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Sunday Slugfest: Detective Comics #858

Posted: Sunday, November 1, 2009
By: Thom Young

Greg Rucka
JH Williams III ("Go") and Cully Hamner ("Pipeline")
DC Comics
The origin story of The All-New Batwoman begins in part one of "Go" in which we learn some of the tragic circumstances of Kate Kane's childhood.

Then, in the back-up story--"Pipeline" Chapter One, Part Five--The All-New Question's search for a missing woman comes to a happy and anticlimactic conclusion.

Shawn Hill:
Dave Wallace:
Thom Young:

Shawn Hill

Both stories in Detective Comics #858 have been building logically for five issues now. Kate's mysteries in the first story only deepen, but The Question's arc reaches a conclusion. Renee's confidence in her role as a masked crime fighter has been growing, and I quite like the track suit look she sports in this issue--as opposed to the old-school trench coat--she cuts a formidable figure in battle against drug thugs.

As for the lead story, JH Williams III continues his chameleonic tour-de-force with the book's visual stylings. Flashing back this issue to a style you might call early Vertigo (think subdued colors and heavily inked contours), he depicts scenes from Kate's childhood in which she and her sister, Beth, were protected by their military parents.

Whatever the parents were involved in makes the female members of the Kane family targets while dad is away on assignment. The scenes that have been haunting this tale in earlier chapters are explained this issue as we realize that Kate, her sister, and mother were abducted and tortured. Kate has thought her mom and sister were dead all this time--but it might not be that simple.

When Williams's style returns to the more fully painted modern day, Captain Sawyer, Commissioner Gordon, and Colonel Kane are all involved in trying to find Alice's body after her fall from the plane--but Kate is more concerned with finding out the truth of Alice's identity.

Betrayal, scars, secrets, and never-healed wounds of loss have enriched and complicated Kate's backstory. Her prickly personality is becoming easier to understand--as is her driven need to wear the costume.

Dave Wallace:

Ever since the character of Batwoman was first introduced in 52, readers have had questions about her origins. Whilst certain hints have been dropped regarding Kate Kane’s mysterious past, her background and the circumstances that led to her becoming Batwoman haven’t been explicitly spelled out--until now.

Some readers (myself included) were surprised that Greg Rucka and JH Williams III didn’t open their run on Detective Comics with Batwoman's origin story. Instead, they chose to throw her into a straightforward hero vs. villain conflict with the enigmatic Alice, and save the origin story for their second story arc.

As it turned out, Rucka had a good reason for structuring his first two arcs of Batwoman in this manner. The big revelation that came at the end of the previous issue--that Alice might be Kate’s sister--is something that would have been spoiled by spelling out their history in advance. By having the story structured in the manner Rucka chose, we were able to enjoy the surprise of discovering the possible connection between the two characters before going back to see exactly how everything fits together.

As ever, the star of the book is Williams's art. Whilst some fans might be disappointed that the style he employed throughout the previous arc is only utilised for a small section of this issue, I couldn’t help but be astounded by his versatility here.

Last issue’s final page of stark tumbling and angled black-and-white panels leads directly into this issue’s opening shot of a black-and-white football (or a soccer ball, for Americans) tumbling through the air as we enter into the flashback scenes that deal with Kate’s childhood.

In contrast to the style and colours that Williams and Dave Stewart have used in the series thus far, the childhood flashback sequences are illustrated in a simpler style and are more flatly coloured and subdued--evoking (perhaps intentionally) the art of David Mazzucchelli from Batman: Year One. Williams then switches to a slightly more generic style for a two-page vignette that shows Kate’s father in action in what I presume to be Afghanistan (given the presence of poppy fields). Finally, we see Williams revert to the book’s usual style for a few pages that are set in the present--only to return to the initial style again for a harrowing denouement (which has been teased once or twice in previous issues, and which is again hinted at on this issue’s cover--although it might not be exactly what readers were expecting from the hints).

