Comics Review: Batwoman – Elegy

Writer: Greg Rucka ~ Art: J.H. Williams ~ Colours: Dave Stewart
Publisher: DC Comics ~ Year: 2010

Batwoman Elegy Trade Paperback Cover Art Greg Rucka J H Williams III Kathy Kane[xrr rating=5/5]

The Low-Down: One of the most well-crafted and gorgeous superhero comics produced in years, this collection acts as an excellent introduction to its intriguing central character, while also showcasing some truly astonishing artwork.

The Backstory: Socialite-turned-vigilante Katherine Kane is the latest costumed crimefighter to stalk the streets of Gotham City, taking her inspiration from the Dark Knight and battling injustice under the identity of Batwoman.

What’s it About?: Six months after nearly losing her life at the hands of the mysterious cult known as the Religion of Crime, Katherine is back on the streets and eager to hunt down the Religion’s new leader. But when she encounters this leader – a psychotic Lewis Carrol-obsessed young woman named Alice – Katherine is soon uncovering secrets she’ll wish were left unearthed…

The Story: “Lesbian Batwoman!” That was the main news story when this newly remixed and revamped version of an old-school Batman character was announced back in 2006. Yes, DC were introducing an openly Lesbian superhero into their shared universe, but when Katherine Kane made her first appearance in the year-long miniseries 52, not everyone was impressed. Touches like the rather impractical high-heel boots on the costume didn’t exactly help, and while there was some good writing, the general impression was that DC had ended up with a showy ‘Lipstick Lesbian’ character and not much else.

As a result, this first proper starring role for the character (in the pages of Detective Comics, where Batman first appeared back in May 1939) had its work cut out for it to prove Kathy Kane could work as a genuine protagonist. Getting a successful and engaging bit of superhero action would have been enough – but instead, the two resulting stories collected here (‘Elegy’ and ‘Go’) showcased razor-sharp storytelling combined with mind-blowing artistry.

Batwoman (Double-page Spread) JH Williams IIIWritten by Greg Rucka, the novelist and comics writer behind series like the police-centric Batman title Gotham Central, this is an incredibly strong piece of superhero writing that gets to the heart of an intriguing and well-crafted character. It was certainly easy to wonder if we really needed another Bat-costumed vigilante, but Rucka gives Katherine’s journey through the story a whole series of levels, making her a compelling and interesting character while not turning her sexuality into a cheap bit of titilation. Thanks to her backstory, it’s key to who she is (we find out in ‘Go’ that she was originally training to be a marine, but was drummed out of the service thanks to the ‘Dont Ask, Don’t Tell’ rules that forbid gays from serving in the US Armed forces), and Rucka manages plenty of nicely played character twists, while building a fascinating relationship between Katherine and her father.

Sadly, this isn’t completely self-contained. As with so many superhero stories, there’s past history this links in with (in this case, the lengthy story of ’52’), meaning certain plot twists come as a severe culture shock (especially when a group of shape-changers seem to just turn up out of nowhere). However, unlike many superhero comics that flirt with being adult but only really manage adolescent violence and melodrama, this is a superhero action adventure that feels genuinely grown-up, and will leave you hungry for more – and, after many delays, we’ll finally be getting more in the ongoing Batwoman series finally starts in September 2011 (although sadly without the writing talents of Rucka).

Batwoman - JH Williams IIIThe Art: Some comics look good. Some comics look beautiful. And then, there are the comics that blast your head off with exactly how lush, artful and downright gorgeous they look. J.H. Williams III has been building a reputation over the last decade for being one of the most impressive and experimental artists in the business (especially with his work on Alan Moore’s Promethea and the opening/closing chapters of Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers of Victory), and he really pushes the boat out here, delivering some deeply eyeball-frazzling visuals.

There’s barely a page in the whole collection that isn’t breathtaking, from the lush painted style and angular panel structures of the Batwoman-in-costume sequences to the cleaner lines of Kathy Kane’s everyday life. Double-page spreads explode in colour, fight sequences are rendered as lightning-bolt-shaped panels raining down around the central character, and the whole thing is simply a jaw-dropping showcase of the kind of places comics can go when a writer and an artist are prepared to push into new territory. Of course, there’ll be some who’ll look at this sniffily and say “It’s all a bit flashy and hard to read”, but this is the kind of storytelling that only comics can do (and which still works best on the printed page), making the design and structure of the page an integral part of the story. Far more than just eye-candy, Batwoman: Elegy sets a new standard for art and storytelling craft in mainstream comics – and if only there were a few more mainstream titles out there even capable of trying to keep up…

The Verdict: An expertly crafted and characterful introduction to a new superhero gets pushed into must-read territory by some gob-smacking artwork. One of the best mainstream superhero comic books published in a long time – buy it, and give your eyes a feast.

[amtap book:isbn=0857684299]

Movie Review – TRON: Legacy

YEAR: 2010 ~ CAST: Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, Bruce Boxleitner, James Frain, Beau Garrett ~ WRITERS: Edward Kitiss & Adam Horowitz ~ DIRECTOR: Joseph Kosinski

Tron Legacy PosterThe Backstory: In 1982, videogame designer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) tried to break into the system of his ex-employers ENCOM, but instead was transported into the world inside the computer – a realm of adventure and danger, where he fought against the Master Control Program with the help of a program named Tron (Bruce Boxleitner).

