A bit of a different review today, part of my 2011 challenge to branch out and read some new genres and formats that don’t generally have a home on my bookshelf. Today, it’s my first foray into graphic novels . . . well, at least since my high school days, which are far enough behind me to be (thankfully) nearly forgotten.
Batwoman: Elegy collects issues #854-860 of Detective Comics in a single-volume, glossy, hardbound edition. It’s quite a beautiful presentation, and I must admit I loved having the opportunity to consume the entire series in one sitting, as opposed to sampling it one monthly issue at a time.
As the story begins, Kate Kane – cast out of WestPoint in disgrace, but still every bit a soldier – finds herself confronted with a madwoman known as Alice, who speaks and acts as if she truly were in Wonderland. Alice has come to claim her place as head of the 13 covens of the Religion of Crime, but she’s also come to fulfill a prophecy of doom that has already haunted the Batwoman once before.
Since this is a graphic novel, I’d like to begin by commenting on the artwork. There are 3 distinct styles used within the saga, each deliberately tailored to an individual aspect of the story. A glossy, stylized, vibrantly coloured approach is used for the basic superhero storyline, and it suits the overall tone nicely. It isn’t until the other styles appear, however, that you begin to appreciate just how carefully crafted the approach is. When the story strays into the supernatural elements of werewolves and other monsters, the artwork becomes harsher and edgier – even the lettering becomes jagged and crisp. Later, when we slip into flashback mode and witness the events that led Kate to become the Batwoman, the style changes again, becoming plain, washed out, and a little more ‘classic’ or retro.
As for the storytelling, it’s told entirely through dialogue – there are no narrative asides, bridges, or commentary to ease the reader along. While that can bring a weaker comic to it’s knees, the dialogue here is very well written, easily conveying the depth and significance of each scene, even while sounding (so to speak) natural to the ears. Alice’s dialogue is a challenge, but entirely suited to her Wonderland psychosis, and is at-times lifted word-for-word from Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece. It helps that the artwork is so well done, clearly conveying the urgency of the storyline though an overlapping series of beautiful, often frantic, frames.
On the surface, this is a story about two women, each the opposite of the other – the Batwoman in black, and Alice in white. Both are damaged, and both are consumed by the single-minded pursuit of their goals, but where the Batwoman takes strength from her damaged past, Alice seems fractured because of it. There’s a connection between the two women that I won’t spoil here, but I will say it’s teased well enough and long enough that the final reveal is more of an ‘ah-hah!’ than a ‘huh?” moment.
Of course, it’s impossible to review the adventures of the Batwoman without commenting on what made her such a media sensation – her sexuality. Yes, it’s true, Kate Kane is an out-and-proud lesbian. What’s important, though, is that this isn’t some cheap publicity stunt, and it’s never played for the titillation factor. Kate’s sexuality is a defining element of her personality. Following her expulsion from WestPoint, there’s a single page, a sequence of 6 washed-out retro frames, which deal with her coming out to her father, and with the consequences of being publicly outed. It’s one of the best coming out scenes I’ve ever read/seen, and the side-by-side panels of Kate’s facial expression, followed by her father’s, tell more story in 4 words and 2 glances than should be possible.
Gay or straight, male of female, if you don’t come away from this story without respecting and admiring the Batwoman, then clearly you’re on the wrong side . . . and will likely be getting a blood-red boot to the chest in a future issue.