When the latest press release from DC comics broke, the mainstream media, including the New York Times, took notice. It wasn’t announcing another in a long line of television or film writers joining the comic ranks. It was about diversity. The character of Kate Kane, aka Batwoman, who hadn’t been seen consistently in comic book pages since the mid-1960’s, was returning in DC’s latest, 52. What made the Kate Kane factor so central to a press release on DC’s move to create more diverse characters in their projects? She was being re-imagined as a lesbian.
52 is a huge undertaking for the company as it unfolds in real time with one issue printed every week for a full year; normally comic readers wait a full month between issues. An ensemble piece, it follows the lives of some lesser-known DC characters as they try to help the world carry on after the disappearance of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.
As information spread regarding a lesbian Batwoman, every news outlet covered the story. Conservative talk radio started to raise its voice against including such things in what they saw as a “children’s” medium. Comic book fan opinions split down the middle, with some purists upset that the character seemed to be undergoing too drastic a re-write while other readers looked forward to the refreshing direction. GLBT media- watchers like GLAAD simply applauded.
The irony of all the talk about DC moving towards diversity with a lesbian Batwoman is that this character is one in a long line of lesbian characters in mainstream comics, and the fifth recent lesbian character in the Batman universe alone. In fact, Kate Kane/Batwoman is brought into the 52 fold by well-established former Gotham Police detective Renee Montoya, a lesbian character from the now discontinued Gotham Central comic.
At the start of 52, readers find Renee depressed, single, and at the bottom of a bottle brought on by a series of misfortunes that occurred in the aforementioned Gotham Central. During that run Renee was outed to her family and co-workers by an enemy (The GLAAD-nominated, Gotham Central, Half a Life arc) then, already on edge, she became determined to see a dirty cop go down for his crimes. Unsuccessful in her mission to put him behind bars, Renee’s only lifeline while on the job became her police partner Crispus Allen.
Sadly, Crispus was killed by the same dirty cop (Gotham Central, Corrigan II arc) and Renee lost control, nearly killing the man who murdered her partner. Turning in her badge and leaving her girlfriend, Renee began her descent into destructive behavior.
The idea of taking such a layered character as Renee Montoya and making her one of the central leads in 52 was a clever one. Although hardly the poster child for a well- adjusted lesbian character, she makes for a great hero and her personal journey becomes just as important as the underlining mysteries in the comic. She is a woman with a great deal of baggage who teeters on the edge, barely hanging on but with enough still in her to continue fighting for what is right. In her imperfections, the drama of her story is developed and the reader is able to therefore identify with the character.
Kate Kane made her reappearance in the DC Universe in 52 issue #7, when Renee went to her in order to gather information about a warehouse in which Renee and a client (a faceless man called The Question, who can alter his appearance when he wishes to) were attacked. Certain the warehouse was owned by Kate’s very rich family, the socialite seemed an ideal lead.
As their first meeting unfolded, we learned that Kate was more than just a lead in an investigation–the nature of their past relationship had been a sexual one. But, unlike Renee, Kate isn’t out of the closet.
Both characters, having taken a week off from the pages of 52, returned in issue #9, although most readers who weren’t watching the news might have missed Kate’s presence. As Renee and her client were discussing the details of their investigation, a figure lurked on the rooftops above. In the final panel, readers got their first look at Batwoman.
Last week, in issue #11, DC finally revealed Batwoman in all her action-hero glory. Having met Renee and Charlie in the park, Kate confirms that the warehouse in which they were attacked is family owned. She goes on to reveal the name of the company that had been leasing it at that time of the attack. The clues start to line up, and Charlie and Renee begin to investigate. Kate pushes the issue, wanting to know what’s going on, but Renee refuses to give any information.
The reader is told that Renee doesn’t want Kate hurt, having already seen too many people she cares about die. Kate believes her former lover is merely being obstinate. After arguing, the scene ends with both women as angry as they were following their last meeting.
The sexual tension in this scene is clearly written. It’s implied that Kate is currently involved with a female doctor (seen sitting in Kate’s car) and Renee’s reference to the doctor is less then cordial. Even Charlie gets in on the fun, ribbing Renee about her feelings for the rich redhead.
Unlike some well-known fictional lesbian characters of the past, for example Xena and Gabrielle in Xena: Warrior Princess, this story isn’t being written as subtext. The emotions and feelings are on the page and readers aren’t forced to fill in the blanks.
The lead on the warehouse eventually brings Renee and Charlie to an office building where they snoop around. It doesn’t take long for them to be detected and they are captured. Facing certain death, they try to fight back, but it seems a lost cause until a certain caped crusader steps in. The sight of a batarang makes Renee assume that Batman is back but she quickly learns (in a beautifully drawn full-page panel) that the bat is no man.
Eleven issues in, 52 is very compelling, especially for those readers looking to follow two strong lesbian characters. Both Kate and Renee are completely three-dimensional, which is more than can be said for most of the lesbian characters in other media formats of late. There is a wonderful mystery for the women to solve, and interviews from DC Comics seem to indicate the duality of both Kate’s secret superhero identity and her secret lesbian identity will make for plot points in future issues. When you add all of this to the lingering feelings each have for the other, sparks are certain to fly.
As tight as the story is, the art–at least in issue #11– is a bit uneven. In long- running books, it is industry practice for different artists to sometimes share a run. It keeps the look fresh and also allows for many interpretations of the characters, and 52 is no exception. Unlike the look in issue #7 (Kate and Renee’s first appearance together), which depicts both characters as more lean figures with realistic measurements, their second encounter is drawn as if both women recently left the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc.).
Some might find the more athletic, and in Kate’s case more “voluptuous”, line to the drawings appealing, while still others might see it as a way to cater to the young male demographic.
The artist’s rendering of Batwoman in issue #11 is another story. The costume design is very sleek and functional (while also being sexy) and the action sequence has great fluidity which serves the scene well. As great as the full page Batwoman art is as she enters the fight, the last page of that sequence totally encompasses what Batwoman represents and how capable a hero she is. Batwoman is shown escaping the building with all of the grace and confidence of any of the Batman allies.
Like any good story, 52 wants its readers to come back, and lesbian readers have every reason to do so. Will the mystery be solved? How will Renee handle being knocked off her bearings by both Kate and Batwoman in one day? How much of a presence will Kate continue to have in the pages of 52 as she tries to hide being both gay and a super hero? And was the expression on Renee’s face just before Batwoman’s departure an indication that, unlike other notable human comic book characters (like a certain Lois Lane), Renee already knows who is behind the mask?
DC Comics should be commended for this new diversity push in their line-up as well as for bringing a strong female superhero back to the fold. It’is refreshing to see well-developed lesbian characters in today’s conservative climate.
Once again the comic book industry leads the way in telling stories that appeal to many different types of people. In a day and age where it’s sometimes hard to feel represented, it’s nice to know one medium has the courage to consistently tell our stories.