This is it. This is what we’ve been waiting for. Ever since Williams and Blackman left the original Batwoman ongoing, and the subsequent extremely questionable narrative choices by the replacement creative team, Batwoman fans have been justifiably guarded. The last time they followed her solo adventures, they got burned. Burned so badly, in fact, that they in turn literally set fire to two very specific issues of Batwoman. There are videos, so you can google that if you wish. I’m not going to link them.
Point being, there would always be doubt surrounding any attempt to make a Batwoman solo book all over again. Even if the creative team behind her relaunch is basically perfect for the job—and holy crap they kinda are—there’s simply no avoiding that trepidation. Greg Rucka himself could have spearheaded this whole thing and I’m not convinced it would have made people feel any more confident.
So, I guess this is a long-winded way of saying that, hey, stow your fear. Drop your guard. I’ve said it before, but I’m saying it louder now since this issue is overflowing with incontrovertible proof of something totally inescapable:
Batwoman is back. Every panel of every page oozes Kate Kane. Every line by Epting, every methodically colored inch by Cox, every word scripted by Bennett and co-plotted by Tynion, every expression, every action; it’s all Kate. It’s all a triumph.
To quote Bennett:
“She fights, and she fails, and she splits her lip and bruises all the way to the bone and she claws up through the mud and keeps going.”
Perfectly apropos to describe the meta-narrative surrounding her return, don’t you think?
Bond, Bats, and Monsters
The overall tone here is Bond. Back when the cover for #1 was revealed, that was my first thought. It looks like a 60s spy movie poster, but without the misogyny. Or racism. Or obligatory christian heteronormativity. So…I dunno, all the theoretically badass spy parts of Bond, including the cheesy one-liners? Sounds about right. Regardless, when I first saw it, I was blasting the 007 theme on a loop while trying to figure out if I should wait for prints of the damn thing to be available (if they ever are), or just get it printed and framed myself. I have yet to decide, but I want it.
Now, truth be told, I have not actually read Brubaker and Epting’s Velvet in its entirety, but others have told me that Batwoman‘s “International Woman of Mystery” aspect is pretty similar to which I responded “Okay yeah but…is she gay and Jewish?” They said no, and that’s the end of that.
Seriously though, if Epting and Cox (whom I must sincerely apologize to for accidentally omitting him in my tweet regarding a topic we’ll get to in this review…total space cadet moment) managed to replicate something that was already awesome, and apply it to someone as objectively amazing and impossible as Batwoman, what’s there to complain about?
Excellence is excellence. Brilliance is brilliance. Plus, it’s an established fact that Kate loves spy novels. One of her favorites being Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice, so it’s rather perfect.
Anyway, on to the present. Kate’s internal monologue is a rare thing. Outside of a single instance, it didn’t exist in her 10-issue run on Detective Comics, and it very briefly appeared in short bursts during the Williams/Blackman era of the New52. Typically, we don’t really get to live inside of Kate’s head. Her actions have always spoken louder than anything else ever could, but when we did know her thoughts it was damned effective. Batwoman #1 is no exception.
We start with pain, Istanbul and searching for a name in a rather clever homage to Kate’s very first solo outing, way back in Detective Comics #854:
Turns out, every target she’s tracked so far has been rather indiscriminate in how much suffering they wanted to cause with Monster Venom. Her mark this time, a Dr. Martine, doesn’t necessarily look like your run-of-the-mill white supremacist looking to slaughter hundreds, if not thousands, as gruesomely as possible, but then that’s sort of the point, isn’t it? If the League of Shadows can operate the same way, it stands to reason that Batwoman will be punching entire dental records out of any and all modern nazis that she comes across. Much like her Bombshells counterpart.
Which she explicitly states that she did, and we all just know that there’s no way in hell she’s complaining about that part. Maybe not the sleepless nights, but hey. Sometimes you gotta break a few fascist faces to make a honest omelette. Or something.
Dr. Martine monsters up, because Kate screwed up and didn’t manage to get the actual bioweapon away from him (this is a glorious running theme) and calls for backup: Tuxedo-One. Which is so perfect. And who should that be? Why, none other than Julia Pennyworth herself, hiding out on Kate’s mobile bat-base yacht that has a helicopter Kate still presumably can’t fly! British SAS operative and daughter of the one and only Alfred Pennyworth. Last we saw her was back in Snyder’s Superheavy arc, and it’s great to see her again. You put her and Kate together and there’s so much snark that it just makes sense.
The call signs, by the way, are callbacks to Snyder’s run on Batman, wherein Alfred was Penny-1, Julia was Penny-2, etc. They make a lot more sense in context with Batwoman than they ever did with Batman, in my opinion, but it was cool then and it’s still cool now. Except like, now it’s about 50% cooler. Because Batwoman.
Kate and Julia exchange extremely domestic banter (Kylie and I have already concluded that they are not banging but that’s like another two thousand words so just trust us, or debate us) while Kate strangles the monster’d up Dr. Martine. With chains and lanterns. He goes back to normal, which reminds me so much of that time at the end of Go when Kate punched Abbot so hard he literally un-werewolf’d, and after screaming about The Many Arms of Death (title drop!) he’s killed by a knife to the forehead.
