When it comes to comics, I’m a writing guy. Though I have dropped titles because of a steep decline in the quality of art, as a writer myself, for the most part, it’s a writer’s involvement with a book that will spark my interest. There are, however, a few exceptions, most notably Batwoman #1. As soon as I read that J.H. Williams III would be returning to draw the character he rendered so beautifully in his run with writer Greg Rucka on Detective Comics, this instantly became a comic I wanted to get my hands on, even with the departure of Rucka and W. Haden Blackman and Williams himself replacing him on writing duties. I was immediately confident that this would be one of the most visually stunning comics of the entire New 52. As it turns out, I was right.
The trademark flourish Williams’ employed to such masterful effect through his Detective Comics run was the stunning two-page tableau, characterised by uniquely inventive layouts – the very panel borders becoming exquisitely structured works of art – and an immersive level of detail. That motif is back in force with Batwoman #1, with no less than 7 of these frame-it-and-put-it-on-your-wall triumphs of craftmanship in this single issue. It’s hard to choose a favorite, but if I had to pick one, it would be a particularly haunting vista where an ethereal, ghostly figure floats through the centre of the frame, the tangles of her hair spreading out as if she was underwater, forming into curves that make the shape of the surrounding panels. Like I said, a level of invention in panel creation that remains unmatched.
But it’s not just Williams’ layouts that are worth shouting about. Also acting as inker for the comic, he makes texture and shading into powerful narrative devices in their own right, every aspect of the image serving the story, further enhancing the symbiosis between story and art that suggests a mastery of the medium. Of particular note is his design of Batwoman herself. As Kate Kane, she fits in with all the other characters in the cast, well-drawn but still ultimately flat and two-dimensional (in appearance, not character). But with the detail with which Williams renders the leathery texture of her Batwoman costume, the character is instantly striking, appearing three-dimensional, like she’s about to jump over the page. She is instantly the most striking image on every panel she appears in. This is best illustrated in a sequence where we see Kate dressing in her Batwoman costume: the top half of her body is rendered like a regular comic character, but the bottom half (clothed in the costume) is drawn in this hyper-real style, elevating her from her non-costumed peers. It’s a visual shorthand for demonstrating the symbolic power of the Bat in Gotham and superheroes in general.
I’ve not said much yet about the writing of Williams and Blackman, and to be honest I probably don’t need to. We could have got 20 pages of Kate Kane taking a dump in the toilet while doing a crossword from the newpaper, and it would be the most beautifully-portrayed dump in the history of the medium, and still enough to warrant at least a 6 or 7 out of 10 overall score for the comic. As it stands, what we get is a mystery of dead and abducted children tied into a local urban myth that seems like it could be intriguing, offering more of a supernatural twist on the gritty crime stories that may be unfolding in other areas of Gotham, but we don’t really go into it that much in this issue.
The more central focus here, and the most compelling aspect of the plot, is the character development for Kate Kane and her supporting cast. We see her emerging romantic relationship with Detective Maggie Sawyer, though she still harbors feelings for Renee Montoya (while it’s good to see more sexual diversity, is every woman in the GCPD a lesbian?), and we get to see her training her cousin Bette, though it feels less like a superhero training a sidekick than a military boot camp, which makes sense given Kate’s military background. And in the exploration of Kate’s rift with her father, we get a catch-up on what went on during Rucka’s Detective run (helpful for those who never read it or those who, like me, had forgotten what happened because we’ve been waiting so long for this new Batwoman series to arrive) without it feeling like a cumbersome info-dump. It helps that much of the exposition is delivered as a montage of images rather than being spoken by characters – another example of that symbiosis between story and image.
The downside for Batwoman #1, one which hurts its overall standing in my eyes, is that it’s over too quickly. It’s a very quick read, and just as the plot was beginning to get interesting, it was suddenly over. I didn’t notice the “To Be Continued” at first, and literally turned the page, saw I was at the end, and said, “Huh? That’s it?” I guess that’s the downside of that abundance of beautiful double page spreads: you don’t feel like you’ve read 20 pages of story.
I said in my review of Batgirl that it would be hard for Batwoman to top it, and in the end, I probably still liked Batgirl a little more. I’m more of a writing guy than an art guy, after all. But this is still a great comic: the art is amazing, and the story is engaging enough that this never just feels like a nothing book with pretty pictures. If you enjoyed the Rucka/Williams run on Detective Comics, J.H. Batwoman #1 should not disappoint you.