What’s it About?: Twenty years after Kevin Flynn vanished, his rebellious 27-year old son Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) follows a possible clue to his disappearence, and ends up inside another world. Flynn has created a self-contained digital universe – the Grid – but he’s been trapped inside it for twenty years by his alter ego, the program CLU, and now there’s very little time before the only escape route closes forever…

The Film: We are quite definitely living in strange times. The quest to re-sell and repackage the 1980s (whether it’s TV series or resurrected movies) over the last few years has been an exceptionally bizarre experience, but nothing so far has been quite so odd as Disney’s decision to do a massive-budget, 3-D blockbuster sequel to – of all things – Tron. The 1982 cult curio has built up a strong reputation thanks to its kooky story and the fantastically stylised early-CGI visuals (which, despite the technical limitations, seem to somehow get more stylish the older they get), but it was a box-office flop at the time, and nobody’s idea of a dead-cert for a major-league franchise revival.

That we’ve simply gotten a TRON sequel is strange and wonderful enough – but after watching the film in brain-scrambling IMAX 3D, I can’t help feeling that we’ve ended up with this generation’s version of the 1980s screen adaptation of Flash Gordon. That’s not exactly what Disney set out to acheive, admittedly, and it’s also true that TRON: Legacy isn’t anywhere near the campery or sheer unadulterated fun of Mike Hodges’ absurdly colourful 1982 spectacular (partly because the central concept of TRON is, to be honest, so wonderfully ridiculous that it does need to be taken very seriously in order to work).

TRON: Legacy is, however, the closest anyone’s come in a long time to the style of pulpy adventure films that were so common during the 1980s, managing to be thrilling in a way that isn’t quite the usual adrenaline rush that modern Hollywood specialises in. TRON: Legacy is absolutely an Adventure film, rather than an Action film – in the same way as Avatar, it’s all about the worldbuilding and the environment (with story and character coming a slightly weak second place), and both films also use a hefty dollop of classic Joseph Campbell-style storytelling in order to transport us to into their universes.

Tron Legacy Olivia WildeIt’s true that TRON: Legacy doesn’t manage this as succesfully as Avatar did (with one of that film’s true strengths being the fact that it is a deeply immersive spectacle), mainly thanks to some very clunky storytelling. It’s also true that Garret Hedlund largely falls into the same category as Flash Gordon’s Sam J. Jones in being a slightly engaging but mostly rather oaken lead actor. In fact, TRON: Legacy is packed full of problems, and frequently feels like it’s only a couple of scenes away from collapsing in on itself, while being as unlikely a franchise-starter as I’ve ever seen. The occasionally sluggish pacing combined with some very incoherent story choices don’t help in the slightest, and TRON: Legacy is certainly a long-way from being a top-notch blockbuster film.

And yet… it’s actually stuck with me a lot longer than Avatar did, and I’ve got the odd feeling that I actually prefer it, despite Cameron’s 3-D opus undoubtedly being the more polished and well-structured film. Much of this is that TRON: Legacy is such a tremendous visual spectacle, one that really needs to be viewed on the biggest screen available, while also being a film that does take us somewhere new, even if it’s just in terms of style and visuals. The way it expands and realises the world of TRON is never less than impressive – there’s a lush, faintly ludicrous and yet undeniably sexy style to the production design and costumes, a European comic-book visual sensibility that keeps the eye candy at a truly glorious level, from the head-whirling disc combat to the climactic air-battle. The look of the film is backed up with the sound – and again, as with Flash Gordon and its timelessly over-the-top Queen music, TRON: Legacy would be much weaker if it wasn’t for the sharp, driving and surprisingly powerful score from Daft Punk, a soundtrack that’s snapping at the heels of Hans Zimmer’s work on Inception for the ‘Best of 2010’ award.

Tron Legacy Jeff BridgesUltimately, what I really liked about TRON: Legacy is that it’s actually trying to tackle some  interesting philosophical questions about life, creation, freedom of information, and the kind of future the digital world offers us. Yes, it’s doing it in a frequently garbled and half-baked way, but the screenplay does a good job of mirroring certain aspects of the real world in the universe of the Grid, and the apparent ‘Hey kids- Piracy is cool!’ subtext in its first twenty minutes isn’t anywhere near as simplistic as it first appears. It’s true that much of the ‘meat’ of the film is thrown at the audience in a single massive flashback sequence, and there’s so much thematic material in the screenplay that I can’t help wishing screenwriters Edward Kitiss and Adam Horowitz could have managed another rewrite, or at least smoothed out some of the clumsier dialogue and exposition (especially in the extremely weak opening sequence, where Kevin Flynn explains the Grid to the 7-year-old Sam as a bedtime story).

However, for all its flaws – the occasionally hard-to-follow battle scenes, the overplayed one-liners, the fact that the CGI used to de-age Jeff Bridges to play CLU is still a few years from being consistently photorealistic – I’d still far rather see a film like TRON: Legacy aim high and fall short, than just getting another immersive yet unsurprising fantasy journey like Avatar, no matter how well-executed it is. A continuation of the saga seems deeply unlikely (and slightly frustrating, considering a couple of very deliberate flapping plot threads at the story’s climax), but despite all its flaws, there are kids out there whose minds will be blown by TRON: Legacy – and I can’t help feeling this is yet another slow-burning cult movie just waiting to happen.

The Verdict: Ignore any of the Star Wars prequel comparisons some negative reviews have thrown around– TRON: Legacy may be loaded with issues in its storytelling, pace and dialogue, but it’s also one of the strongest visual experiences to hit the screen in a long time, backed with the brilliant Daft Punk soundtrack, and a story that’s smarter than it first appears. Plus it’s got Olivia Wilde looking hot in a rubber catsuit, which simply can’t be a bad thing…

[xrr rating=3.5/5]

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