Kate gives chase to the assassin, whom she totally-doesn’t-at-all recognize as Tahani, but she gets away…leaving her fancy Knife behind. I should keep a counter on how many times Kate just really screws something up. Not in any malicious sense, of course. Her fallibility is explicitly why we love her so damn much here at the Fandomentals!
You know what? I’m gonna do it. We are currently at four failures, and counting. One: failing to stop Dr. Martine from monstering up. Two: failing to stop the assassin. Three: failing to catch the assassin. Four: failing to get the name she wanted. At least, at first. Oh, and I guess…five? She lost that bet. Let’s go with five. Put it up on the board!
Goddamn, I love this book.
Boats, Bette and Brooding
Kate returns to her motor yacht, the Sequoia, which is thankfully not the same boat her family skedaddled onto at the end of Batwoman Annual #1, with Julia making snarky comments about how ridiculous their cover is for all of these trips out of the country. It’s rather well-established that Julia isn’t a fan of her father serving the Waynes for reasons she cannot fathom (because raising their son is hard to wrap your head around?), but I guess she’s willing to go globetrotting with someone who doesn’t brood instead of breathe.
Also, interesting note: Kate’s first ops center was a giant tree. Her yacht is named after a tree. S’kinda neat.
Anyway, Kate slips out of her uniform and, gasp, actually has practical attire underneath it?! And it’s still correctly color schemed?! And she’s not tiny and skinny? Epting and Cox, we salute you. I really shouldn’t have to call attention to doing things right, but even Williams drew the “larger-than-life-glowing” sequences of Batwoman in a way that was anatomically exaggerated. Though, that was purposeful and effective. Others, just had her naked under there, which makes no sense.
Also Kate shaved her head again, but I imagine that’s because it’s really damn hot in the Middle East and her uniform is almost pure black. It wouldn’t be the first time she’s been sweating like a pig in that thing, after all.
Moving on, Julia makes a rather important remark that I would typically describe as “blink and you’ll miss it”, but then again, if you’ve heard the name “Bette” before in context with Batwoman, I doubt you could actually miss it. Even if you did blink like, a ton. Like, even if you fell asleep while reading that panel, I’m not sure you could actually miss it.
First of all: that’s six on the counter; she didn’t get Bette anything from the Bazaar that she kinda trashed. Coulda grabbed something in the confusion, you know.
Second: so that’s where Bette’s been this entire time! Oh, man, and it couldn’t be more perfect. After all that time looking up to Kate as this inspirational figure—which she failed to live up to every single time despite that not actually discouraging Bette at all—she finally found something to fight for. The family name. And also honor and all that jazz, which sounds super familiar, for some reason.
Regardless, I’m even more psyched to see her again, now. She’s really not just a kid anymore. I love it.
Also, if you take a closer look at this entire undressing sequence, you’ll notice that Kate’s skin actually transitions from stark white to her normal tone. This clever little piece of art direction, thanks to Cox’s stellar color work, cements that this story is explicitly through Kate’s eyes. Not just a basic POV, but more of an unreliable narrator. Which is kinda great, if you think about it. All the more ways for Kate to set an entire island on fire.
I mean, she totally will. Not on purpose but, it’ll happen.
Moving forward, Julia says that fancy…tech stuff is…tracking the…jesus christ, just look at this abomination:
I—okay, that’s seven for the counter now because that is the single most impractical monitor I have ever seen.
I know everything needs to be kept Bat-themed to keep everything on brand, as Raptor would say, but good lord! The text strings are getting cut off the edge of the screen! Why would anyone build this?! Was this Tim’s idea of a personal challenge before he “died”? Try and create an OS that intelligently adapts to the ludicrous shapes of the monitor it is using? Did Harold Allnut ask Bruce what kind of batcomputer Kate would need and he was just like “go nuts”?
Epting, I swear, this is…brilliant. Just beyond brilliant. Seriously, neither Kate nor Julia seem particularly pleased with it so it just tells a story all on its own. One of stupid and/or ambitious design goals. Seriously, not even Batman would have a computer monitor shaped like his symbol. He might have like, an shell around with that shape, but never the actual screen. I hate everything about this and yet I love it because it is exactly the kind of unintentional extra that Kate exhibits by more or less breathing. Rather than brooding, of course.
Even though she totally does that, too. Just not as intensely. Or without reason.
After Julia is all coy about Kate having never heard of the island nation of Coryana, Kate has a mini internal swearing fit and goes up to the deck to relax and think about that year she spent as a trophy lover for an international crime syndicate’s leader. Guess she couldn’t really forget Safiyah, huh?
Julia joins her on the deck with martinis in hand, because of course she does, and teases her about the presumed brooding. And also about how Kate is super focused on “doing what Batman can’t”, which means she’s been talking about that this entire time instead of it just being this personal goal of hers that she doesn’t verbalize. This is both hilarious and apt.
The short answer, so far, to that question is “operate in broad daylight in a way that doesn’t look ridiculous”. Which is pretty impressive, since meta-textually, there’s a damn good reason that Kate would prefer to work in the light. It’s about not having to hide who she is, both as a Jewish woman and as a lesbian. And as someone who suffers from PTSD. The shadows are effective, but not when you want to make a statement that needs to be loud.
Things like, well, Bennett already wrote a great example:
If there ever comes a day when DC Bombshells isn’t relevant, that’ll be a miracle.
