To avoid any doubt, let me start by summing up Batwoman in a single sentence: it's one of the best superhero comics I've ever read, and it's certainly the crown jewel of DC's New 52 reboot.
To employ a time-worn old cliché, Batwoman really is the book that has everything. Grounded street-level action and non-powered superheroics sit happily alongside plot threads revolving around supernatural institutions and fantastical antagonists. There's also strong character work that explores the many different facets of Kate Kane's personal life — such as her relationship with her father, her haunting childhood, and her new romance — whilst also showing what makes her such an effective and exciting hero, albeit one who isn't powerful enough to always be able to stop things from crashing down around her, as they threaten to here.
At the same time, there's a compelling story strand about Kate training her cousin to become Flamebird, which comes to a head towards the end of this issue. And that's not to mention the subplots involving kidnapped children, a creepy ghost and an investigator trying to uncover the identity of Batwoman. I genuinely had to check after reading this book that it was only 22 pages long, because most books would struggle to keep so many plates spinning — and to do it so well — within the confines of a regular-length book.
It's even more surprising that this series is so good when you consider that Batwoman's original shepherd, Greg Rucka, is no longer handling the character. But there's no discernible drop in quality between his stories featuring the character in Detective Comics and this new eponymous title by J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman.
Perhaps that's partly because Williams is in a position to perfectly unite the writing of the series with his visionary artwork. It's no surprise that the book's words and images mesh so well when there's a single person visualising the story — but having read many mediocre books by writer-artists, it's good to know that Williams is one of the few that can excel in both areas, rather than simply using his authorial privilege to allow himself to draw whatever he wants.
Consider this double-page spread from the issue's opening, in which Williams presents a page that's beautiful in its own right whilst also telling the story very effectively. It utilises an irregular layout as well as several different styles — that never feel as though they clash — whilst managing to create a strong sense of progression and flow, reinforce the creepiness of the arc's villainess and the threat she poses, and remind readers of the links between Kate, her young self, and "Alice" from the Elegy story.
Playing with different artistic styles is something that continues throughout the book, but it's always for a reason that's pertinent to the story. Usually, this means that scenes featuring Kate's personal life are drawn in a flatter, bolder style, whilst sequences involving Batwoman in action are rendered more three-dimensionally, with subtler gradations of color and texture. However, in this issue Williams pulls off a neat trick that he previously used to great effect during the "Go" arc of his Detective Comics run: that of utilising discreet styles within the same panels, as a way of demonstrating how Batwoman's costumed existence can sometimes clash with her personal life. That this occurs during a sequence of high emotion in this particular chapter only makes the technique even more powerful.
This theme of clashing public and private lives is conveyed through other techniques, too. For example, take this sequence towards the end of the issue, in which a scene of Kate disrobing runs in parallel with a sequence showing her cousin tooling up. Not only does the level of detail in Williams's rendering change according to whether the characters are in-costume or not, but the angle of the panels and their alignment on the page also serve to reflect the emergence of one hero as another disappears, and to draw out the links between the two characters that we've already been made aware of through the story so far.
In fact, Williams shows himself to be a master of framing and of using panels appropriately throughout the issue. In particular, one sequence involving inset panels and multiple images of a handful of characters is enhanced by a clever approach to frames-within-frames.
Often, sequences that convey motion by using multiple panels set against a single contiguous background can have the effect of flattening the field of action by locking the entire multi-panel sequence into a similar perspective. Here, however, Williams gets around that by setting his panels as three-dimensional objects within the space presented by a larger image. His inset panels hang in mid-air like picture frames, allowing him to highlight a different perspective in each one, whilst still setting all of them within the same physical space depicted.
It's reminiscent of the kind of visual techniques pioneered in books such as We3 and Final Crisis, and that element of innovation pushes the book from being merely very very good to being great.
As I get older and more jaded, I've come to realize that one of the most important things for me in enjoying a comic is to feel like it offers something new. In a sea of samey superhero stories, a title needs to offer something unique and imaginative if it's to stand out as special. Batwoman manages to do all of that, whilst also ticking all of the conventional boxes that you'd expect a superhero book to tick — and doing so very effectively. An intriguing and complex plot, some well-realized and sympathetic characters, and some world-class artwork combine to make it one of the best books — if not the best book — on the stands today.
A journalist and sometime comics reviewer, Dave Wallace was raised on a traditional European diet of Beano comics, Asterix collections and Tintin books before growing up and discovering that sequential art could — occasionally — be even better than that. He has an unashamed soft spot for time-travel stories, Spider-Man, and anything by Alan Moore or Grant Morrison, and has been known to spend far too much on luxurious hardcover editions of his favorite books when it's something he really likes. Maybe one day he'll get around to writing down his own stories that have been knocking around his head for a while now.