Monday, 25 October 2010
"Batwoman: Elegy" by Greg Rucka & J H Williams: On The Nature Of Virtue And Correct Conduct
It's impossible to say whether "Batwoman: Elegy" is an angry comic book that's been written by an angry man.
But I strongly suspect that it is.
"Batwoman" is a book at war with the very terms of mass political debate in the West of the 21st century. It's not exclusively left or right wing, radical or conservative, or even, save us, politically playful and post-modern, though in its own way it's any and all of those things.
But it is a comic that displays an uncommon exasperation with some of the absurd and insulting assumptions which too often shape the contemporary political debate. And in its own quite deliberate fashion, the book's a rejection of our culture's often-unthinking acceptance that happiness and meaning can be found in either conforming to social pressure or in rejecting the wider society in search of individual satisfaction.
For in "Batwoman;Elegy", the argument seems to be that a life well lived can't be constructed from conformity and service at the cost of fundamental individual freedoms, and vice versa too. Instead, in Mr Rucka and Mr Williams work here, freedom and duty aren't positioned as opposites, the state and the individual aren't separate and exclusive principles, and duty and choice are the Janus-headed sides of the same coin.
"At least I'm not pretending to be something I'm not!" shouts Kate Kane at her closeted lover Renee, at 6:12:4. But, of course, Kate is herself living a lie, and it's a lie that obscures a fundamental truth of her existence that's every bit as fatal to suppress as Officer Montoya's public identity as a lesbian. Of course, the two of them exist as opposites, one fulfilling her sexual identity and the other her social responsibilities, and neither of them can grasp that the solution to each other's problems are hiding in plain site right there before the pair of them. Renee may not be out, may not have told her colleagues and her family that she's gay, but she is fully engaged in the purpose of serving the wider community of Gotham City. That Renee's life is blighted with the weight of secrecy and the fear of discovery doesn't mean that her life is entirely a "lie", as Kate in her unconscious defensiveness spits out at her, any more than the fact that Kate is openly a lesbian makes her a self-evidently honest and complete person.
For Kate, with all her families wealth, can afford to be out just as she can't, in terms of her own soul, afford to be defining herself solely in terms of indulgence and social indifference. She can try to internalise that great myth of the modern west, that our individual identity and our happiness can be fixed and furthered by adopting a role that attends only to our atomised selves, but it's a myth that will destroy her, just as not being true to the facts and blessings of her own personal sexuality will inevitably threaten to destroy Renee Montoya too.
Kate's dilemma is so beautifully captured by the synergy of Mr Rucka and Mr Williams work during the scene where she first encounters the Batman (6:13:7). In the panels leading up to this initial meeting, Kate has been depicted in Mr William's art with a simplicity of form borrowed in part quite deliberately and respectfully from the style David Mazzucchelli used during his days illustrating Marvel Comic's "Daredevil". And this brilliant appropriation ensures that Kate remains a substantial and respect-worthy figure in the scenes leading up to the appearance of Bruce Wayne, just as it permits an immediate visual contrast to be drawn between her semi-cartoony two-dimensionality and the far more "realistic", the far more heavily-rendered and detailed, figure of the Dark Knight.
It's a lack of substance on Kate's part that's emphasised as she stumbles backwards with the shock of The Batman's appearance, faced with a character that's as solid and unmoving as a fundamental moral principle. Kate, we're surely being told, is a cartoon of herself, but this man in a mask is profoundly real. The rain splatters off off of him without leaving a trace because he's not defined by the situation he's in, by his circumstances or his role, and when she looks up at him, Kate and the reader can all of a sudden see Gotham's grey heavens rather than the city's endless grey walls and pavements.
And so, when Kate stands in The Batman's shadow and watches him pull himself wordlessly up into the sky in response to the Bat-signal's call, it's suddenly obvious that she's not a victim anymore. She's not the victim of a government that would demand its citizens lie about their very nature all in the name of a prurient morality and electoral cowardice, and she's not a victim of the legends of self-expression through sybaritic indulgence and inward-looking obsession.
