She is Batwoman, Gotham City’s newest protector, and battling her at every turn of her still young crimefighting career is a crazed cult called the Religion of Crime. Led by a Lewis Carroll-quoting madwoman known only as Alice, they plan to turn Gotham into a wonderland of carnage.
But Alice has something special in store for the Batwoman – something that will show her everything she thought she knew about her new life as a caped crusader is wrong.
Is this one-woman army fighting a war she can’t win, against an enemy with more power over her than she ever could have guessed?
Rucka’s run on Batwoman, which became Williams’ run with the New52 relaunch, is notable for a number of things. The one most pertinent here is that Kate Kane, Batwoman, is a lesbian who left West Point because she refused to lie about her sexual orientation on questioning about it; Kane’s homosexuality becomes a secondary, and at times primary, theme in the series from the word go. In the first issue we meet Anna, Kane’s girlfriend – although only briefly; Anna dumps Kane because she thinks Kane is having an affair (arguably true, if Batwoman is driven the way Batman is). We also see Kane meeting – and breaking things off with – Renee Montoya, and starting the relationship with Maggie Sawyer that, at the end of Williams’ time on the comic, turns into a proposal. At no point in this is Kane shamed for her homosexuality; at no point is she seen as damaged or wrong for it, and the only person who judges her, her senior officer at West Point, is shown definitively to be in the wrong in driving her out in an incredible and emotional series of panels that drive home the damage Article 125 of the Uniform Code did. Rucka’s work shows both the hardship of homosexuality – Montoya is in the closet at GCPD – but also the everyday ordinariness of homosexual relationships; and the lack of comment on Batwoman’s sexuality does more to normalise it than any amount of discussion ever could.
Of course, that is all in the background of Elegy. Rather, Elegy deals with the arrival of Alice, the new High Madame of the Religion of Crime, into Gotham; after previous run-ins, Batwoman thinks the Religion of Crime is obsessed with her, and arguably it is. She therefore goes off to find out what she can, running into the Batman himself once, and the emotional and action arcs of the comic draw together as the identity of Alice is revealed and as Batwoman’s actions and alliances increasingly come to force her hand. The plot is, naturally, fast moving and in some ways typically comicsy; but at the same time it has a degree of emotional truth, and a weight of emotional heft, that is rare in any medium, let alone the superhero comic. Rucka handles the plot as one would expect a novellist to, and keeps it controlled, showcasing and introducing characters rapidly and making sure the reader is carried along; if at times things seem left at a loose end, it’s worth noting that this is no more a self-contained work than the first book in a trilogy is.
The most striking thing about Elegy, however, is J. H. Williams III’s artwork. Dave McKean aside, and even then it’s a close call, I’ve never seen art so beautiful, so expressive, so brazenly non-naturalistic, so expressionist but also so clear; this is, arguably, what the artwork for Morrison’s utterly stunning Arkham Asylum should have been. The number of different artistic styles on display in different issues, the way art is used to not only show the action and set tone but also draw connections that are not clear in the writing, the way it shapes the action (Williams on a number of occasions eschews square frames in favour of using the Batwoman logo as a framing device, among other shapes) is controlled and masterful in a way few other things are; Elegy and indeed the whole Batwoman run following it is certainly one of the best drawn ongoing or limited series there are.
This isn’t, naturally, perfect – the loose ends and coincidences that are the stock in trade of superhero comics abound as much here as in any other book – but Rucka does do a good job of telling a brilliant and emotionally true story, and Williams’ art adds so much to that. If you’re wondering where to start with superhero comics, Batwoman: Elegy might not be the perfect place to start, but it’s certainly a damn good one.