Anyway, Kate cuts through all of Julia’s charm and asks her what the hell she’s really doing there, helping Kate. Is she Kate’s babysitter, her Q, or Bruce’s spy? Julia responds by not…responding. Because she’s a giant snarky troll and knows her reaction can be read about two thousand different ways.
And failure to get a straight answer out of her super-spy handler. That’d be number eight.
Julia skips the part where Kate gets to ask follow-up questions and tells her that the Belfry’s entry regarding Coryana was more or less the same as the Canary Islands but also labeled, presumably, by the “late” Tim Drake as a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Which is a “twist of the knife”. Twist of the…oh. Hah! I get it. It’s because of the plot twist that Tahani is the assassin known as Knife. Stop reading the script, Julia! Kate is a master at puns and cheesy one-liners, so she’ll figure out what happens next!
Then, Julia asks Kate what Coryana is, which means that she failed to keep her past as tightly held a secret as she thought. Ding!
Hiding in Plain Sight
This is, by and large, the single most powerful moment in the issue. It’s also one of the best Kate Kane moments ever. And no, I’m not talking about that bit about her burial at sea, or her the fact that she didn’t care if she lived or died anymore since she couldn’t find a new sense of purpose. Those are poignant and evocative, too. Very much so. But this? This is…different. This is a whole new level of savvy that, well, to be quite honest, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like this. Neither has Kylie.
And it’s not like we aren’t on the lookout for this level of awareness—we are. We once tried to name all the primary media characters not written by Larry David or Woody Allen that spoke Yiddish as something that wasn’t exclusively for a joke/actually made sense and we came up with…the grandparents from Rugrats. That’s it. That’s all we could find or remember. Though that was before Snapper from CW’s Supergirl did it, so that’s three instead of two I guess.
Look, the point is that there really aren’t all that many Jews in media. 99% of the time, it’s “half-Jewish” (which is not actually a thing but that’s a whole other conversation), since only the father of the character is Jewish due to jewishness being passed matrilineally, because that lets the writers say they’ve got a Jewish character without actually doing anything or addressing it like it normally would be literally every day of their lives.
Think Annie Edison from Community or Felicity Smoak from CW’s Arrow. That’s just how it is, so when we’re confronted with something so drastically different due to its accuracy and appropriate understanding of an all too familiar sense of dread and fear…it’s rather shocking. Because people don’t get it. It’s weird for Jewish people to see themselves represented in a way that is both organic and displays a deep, empathetic understanding of what it actually means to be a Jew living in the world.
So, when something like this suddenly appears it’s…well, it kind of seems impossible.
This is scary. It’s real fear, much like last week’s white supremacist meta-narrative becoming all to clear. Kate is a Jewish woman and she is very far from home. There was an interview many months ago where Tynion talked about how he and Bennett wanted Kate to be so well known across the world, due to her partying and drinking and “scandalized” removal from the Army, that she could walk into the dingiest back alley bar in Cairo and they would know her drink of choice.
At the time, I thought this meant “they know she’s gay and rich.” Not “they know she’s gay, rich and Jewish.” But that’s what this is. Rafael patches Kate up, shaves the side of her head so she can get stitches, and reminds her that she’s not an unknown right now. She is not truly hiding who she is, though part of Kate clearly understood this. Of course, Rafael makes two false assumptions about Jewish people that tell us just how smart Kate was about this.
And boy, oh boy, was she smart.
The first is rather simple: “All Jews keep Kosher”. Yeah. Not true. I don’t. Have you ever had crab? Or burgers? Crazy! Tons and tons don’t keep Kosher, but plenty keep a Kosher kitchen which basically means they keep Kosher at home, but not when eating out. Middle ground because that’s like, our thing. Even so, this is an extremely common misconception that is very deeply ingrained into the cultural consciousness when it comes to what non-Jews know about Jewish people. As such, many assume that Jews cannot eat or drink something unless they know for sure that it is Kosher…which is sorta true for the people who do keep Kosher, but not to some intense degree that Rafael is implying. Which is honestly part of what makes this so perfect: he has no idea what he’s talking about.
Second, though, is a lot more subtle and far more impressive.
Kate’s a target, and a big one. Terrifying enough that she’s queer in an area that no one would call safe (not that Gotham particularly is…), but she’s also a woman. And to top it all off, she’s Jewish. The amount of hate she suffers through…well, I can empathize with two-thirds of it, let’s go with that. Question is, how can she shake people from her trail that would want to do her harm? How can she up her chances of survival and hiding who she is? Exploit the hell out of her tattoos. It’s not why she got them, but she’d be a fool not to use them to her advantage. I’d bet good money that any and all flashbacks we see will have Kate wearing something sleeveless or with a very low-cut back so they are always on display.
See, it’s a common misconception that Jews cannot get tattoos. Since, if they do they can’t be buried in Jewish cemeteries as it is considered self-mutilation. There was a time when this was true, but it hasn’t been for quite a while, at least in the vast majority of Reform and Conservative sects. Even some Orthodox sects are starting coming around to the idea of dropping that rule, since if tattoos are a form of self-expression, why would that also be considered self-mutilation?
Kate knows all of this. Rafael, along with pretty much everybody she could ever possibly meet on her years long booze-cruise, do not. So yes, it would normally “throw people off” that she’s Jewish, as it apparently did rather well. After all, according to Rafael…it’s just a rumor, even though it’s true. His comments about blood and pain and scars require no explanation.
