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]

TV News: How Do You Solve a Problem like Wonder Woman? (Pilot Episode Details…)

Wonder Woman Terry Dodson

Wonder Woman Lynda CarterAh, Wonder Woman – the Amazon princess of Themyscira who’s sent to Man’s world as an emissary of Peace, a job that seems to involve a remarkable amount of beating people up, battling evil and repelling bullets with her magical arm gauntlets. She’s massively recognisable. She’s one of the most long-running superheroes around. She’s a female icon, a wish-fulfilment figure and a role model… and yet she hasn’t managed a non-animated onscreen appearance since the fabulously campy Seventies TV series starring Lynda Carter. It’s not for want of trying – there’s been a whole series of attempts to bring Wonder Woman back to the screen (most notably in 2005, when Buffy creator Joss Whedon was hired to do a reboot) but all of them have either failed or stalled.

Now, however, Wonder Woman may be on her way back to TV screens, thanks to a rather unlikely benefactor. If you were going to make a list of potential producers for a TV version of Wonder Woman, it’s very unlikely that David E. Kelly – the king of kooky courtroom drama and creator of shows like Ally McBeal and Boston Legal – would have made the cut. However, proving that you can never predict exactly how weird Hollywood can get, a Wonder Woman TV project is looking very likely, a pilot episode is being put together at US network NBC, and David E. Kelly is the man in charge. Details of the pilot script have filtered out via film/tv/comics site Bleeding Cool, and it’s certainly sounding a very David E. Kelly show – by the sounds of it, it’ll be a frothy relationship-driven superhero comedy drama with a fair selection of continuity from the original comics, but aiming more at the mainstream network audience, and certainly in no way trying to do the straight, mythic and serious take that plenty of fans seem to want.

(A quick summary of most of the details we’ve got – essentially, the setup is that Wonder Woman is Diana Themyscira, head of the Themyscira Corporation, and publicly moonlights as a superhero (think Tony Stark and Iron Man), but also uses the mild-mannered alter ego of Diana Prince from time to time. The general mood seems to be goofy female-oriented superhero drama, with a slightly worrying number of pop songs listed in the script (there’s apparently going to be a fight scene scored by ‘Single Ladies’ by Beyonce, which doesn’t exactly fill me with hope), and from most of what I’ve read in the Bleeding Cool article, it does feel like the closest reference point is going to be that fabulously Nineties TV take on Superman, Lois and Clark (also known over here as The New Adventures of Superman) – or, at least, the earlier episodes of Lois and Clark where the relationship-driven comedy worked, and the whole concept hadn’t been run into the ground yet).

Wonder Woman Brian BollandAt this stage, I’m neither loving nor hating what I’m hearing. A lot will depend on execution, and Wonder Woman isn’t a character I’m especially invested in – it does read like the kind of thing that’s more likely to fail than succeed, but pilot episodes can be notoriously clunky anyway, and I’m willing to at least give it a little benefit of the doubt (until I’ve actually seen the episode in question) as this could go either way. Kelly’s take might be a smash success or a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it failure (like the TV adaptation of female-centric Batman universe comic Birds of Prey, which was cancelled so quickly, hardly anyone even noticed that it existed), but it’s interesting in that it shows exactly how much uncertainty there is over how to do Wonder Woman onscreen, a lot more than there ever was with a character like Batman and Superman.

A little of it is simply to do with the fact that superhero tales tend to be pretty big budget (especially if we’re talking movies), and female-driven superhero movies don’t exactly have a fantastic strike rate of success (evidence for the prosecution: Supergirl, Elektra, and the stunningly awful Catwoman). Much of this is down to bad luck and rotten creative decisions, but there’s also the problem that big budget superhero films need to be pitched as wide as possible, and I don’t think anyone has yet to crack how to sell the kind of major-league, female-oriented superhero blockbuster that they’d need if they were going to give Wonder Woman the cinematic outing her following and history deserves.

Wonder WomanOn top of that, Wonder Woman is a tricky character whose origin story has been tweaked, rebooted and remixed a surprising number of times over the years. For example, while there have been wildly different interpretations of Batman, it’s hard to imagine anyone ever suggesting “Hey, you know what? What if Bruce Wayne gave up all the dressing up as a bat, and instead we had him travelling the world as a daring spy who poses as an international playboy? Maybe his codename could still be ‘The Bat’!” And yet, that’s exactly what happened to Wonder Woman for several years, from the late sixties to the mid seventies, when she was de-powered and transformed into a fab and groovy secret agent. There have been other massive changes over the years, and Wonder Woman’s origin isn’t the kind of clear-cut tale that you can sum up as easily and succinctly as Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely managed in the first page of their magnum opus, All-Star Superman:

all-star_superman_origin

Even now, DC are struggling with the character – she’s in the middle of an ‘alternate history’ revamp, a ‘bold new direction’ that was thought up by writer J. Michael Straczynski before he jumped ship from writing monthly comics, and which seems to have turned her into a cross between Xena: Warrior Princess and the DC Comics beserker warrior equivalent of Wolverine. It’s not as much of a car-crash as Straczynski’s god-awful “Superman walks across America” tale Grounded, but after about six issues, it really doesn’t feel like it’s working (even with a mild upswing in quality thanks to Chris Roberson taking over scripting duties). They’ve also, as part of the remix, given her a much-heralded new costume:

wonder woman new costume jim lee

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I don’t actually have a problem with this, and as superhero costumes go, it’s pretty good. The jacket is still ridiculously Nineties, but the ensemble works, and it doesn’t say “armoured swimming costume” in the same way that the classic WW costume does. Yes, it does take away a certain degree of Wonder Woman’s mythic nature but it also, frankly, is a more practical costume that would very probably be much easier to realise onscreen without drifting into the kind of campness that Xena or, to be honest, the Seventies TV show survived on.

wonder woman alex rossAnother problem with Wonder Woman is her mythic nature. She was created in the Nineteen Forties as a female adventurer to battle the Nazis, a long time before the Sixties Marvel revolution made street-level, ordinary-joe superheroes the done thing. As a result, she’s a character of pure myth (plenty of versions of the origin have her actually sculpted from clay by the Gods), and there’s a sense of distance from all the DC ‘Big Three’ – the feeling that they’re Olympian ideals to aspire to. That’s a tricky thing to pull off, especially in the post-Eighties/Nineties era when superhero comics are at least attempting a bit more psychological depth (even if they don’t always manage it), and I really don’t feel like anyone’s ever entirely cracked how to handle this.

There’s also the lack of a single definitive Wonder Woman story. As I’ve said, I haven’t read a heap of Wonder Woman comics, so I’m coming at this as an outsider, but especially in the last twenty five years, in the post Dark Knight and Watchmen comics landscape, there hasn’t been a comic that has truly defined Wonder Woman as a character in the same way that, say, The Dark Knight Returns or The Killing Joke have for Batman. I’m sure there have been some great runs of stories and some impressive creators have worked on the title (including writers like Greg Rucka and Gail Simone), but it feels like what’s needed is someone to take Wonder Woman and do something attention-grabbing and truly different with her (which I suspect was what Straczynski was trying to do with his rather ill-fated concept, unfortunately).

Wonder Woman Lasso of TruthOn top of all that, there’s the question of how close a screen version should stick to the comic, especially when there are aspects of the comic which (to put it mildly) might be tricky to transfer? The 2009 animated Wonder Woman direct-to-DVD film is a good example of this – it’s fine when it’s sticking to pure myth (featuring a 300-style flashback opening sequence), but comes unstuck when it has to do tackle some of the trickier aspects – and yes, we’re talking about the Lasso of Truth. Back in the Forties, there was a deliberate layer of kink to many Wonder Woman stories (with the mighty Amazon coming up against a wide variety of villains who seemed very fond of tying her up time after time), and the Lasso of Truth – the magical rope which, when tied around someone’s neck, compels them to tell the truth – is a direct descendant of this kind of storytelling.

It’s the kind of thing that’s much easier to play in a comic book than in reality, and that’s the main problem with Wonder Woman – you’ve got a character who’s a mass of challenging aspects, many of which could be breathtakingly silly if done wrong, and which doesn’t even have a clear, definitive set of stories which you can look to as an obvious blueprint for a screen adaptation. If anyone wants to set me straight and say “Well, of course there’s issues XXX to XXX”, then I’ll be extremely grateful, but considering these inherent problems, I’m really not surprised that nobody’s been able to get a full-on live action version of Wonder Woman out of development. In pop culture terms, she’s kind of where Batman was before the Tim Burton-directed 1989 blockbuster – the Seventies Lynda Carter show is still, despite its nuclear levels of camp, the main touchstone for what people (at least of a certain age) think when they think ‘Wonder Woman’. What she really needs is someone like Burton to come along and do something incredibly distinctive with her – knock the origin into a coherent shape, choose what they want and leave the rest on the comic page, and craft something which will be distinctive and attention-grabbing.

Now, for the record – I don’t think from what I’ve heard that Kelly’s TV adaptation is going to be that. It’s definitely going to earn a lot of fan hatred even before a second of it has been broadcast, and I don’t know that if my favourite comic book character was going to be changed that radically, I’d be particularly happy. But, I suspect that if Wonder Woman is ever going to succeed onscreen, she’s going to have to be changed – she’s going to have to be a specific interpretation. Until then, she’s going to remain an icon that everybody knows, but which remains frustratingly difficult to adapt…