James Ellroy recently characterised contemporary culture as being, in part, one strongly marked by "self-pity (*1) ". And "Batwoman: Elegy" is a book that places its lead character into such extremes of jeopardy and suffering that the reader might that fear the tale is going to be yet another comic book indulgence of angst, yet one more soap-operatic construction where an endless tsunami of ill-fortune is designed to heighten a never-ending, rarely-interrupted, sense of tearsome, oh-woe-is-me despair.
But, of course, "Elegy" is concerned with anything but the weighing down of the reader with a sequence of internal and external calamities in preparation for a long delayed and supposedly cathartic punch-up. Nor, indeed, does Mr Rucka ever suggest that such tale-closing brawling is the point of his story at all. Instead, Kate's progress isn't the usual cycle of endless and overwhelming super-heroic problems punctuated by brief and Pyrrhic victories. Rather, her salvation is found in the simple fact that she's learnt to fight, to "soldier on" (1:16:5), and that she's learned to fight in both the private and the public spheres of her life, serving herself and her city's community.
And so, Kate Kane as a private individual isn't a haven into which "Batwoman" can retreat between superheroic showdowns. Instead, Kate is engaged upon her own struggle with injustice just as her alter-ego is, albeit in a different sphere, and she too wears a costume and faces down the enemy with bravery and fortitude. It's a point that can be seen in the scene of the Fundraiser (3:13), where Kate's appearance as an obviously out and individually-minded woman causes her step-mother to groan "Oh, Katie ... You couldn't have worn something appropriate? (3:13:4)". But Kate knows what's appropriate, and what's appropriate is to declare to the polity that she's not ashamed of her identity and her sexuality, despite whatever that defiance may cost her. And so when she's accused of "trying to draw attention to herself (3:14:2)", with her almost necrotic skin-tone and her wonderfully scarlet Louise Brooks hair-style, with her uniform of a tuxedo which both mimics and mocks conventional formal masculine standards, Kate is declaring that she's just "making sure" that she doesn't "stay hidden (3:14:2)", because she shouldn't ever have to be.
For Kate's journey has been to grasp that the private and the public spheres of life aren't separate, and that politics isn't a matter just to be ignored on the TV and attended to once every while with a tick in a ballot box. And by embracing the fact that she needs to always exists in a social sense every bit as much as she does as an individual too, Kate is that rarest of creatures;the democratic citizen.
And "Batwoman: Elegy" seems to be so disgusted with self-pity and defeatism, though compassionate to personal pain, that every element of the book appears to declare that we're lost if we allow ourselves to conspire with our own oppression, if we abandon society to its bigots and its self-interested playmakers. By being herself, by challenging the idiocy and prejudice around her simply by refusing to respond to the intimidation of disapproval, Kate Kane is of course fighting the good fight every bit as much as Batwoman does.
Or, as Kate's father puts it, she's not "alone (7.9.5)". There's a society beyond herself that she can choose to belong to, if she can just remember in her pain that a wider society in its various forms exists and needs to be engaged with.
*1:- James Ellroy, "This Much I Know", The Observer Magazine, 24-10-10
When Kate is shown dancing with Captain Maggie Sawyer (3:18/19), the two of them are portrayed with such a laudable and appropriate lack of shame, are pictured with such dignity and strength, that the judgements of everyone else in the room are pushed quite rightly away to the very periphery of the dancer's attention. There in the centre of things the two of them move, carving out the directions of their own lives, one formally embedded in the state's bureaucracy and one acting in a rather less conventional fashion to help others, and they're not stereotypes, but people.
And the grace and discipline of their dancing seems to emphasise a point that's as exasperated in its meaning as the text and art are beautiful in their form. What, these pages self-evidently demand, could possibly be wrong with this?