Kate is who she is, no matter how hard she tries to hide it: an angry Jewish lesbian woman. Who is sometimes out for justice. Occasionally with a gun. But not like, crying for Justice—okay, I’ll stop because you can’t hear the drum snare.
So, yeah. That’s what that is, and it’s going to stick with me, and many others, for a long, long time. More than that, though, is that this was written by two non-Jewish people. And if I didn’t know that for damn sure, I’d assume they were. That’s how perfect this is. That’s how spot on. I know Bennett did exhaustive research into Judaism when developing DC Bombshells, but I never imagined that she’d get it on a level this deep. Bombshells didn’t need to be subtle; its Jewishness is front and center and a big focus.
But this? This is so far beyond that. This is different. This is something else. This is phenomenal.
Sure, queerness and Jewishness have a decent amount of things in common. How the world reacts and treats both groups, and the suffering along the way, but—well, Kylie said it best when we discussed this at length: it’s all about the language of the oppressed. Neither James Tynion IV nor Marguerite Bennett are straight, so with enough research, hell, apparently anything’s possible.
Right. Anyway, moving on from that. Just gonna kick the counter up for failing to hide her full identity from strangers and keep on going. Or for cracking her head into a rock while being a drunken dipshit. Take your pick.
Loose Lips Sink Ships, Kate!
After Tahani reenacts the ending of The Godfather, where Safiyah is apparently Michael Corleone and Kate is…whoever the hell his wife was, and Rafael ominously narrating about finding things, we snap back to the present as the Sequoia approaches the coast of Coryana. We’re back in Kate’s head again, and it seems like she’s ready to burn the whole damn island to the ground.
She reminisces about pain once more, focusing on the emotional and psychological kind rather than the physical. Then she considers what one would have to do to cause themselves more pain, which is just par for the freaking course for her and that other lady who she keeps reminding me of. And then she…gets off the ship by using a random chain to swing across—seriously, Kate? It’s the middle of the day! If you keep doing crap like this your supposedly perfect stealthy approach is going to mean nothing. Well, even if that does happen, at least nobody remembers who—
Okay. Okay, that’s fine. You coulda tried to, y’know, not respond to him but I guess you got caught up in the moment of seeing an old friend. It happens. To you. Pretty much only to you, but that’s what happens when you don’t dissociate with a persona. Regardless, he seemed nice. You remembered him fondly. He’s an ally, then. He can help you…
Dying. Because of something you did. Dying because of something you did. In a comic published on The Ides of March. Goddamnit, Kate. You and your dramatic irony.
Welp. Guess we’re in for one hell of a ride, huh? But, uh bad news about that, friends. Batwoman #2 won’t be out until April 19th. That’s five weeks instead of four.
NEXT WEEK: We get to find out if Kate survives getting stabbed with magic swords! Again! Doesn’t that just sound exciting?
Well, I think it does.
Writers: Marguerite Bennett and James Tynion IV
Pencils/Inks: Steve Epting
Colors: Jeromy Cox
Letterer: Deron Bennett
Saga: A Ghost’s Swansong
This time around, I think I’ll save me some opening lengthy opening words. I do believe the title of this review and the issue’s cover say enough on their own. Farewell chapters tend to be pretty strong on both narrative and emotional engines, and this one is no different. As usual, there will be a dash of several events and ‘POV characters’, but the bulk of it lands on the ethereal shoulders of our beloved disembodied babysitter, Izabel.
From start to finish, this issue is a parade of ghostly awesome. OBVIOUSLY, spoilers ahead, and perhaps a few tears…
“Be a good girl tomorrow… but not TOO good.”
Usually, a rotting host of war-fallen zombies in stark detail makes for a frightful impression. But even before Kurti sees through the illusion, we already know this is Izabel casting her ghostly magic. She is definitely one whose colourful choice of words would compromise her own scheme, with amusing results. Although, Izabel’s attempt ultimately failed, the real shock for the Phang dwellers is the fact that horns, wings, robots and ghosts would travel together. An uneasy alliance for sure, but an alliance nonetheless.
A peculiar thing to note here is how an outside assessment can outline certain features in a character or collective. If we take into consideration how badly the war has hit Phang, it should be no surprise that the rodent family’s first thought upon seeing Alana, Marko and company is The Last Revolution. We all know how that went down: ruthless pragmatism for THE GREATER GOOD, villainy and comeuppance.
However, the crew’s latest iteration exhibits a very similar setup in terms of diversity and role as outsiders. Yet they’re also not entirely estranged from their reality as pieces in the war chessboard, if Petrichor and Sir Robot are anything to go by. In fact, these two even criticize Alana and Marko for opting out of the war between their worlds.
In the end, however, none of that really matters to Phang’s hungry populace. Craven deserters, conscientious objectors, terrorists; they don’t manifest into more meaningful roles to heal the damage done. The displaced and the dead will continue to be so. That’s why Marko doesn’t speak against Hazel’s quick willingness to help these people, which is as much of an inconvenience as a good gesture. On her part, Alana still thinks it more sensible to simply refuel and get going — for Hazel’s sake. Thus, we’re again at that slight impasse between them. Neither Marko nor Alana are actually in the wrong here. It all really boils down to ensuring either a child’s physical or moral integrity. Sometimes, it may not be possible to achieve both.
