Sunday, May 26, 2024

Batwoman Rebirth’s Second Arc Should Have Been The First

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[Danny Elfman Theme Plays]

I’ve talked before about my frustrations regarding Batwoman Rebirth’s first arc, though most of them were because I spaced on periodically re-reading. Which, in the case of long form storytelling that doesn’t waste time recapping, is sort of something you kinda have to do. Regardless, about halfway through reading Batwoman #9 last week, I realized something: this arc is near perfect introduction to Kate Kane.

Which is rather strange, considering it’s not the opening narrative. Sure, yes, it is definitely an integral part of her overarching story as a character but…I wouldn’t have had to justify or explain or analyze any of this if it were the opening of Batwoman Rebirth. I think we can mostly agree that, for some aspects, Many Arms Of Death was not the best primer for who Kate is. For what the Batwoman does, and the how and why of it all.

The irony of her having to justify her own existence (just like real queer people! And real Jews!) has not been lost on me before, and that meta-textual thread is always going to be one of the more immovable things about her, but see that wasn’t sorta…that wasn’t totally there in Many Arms Of Death. It just wasn’t. Not in a way that, to me, felt palpable, at least.

Now, it’s possible that the reason it’s not there is because Batwoman Begins over in Detective Comics already hit the nail on the head for that one, so they didn’t want to rehash it so soon, but that theory doesn’t hold up when you consider that Batwoman #9 (featuring that speech; you know the one) was published a week before this happened in Detective Comics:

It’s funny because it’s 100% accurate! From a certain point of view.

So we can scrap that as a reason for, uh, that. Anyway, the point I’m trying to get at here is that with a few slight changes, Fear And Loathing could have been an absolutely stellar opener to Batwoman Rebirth. And it should have been, because the choice to start with the Lost Year narrative has had some pretty drastic financial consequences: sales are not great, folks. It doesn’t matter how great a story that was building to; if you can’t hook readers, you can’t retain them. You can’t sell books.

Let’s take this from the perspective of somebody who has never read a Batwoman comic before…again. Because I already did that with my dive into the Batwoman Rebirth one-shot. So, after that, what do we know about Kate? Well, before that, what do we need to know about Kate Kane, the Batwoman, to be invested in her character?

She’s a lesbian. She’s Jewish. She’s a soldier. She’s a twin. She has a strained relationship with her father, and also Brussels happened. She chose to become a vigilante after being kicked out the military because the bat symbol was her second flag. She’s a massive fuck-up in a world so stacked against her mere existence that there isn’t a context where every day of her life wouldn’t be a fight for her right to exist. Also she unironically loves one-liners.

That list isn’t as long as it looks; a lot of it you pick up subconsciously.

You get a good amount of that just from the one-shot. But not all of it. You’re missing the part about her existence, and her Jewishness (I know she dropped some Yiddish, but the very nature of the language means it permeates culture, plus she’s East Coast so trust me when I say that ain’t an absolute). And the one-liners. And the flag thing. That would mean, logically, we would get the rest from Many Arms Of Death, right?

Well, we didn’t. Aside from the one-liners, we didn’t fill in those extremely important gaps that sort of make her whole deal work. Instead we got some really interesting stuff about the military industrial complex, some curious parallelsthematic things, and yadda yadda yadda now we’re back here again.

Kate can carry a solo book, but you actually have to let her carry it. Many Arms of Death had a lot of high concept ideas that were executed in a way that was almost great (looking at you Epting), but it ultimately didn’t give Kate space to actually carry the title. The Lost Year is something worth exploring if we’re already invested in Kate and this particular creative run on the character, which many simply weren’t from the outset.

The original Batwoman series from Blackman and Williams III started simple and moved to complex narratives by #6 (kind of?). It gave Kate a chance to establish herself within the world, along with her supporting cast, and it barely touched her backstory. Many Arms of Death jumps so far into in medias res that the missing pieces are blatant to the point that we feel like we didn’t read an actual lost year of comics. And that’s a problem, since not everybody is willing to stick with it for the long haul and not everyone has the dedication or patience for a story to get “going”, as it were.

Think of it like this: seeding Safiyah as someone Kate literally screams about in Scarecrow’s base before we properly go to Coryana makes it all the more interesting since what kind of person would have that effect on Kate, right? Now, with that line of thinking, let’s do a fun exercise in “how this would have worked”!

Imagine that instead of opening on Kate fighting a giant monster, Batwoman #1 opened with this:

Boom. She’s fucked up, delirious, screaming for someone we are only just now becoming aware of. What do we get in this issue? We get her dad, we get Beth, we get a hint at the Lost Year which works on its own since we already “meet” Safiyah during the Rebirth one-shot. And we get Kate’s mode of operation. It’s extremely tight, emotional and gorgeous. Also it’s clearly inspired, unintentionally or otherwise, by Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater which is always a good thing. The art is exponentially more attuned to Kate’s strange mix of ethereal grit and dirty glamour. Fernando Blanco really stretches his artistic muscles with every aspect in this arc, taking advantage of everything at his disposal.

Okay, how about Batwoman #8, though? We get Brussels, more of her family, the flag thing, more Safiyah—you see where this is going.

Remember that time we had a plot thread about Jacob having a possible son we never knew about? That was weird.

I mean it’s perfect, right? This is everything. Kate operates best when she’s interacting with someone who has something to do with her blood-relatives. That’s just…that’s just objectively true. Her hilariously one-sided pissing contest with Simon-sans-Garfunkel here is perfect evidence of that. Even if a reader has no idea who that even is, they can pick up on the essentials immediately just from that image above. As opposed to like, literally every new character introduced in Many Arms Of Death, aside from Julia Pennyworth. Maybe.

Speaking of Julia, introducing her for issues 1 through 4 and then having her vanish from existence for issues 5 through presumably 10 is extremely strange. Almost like her presence is entirely inconsequential and was only there because Kate needed someone “in the chair”, and why not bring back Julia for some fun? It’s just really odd narrative pacing, since the messaging here is kind of “she’s not important’ when she’s the daughter of Alfred Pennyworth. Of course she’s important! Even if she’s not important to this particular story, which she should be because why else would she be there, she’s still important in a larger sense.

But anyway, in the mindset of “here’s everything about Kate and why you should care”—just go re-read Batwoman #9. I can’t drop images of an entire issue here, but that’s the key that holds this piece together. It’s not just the speech, but everything surrounding it.

I can count the number of times Kate references her Jewishness (in a way that people would actually catch) on one hand, and two of them are in this issue! Seriously, this comes up in real life all the time. Like, as much as being queer does. Not even kidding.

How these three issues manages to distill the entirety of Elegy, Go, the New52 Batwoman series (did you think the fact that Kate’s worst fear being transformed into a fucking vampire was accidental?!) and Rise of the Batmen and a bunch of other stories into 60 pages without feeling bloated or out of place or like a rehash. It’s not a substitute for reading those narratives in their entirety, but that wasn’t the goal. The goal was to show you why Batwoman is worth reading. And this would have done an infinitely better job, with just a few minor tweaks, if it had been published as the opening arc. Sure as hell reads like it was supposed to be that, the more I think about it.

Hopefully word of mouth can spread enough to regain some lost readers, but that’s not normally how this goes. Which is a damn shame because hot damn do I love this book.

Images courtesy of DC Comics

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