Detective Comics #854

I read the first issue of the Batwoman Elegy book written by Greg Rucka and illustrated by J.H. Williams III. Yes, finally, I know. There was noise around this on the internet aaages ago about the artwork in the series – this is a comic that rewards close reading of the layout and page design choices of the creative team far more than the dialogue. The story itself is serviceable but not especially original. Sidebar: I wonder if Greg Rucka is now known as the guy that does sensitive portrayals of lesbian crime-fighters, so this is now just the expected avenue for all his projects. Better than doing insensitive ones, I guess, but it's interesting why he keeps revisiting this ground) Anyway, after pretty much everyone else, I thought I'll have a look at the book, and make some notes about some of the patterns and effects I spotted in the first issue.

The first panel on page 1 is black and white, a guy getting chased – which looks like it is setting up your typical black and white, noir / crime story. Colour starts to bleed into the second panel as we cut to the guy's face, while the third panel shows the pursuer, a crimson bat on the silhouette of a woman – suggesting a superhero twist to the story.

The spread on pages 2 and 3 confronts the reader with the bat symbol head on. Like the fleeing perp (suitably called Rush) we see flashes of the woman through her bat sigil, panels 1 to 4 pulling us in before we get a boot in the face in panel 5.

Page 4, Batwoman gets her seduction on. Panels 2 to 5 in the middle of the page form a kind of left wing / head / body / right wing figure (the smile in the 'body' panel is probs the most pervy bit in the issue). The page as a whole shows Batwoman breaking Rush down, literally crushing him underfoot. But the final panel glows with hope as she offers refuge. The glow is carried into the first panel on the opposite page, where Batwoman (literally) picks Rush up again. Page five transitions from her gaining mastery over Rush, to showing her subordination to Batman.

The splash on page 6 and 7 is an over shot with Batman in the shadows on the right, and Batwoman leaping onto the roof. The contrast between the pool of water reflecting the sky on the bottom left and the darkness on the right is purposeful, I think – indicating where our mirror is. Batman is the oblique force in this book, we are going to be in Batwoman's head for for most of it. Panel 5 on that page looks like two panels, the frame of the window almost becomes a border. Brings a nice sense of completeness to the panel it reflects, where the window frame is a more subtle line of division between the two characters.

The movement from page 8 to 9 is all about Batwoman's shift from her nightly to her daily existence. No bleed on the final panel – we're back at home, boxed in, safe. The series of six panels show Batman reprimanding Batwoman's long, loose hairstyle, only for us to realise that it's actually a wig. Not something that is explained in this issue, could be a way to conceal her real identity (but if so, why not change the hair colour?) I like to think of it as a prop that assists her in assuming the larger-than-life character of a crime-fighter. You could also read it in a Red Sonja way – Batwoman uses her looks and flirts with Rush even though she's gay.

We see the dawn outside in the last panel. Panel 1 on the next page shows us the sun in full splendor, and breakfast. We return to 'normal' looking comics for a pretty normal scene of an argument between lovers. Pages 12-13 and pages 16-17 mirror each other a bit – the widescreen panels in the middle of the two spreads establishing first the look of the apartment and then the secret room in which Katherine becomes Batwoman.

The page-turn from 18-19 to 20-21 is a great moment of build and release – Batwoman actually kicking apart the panels as well as the goons. The simple effects are often the best. Page 22-23 look like a pack of cards falling into place, or the layers slowly being peeled back to reveal the villain. The final page's layout mirrors the layout in page one. Three widescreen panels on top of each other. But now everything is blown out in full colour. The opponents are wearing costumes and are evenly matched, and we are definitely looking at a superhero comic.

The entire issue is designed to accentuate the contrast between Batwoman's nightly crime-fighting excursions, and her real human being she becomes in daylight hours. We move into the light and back into the darkness – into more conventional page layouts, and back into more stylised, arch panels. It also signals a move between genres: crime, superhero and melodrama. The issue as a whole has 'shape', presenting an internally coherent piece of story. A good way to get thinking about the effects that can be achieved with the comics page.

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