My Dark Origin Story
I always swore I wasn’t going to be a comic book nerd. “Graphic novels,” I would scoff derisively, “Come on… who are you trying to fool?” That was the geeky line in the sand for me. Collector’s editions of video games… sure. Harry Potter Lego and apparel… fine. Writing my own fantasy
novel series… doesn’t every girl do that? But not graphic novels. Never graphic novels.
And obviously I broke this rule. It started out innocently enough when I picked up the 3-part Dragon Age series (“It’s about my love for Dragon Age,” I told myself). Then Blue is the Warmest Colour (“It’s a coming out thing,” I told myself). But that was going to be it. This wasn’t going to be a thing.
Then Kate Kane aka motherfucking Batwoman charged into my life. I’m not too ashamed to admit that the proverbial light-up red batphone that summoned this badass superhero into my life was a Buzzfeed list. Anyway, all of this is my long-winded way of explaining why I’m so late on the scene (apparently a pattern of mine) for a character whose current incarnation began in 2010(?). I’m still not 100% clear on how DC issues operate and when exactly Batwoman’s storyline began so here’s what I’ll be discussing:
The Story So Far…
Okay, time for a little Batwoman 101. (Also a good time to warn that this post is pretty spoiler-y.)
Here we go: Kate Kane’s mother and twin sister are murdered (or were they?), she follows in her parents’ footsteps and joins the army, she’s kicked out of the army on the grounds of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” when she refuses to lie about being gay, she becomes a boozy mess, and then rises as Batwoman (with a little help from high tech military equipment provided by her high-ranking father).
It’s a pretty epic backstory for a very cool character (I think we’ve already established my love for tattooed rocker babes). But that was just the hook, it wasn’t what really pulled me in…
Boff… Zam… Pow Goes the Patriarchy!
What was most remarkable to me about this series was that Kate wasn’t written as a woman. She wasn’t written as a lesbian. She was written as a person. If you don’t get what I mean, go watch the horribly disappointing Kickass 2; the defining trait of every single woman in that movie is that they are female. They’re not characters, they’re female characters. Batwoman is simply a character.
She’s neither Madonna nor whore. She’s got integrity but there’s no pure and innocent BS. She’s not overly sexualized either. Sure, we see her bare back as she changes and we see her in bed with her paramours, but these are depicted as simply matters of course. There’s nary an arched back or model pose to be found; she’s given power stances that reflect her strength and dominance. And her uniform – she makes it clear she does not see it as a costume – is no more revealing than her male counterparts.
Speaking of male counterparts, there’s none of that “Men are from Mars…” crap; no “I’m just as tough as a man”. The second a female character says something like that, it becomes untrue because it’s an assertion that men don’t have to make. Bringing it up is unnecessary and patronizing.
Now let’s talk about the gay. How awesome is it that Batwoman is a lesbian? And how much more awesome is it that it’s not played as a gimmick or given an afterschool special vibe? Because it isn’t. When she’s questioned by the army about “homosexual conduct” there’s no long speech or grandstanding, Kate simply reminds the officer that cadets are not supposed to lie and after a long pause says “I’m gay”. Boom. Done. It only takes a couple words for the emotional gutpunch to land.
Then there’s the fact that this moment is such a great setup for (and adds so much nuance to) the story of a woman who has to go outside the system to be the soldier she always wanted to be. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, her romantic life is handled with maturity and is about two people with a connection rather than “hey guys, watch these two chicks make out!”
If you think I’m gushing… well… you ain’t seen nothing yet!
Take a Hike, Lois Lame!
And now we come to Maggie fucking Sawyer, Captain of the Major Crimes Unit at Gotham City fucking Police Department. Anyone making a superhero movie should take note: this is how you write a love interest. And no, it’s not just ‘cause she’s gay (though seriously, who doesn’t love a lesbian cop? Is it me, or is a woman in a bulletproof vest hella hotter than those ‘sexy cop’ Halloween costumes).
Let me break down for you why Maggie puts every other super hero’s love interest to shame.
A) PURPOSE! She serves a purpose in the story outside of her role as a love interest. If a character is defined solely by their relationship with the hero, the audience has no reason to care about them. That kinda negates the purpose of the character when they’re inevitably put in danger. Mary Jane and Gwen Stacy in the Spider-man movies, Natalie Portman (I don’t even remember her character’s name… Jane?) in Thor, Pepper Potts in Iron Man, and Rachel Dawes in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight all do nothing to advance the plot. Some might argue with me about Gwen Stacy and Rachel Dawes, but that obvious attempt to make Gwen look useful in The Amazing Spider-man by having her go to the lab to disable that dispersal thing could have been done by literally any other character; the movie would have had the same outcome had she not been in it at all. Same with Rachel; she was a plot device to expose Bruce Wayne’s tortured psyche more than a character, impressive career aside.
Maggie, on the other hand, acts as a foil to Batwoman: the by-the-books detective to her vigilante. She investigates cases, providing important exposition, and helps ground them in reality, showing the impact crime has on victims and their families, which is often glossed over in Batwoman’s nighttime escapades. And most important and revolutionary of all, she takes actions that affect the outcome of the story. It all adds up to a character we can become invested in, not to mention how much easier it makes things for the writer when a single character can serve many functions instead of conforming to the tired cliché of “Oh, here’s the girl character and she loves the hero. Characterization done.”
B) CHEMISTRY! I already touched on Maggie as a foil to Batwoman and that’s part of why they work so well together. They’re both dedicated to serving others, often to the detriment of themselves so it’s clear they share the same core values. We can also see why straight-laced Maggie would go for someone with an edge and why Kate would want someone with Maggie’s stability.