Each of these three different styles serves the story very well indeed, creating the different senses of atmosphere and mood that the various sections of the book demand. Additionally, Williams demonstrates an eye for detail that gives the book plenty of added depth:
  • First there's the fact that Kate’s mother bears a strong resemblance to Maggie Sawyer, which adds an extra dimension to Kate’s attraction to Maggie.

  • Second, there's the storytelling rhythm that’s created by the recurring image of a ball atop a stick (seen in a panel depicting an unopened poppy in Afghanistan and later in a panel showing a streetlight in Brussels) .

  • Third, there's also the incorporation of the story’s title, "Go (part) 1" into the artwork (as seen on both the cover and on the second page of interior art) .

  • Finally, there's the simple fact that Williams can draw a football (soccer ball) accurately.
In fact, every page offers something that suggests that Williams has given serious thought and consideration to the story beyond simply reading his writer’s script and faithfully translating it to the page.

Talking of the script, Rucka also maintains the same standard established by previous issues--which is to say that he provides a solidly written story (even if it’s never particularly impressive or inspired). I like the way in which he’s setting up Kate’s origin story, and I wonder if there might be some more twists to come since some aspects at the end of this issue are still slightly ambiguous at this point.

I also like the fact that the Kate of the present day isn’t taking Alice at her word regarding her identity. She is conducting her own investigations into her enemy by testing Alice's blood--presumably for a DNA profile.

As I said earlier, I’m now beginning to appreciate the skill with which the story so far has been structured. However, there are some moments that feel clunky and overwritten. The interactions between Kate’s mother and father are a little cringe worthy, and the phrasing of the “past” pun of the opening page doesn’t sound natural when it comes from the mouth of such a young child.

In addition to the Batwoman tale, the issue features the concluding part of the backup story featuring the Question. It’s a swift and surprisingly straightforward conclusion that again gives artist Cully Hamner the opportunity to demonstrate his ability to tell a story clearly--but which doesn’t really offer any depth beyond that of a basic crime thriller. To be honest, I’m glad this story is over. If the backup stories continue, I hope they are more compelling than this one was.

As ever, I bought this issue for the Batwoman story, and I wasn’t disappointed. However, if the rumoured switch takes place, and future issues of Detective Comics present a lead story featuring the Question, followed by a “Batwoman” back-up, I don’t think I’ll be interested enough to keep buying the book--especially at $3.99 a pop.

Thom Young:

For some reason, I had not yet added this title to my list at the comic book shop. Thus, when the store owner handed me the few comics he had pulled for me, Detective Comics #858 was not among them. I found it on the shelf and asked him to add the title to my list. His response was, "Wow, everyone else is dropping that title."

I'm sure he was speaking hyperbolically. I'm sure not all the customers who had been getting Detective Comics have asked him to drop the title from their lists. Still, I was surprised that he was implying that a lot of his customers have dropped the title. I said I thought the Batwoman story was very good.

He agreed, but he said a lot of customers no longer want the series because Batman is no longer in it. I guess there are many people who buy titles only for the characters and don't care at all how good the quality of the stories are in titles that don't star those characters.

I think Detective Comics may be the second best ongoing monthly series that DC is currently publishing--second to Grant Morrison's Batman and Robin, of course. I also like Jonah Hex and Warlord, but I realize that my fondness for those series is tied up with my nostalgic remembrances of the original incarnations of those titles from 30-plus years ago.

Greg Rucka's work has not always impressed me, but there have been times when I have enjoyed his stories--and his work on Detective Comics is definitely one of those times. I'd be enjoying his Batwoman story even if it was not accompanied by JH Williams III's exquisite illustrations that make the story even better (in the same way that Morrison's Batman and Robin is best when Frank Quitely is illustrating that series rather than Philip Tan).

I'm not certain how well the Batwoman story will be come issue #861 when an illustrator named "Jock" takes over--at least for a guest spot in the credits. I can't imagine this story without Williams's work. I love the two distinct art styles (and coloring styles) that are used in this issue--the usual style that Williams has been using for this series in the present-day sequences, and the Batman: Year One David Mazzucchelli style for the flashback sequences.

