Roundtable Review | Batwoman #1

Jonathan Messinger: My role in this New 52 Critics' Circle is as test subject. I'm exactly the reader DC hopes to attract: The guy who read comics for years, but fell off a couple years back, and is now ready to pick up the habit again. So I was excited for this new Batwoman book, since the character barely existed in my day, and the preview art from J.H. Williams looked stellar. Quick synopsis: A vengeful spirit is kidnapping Gotham's children, and Kate Kane as Batwoman is on the case, as is her date, Detective Maggie Sawyer. And for at least part of the book, Batwoman is training up her cousin, the former Teen Titan Firebird.

Batwoman has one of the most promising beginnings. That first line, "She is a terrible thing…" is such a great scripted line, the kind of evocative writing that could open a great horror movie or novel. And the art is painterly and gorgeous, with that great archetypal female ghost: bereaved and terrifying, standing in front of the open window overlooking the river. And I thought the art, for the most part, was fantastic throughout, even if the level of detail fluctuated haphazardly.

Overall, though, this didn't do it for me. I know Williams is trying to catch people up to Batwoman's Elegy arc—I haven't read this, but Web told me—and to me it's enormously clunky. When Firebird asks Batwoman about her dad, she refuses to talk about him. But when her dad shows up, Kate speechifies her whole past. "Bette, you want to know why I don't talk about my father? BACKSTORY!!" Never mind the fact that the initial Firebird and Batwoman scene adds nothing to the story, or that we get two gratuitous scenes with the two buxom heroines changing in and out of their costumes, revealing as much as a burlesque show. Really? Two? I suppose there are readers who relish a look inside the superhero locker room, but give me a break.

Brent DiCrescenzo: If ever the case could be made for a "silent" comic, this is the art. Let's be honest, nobody is picking this up for the text. J.H. Williams is an incredible artist, one that transcends "comic art," though he's almost showing off here. I found the dramatic stylistic changes bizarre, if gorgeous. The bright, heavily outlined segments in the police station could be Seth Fisher or Geof Darrow, where as other spreads reminded me of the gothic, pencilly panels of Dave McKean. It's impossible to parse how this relates to the story at all. But Williams is at his best when dazzling the eyes with dramatic, two-page splashes that border on art nouveau. He's such a great storyteller with images, the word bubbles just get in the way.

That being said, 80% of the comic consists of two-page spreads. The art orgy gets heavy handed and cuts down on the content, which is oddly paced and muddled. Newbies will be lost trying to figure out the relationships of the characters. And, yes, having lesbians take their pants off repeatedly drags this into exploitation territory. Batwoman is gorgeous, a cross of Florence Welsh and the Crimson Ghost. No other hero jumps off the page like that, though the D-list villains stole my interest. The campy Q-Ball and the Pool Hall Gang are billiards-themed bandits that could have come from the Adam West show, and a cigar-chomping skeleton runs a secret section of the U.S. government. That's the sort of highbrow take on D-list DCU that makes a title like Batwoman a sleeper.

Kris Vire: I was pleasantly surprised to see Mr. Bones and Chase show up for that scene, suggesting the DEO could be an ongoing thorn in Batwoman's side. As much as I appreciate the lushness of Williams's art, I felt a bit assaulted by it, too. Seriously, eight double-page spreads! I can't decide if that's audacious or overindulgent.

That chilly opening scene drew me in right away. And Brent, you're right, Batwoman really does pop—I love the way the colorist lets the red bleed a bit in action scenes, as if she's trailing a motion blur. The Titans nerd in me is sort of geeked to see Bette brought in as a potential sidekick, too. But I was really bothered by the cheesecake changing-room scene; given Kate's mainstream high profile as comics' most visible lesbian character, the nudie shots feel especially exploitative. And I agree with Jonathan about the anvil-tastic rehash of "Elegy."

Maybe it's just the looooooong period of anticipation for this title that made me feel underwhelmed now that it's finally here—I'm afraid I'm being nitpicky. I'm definitely hooked.  Oh, and what's the implication of that photo of Renee Montoya on the wall at GCPD? I can't tell if that's meant to be a memorial display or not. If it means no Renee in the new U, I'm pissed.

Web Behrens: As a big Batwoman and even bigger J.H.Williams III fan, I've been looking forward to this. I was satisfied, too, despite the shortcomings Jonathan mentions. With a cast of characters this rich and art this stunning, I can overlook a few details and still be happy.

DC's getting into some muddy territory this week, not just with this title but also in Green Lantern. Prior to all these New 52 number-ones (which seem to be doing their trick, sales-wise, according to reports and anecdotal evidence from friends who found many titles, including Action, sold out), the GL and Bat titles were DC's two solid franchises. So instead of the reboots we're getting with Superman, Flash, Wonder Woman and the rest, now we're starting to see first issues that pick up in medias res. I actually find that preferable to an interminable series of retold origin stories. Still, the question then becomes: Are the creators hitting the right balance of exposition versus new adventure?

In Geoff Johns's Green Lantern, the answer is yes. But in Batwoman's case, Williams and co-writer W. Hayden Blackman clearly go awry. That info dump is the worst part of the issue (even while it's gorgeously drawn); the reader doesn't yet need to know why Kate and her dad are estranged, especially at the cost of spoiling the big twist of the "Elegy" arc (all seven issues are, natch, collected and well worth buying).

More about the art choices: Williams uses a different style for different aspects of Kate Kane's life, which is why we get lusher noir art when she's in costume and simpler lines in a brighter palette for her as a daytime civilian. As for the "locker room" moments—well, yeah, it does have that funny whiff of "straight guys fantasizing about naked girl-on-girl action" (even though there's no such connection between lesbian Kate and heterosexual Bette). Yet Williams is such a good artist, he still manages to make it look tasteful. That's more than most mainstream comic-book artists can manage with their gratuitous T&A shots.

Overall, I grade it a hearty B+ and look forward to next month's issue. That's more than I can say for last week's Batgirl, which I found disappointing (and I think writer Gail Simone is one of the best in the biz). To my mind, Batwoman is such a distinctive character, she makes the Barbara Gordon Batgirl feel extraneous. Having read both first issues, I wish DC had instead left Babs a wheelchair-bound adult in her own Oracle series.

JM: So it sounds like we're all pretty much on the same page, except you guys are maybe a little more enthusiastic than I am. I don't think there was enough to pull me back in. And one quick thing that pissed me off: When the father of the kidnapped children is narrating Batwoman's arrival, he calls her "El angel rojo oscuro de la muerte," and then translates it to "The dark red angel of the night." Except, that's not what that means. "Muerte" in Spanish is "death," "noche" is "night." I tried to puzzle out whether that was intentional, but that doesn't make any sense. Just sloppy.

It's worth noting that I might be suffering from a little Batman fatigue (Batigue?). Does he need to be in every book? He even makes a cameo in Swamp Thing. But here he just feels gratuitous, as though DC is worried that fans won't be interested unless the male version shows up. Also, the fact that the book derails into daddy issues, then almost immediately Batman shows up, made me feel a little squeamish.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)