Written by Greg Rucka
Illustrated by J.H. Williams III
Colored by Dave Stewart
Lettered by Todd Klein
Published by DC
This is a difficult book to write about. On one hand, Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III are responsible for its creation, so you know it’s going to deliver on some level. Each is a seriously talented creator, after all. Yet there’s another level that leaves me scratching my head.
Okay, you may remember that a few years back, DC Comics received a fair bit of press surrounding the introduction of their new Batwoman, who was proudly trumpeted as a “lipstick lesbian.” Then, almost in spite of the character’s profile, she faded into the background and didn’t cause much of a ripple for a few years. Last year, under the careful eye of Rucka and Williams, Batwoman finally got her chance at a starring turn, taking the lead feature in Detective Comics. Batwoman: Elegy collects the Rucka/Williams collaboration under one cover.
So here’s the weird bit: Batwoman’s initial turn at a starring run, her name on the cover of the book for the first time, and Rucka really throws readers into the deep end of the pool. There is a lot of back story referenced in this storyline. I have no clue where the events referenced occurred – 52? Rucka’s Question-led Crime Bible series? Dunno, I missed both of those – but I can’t imagine that any reader intrigued by the new Batwoman isn’t going to find his or her first dip into the pool a little jarring and overwhelming. (In DC and Rucka’s favor, how many readers who had their interest piqued three years ago are still waiting around for this book? At this point, it’s probably mostly DCU fans who can fill in the gaps.)
Editorial choices aside, as for the story and artwork themselves, Batwoman: Elegy contains multiple plusses and just a couple negatives. On the whole, it’s one of the more compelling superhero titles I’ve read recently, though. A simply brutal writer, Greg Rucka’s ability to put a character through an emotional and physical wringer, and to have that character come out stronger and more defined for the reader, is second to none in comics. Kate Kane, Batwoman, is beaten up and stabbed, poisoned, loses her entire family (temporarily and permanently depending on the instance) and at one point in her origin tale loses all of her dreams in life.
The origin tale, by the way, stands out as one of the best superhero origins of all time. Rucka introduces Kate’s motivations, displays her moral strength, offers hints at her struggles in the aftermath of losing everything (due to her moral convictions), and plausibly (as these superhero things go) builds up her desire to pursue vigilante justice as an offshoot of her lifelong ambitions. As a friend put it, her training and dedication goes far beyond the tepid a “few boxing lessons from Wildcat” that passes for superhero conditioning these days.
Elegy’s lead storyline, dealing with Batwoman’s conflict with the cult of crime, isn’t quite as crisp. The already-mentioned thick veil of back story adds too many questions, too many characters with half-defined motivations, but the storyline’s biggest flaw is its reliance on my least favorite comic cliché – the hoary old soap opera, everybody-you-know-is-related hackery. The worst part is that the story would work perfectly without the revelation of Alice’s identity – it doesn’t really enhance Kate’s origin, nor does it make for a poignant final battle. The only real relevance to Alice’s name is to fulfill a prophecy (another overused comic trope) that is grandfathered into Elegy from the previously-mentioned back story.
So there are some plot issues. But fortunately, Rucka’s ability to weave some very effective character work with Kate and her dad through those thorns reminds me just how capable a writer he is. And one you get past the opening storyline and Rucka works backwards into Kate’s origin, the book really takes off. All the best character beats can be found in the latter half of Elegy.
Designer and illustrator extraordinaire J.H. Williams III handled all of the line art, abetted by the sterling combination of colorist Dave Stewart (I love a book with a strong color scheme, and Stewart excels here) and letterer Todd Klein, so amid the mix of promising-but-derailed plot and sharp-as-tacks character work, Batwoman: Elegy is a gorgeous book. Nobody in comics puts together more interesting pages than Williams, and his ability as an illustrator only enhances his astonishing layouts and creative page designs. If Williams has a failing, however, it is that his designs sometimes overwhelm the visual storytelling aspects of his pages.
Compare a pair of two-page spreads (this would be easier if the trade had page numbers!): In the “seven years ago” chapter, Abbot, the wolfen former cult of crime member, preaches to his remaining flock. Williams depicts this with six upright panels, zooming in as the intensity of his sermon grows. Meanwhile, Batwoman, in search of answers, appears within inset, bat-shaped panels overlapping Abbot’s speech. It flows, it’s clear, and it’s beautifully constructed. Several chapters earlier, during Batwoman’s fateful confrontation with Alice, a swirling, circular construct looks gorgeous, but fails to clearly convey the story information. It wasn’t until reading Rucka’s sample script pages in the book’s supplemental material that Alice’s rationale for crawling outside the airplane’s compartment was made clear.
All that said, despite its flaws, Batwoman: Elegy remains a very compelling superhero comic. Kate Kane’s dogged determination and personal honor make her an easy character to cheer for, and her quirky relationship with her father makes her easy to relate to. The plot is, mostly, solidly crafted. The few hiccups in the opening storyline are easily surmounted by the simply sublime origin tale, which is packed with drama. And the artwork: jaw-dropping. It’s not perfect, but Elegy’s still pretty darn good.