A while ago, my boy Pedro at Funnybook Babylon talked about how sometimes bad art can obscure a less-than-wonderful script, since bad art is easier to bitch about and more easily apparent. I'm here to talk about the inverse, especially as it relates to Greg Rucka's inadvertent (I'm pretty sure he originally thought this was going to be a solo miniseries or ongoing) return to Detective Comics.
Because, let's be fair: everyone's talking about how gorgeous and brilliant and formally inventive J.H. Williams III is, but I just haven't seen people talk about the story all that much. I reread "Elegy" before reading Detective Comics #858 this week, and the entire story works incredibly well as a continuous whole, with Williams's chameleonic layouts perfectly complementing the very diverse locations and settings that Rucka's building into this.
But even completely ignoring the art side, there's a lot going on here. It's difficult to discuss the story without discussing Kate's relationship to the Bat-symbol; she's absolutely taking up the aegis of a concept larger than herself, but that's a logical decision for someone ingrained with a military mindset, something that's absolutely integral to Kate's character.
There's a joke, and a criticism, somewhere about how Batwoman combines Rucka's two favorite concepts as a writer - the military and tough but flawed female heroes - into a single company-owned franchise, but while that might be true the military angle DOES do a great deal to distinguish her from the other people rocking the Bat - and a traumatic past is pretty much the prerequisite to join that club in the first place. Just look at what happened to poor ol' Tim Drake.
The hook that's driving this series as of the beginning of GO - and SPOILER SHADES on, kids, I'm about to ruin the end of the last arc - is that Batwoman's character is really one half of a yin/yang thing, a character who's largely dedicated to order and discipline, although the ballroom scenes with Maggie Sawyer betray a streak of mischievousness. The other half would, of course, have to be dedicated to chaos with a streak of order and community - and that's her sister Beth, heading up the Religion of Crime while being driven by her ordered obsession to emulate Alice Liddell.
Rucka teases this duality for the first three issues, but it's really in #857 that Williams's art starts reflecting the nature of Batwoman and Alice's relationship - an artistic theme I will, perhaps incorrectly, attribute to Rucka's plot over Williams's layout and design. At the end of the issue, the overall theme is clear, and then with #858, the first part of "Go," Rucka switches gears completely to writing what may be his strongest subject: parents and their children.
From Batman: Death and the Maidens to his Montoya Family scenes in Gotham Central, Rucka is superb at writing family dynamics, and this is HUGELY to his advantage when dealing with the material presented by the Kanes. What's impressive about the way Rucka portrays Kate and Beth's relationship with their mother isn't just the immediate portrayal in the flashbacks, but how thoroughly it informs Kate's indifference to her STEPmother in the present-day situation of the first arc. Greg Rucka mothers are creatures of great insight and tough love, and Gabi Kane is no exception to that rule - while the current stepmother is, at this point, just a disapproving, misunderstanding cypher. In Rucka's world, real (not necessarily biological, but committed) parents don't just love their kids, they UNDERSTAND them, more than the children would ever like to believe or admit.
This level of parental insight heavily informed Rucka's writing of Bruce and Alfred in his first Detective run, and it applies very accurately to Kate and her father here. It's a very similar relationship without being a carbon-copy: both father figures understand their kids' obsessions and the tragedy that drives them, while also wishing for them a healthier emotional balance. However, Colonel Kane makes judgments about Kate that Alfred just doesn't with Bruce; the Colonel is certainly not Kate's servant in any way, and his support is neither monetarily reimbursed nor unconditional - in short, he has a far greater influence. Kate looks up to her dad more than Bruce admires Alfred, and this makes for a totally different, while still similar, dynamic.
Of course, then you have Kate and Beth: Rucka goes a long way to portray these two as almost identical in #858, having them equal out each other's mistakes and pretend to be each other in school. When the tragic Joe Chill/Crime Alley equivalent moment occurs at the end of the issue, it's even worse that we know Beth's fate, and how easily there could have been Beth Kane, Batwoman and Kate Kane, High Madame of the Dark Faith. Even more than Bruce's, Kate's existence is based purely on chance, a straight up fifty-fifty split. Survivor's guilt can be a powerful motivator, and although we're only one issue into "Go" I don't think I'd be out of line saying it heavily informs Kate's actions.
Even completely ignoring Williams's more than considerable contributions, Greg Rucka has built an incredibly compelling character, driven by believable personal demons, in Kate Kane. There's a solid argument to be made that this comic is the pinnacle of Rucka's superhero career so far, combining the detail-obsessiveness of Queen & Country and Checkmate with the familial drama and character work of Gotham Central and Wonder Woman. Kate Kane is a character that's uniquely informed by his sensibilities and style, while also providing a ton of springboards for future writers to jump off of - which is pretty much the definition of a quality toy placed into a superhero universe sandbox. Without a doubt, Detective Comics featuring Batwoman is Greg Rucka's most EXCELLENT contribution to superhero comics to date.
AND NOW: A SHORT DISCUSSION OF "THE QUESTION."
Recently CBR's Tim Callahan referred to the Question backup as "lesser Greg Rucka, lesser Cully Hamner, and not worth your time." While I'd certainly never go that far - it's a perfectly entertaining street-level detective story - it just feels like a bit of a letdown after Montoya's recent appearances in Final Crisis. We saw her team up with the Huntress, save the Spectre, take down the Biblical Cain (who was also Vandal Savage) and then get offered the role of building Jack Kirby's Future That's Coming. Oh, and then she traveled on the Bleedfaring sausage party known as Zillo Valla's Ultima Thule with 52 Supermen.
So to see her taking down border-crossing human traffickers: while it's really nice to see Montoya in her element and beating the shit out of random thugs again, I want to see the next step in her evolution, not a standard detective story with Renee Montoya as the Question slotted in. And while Rucka can do standard detective stories better than most people in the business, he can do character work better, and character work with his pets like Montoya best. So while it's almost definite that future installments will bring me Montoya stories that delve into the character rather than use her to drive a relatively unrelated story, these first five installments left me somewhat cold, and I really felt "Pipeline: Chapter One" was just OKAY - but that's largely because it wasn't what I wanted it to be, more than any specific faults in the writing or art.