Batwoman Volume 2: To Drown the World

DC Comics

$22.99, color, 144 pgs.

Writer: J.H.Williams III, W. Haden Blackman

Artists: Amy Reeder, Trevor McCarthy

Collecting Batwoman #6-11 (Apr-Sep 12)

This collection made a terrible mistake for me as a reader: It revealed the little man behind the curtain, and may have ruined my enjoyment of Batwoman forever.

I have adored the series up until now, but I see now that I never had any interest in Batwoman as a character: What I liked was the art of J.H. Williams III.

Williams is not only an excellent artist, of which there are plenty. What makes Williams unique is that he marries excellent art to excellent design. And as a designer, I must note how rare that is in comics. Sure, a lot of artists do design here and there; I remember Todd McFarlane putting weird Mayan stuff in the borders of Infinity Inc. when there was some Mayan-themed story. But that's not good design, which is as rare as hen's teeth, because good design arises from content, and must itself contribute to the flow of the story. McFarlane's Mayan junk was bad design, because it was either irrelevant, or worse, distracted from the story. (Plus, one suspects it was there to disguise McFarlane's weaknesses as an artist, as much of his over-rendering was.)

But Williams is capable of the amazing trick of using design to further his story. Sure, it gets out of hand sometimes, like when he shapes a sequence of panels like a bat. I mean, it's a Bat-book, we get that. So the bat just makes it harder to read that page, and it doesn't add anything, which makes it bad design. But sometimes the shape he forms with the panels adds to the enjoyment of the story, by forcing the eye forward, or suggesting a facet of the story that wasn't necessarily obvious. That's good design, and it's exciting (for me, anyway) to follow his mind's processes as they unfurled on the page.

And his design sense isn't restricted to layout; the visual world he's built for Batwoman is coherent, consistent and stunning. Why is Batwoman's skin milk white? Well, it makes sense, since she operates at night and rarely sees the sun. But it also serves a design purpose, in that it looks so cool in conjunction with her costume's color scheme. Why are Batwoman's breasts conical and pointy? Well, Madonna and Lady Gaga aside, it serves two purposes: It defuses her sexuality (it turns breasts, which suggest sex and/or loving maternity, into scary, pointy things that suggest cruelty and violence), plus, it falls into the overall pointy motif of her costume: pointy ears, pointy scalloped cape, pointy things on her gauntlets, pointy breasts. This is a pointy dangerous-looking woman.

And so forth. So I loved Batwoman. I hadn't really thought about why; I just knew that I looked forward to it.

Now, cynics out there might think it's because Kate Kane is a lesbian, and I might have announced my appreciation of the title to show how open-minded I am, or I might have enjoyed it for the illicit thrill adolescent boys get out of the forbidden fruit of the L word. But that wouldn't be true -- I'm far too old for either scenario. As to the former, I don't much care what people think of my politics any more; as to the latter, when I hear the word "lesbian" I'm old enough that I don't think "hot girl-on-girl action," I think "a woman who would have absolutely no interest in me on any level whatsoever."

Anyway, here comes Batwoman 2, which made me realize that it was Williams' art -- and Williams' art alone -- that attracted me to the title. Because it wasn't there.

Williams didn't draw these stories. Someone named Amy Reeder did, and she does an admirable job of aping Williams. (Some of the layouts are so Williams-esque that it makes me wonder if he pitched in on breakdowns.) But, as good as Reeder is, she's not as good as Williams, who is an exceptionally talented artist. Batwoman's art went from exceptional to "just" very good.

Which means I enjoyed Batwoman less. But it also forced me to examine my appreciation of what I was missing, i.e. Williams art, and how artificial it is. Williams carried off his over-the-top design by sheer talent; when handled by a lesser talent it is revealed for the cheap trick it is. And I feel vaguely ashamed for having been fooled.