In the end, they agree to help out a bit and then be off. After all, how long could that actually take? Cue the obligatory cut into the future that comes with tempting fate in a narrative. What should have been a few hours ended up six months. By now, Alana is quite heavy with child and pretty familiar with the rodenty brats as well. I swear, some people have a way of generating extended family. It’s like they sneeze on you, and suddenly you’re their children’s godfather… but I digress.
Lending credit to Hazel’s narration, this is a downright precious period. Hazel has lots of friends her age to play with, and Jebarah, the collective’s matron, gives a heartful present to Alana and her coming baby. Now, they’re one tribe.
This is all cool and sweet, but it doesn’t do away with the problems in Phang, with the battling and all. Marko and Petrichor got that front covered, which allows them some time to talk. Marko is Marko, so it’s no surprise he feels more than content with their staying in Phang. But the passing of six months has definitely not endeared Petrichor to the notion. In fact, her experiences as a soldier have made her suspicious of the Phang’s tribe. At the time, we have no reason to actually think these people could do any wrong. But, again… tempting fate, Murphy’s Law, dread is just one breath away from real; all these things, plus the short lifespan of all good times in Saga have us waiting for the doom to unfold.
As for Hazel proper, she has become a little of a pest. She’s at that little-asshole age, which inevitably etches a dent in her relation with her babysitter. For all her awesomeness, Izabel (or anything ever) can’t do much against nature. With little to occupy herself with, she decides to aid Sir Robot’s quest for fuel. His son’s birthday is coming and he fully intends to make it, as you do.
However, her favour to scout for Sir Robot doesn’t come from any actual esteem towards the fallen Prince. This is a favour she’ll do for Hazel’s parents. The cynical robot doesn’t understand this reaction to basically being an indentured servant. But Izabel is full of a gratitude.
It’s thanks to them that Izabel is the first in her family to leave their planet. As far as she sees it, they have overpaid her services — by showing the universe. I personally find this little exchange to be one of those truly remarkable moments in this comic, even if there’s no great art through beautiful splash page or careful panel composition. It’s a matter of sheer dialogue and the counterpoint effect between two very different characters. Only a strong motivation can imbue unlikely partnerships with coherence and credibility. And though things aren’t quite as sweet as they once were, love is still the main motivation here. We’ll keep this in mind for what’s to come in a bit.
Now, things have been going swell in Phang. But the inner workings on the galaxy still conspire towards strife, one way or another. For instance, we join The Will once more on his perennial quest; not for vengeance, but for redemption this time around. On the search for his old friends, he actually meets Gwendolyn’s wife, a woman called Velour. She does reveal the whereabouts of Gwen, Sophie and Lying Cat, but not much else. This will probably add him to the dynamic taking place in Phang. He may no longer be hallucinating, but a Freelancer is always a wild card. We’ll see how this plays out.
We join Izabel back in Phang to end this review. She’s doing her scouting gig for Sir Robot at the Robot Kingdom’s Royal Embassy. Though supposed to be deserted, she runs into a cute little boar. This thing’s cute, a little too cute. And in Saga, cute animals mean… Freelancers’ sidekicks. Meet The March, a two headed sinister-looking one, and his boar Bootstraps. Their business in Phang is the search for Marko, which plainly says — the hunt is still on. Although The March has no interest in Hazel, they’re savvy enough to know she must have hitched a ride via newborn child. They see all too easily through Izabel. so she opts to float away.
This would traditionally be no problem for our favourite pink ghost. She can go through walls and do all kinds of neat stuff — so it should be instantly alarming that The March has managed to ensnare Izabel with their whip. If that wasn’t bad enough their scimitar promises to work likewise. Now, the stakes are clear: it’s a talk or die situation.
Now, I beseech you dear reader, do ask yourself: Do I think Izabel would sell out Hazel, Alana and Marko to save her non-existent ass? Would she break my heart like that? Well, no, she won’t sell them out… but she’ll still break your heart. Izabel’s answer is sharp and snarky, as we’d expect, regardless of the menace she faces.
The March stabs her, causing an agony dreadfully evident in her expression before she dies. There are no further words spoken, except for Hazel’s narration in retrospective. It’s true that everybody outgrows the necessity to have a babysitter, but the best ones — much as the dearest friends — will stick with you forever. The final image in this issue is a splash page of Hazel painfully clutching her own chest. She doesn’t know it yet, but she felt it; Izabel’s death stung to her very soul, literally. Goodbye Izabel. We loved you.
I did tell you it was going to be a bleak arc, didn’t I? It’s not over yet, lovelies. The ride, however harrowing, is still an experience you won’t want to miss.
Saga Issue #38 Credits
Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Fiona Staples
All images are courtesy of Image Comics
What Hulk Can Teach Other Stories on Writing Trauma
Here at the Fandomentals, we believe in the power of stories. Stories can be amazing tools to explore difficult topics like trauma, since they allow us both a careful look at the issue and to keep our distance from something that may otherwise hit too close to home. A story that handles the subject skillfully can broaden our understanding of it, debunk harmful myths, and empower people struggling with their own traumatic experiences.
