Sometimes there are comics that you can review before even reading them, and I was half tempted to do that with the two comics I’m going to review here. Going in, I knew exactly what I was going to get with these two comics, both part of the line-wide Batman revamp. Both feature female leads, in Gotham City, who have recently had serious heart injuries from which they bear both psychological and physical scars but manage to run round doing serious acrobatics and fighting in skin-tight leathers. One is extraordinarily good, the other is a meretricious piece of leering fanboyism.
Detective Comics, unsurprisingly, is the excellent one. It’s also quite difficult for me to review. I’m far more comfortable talking about writing than art, but the writing isn’t really the selling point of this comic for me.
Which is not to say the writing’s bad in any way – it’s Greg Rucka continuing the long story he started in 2005 in his parts of 52, and which has carried on through the Crime Bible mini and his Final Crisis tie-ins, while also reintroducing the characters for a new audience and adding a supporting cast and new villains to set up the Batwoman and Question stories as ongoing ones. Rucka does that competently and efficiently, (though I wonder how Batwoman’s father being a colonel works with her background as the daughter of an old-money family…) and fans of Rucka’s writing (like Debi ) will enjoy it. For me, though, Rucka is one of those writers whose work I’ll read if it’s there, and not seek out if it isn’t – on a level with Kurt Busiek or Mark Waid rather than Alan Moore or Dave Sim.
But Rucka is very much the weak link, relatively speaking, in the creative team here. The letterer is the great Todd Klein (actually not his best work – the font for Alice is very good but the rest is very standard) .
The colourist is Dave Stewart – the only current colourist (who doesn’t do anything else – I’m not here counting people like Jamie Grant who do other things as well) working in comics whose work I think actively improves the art – his work with Darwyn Cooke has been particularly impressive, and here his work is extraordinary. Most colourists for superhero comics tend to use flat colours, photoshop gradients or whatever to give a rather superficial set of colours that look more or less like the thing they’re meant to look like. I count three distinct palettes here, for different sections of the story, and a level of detail I’ve rarely seen – just look at the middle panel in the last page of the Batwoman story to see what I mean.
But the real star of the issue is J.H. Williams III. Williams is, without question, the best artist working in comics today. And this is where the problems come in, as I have less than no artistic vocabulary – all I can say is that I can look at even just his layouts all day, drinking in the sheer *design sense*, let alone his draughtsmanship, to say nothing of his storytelling ability. All I can say is that Williams tops himself with almost every page – he started out brilliant, and has only got better from there. Jog’s review makes a better fist of explaining the power of Williams’ work than I could, but still it’s fundamentally inexplicable – you just have to look at it.
In reviews, including this one, the backup feature – The Question – has been getting short shrift, and this isn’t really deserved. Rucka scripts this, too, and it will be tying in with the main storyline, and it’s a perfectly good story. Cully Hammer, the artist, is very good – he’s someone whose work I always enjoy – but he can’t help but suffer in comparison to Williams, and the colouring doesn’t help, being a similar enough palette to Stewart’s ‘superhero scene’ one to invite comparisons, but far less nuanced. Read on its own, it’s a decent little eight-page setup, but it’s just not as good as the main story.
Paul Dini’s Masturbation Fantasy Gotham City Sirens on the other hand, is just terrible, and a proof that the Bechdel test is a minimum, not a guarantee of a lack of sexism (and still less, of course, a guarantee of any kind of quality). (Incidentally, I didn’t deliberately buy this – the comic shop stuck it in my pull list because I read other batbooks, and my wife picked my comics up this week).
On paper, the idea of a supervillain team consisting of Catwoman, Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn seems like a reasonable one. You could make a decent mid-market series out of that, with a writer who could do character-based humour and action scenes – someone like Gail Simone or the Giffen/DeMatteis team. It wouldn’t be great, but it’d be readable.
However, the script for this is by Paul Dini, and despite his love for these characters (and for Zatanna, who *of course* makes an appearance) he doesn’t actually bother to distinguish them as people (apart from a couple of lines for Harley where she uses contractions). Instead, he just has them spout exposition at each other in interchangeable voices. While Rucka reveals character, motivation and background through dialogue – making Kate Kane talk differently from her girlfriend who talks differently from Batman who talks differently from Kane’s military father, thus letting us know what kind of people these are, Dini, however, has moved past such trivia as ‘characterisation’ and ‘depth’ (even of the minimal kind found in the Batwoman story), preferring instead to use dialogue to recap plot points from what I presume are his own later Batman stories (after I gave up bothering with his run on Detective) and the abysmal Countdown. There is precisely one exchange in this story that rings at all true as something a human being might say (the ‘Nigerian scam’ panel). – everything else is, at best, Claremontian.
But Dini’s writing here, bad as it is, is not the real problem. The problem’s with the art. Artist Guillem March actually displays some talent here. In fact in some ways he’s too good for the script – he has a facility for facial expressions, and manages to make the characters ‘act’ surprisingly well, and display recognisable characteristics – but this is working against the script rather than for it.
The problem is that he’s far more interested in drawing arses than actually telling the story. Now, I have no particular problem with mildly sexualised or titillating art in comics per se – it’s not something I have any especial interest in, but whatever. Some of Williams’ art in Detective has a definite sexual undercurrent, and that’s fine – it adds to the story.
But look at the bottom (in both senses) of page ten of Gotham City Sirens (I would scan this in, but I’ve not installed the drivers on my new laptop yet). A huge shot of Catwoman’s arse, for no particular reason. And Harley and Ivy’s heads *level* with it, even though all three are standing up, close to each other, and there is no suggestion of looking at them from an angle – no perspective distortion at all. The only way this panel makes sense is if Harley and Ivy are kneeling or Catwoman is standing on a box, but only for this panel. In the next panel, meanwhile, Harley and Ivy have swapped places for no explicable reason except that the artist was too busy drawing Catwoman’s arse to care about coherent storytelling.
These two comics, for all their surface similarities, serve as almost perfect examples of How To Do It and How Not To Do It – polar opposites, except for one unfortunate fact. Despite the fact that these comics have female main characters, and are apparently intended to appeal to the female comics-reading audience, only two of the twenty people credited with some creative or editorial role are women (the colourist on the backup feature in Detective and an assistant editor on GCS). Which is not to say that only women can write or draw or edit comics about or for women – that would be a ludicrous suggestion. But I *do* think that if the numbers were nearer parity (not just on these titles, but in the industry as a whole) we would have rather fewer comics where women are undifferentiated holders of tits and arse, and rather more where they’re people. But how do we get that parity when comics like Gotham City Sirens exist?
*(I won’t even mention that Catwoman says ‘blame it on sunshine’…. Damn.)