Which wouldn't be traumatic if Batwoman had other charms, and was a title whose story kept me riveted. But, I discovered, it isn't. I was amazed and spellbound by Batwoman's first foes, who had amazing design as well as being serious threats. Her foes are still dangerous in Batwoman 2, but the "zing" is gone and, well, I'm not really interested in following her adventures, or those of her father, or Maggie Sawyer's. These are people who I don't know very well -- Sawyer, in particular, has had zero characterization -- and now I realize I just liked reading about them because I liked how Williams drew them. Now that he's not drawing them, they're just a bunch of one-dimensional characters I don't really care about. And I'm sure they'll come out OK, whether I'm there or not. And I've got a couple of episodes of Arrow I haven't watched yet, so, you know, I'll catch up with Batwoman later.

This lack of interest is compounded by the story structure Williams and his co-writer Blackman chose. They decided to break the one story into six stories, those of Batwoman, Batwoman's father, Batwoman's girlfriend Sawyer, Batwoman's new enemy Maro (who isn't the Big Bad, who is a fellow named Falchion, a fellow who doesn't get his own story, which sorta telegraphis his fate), Batwoman's DEO handler Cameron Chase and ... Kate Kane's story, who is also Batwoman, which is kind-of a cheat, in that it overlaps Batwoman's story, and Sawyer's story, and so forth. So that's extra confusing, in a story structure that is itself confusing.

But that's not the most confusing part. Not only is the story broken up into six stories, but those six stories are doled out in short increments, jumping from one character to another willy-nilly. And that's not the most confusing part either. That would be the decision Williams and Blackman made to not only jump back and forth between characters, but to jump back and forth in time when they jump back and forth between characters!

Here, for example, is how Batwoman #6 breaks down:

"Batwoman's Story: Now" (three pages).

"Jacob's Story: One Month Ago" (two pages).

"Maggie's Story: One Week Ago" (two pages).

"Maro's Story: Four Months Ago" (two pages).

"Kate's Story: Three Weeks Ago" (two pages).

"Chase's Story: Two Weeks Ago" (10 pages, the bulk of which is a fight scene between Batwoman and some thugs who belong to an organization we've never heard of before).

"Batwoman's Story: Now" (1 page, a teaser for the next issue).

Confusing? Try incoherent. Every issue is like this, and while all the stories do all dovetail at the end, the only way to understand this is multiple re-reading of the six issues, or maybe cutting them apart and putting the six stories in chronological order, dovetailing where necessary.

Incredible. Now, I'm sure this seemed like a really clever idea in some story meeting, but it's not. It's cleverness for the sake of cleverness, which is a bad thing. Like bad design, it not only fails to contribute to the enjoyment of the story, it actually impedes it. Which makes it bad -- really bad -- storytelling.

Which, like the art substitute above, had the effect of taking me out of the story and reminding me, every two pages or so, that I didn't really care about any of these people. Or, at the very least, I didn't care about them enough to piece together this clumsy jumble of story parts. I just wanted it to be over, so I could go watch Arrow.

In short, art and writing both stopped being a story for me, because I could see the little man behind the curtain. I was shown story structure more than story, and that's not only really amateurish, it's really boring. Maybe someday I'll enjoy Batwoman again, but before I do, they're going to have to gain my trust again. But that will be hard -- just as Dorothy learned the truth about the the Wizard of Oz, I'm pretty disillusioned with J.H. Williams III.

And that's a damn shame.

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Boy, I was really hoping to hear that this read better in the collection. I was disappointed in this story, too. Reeder's a good artist -- her recent one-shot Halloween Eve is a good showcase -- but I didn;t think she was right for Batwoman; her characters all seemed too young. Her replacement, Trevor McCarthy, served the story much better, I thought. But the story, as it's being told, is a mess. I guess it rewards people who reread the books as they come out, and there's something to be said for that (I just reread Morrison's entire run of Action Comics, and have gotten a much richer experience from it than I did month to month), but the idea was too clever for its own good, and wound up distancing me from the characters and the situation, the same as it did you.

The good news is, Williams is back on art for the next art, and it looks amazing. (Check out the Cappies; one of my nominations for Best Single Panel/Spread came from this run.) But there are still plot points I'm unclear on, because I haven't gone back to reread To Drown the World. 

I think when Williams leaves Batwoman's art, I'm shifting over to trade paperbacks, at least. Trevor McCarthy's terrific, but without that monthly burst of Williams's layouts blowing my mind, I'd rather read the story in a way that I can keep it all in my head... and pay less for it, to boot.

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