Unfortunately, not all stories do that. Storytellers love shocking events or emotionally stressful situations, but they’re not always interested in exploring the aftermath. Of course, there’s no monolithic response to trauma and each recovery process is unique, but there is always some response. Stories that fail to show any reaction to traumatic experiences or only address it when convenient for the plot not only break our suspension of disbelief but also perpetuate false notions on trauma, PTSD, and the people suffering from it.
How can stories address trauma more thoughtfully and respectfully? There’s no single answer for this, but I’d argue we can learn a lot from stories that are doing it right. The current run of Hulk (2016), written by Mariko Tamaki, is one such story.
What Hulk did right
Starting December, 2016 and currently on its 11th issue, Hulk (2016) deals with the aftermath of the second superhero Civil War for Jennifer Walters, better known as the She-Hulk.
During Civil War II, the She-Hulk was mortally wounded in a fight against Thanos, falling into a coma. Upon waking up, she discovered that her cousin Bruce Banner, the Hulk, was killed by fellow superhero Hawkeye. So, Hulk (2016) picks up shortly after that, when Jennifer resumes her work as a lawyer.
The story had two major arcs so far, exploring Jennifer’s PTSD and recovery along with the usual superhero threats. Her antagonists in both arcs were people handling traumatic experiences of their own, though in levels that required superheroic intervention.
There are several merits in how Hulk (2016) approaches the themes of trauma, PTSD, and coping with loss—there are also flaws, but overall their record is solid. This analysis is by no means extensive, and I recommend you to check the comic for yourself in case you haven’t already.
So let’s have a closer look at what it got right and why.
Symptoms and Depictions
The comic book presents an honest depiction of trauma and PTSD. Through the entire first arc, we see Jennifer struggling with anxiety, triggers, flashbacks…the whole package. Those arise from different situations and in varying intensities. Sometimes the usual coping strategies don’t work. Sometimes a good day can quickly turn into a bad one.
“Like I’m walking away. Like this is anything I can run from. It’s there, it’s here, it’s always here. I’m holding it together with both hands but it’s too much.” (Jennifer Walters in Hulk 2016 #1)
There’s a strong anxiety in getting back to work, with her inner monologue constantly reassuring her that “it’s gonna be fine,” her heart pounding, and Jen feeling like throwing up. Even the briefest mentions of the superhero Civil War or what happened to Bruce impact her, in some cases causing her to feel angry, anxious, or sobbing on the floor unable to do anything. She can’t stop thinking about what happened and, paradoxically, she avoids delving into her own feelings on the matter. All the time we get this sense that she’s no longer who she used to be and that her trauma has negatively impacted how she sees the world around her.
Even as she starts to recover and those symptoms decrease in frequency and intensity, we still see her struggling with them.
“Rage and suffering. In the heart of the monster, one feeds the other. In my monster heart, sometimes…it’s all I can hear” (Jennifer Walters in Hulk 2016 #10)
Before Civil War II, Jen was known for feeling comfortable with her Hulk persona. Unlike her cousin Bruce, she could control the monster within and derive emotional strength from it. Her life was tailored to be lived in Hulk form and we can see that even in small details, like how her entire apartment is built to fit a Hulk-sized person and not a regular woman:
Yet for nearly the entire first arc, Jen was unable to become the Hulk again. Being a Hulk was empowering for her before, yet now:
Her struggles to reconnect with her Hulk persona work as a metaphor for how much we change after traumatic experiences. We’re different than before and we feel like we lost something of ourselves in the process. Because here’s the thing about trauma: there’s no going back. We can cope, we can recover, we can have amazing and fulfilling lives even after horrific experiences. But we can never go back to how things were before.
So it’s an interesting choice that even after Jen is able to become the Hulk again, she becomes a different Hulk. A Hulk she doesn’t completely control or understands. A literally scarred Hulk.
It’s very fitting that she then assumes the title of Hulk, not She-Hulk. The old Hulk is dead, the Hulk that was so close to her and so meaningful to the origin of her powers. The old She-Hulk is dead too, in a way. This is a new monster, and one that in many ways resembles Bruce’s savage Hulk more than who Jennifer used to be.
“Are you doing this for Bruce? Maybe I am. Maybe everything will be for Bruce now. You have a problem with that? Obviously I don’t Jen, since I’m you. I mean, not everything is for Bruce. Just these things. These things that make me mad” (Jennifer Walters in Hulk 2016 #8)
Struggling with her Hulk form also means struggling with being a superhero, since both identities are so closely associated. There’s a certain guilt in not being out there doing something “at least a little bit super.” Amidst so many losses, Jen also loses core elements of her identity and sense of self.
Isolation and Support
Through Jen’s journey, we see the sense of isolation that trauma and PTSD can cause.
“A really awkward conversation with a friend is a good indication that the universe is not what it was. At least for you.” (Jennifer Walters in Hulk 2016 #5)
There’s the constant feeling that people around Jennifer don’t know how to reach her or how to behave towards her. They don’t know how to approach what happened and Jen is not exactly receptive, creating a gap between her and others. Jen explains her own position well:
But of course it’s more complicated than this, and we see it when Patsy decides it’s best to give Jen more personal space. She adds that she’s not disappearing, and Jen replies that she’s counting on that. There’s a desire to avoid others, but at the same time there’s a desire for more proximity, too.
