took turns smoking it on the walk back home.

And every week, we bought comic books. Lots of them.  

Superheroes were our favorites. Superman. Batman. The Flash. The Green Lantern.

And Steve liked Sgt. Rock, too—although he was always a bit too butch for me.

But we agreed about one thing: we needed these heroes in our small lives—these fantastic, iconic figures who fought for truth and justice. We needed them because we were just beginning to understand that our world wasn’t really a safe place. After all…a man with a rifle had just killed President Kennedy in Texas—and we watched all of that unfold in real time on our small black and white TV. Nothing like that had ever happened before—not in our lives, and not in anybody else’s either.

Yep. We needed superheroes. And we brought them home with us every week. They kept us company in the small hours before bedtime. We’d read them and trade them and save them in boxes beneath our beds, like hedges against our fears of the unknown.

Things are different today. And kids are different, too. They have different lives, different expectations, different possibilities, and different understandings of a world that is larger, more complex, more immediate, and much more volatile than the one I grew up in.

Do they still need superheroes?

Damn skippy, they do!

Enter Kate Kane, a.k.a. Batwoman.


She’s strong. Smart. Brave. Beautiful. Badass. Complex. Conflicted. Driven. Determined. Devoted to truth and justice. Looks hot in a black body suit.

Oh…and she’s a lesbian.

Oh my.

Toto? We’re not in Kansas anymore.

And it gets better. Under the pen of the every-award-they-give-for-graphic-illustration-winning J.H. Williams III, this ass-kicking icon among crime fighters—who just happens to like other girls—now headlines her very own, best-selling DC Comics franchise.

This new incarnation of Batwoman exploded into the modern day comic-verse back in 2006, as part of the DC maxi-series, 52. The reimagined character (Batwoman first showed up back in the mid-1950s as a quasi-love interest for Batman) was so successful that she catapulted (literally) to headline the stalwart “Detective Comics” franchise. All twelve issues of Batwoman: Elegy, drawn by Williams and written by GLAAD laureate Greg Rucka, are nicely collected in a beautiful trade volume that features an introduction by MSNBC political commentator, Rachel Maddow—whose own career slightly parallels that of the red-caped arbiter of the night. Well—all except for that love-interest-for-Batman thing….

But that’s another essay.

Still. If you’re in any doubt about the stand-alone literary merit of Batwoman’s first, mainline foray into the annals of lesfic, consider this endorsement from Maddow’s intro to Elegy:

I won’t lie to you: I would read anything Greg Rucka wrote. I would read Greg Rucka’s grocery lists. I would read Greg Rucka’s discarded edits. I would read a Greg Rucka forty-volume soft-hearted navel-gazer about characters I couldn’t care less about, if he was capable of writing such a thing, and if he did I’d probably read it out loud to my friends and exclaim and swear about how he made me care.

Hard to argue with that.

This show stopping, twelve-issue run led to the development of the lesbian caped crusader’s own label—and Batwoman: Hydrology made its explosive debut last September, wrapping up its five-issue, debut run this month.

And what a debut it is.

J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman hit a home run with Batwoman: Hydrology not just because of the jaw dropping, heart-stopping, awe inspiring illustration—but because they know how to tell a great story about a complex character who just happens to be gay.

And, after all, isn’t that what we each aspire to? To arrive at a safe place where our sexual orientation is rightly understood as just one part of who we are—in tandem with things like blue eyes, an unruly head of husky hair, or a curious fondness for root vegetables?

I think so.

The new Batwoman is many things. She’s an ex-solider who was drummed out of military service under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. She’s Jewish. She’s slightly Goth. She’s an heiress. She has a string of failed relationships. She is dark and besieged with self-doubt. She sometimes makes bad choices. Her family life is in flux. When she’s garbed up to fight crime, she wears a wig that channels Rita Hayworth. 

And she’s gay.

When The Advocate interviewed J.H. Williams III, he talked freely about the challenge of writing a high-profile gay character for a mainstream publisher—and the implied pressure that goes along with it.

I feel the pressure, but I have confidence in it too. For me, the pressure comes from wanting to make sure we’re telling a good story. The political aspects — in terms of her being a gay character — are irrelevant to me because I’m just writing a good character. I think that is probably the smartest way to approach it instead of worrying about any sort of media feedback the story could possibly generate. It’s more important for me to treat the character the same way I would treat any other character. That means respecting the way Kate Kane’s story is told. ...I want the series and the character to have a unique voice in comparison to any other superhero title. Not because she’s gay, but because I want to tell a unique story.

He succeeds.

But don’t take my word for it—or Rachel Maddow’s, for that matter. Pick up your own copy of Hydrology, and judge for yourself. Even if graphic novels are not your style, you’ll find plenty here to like: good story telling; a fast-paced, action packed adventure; exotic locations; creepy bad guys; fantastic feats of human endurance; and a tender love story.

And maybe—just for a moment—you’ll reconnect with that small part of yourself that still, in the quiet hours of the night, cries out for a hero.

She’s here. She’s queer.

And the world is ready for her.

Rating:  A solid 5.4 out of 6 on the Rainbow Scale


  1. Landagoshen (and what in the world does that mean?), another new feature! I can hardly wait till next year's awards...
    Traveling back to yesteryear with hours spent with comic books, Chuckles, and Hershey bars was a treat. I'd forgotten about the the brother-sister bonding of those moments.
    Ms McMan you've done a wonderful "flash forward" with a glance backward. Your introduction and history of this series was terrific. The sample pictures have whet my appetite.
    As always a nice Monday treat.Well done, Ladies.

  2. Hiya, Barrett! Chuckles and Hershey bars....that's a girl from the midwest for darn sure! Thanks for stopping by and getting your inner-Batwoman on with us today!