Friday, September 25, 2009

Review: Detective Comics #857 and an unanswered Question

Believe it or not, this blog is still active — let's talk comics!

In particular, let's talk about Detective Comics #857. I've got a problem with the current incarnation of 'Tec, now featuring an updated Kate Kane as Batwoman. The concept behind the four-part "Elegy" storyline (which wraps up with this issue) is pretty derivative on the face of it. A tough-talking ass-kicker in a cowl is chasing a white-faced, murderous looney who is trying to release a deadly poison into Gotham City; sound familiar?

But that's not my problem. My problem is actually that, in spite of it featuring a Batwoman presented as a cookie-cutter, female version of the original guy with pointy ears, I really, really like it. The story is muscular and dangerous; unlike the ever-prepared Batman, the reader gets the sense Batwoman could lose and the bad guys might actually win this time. Her nemesis, a fairly obvious Joker analog (with a bit of Mad Hatter in the mix) called Alice is sadistically and charmingly nuts, and is one of the few new Bat-family villains I've liked enough to want to see again. (Rucka also manages to use her to make the whole Crime Bible/religion thing interesting for a change.)

That update I mentioned — Kate is the military daughter of an Army colonel who helps her in the field — works pretty well, and becomes a vital plot point in this issue. Writer Greg Rucka gives readers a believable Batwoman, and I'm looking forward to finding out more about how she got there.

But the real star of the show is artist JH Williams III, who seems to be determined to single-handedly dragging comic book layout and design forward. His chilly, nearly sculpted artwork is framed — but barely contained — by panels that take the shape of thunderbolts and misty, melting boxes that fan out across the page like a dreamy, bare-knuckled tarot deck. It is impressive, it's imaginative and it's simply beautiful. It takes me longer to read an issue of Detective than most other comics, and that's mostly because I just pore over every panel.

Detective Comics also comes with The Question as a back-up feature, and it's also written by Rucka, with art by Cully Hamner. Unfortunately there isn't much to say about this one. Rucka seems to be phoning it in, and while I loved Hamner on Blue Beetle I just can't get into his work here. I've never been much of a fan of Renee Montoya as the Question, and the work here drags the character down where it should be lifting her up.

You can check out a preview of both Detective Comics #857 and the back-up Question feature right here — and then let me know what you think in the comments!


Scott said...

I'd quibble about Batwoman being a cookie-cutter version of Batman. I get a much more swashbuckler vibe from her, though it may be a bit grimmer swashbuckler than most of 'em.

Her character as Kate Kane is also a lot more interesting than Bruce Wayne's, I think -- Bruce is Generic Handsome Rich Playboy; Kate is Gothpunk Rockabilly Army-Brat Lesbian...

rob! said...

Yep, I'd agree JHWIII is rocking on Detective Comics.

Maxo said...

Scott: It's not an exact copy, and Rucka pulls off the differences well enough that it helps raise it above what — for me, at least — is almost distractingly similar to a well-worn Batman story. But Rucka dodges his own trap pretty well, and I agree, Kate's background is refreshing and has got a lot of possibility. Overall, I'm digging the new Detective.

Rob: It's beautiful stuff; almost every page deserves to be framed.

Stefan Yong said...

It's an interesting observation, Maxo. It helps that the art emphasises the Kate-Alice duality in a way that calls back to the Batman-Joker dynamic, like the cover, or the first splash page.

Every time I read an issue of 'Tec I wonder how much Greg Rucka's script influences the artistic style of the book.

I like to think that the script says something like "Batwoman beats up a goon" and then JHW3 turns it into that lightning bolt fight page.

Maxo said...

That's a good question, Stefan — I wonder how much collaboration there is and how much artistic freedom Williams has (I'm assuming a bunch).

Thanks for your thoughtful comment!