Missing Bruce is key here. Now that being the Hulk poses a challenge, Jen believes that Bruce could understand the feeling better than anyone else. Again, something previously so empowering as being the Hulk enhances the feeling of loneliness.
Not for nothing that we see the sidekicks growing in presence and importance as Jen slowly recovers and begins to reconnect with other people.
Recovery from trauma can be slow and painful. Stories tend to rush this part; suddenly a traumatic experience no longer impacts the character, as if it never happened at all. Hulk (2016) doesn’t do that, showing sensibility in how to write the recovery process too.
Perhaps my favorite aspect is how the story shows that a recovery process is not always linear. You have good days and bad days, and sometimes it seems like you’re doing great until you’re not. Every small progress should be celebrated, but it doesn’t mean the battle is over. As Jen puts it,
“You can feel like you’re falling apart one minute and then feel like eating pizza.” (Jennifer Walters in Hulk 2016 #2)
As the story goes on, we can see Jennifer slowly change. She’s able to transform into the Hulk again. She allows other people to get closer. Her mindset becomes somewhat less pessimistic and gloomy than before. Perhaps her biggest step is to admit that she needs recovery in first place. She starts the story by saying that it’s “other people” who sit in their houses “wallowing” and “recovering,” not her. So it’s quite meaningful that her first post-trauma Hulk transformation happens when she admits that she’s not fine:
After that, we see small but important steps in looking for help, such as trying a trauma support group. Yet her biggest coping strategy is to become the Hulk and tear down an abandoned construction site, which is quite a raw, primitive way to get in touch with your feelings. It’s also a telling choice: once again being the Hulk is a vital part of Jennifer’s empowerment.
Even as Jen gets better, the story never gives you the feeling that her recovery process is over. It doesn’t drop the importance of her trauma after the first arc, and it doesn’t return to the old state of things, even though it’s heading to a new state of things. There’s this sense that part of her trauma will always be with her, she’s just learning how to handle it better.
How Hulk did it right
I pointed to elements in Hulk (2016) that I think do justice to a topic as complex as trauma. But why is this story getting those elements right when so many other stories don’t?
Finding the right writer seems a vital step to me. Mariko Tamaki, the writer behind Hulk (2016), has a long history with stories that focus on character’s inner lives, including difficult topics like depression and grief. I haven’t checked her previous work yet, but the choice makes sense. If you want to approach delicate issues with the attention they deserve, you’ll want a writer that isn’t afraid to explore them but does so with skill and sensitivity. You can tell there’s a lot of effort in creating a thoughtful depiction.
The story is allowed to breathe and develop, much like its protagonist. Hulk (2016) isn’t afraid of slowing the pace if that means properly exploring Jen’s experiences and recovery. This results in a slower and more introspective story, which may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but feels very adequate to the themes involved.
The comic book format proves to be an excellent one to explore the subject of trauma. The art illustrates much of what’s going on with Jennifer without the need to say it outright, with choices as simple as color palettes helping set the mood of the story. Jennifer’s inner monologue, a style of narration so common in comic books, is vital to show the reader how she’s processing everything without the need to disrupt the main action.
Above all, it’s an entertaining story. At the end of the day, that’s still what we’re looking for: well-written and interesting stories, that work on a narrative level. Hulk (2016) never loses what makes comic books appealing, while also providing a solid examination on a topic so often mishandled in fiction.
Just in case you’re wondering, I love how this comic approaches trauma. It’s refreshing to see this much skill and effort, and I expect it to continue to adress Jennifer’s recovery in a realistic way (or as realistic as grey monsters allow).
I do worry about the future, though. There was a great emphasis on how much trauma changed Jen, so it would feel cheap to dismiss it, even after a period of time. We can still have a lot of what we love in classic Jennifer Walters and her Hulk self while not ignoring what should be a major event in her life.
Sadly, comic books are infamous for their impermanence, especially if the people behind them change. What will Marvel Legacy mean for Jennifer? Legacy is a return to the old: the original series numbering. And, more importantly, the old title of She-Hulk. There was a narrative point in her being called just Hulk, so hopefully those will be just details and not a sign that the story is shifting too dramatically. As Tamaki so aptly showed us, from certain things there’s no going back, only forward. I’m glad we still have her behind this story.
Whatever happens, we still got an entertaining story that addresses trauma thoughtfully and respectfully. That’s no small feat.
Writer: Mariko Tamaki
Artist: Nico Leon
Images Courtesy of Marvel Comics
Scott Pilgrim Shows Scars From Past Relationships
After “Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life” introduced us to the likes of Scott, Ramona, Knives, Wallace, Stephen, Kim, Young Neil, and our hero’s main quest — defeating Ramona’s Seven Evil Exes and thus being able to date her in peace —, the next installment “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” carries on with the plot besides adding some much-needed texture to Scott’s past relationships.
Right off the bat, creator Bryan Lee O’Malley takes us to a 16-year-old Scott on his first day as a transfer student at Northern Ontario. He formally meets Lisa, another new kid on the block who seems eager to befriend Scott. It is her idea that the two should form a band. Concurrently, Scott seems to be developing feelings for a classmate, Kimberly Pine, and it is for her that Scott ends up fighting a whole load of another school’s kids after they sort of kidnap her. Now Scott’s official girlfriend, Kim joins the band as a drummer, and things seem to go well for the gang at least for a while. All that gets interrupted with Scott’s announcement that his family is moving to Toronto.
