Sunday, 13 January 2013

Drowning in Mediocrity: Batwoman Volume 2, or How a Good Title Was Scuppered by Bad Writing

This is going to have a lot of spoilers so avoid this review if you're planning on reading it.

I read the first issue of “Batwoman, Volume 2: To Drown the World”, put down the book, and re-read the first volume because I had no idea what was going on. Having re-read it, I’m still not sure I know what’s going on in this book. 

In “Hydrology”, the first book, we find out that Batwoman/Kate Kane’s dad, retired General Jacob Kane, got up to some questionable activity while in the service and with that information soon to be made public, it seemed that the General would spend the rest of his retirement behind bars. That is until a talking skeleton, Mr Bones, showed up offering protection to her dad if Kate would work for his organisation, the Department of Extranormal Operations (DEO), which she readily accepts. 

In the past, the DEO have been charged with regulating superhero activities so it was interesting - and baffling - to see them recruiting a superhero to their ranks. Interesting because, as Batman warns at the end of “Hydrology”, that puts her against him and Batman Inc. So I expected this book to see Kate maybe tussling with, if not the Dark Knight, then any of the Bat family crowding the streets of Gotham, Nightwing maybe, Batgirl, or the Birds of Prey. But instead, that possible, far more interesting storyline is completely ignored to have Batwoman go up against a new criminal organisation called Medusa and some new, supernatural villains all of whom are bland and uninteresting.

Batwoman is now officially the spooky book in the Bat-line of DC titles. Her remit is to fight ghosts, vengeful spirits, and all manner of things that go bump in the night - maybe because she looks kinda vampiric? but more on that later - indefinitely for the DEO. Does she have a plan to somehow escape this obligation? Will she be able to protect her dad if she could? If she turned to Batman, would he use his considerable resources to offer the same protection the DEO offer without the need to be a masked ghostbuster? None of these questions are even considered, all we know is Batwoman seems quite happy in fighting the supernatural baddies. 

Her dad meanwhile is sat by the bed of Bette aka Flamebird who’s in a coma. That’s her dad’s and Flamebird’s entire storyline for this book. His behaviour towards her is odd too, she’s just his niece but he acts like she’s his daughter. I know they’re family but I thought his attitude to her condition in this book was way over the top. 

And here’s where the plot really breaks down. Batwoman is trying to save some kids from a bad guy called Falchion and that’s her motivation for the entire book. Fair enough, but who is Falchion and why does he want these kids? It’s nothing sexual by the way, it seems to involve magic, but Falchion’s “character” is barely written in this book, he just pops up out of nowhere and acts as a de facto villain, kids in chains being visual shorthand for “bad guy”. And there’s a lot of character underwriting in this book. The other bad guy is an Asian sorceror called Maro whose magic feeds on the belief of fear, conjuring up “Bloody Mary” - that thing from school where you say “Bloody Mary” into the mirror 3 times and an evil spirit shows up? it’s real in this book! - among others, and who he is, what his motivations are, are also never revealed. Then there’s this new evil organisation called Medusa - what they are, where they came from, what they’re about, it’s all ignored. Suddenly the Religion of Crime from the last 2 books (I count “Elegy” as the first book and “Hydrology” as the second) is marginalised for some reason but they’re still about. 

My point about motivation and character development is twofold; if we don’t know who these characters are, we don’t care about them, and if we don’t know why they’re behaving like they do, then we care even less. This book is essentially about Batwoman trying to stop an unknown group of spooky villains from doing something, somehow, somewhere, for some reason. It’s makes for a very uninvolving and completely confusing book.

It’s not helped either by the worst plot device I’ve seen used in comics for a long while. Williams/Blackman structure the story so that it jumps about in time every couple of pages, centring on a different character each time. So we get: Batwoman’s story Now; Chase’s story 1 week ago; Kate’s story 28 hours ago; Jacob’s story 3 weeks ago; Maro’s story 1 month ago; Maggie’s story 15 minutes from now - aargh, it’s so damn choppy! The story is convoluted enough - read through the prism of this narrative structure, it’s becomes doubly confusing and frustrating to read as the events supersede and overlap. I’m all for innovative narrative tricks in comics, I’m not looking for just linear stories, but this plot structure is so clumsily written, it derails the book rather than streamlining it. 

“Hydrology” was rightly lauded as the best looking “New 52” title but in “To Drown the World” Williams has handed over art duties to Amy Reeder, choosing to draw the covers only, while colourist Dave Stewart has been replaced by Guy Major. Reeders’ art is fine but it seems that she’s been instructed to draw like Williams, which she does quite competently, even down to the creative splash pages he’s famous for, but the difference between the two creative teams is noticeable and I’ve a feeling this second book won’t be as celebrated for its visuals as the first book. 

Speaking of visuals, Batwoman sure is white isn’t she? I mean, REALLY white. Her skin is so white she makes albinos look tanned. Does she take her baths at Ace Chemicals? Is there going to be a reveal in a future book that she’s the Joker’s daughter? It’s one thing to draw someone pale but when you do it to this extreme, and no-one questions it, it draws even more attention to it and looks very peculiar. 

Also, I think DC have overplayed the gay card too much. I know there aren’t many LGBT characters out there and it’s great that Batwoman is gay and so popular, but do we need reminding in literally every issue? At almost every major plot juncture in the book, Kate’s sexuality plays a part in it and I don’t know why. I haven’t got a problem with hers, or anyone’s, sexual orientation but to write about it this often is a bit much. I think the writers should write fewer scenes highlighting Kate’s sexuality and focus instead on creating meaningful characters and plot, both of which were missing in this book. 

“Batwoman Vol 2” fails to deliver a well written and entertaining story, or even decent villains for Kate to battle, an issue that’s plagued this title for three books now. But even by Batwoman standards the villains in this book are massively underwritten (the one familiar face being Killer Croc who gets his New 52 makeover here - though why he’s working for Medusa is never explained, he just is) especially as motivations and backstory are eschewed for scenes of laughable villainy - “I will eat your corpse, Batwoman!” “Eat her body!” “This blade has bathed in Amazonian blood... now it will bathe in yours!”, etc. Great, so, uh, why are you obsessed with Batwoman again? What’s so special about Gotham? Who are you? What are you doing here? What the hell is going on in this book?! 

There wasn’t a single moment in the book that stood out for me that I can point to and say “that was memorable” or “that was good”. It was all just one big jumbled mess of scenes flashing backwards and forwards in time between two dimensional characters all moving in some plot that’s never explained. I find this series requires too much mental legwork for very little payoff so I’m abandoning it now. Maybe Batwoman will be a great title one day but I don’t think Williams and Blackman are the writers who’re going to do that.

Batwoman Volume 2: To Drown the World

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