‘Batwoman Elegy’ is a Dark, Inspiring Example of Diversity in Superhero Comics

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Detective Comics #854-860
Written by Greg Rucka
Art by J.H. Williams III
Colored by Dave Stewart

For a few months, Batwoman, who had been recently revamped as a lesbian and former US Army cadet, headlined DC Comics’ flagship book Detective Comics. Kate Kane made her debut as Batwoman in 52 #7 and played a big part in the weekly series helping her ex-girlfriend Renee Montoya and the Question track down the followers of the Crime Bible. Batwoman held her own in this series that was stuffed with many DC Comics characters with some great moments, including surviving a stab wound to the heart, provoking seasoned GCPD cop Renee Montoya to exclaim, “That’s a Batwoman”, and warding off Nightwing’s romantic advances. (Sorry, Dick, this redhead plays for a different team.) In 2009, Batwoman finally got her own series as the main character of Detective Comics while Bruce Wayne was busy fighting through time in the beautiful, yet tragic “Elegy” storyline written by Greg Rucka with art by  J.H. Williams. Williams’ ability to shift artistic styles and lay out a page in  unique ways makes Rucka’s horror/detective script a pleasure to read. But “Elegy” isn’t all pretty pictures and dynamic action scenes. (Even though Williams captures Kate’s military training and the sheer force of her blows in these scenes.) It delves into why she fights crime and wears the Bat on her chest even though she isn’t really a member of the Batman family.

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So why does wealthy socialite Kate Kane, who has a reputation for staying out late and “tomcatting” around with every lesbian woman in Gotham fight crime? Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams give us the full answer in Detective Comics #858-860, which acts as Batwoman “Year One”, while also showing her investigating the dead Religion of Crime High Madame Alice, who she suspects to be her long lost sister Beth. From the day she was born, the military has been a huge part of Kate Kane’s life. Both her father Jake and mother Gabi were important members of the US Army, and the Kane family even relocated to Brussels so Jake could take an important job with NATO. Because of his job, Kate was estranged from her father, but she had a close bond with her twin sister Beth, whose sentences she literally finishes. They are a mischievous bunch, but learn about integrity and honor from their mother even in little situations like pretending to be each other to get out of some homework. Williams and colorist Dave Stewart show some subtle differences between the girls as they get older. For example, Kate has begun to adopt the red and black colors that she will eventually wear as Batwoman while Beth sticks to brighter colors. However, her carefree childhood ends when her mother and sister are gunned down by her father’s enemies in genuinely scary sequence that is all black with sound effects from letterer Todd Klein. There is no epic crying scene/swearing vengeance on her family’s grave sequences, but Rucka and Williams give readers a taste of what Kate is going through in a single panel where Jake tells Kate not to look at her mother’s dead body and she stares straight ahead. Her mother and Beth’s deaths become the driving force as she  enrolls in West Point and becomes a brigade leader there as well as topping her class going into her fourth year.

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Despite these successes, Kate is a victim of discrimination and the real-life “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in the US military that was finally repealed in 2011, but was still active when Rucka was writing “Elegy”. Detective Comics #859 is a sad comic with a slightly hopeful ending  as a promising military woman is expelled from West Point and the United States Army because of the person she loves. Rucka and Williams build the emotional stakes from the beginning with a panel showing the famed Cadet Honor Code, which is “I will not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate those among us that do.” Kate invokes this code with her commanding officer, who will let her remain at West Point and in the Army if she denies being a lesbian and breaking Article 125 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. However, Kate has been raised by her father and mother to have honor and integrity and in a powerful moment, replies, “I’m gay”. Even before she puts on the cape and uniform of Batwoman, Kate Kane is a true hero. She is an example to anyone facing discrimination for their sexuality from employers or family. (Kate’s stepmother Kathy is a tad homophobic and berates her for wearing a tuxedo to a social function in Detective Comics #856 where she meets her future fiancee Maggie Sawyer.) As a bisexual person, who has to either conceal my real sexuality or get comments  to the effect of “It’s just a phase.”, Kate Kane’s painful journey to becoming the hero Batwoman is a real inspiration to me. “Batwoman: Elegy” was definitely deserving of the 2010 GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Comic Book.

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“Batwoman: Elegy” has solid structure as Rucka and Williams give readers a taste of Batwoman’s personality and fighting style in a four part mystery story with Batwoman stopping the insane, Lewis Carroll quoting Alice’s plot to destroy and rule Gotham City. She also  breaks the “Batman rule” and is subsequently filled with guilt. The remaining three issues are the aforementioned Batwoman origin story as well as showing her investigation and discovery that Alice is, in fact, her sister Beth. Readers get to see the flirty, attractive Kate Kane as well as the paramilitary vigilante Batwoman for a while before discovering what made her this way. There are some emotional scenes in her origin story from a JH Williams splash page showing the “nothing” that Kate gets up to between her expulsion from West Point to rebirth as Batwoman, including trying to find meaning in drinking, clubbing, and body art. Kate has a true, ugly moment when she drunkenly calls her current Renee Montoya a liar for not coming out to her partner Harvey Bullock and the rest of the GCPD. Rucka and Williams show their heroine’s flaws as well as her strengths, which is a big reason Batwoman is such a compelling character. She also has an interesting relationship to Batman. One night, after she is accosted by some muggers, Kate beats them up, and Batman helps her up. He then swoops into the night with the Bat-signal shining overhead as Williams pays tribute to Michael Lark’s work on Gotham Central where Batman stuck to the shadows, but still has a huge effect on the characters. Batwoman doesn’t want to be Batman’s sidekick or even his ally, but his nocturnal, mask wearing vigilantism finally gives her a template to serve the greater good and honor her mother and sister’s memory without being in the military. However, she does undergo military training from her father’s friends for three years so she’ll be able to wage her war on crime more effectively.

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Towards the end of “Batwoman: Elegy”, readers find out that Batwoman has a red and black costume because these colors can’t be seen during “night operations”. There is also a deeper, more mythic reason. Red and black are the traditional colors for war, and in “Batwoman: Elegy”, Kate Kane proves that she is a true goddess of war, who doesn’t flinch in the face of werewolves and tentacle monsters that work for her sister/horror movie villain. This echoes an earlier scenes when she doesn’t flinch when asked to break the cadet honor code by her commanding officer. Whether you want to read about a complex and flawed female, lesbian (and ginger) superhero kick her demons’ asses, gaze at detailed art for hours, or have a thing for the “freakier” side of Gotham City, “Batwoman: Elegy” is well worth a read. It is also a great example of diversity in superhero comics with a relatively new LGBT character being the main character in a major publisher’s oldest book.

 




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