Back in the present, Wallace Wells confronts Scott with the reality that he has to break up with Knives Chau if he plans on maintaining a relationship with Ramona Flowers. Despite his initial resistance to doing the dirty deed (because it’s hard!), Knives’s declaration that she is in love with Scott finally propels the breakup. For a second there, Scott is upset about it, but ultimately, he takes a positive stance as he sees the pathway to Ramona is clearer now.
Scott invites Ramona over for dinner and, surprise, her hair is shorter and sporting two colors now. The date goes as well as it can, but the makeout session is cut short after Scott freaks out over his own current hair; he largely blames his last breakup (which hit him like a shovel, apparently) on a specific haircut.
The next part begins with a short insight on Kim’s life. From a dream she has, it’s likely that she harbors less-than-ironic resentment towards Scott. In fact, her whole thing seems to be an inherent distaste towards people in general, which includes her housemates. At her work as a video/DVD store clerk (Scott Pilgrim makes you feel old, huh?), she gets a visit from Scott who wants to rent a few movies starring Lucas Lee who Wallace found out is the next ex-boyfriend he must fight. According to Wallace’s dossier, Lucas is a former pro skater turned buff-actor — keep in mind that, in the movie, he’s played by Chris Evans.
Through a couple of short scenes we find out some other tidbits of information:
- Knives is still hung up on Scott. She ends up dying her bangs red after catching sight of Ramona during one of her stalking sessions.
- Scott hates The Clash at Demonhead’s lead singer, Envy Adams.
- Scott’s parents are traveling through Europe.
- Ramona dated Lucas during high school. It was brief and there was a lot of drama.
- Ramona REALLY hates Scott’s “apartment”.
Finally, it’s time for the big fight. Lucas doesn’t sound like a particularly evil or bad guy, to be honest, even when he is whooping Scott’s ass. He tells Scott that Ramona cheated on him and about the official designation of The League of Ramona’s Evil Ex-Boyfriends (that’s how they’re organized). Scott takes advantage of Lucas’s ego/vanity and challenges him to do a skate trick on the rails of a really long set of stairs. The aftermath, as expected, is Lucas exploding as he reached ultra-speed, leaving behind fourteen bucks in coins.
As Stacey Pilgrim is showing Ramona around the Toronto Reference Library, she is attacked by Knives and the two fight briefly before Knives makes an exit. During the fight, Knives recognizes Ramona from the day at the library when Scott first saw her, and she realizes that Scott was cheating on her.
Scott receives a call from Envy in which she asks his band, Sex Bob-Omb to attend a show of theirs and then to open for them at a later date. The rest of the band is excited to open for a local band that has made it big, but Scott hates the idea due to his non-friendly breakup with Envy. As he tells Ramona, Envy (who used to be called Natalie) wanted to move to Montreal and, two weeks later, she was sleeping with her best friend Todd.
At the show, we first meet Joseph, Kim’s friend Hollie’s roommate — he is important later on! Also noticeable is that Young Neil is on a date with Knives. Finally, as the show begins, we catch sight of Envy and her bass player, Todd, who, to make things more interesting, happens to be Ramona’s third evil-ex.
In comparison with volume 1, this one feels quite more grounded and less “weird.” Yes, I say that knowing full well that there is an entire section where the characters break the fourth wall to teach the reader how to cook a vegan Shepherd’s Pie. Still, as the concepts from volume 1 have been internalized by now, the weird factor doesn’t reach a higher threshold.
Story-wise, the flashbacks are a nice a piece of exposition. They are not quite linear and feel more like snapshots at specific moments of Scott’s life during a long period of time, so a lot is expected of the reader to fill in the blanks. The first flashback feels important not only for introducing Lisa but for giving some more texture to Kim who appeared underdeveloped so far. She’s fallen under the “Negative Nancy” stereotype most of the time. As we are witnessing, Scott’s past relationships tend to leave scars on the people involved — Kim and Knives, for one, but also Scott’s own hurt left by Envy — and it is a big part of his arc: how to become a better person when it comes to dealing with Ramona.
Speaking of the Knives/Ramona relationship, I’d say it’s at least icky the way Knives talks about Ramona when she finds out she is dating Scott. The only space for apology here relies on Knives being a 17-year-old suffering from a broken heart. Still, there’s a level of cattiness there that reads horribly.
Now, as someone who has read the comics after watching the movie, I have to say that the big fight between Lucas Lee and Scott feels quite underwhelming in comparison with the visual media. While I am trying to keep any comparison between movie/comics to another piece, this particular moment doesn’t quite reach the cinematic-ness of Matthew Patel’s fight. It makes sense that the film screenwriters enhanced the brawl while keeping the roots pretty much the same thing.
In terms of expectations for the future and if I haven’t spoiled you too much already, the confrontation between Scott/Ramona/Todd/Envy is definitely one of my favorites. Plus, Lisa returns and we get to see far more of Knives whose arc is incredible throughout the six volumes. It’s hard seeing her getting her heart broken by Scott to the point where it reaches levels of unfairness, but perhaps knowing that Knives ends up learning a lot from the situation (along with Scott, it’s always important to point out) may give you hope.