C) COMPLEXITY! Maggie gets her own backstory and faces her own challenges that don’t involve her relationship with Kate/Batwoman. We learn that she has a daughter who lives with her ex-husband because it’s hard to get custody when you’re a workaholic cop who at the time had just come out. We get a flashback as she heads into a church to calm a group of citizens ready to riot of her as a child being locked in a stifling hot shed by her religious father who told her that if she was going to dress like a boy she should learn how to use tools. Her mother told her that her father did it because he loved her so much and didn’t want her going to hell. So y’know… slightly more compelling stuff than Mary Jane’s ‘acting’ ‘career’.
D) DAMSEL IN DISTRESS… FUCK NO! So I want to show you the moment that for me encapsulates this series and why it is so remarkable.
Waylon Jones, the killer croc, comes after Batwoman and Maggie and his inner thoughts really say it all. He expects the hero to send the love interest to safety, but no. This jackass comes a-knockin’ and Batwoman gets to whuppin’ ass and Maggie starts firing. Fuck. Yes.
Even Batwoman’s sidekick Hawkfire gets in on the action eventually.
No one is stronger alone. And the series really emphasizes this. Which has the added benefit of sidestepping the whole “I’m going to sacrifice my happiness by not being with you in order to protect you” nonsense that superhero storylines are so fond of. (A variation on this does kinda happen with Batwoman and her sidekick, but Kate’s concerns were legit and it served the plot beyond fabricating romantic tension)
Wanna know how Batwoman does sacrifice? Well, at one point she accidentally sticks Maggie with Scarecrow’s nightmare toxin in a mission gone awry.
So Kate finds more of it, steps the fuck up, says “Here, this won’t make up for it, but now I’ll know what you had to go through”, and jams the needle in her own arm. I should add that this is right before she has to go fight Batman. Now, isn’t that infinitely more interesting than the same tired BS we’ve seen time and again?
Flashing Sword, Gleaming Shield, Golden Cord… It’s Wonder(fully Boring) Woman!
The only time I was really pulled out of the world was when Wonder Woman showed up. Bear in mind, this is a world with werewolves, ghosts, crocodile men, and a character who is literally a skeleton, so the fact that she’s a demi-goddess shouldn’t really be too fazing. But I think I’ve put my finger on why Wonder Woman stood out like a sore thumb.
In Kill Bill, Bill gives a little diatribe about how unlike other superheroes Superman was born Superman and his alter-ego is really Clark Kent. Wonder Woman has a similar situation. She is Wonder Woman. There’s no great divide between Diana, daughter of Zeus, and Wonder Woman besides a change in clothing.
Batwoman on the other hand, is nothing more than human; she has no superpowers beyond her advanced army training, gymnastics, and high tech gadgetry. And as Kate Kane, she’s messy. She’s emotional, she can be quick to anger and bad at communicating. She can also be funny, charming, and caring. But when that uniform goes on, she’s in combat mode, she’s something more than Kate Kane.
Time for a little etymology lesson. The word “ecstasy”: the “ec” is a variation on the Latin “ex” which here means “out” (think excommunicated, expelled) and the “stasy” is derived from the Latin verb “sto, stare, steti, statum” (yeah, Latin verbs come in 4 parts) which means “to stand” (fun fact: stat is not related to this verb, it’s a short form of “statim” which means “at once”). So basically ecstasy means to stand outside oneself. And why do we use ecstasy to describe a state of overwhelming pleasure? Because we’re fascinated with the idea of being more than what we are, with transcending our bodies and taking on a new identity. The word was first used to describe Bacchae or maenads, female followers of Bacchus, god of wine, who would work themselves into a frenzy through dance and drink. And whether it’s through alcohol, a costume or uniform, or even writing a blog, we’re all still taken with the idea of defying the limitations we see on our everyday selves. It’s a form of magic that lets us be more talkative, bolder, stronger, and take more risks than we normally would, if only for a little while.
It’s the reason we identify so strongly with Peter Parker, Bruce Wayne, Kate Kane, and all the other superheroes who don costumes. We recognize that desire. We have that desire. So when you take all that and put it next to Wonder Woman, she can’t help but come off as one-dimensional.
To Drown the World…in Estrogen
The great thing is, there’s more than just Kate and Maggie. The Batwoman series is full of complex female characters.
There’s Cameron Chase, the vaguely sinister DEO agent who rocks a mean suit and is given motivation for her association with the sketchy group.
Bette Kane who goes from annoying sidekick Flamebird to the more competent Hawkfire.
Even Kate’s stepmother who early on seems relegated to the role of, if not evil then resented stepmother is fleshed out.
But All is Not Well in Gotham…
I’ve learned that the brilliant minds behind this storyline have been silenced and won’t get to finish their incredible run. We’ll never get to see how the cliffhanger of This Blood is Thick or the ongoing plot threads should really have been resolved because of some jackass suit at DC.
Apparently he thinks superheroes shouldn’t be happy aka there will be no marriage between Kate and Maggie even though they’re engaged. Gee, I wonder what the real issue here is.
I have to say, I’m quite disappointed in the lesbian mafia for not stepping in. How could you let this happen, Rachel Maddow? You wrote the damn foreword for Elegy!
It’s worth noting that the characters will remain the same and Batwoman is still engaged to Maggie, so I suppose I should reserve judgment until the collected issues of the new run come out in November. However, the individual issues are already out and word is it’s not as good. Guess I’ll have to figure out how these damn things work and find Batwoman’s first rebooted appearance in the Detective Comics series and figure out what’s up with her and Renée Montoya.
Regan Reyzja will return with more pro-feminist ramblings! Same bat time, same bat channel! (By which I mean anywhere from a week to three months from now. On this blog.)