BookBin2013: Batwoman Volume 1: Hydrology / Batgirl Volume 1: The Darkest Reflection

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Please don’t think that because I have paired these two books into one review I don’t think they are worthy of their own individual posts. I can assure you, denizens, this is not the case. However, it just so happens that I purchased both of these “New 52” collections at the same time (along with my very own copy of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, which I have already reviewed but mention because it will play a part in the following review). I also happened to read these two collections successively, which sparked a bit of “compare-and-contrast” within my swirly brain.

First, a bit of exposition: Both are collections of the first comics for each heroine under the recent DC Comics “reboot.” I use reboot loosely, however, because it kind of was a reboot…but not really. In my mind, a reboot would have meant total tabula rasa for all the characters involved. This wasn’t exactly the case, at least for Kate Kane and Barbara Gordon.

For example, Barbara Gordon is, indeed, once more Batgirl. However, she is still the same Barbara Gordon who was shot at point-blank range by the Joker in The Killing Joke. Part of her history is still those years she spent in a wheelchair and the time she spent known as Oracle, the brains behind the Birds of Prey.

Kate Kane is still the wealthy “playgirl” of Gotham with a military history that was curtailed by “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” She also still carries with her the baggage of dark truths revealed in the anthology Elegy.

So not necessarily a complete reboot in the truest sense of the word. However, it was enough of a reboot to get Gordon back into that Batgirl costume, which I definitely appreciate. Even more, it was enough to get Gail Simone in to take over telling Batgirl’s second chance at bat.

Heh. Get it? Bat. Never mind.

Simone’s name on the cover of The Darkest Reflection is ultimately what lured me into Batgirl’s story. I spoke about my thoughts on Simone’s prowess as a comic writer in my review of Wonder Woman: The Circle. She did wonders (I’m sorry; I’ll stop doing that, I swear) for Diana of Themyscira. She was also responsible for telling Gordon’s tale as Oracle for many issues as head writer for Birds of Prey, so I knew she already had a connection with and understanding of Gordon that most writers wouldn’t already have.

Similarly, it was seeing J.H. Williams, III’s name on Hydrology that lured me once more back into Batwoman’s storyline. Williams was the artistic brilliance behind Elegy, so I knew the art once again would be exemplary. However, this time, Williams was also the writer, taking over the Batwoman mythology from Greg Rucka. I honestly think this was the collection’s biggest weakness. Not only was Rucka a more captivating and comprehensive writer, I think taking on both roles caused Williams’s art to suffer a bit. But only a bit, mind you. Between the two collections, I would choose Williams as the more stunning and unconventional artist. Still, I think that writing and drawing were too taxing for Williams. His artwork was nowhere near as astonishing as it was for Elegy.

Sticking for a moment with commentary on the artwork, I will say this in favor of Ardian Syaf, the artist behind Batgirl’s return: I much preferred his rendering of Gordon as Batgirl to Williams’s rendering of Kane as Batwoman. Batgirl came across as fit, athletic, limber, and lithe. She has a sporty physique and her Batgirl costume is modestly rendered. She looks like she’s ready to do battle with villains.

Batwoman, on the other hand, at times looks like she’s ready to take a spin or two around a pole in Gotham’s redlight district. Pendulous breasts and a generous derriere, covered in latex in a way that leaves little to the imagination, Batwoman is also drawn in a far more provocative manner than Batgirl. Translation: There are lots more stereotypical comic renderings of Batwoman from utterly ridiculous but obviously “male gaze” angles than there are of Batgirl.

Syaf’s take on Batgirl is celebratory of the female form, while Williams’s take on Batwoman comes across many times as exploitative. It’s a shame, really. I want to like Batwoman more than Batgirl, but I find comics that depict women so wantonly to be insulting and, truthfully, kind of sad.

I can’t help but wonder if the moderation of Syaf’s artwork was due to Simone’s presence. Did Simone let Syaf know that she didn’t want Batgirl coming across as one step above a Playboy Playmate? Or did Syaf perhaps refrain from the more lascivious artwork out of deference to Simone? Or maybe it has less to do with Simone and more to do with the one primary difference between the two characters names: Gordon is a Bat girl, while Kane is a Bat woman. Perhaps the “girl” nom de guerre grants her a reprieve from the more pornographic postures?

Of course, this isn’t to say that Syaf didn’t ever present Batgirl in some of those predictably provocative male gaze positions. There are a couple of doozies in this collection, actually. Williams, however, is the guilty party between the two artists when it comes to objectifying artwork.

As for the storytelling itself, I’m going to have to also give my vote to Batgirl. Just as I mentioned in my review of Simone’s writing for Wonder Woman, here she again presents her primary character in a wonderfully and holistically developed fashion. Barbara Gordon is believable, replete with damage, fear, guilty, wonder, and joy. Williams simply fails to provide Kate Kane with the same level of dimensionality, presence, or realism. He gives it the old college try, but, in the end, he lacks the inherent connection with and understanding of Kate Kane that a female writer—particularly one of Simone’s caliber—could bring to her. This doesn’t mean that I think only a woman could properly write for Kate Kane. I thought Rucka did an outstanding job as her storyteller. I just don’t think Williams is the correct guy for this mission.

Still, Williams is able to keep my interest in Batwoman piqued enough that I wouldn’t be averse to continuing to read more. However, should Simone tire of hanging out with Batgirl, I would be more than on-board with her moving on to the other redhead in the Bat pantheon.

Final Verdict: Um. I’m going to say keep, Bob. Plus, I have already added their respective second volumes to my wishlist. Here’s hoping that Barnes & Noble has another awesome ComiCon-inspired graphic novel sale, so I can snag reasonably priced copies of the next stories the same way I snagged these and The Killing Joke.