My colleague Dave Wallace referred to three styles, but I think the two-page Afghanistan sequence is just a continuation of the Mazzucchelli-flashback style with the panels arranged diagonally on the page rather than vertically.

In editing my colleagues' reviews above, I tried to remove spoilers while maintaining what Shawn and Dave enjoyed of this issue's plot. It is a fine line down which to attempt to edit a review, and I find that I can't say anything more than what Shawn and Dave have already stated without giving too much away. I'll only say that I thoroughly enjoyed this issue's flashback plot and how it concluded within this chapter (I suspect there's more to come of this plot, though).

As to the complaint by the customers of the shop where I buy my comics--that they don't want this title because Batman isn't appearing in it--I can only say that they are missing a very good story that stars a character in the Batman Family.

However, it surprised me, too, that DC chose to have Batman not appear in this title in which he made his debut in April of 1939 (cover dated May 1939). Batman had appeared in 827 issues of Detective Comics spanning 70 years and three months, so it seems sacrilegious for him to no longer have a feature in the title--even if his absence is only temporary. Rather than the back-up story featuring the All-New Question, I'd have preferred giving Batman the back-up slot.

Sure it would have seemed odd moving Batman to the back in favor of Batwoman having the lead, but it would have allowed Batman to maintain his consecutive appearance record that was rivaled only by Superman's consecutive streak in Action Comics. I even have a few suggestions for how Batman could have slid into the back-up position:
  • Now that DC has brought back the multiverse and essentially brought the Golden Age Batman back into continuity, we could have been given "Untold Tales of the Golden Age Batman" that would have harkened back to the character's run in the series in the 1940s.

  • Another possibility--in keeping with the feminine theme of having Batwoman and the All-New Question featured in Detective Comics--we could have had the more contemporary version of the Bruce Wayne Batman teamed with one of his former long-time girlfriends in a series of short detective stories.

    The first arc could have starred Julie Madison and a murder that took place on stage during a play in which she was performing. Bruce Wayne would have been in the audience watching Julie perform when the mysterious murder occurs before his eyes. Of course, he would then be pressed into service as Batman to solve the crime using his detective skills while Julie Madison acts as Doctor Watson to Batman's Sherlock Holmes.

    A second arc would then have starred Linda Page and involved a murder at the hospital where she worked as a nurse. Bruce could have been at the hospital to unveil the new Thomas Wayne Cardiovascular Wing that Bruce paid for. He would have then been pressed into service as Batman to solve the crime with Linda as his Nora to his Nick Charles.

    A third arc could then be about Vicki Vale working on a Gotham Gazette story about a serial rapist and killer. Vicki then ends up missing, and Bruce uses his skills as The World's Greatest Detective to find her before she becomes the next victim.
This scenario for a Batman back-up feature could have been maintained for as long as Batwoman had the lead feature and could have run through Silver St. Cloud and all of Bruce Wayne's other long-time lovers.

Instead, though, we've been given a five-part detective story starring the All-New Question in which she investigates a sex-slave ring and finds a grateful man's abducted sister. The conclusion to this tale in this latest issue was a generic tale with a happy and anticlimactic ending. However, that's not how DC described this instalment in their solicitations for this issue:
. . . in The Question co-feature, Renee's search for a missing girl comes to a bittersweet end, leaving Renee with more questions and an even bigger mystery for her to solve.
A bittersweet ending? No, it was definitely a happy ending.

More questions and an even bigger mystery for her to solve? No, everything was wrapped up in a generic and anticlimactic conclusion.

I can only guess that the original chapter that was to be published in this issue was greatly revised--perhaps indicating that the All-New Question feature will no longer be appearing in Detective Comics starting with the next issue. However, I have not read any announcements about a new feature starting next issue, and DC's Web site still indicates that the Question will be teaming up with the Huntress to delve deeper into whatever "bigger mystery" was supposed to be uncovered at the end of this latest chapter.

I guess we'll find out next month. I'm hoping for a back-up story starring the Golden Age Batman attending a stage play starring his girlfriend Julie Madison. You see, a murder will occur on stage during the play. . . .

What did you think of this book?
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