Words of Questionable Wisdom: Batwoman Year One
By Paul Sebert
Recently there was a memorable episode of the Daily Show in which John Stewart interviewed conservative activist Bill Bennett to debate the anti-Gay marriage amendment. I use the word “debate” loosely because the segment pretty much consisted of Bennett stumbling awkwardly while Stewart quickly and effectively rebutted all of his arguments.
One particular exchange sticks out in my mind as summing up the whole Gay marriage issue in a nutshell.
Bennett: Look, it’s a debate about whether you think marriage is between a man & a woman.
Stewart: I disagree, it’s a debate about whether you think gay people are part of the human condition or just a random fetish.
So just what does this have to do with comics?
Well in case you’ve been living under a rock, DC is reintroducing Batwoman and the fact that this newest incarnation of the character happens to be gay has caused the story to travel all over the blogosphere well beyond comics fandom. There have been stories on the new character on ABC news, CNN, NPR, the New York Daily News, and even BBC. As so often happens in this industry these just about everything that attracts attention to a title ignites controversy. Perhaps the most infamously attention came from conservative activist Robert Knight a spokeman for People for the American Way, and director Concerned Women of America who stated “This is a direct attempt to sell homosexuality to kids.”
Sorry… I just find it hilarious that the director of a group called “Concerned WOMEN of America” is named Robert Knight. Also Agape Press which reported this story if the publishing arm of conservative minister Jerry Fallwell, who in the 1980s successfully lobbied CBS to pull “The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse” from it’s lineup because he thought Mighty Mouse encouraged kids to snort crack. Seriously…
But it all goes back to the debate that Stewart brought up. People like Robert Knight who view homosexuality as a bizarre fetish think that a character like Batwoman has as much business being in a superhero comic as say… a leather enthusiast. Meanwhile as someone who’s had a fair share of gay friends over the years , I do believe that homosexuality is very much a part of the human condition. Thus I believe that we should have gay superheroes for the same reason why we should have Black superheroes, Jewish superheroes, left-handed superheroes, etc.
To me I don’t think it really matters that much if homosexuality is a choice (as the Robert Knights of world would have you believe) or genetic (as a growing number of the scientific community believe), I just think gay and lesbians have as much a right to love, happiness and respect as anyone else does. I believe this should be represented in comics, and not just the titles written by Judd Winnick.
That said… I have a few reservations about the new Batwoman character. For one thing the name, “Kate Kane.” Isn’t naming the character in a nod to the proto-Silver Age character the kind of thing that’s most likely to be picked up by the kind of aging fan boy who is exactly the person most likely to be horrified by the notion, of a Lesbian Batwoman. That and well, Kathy Kane isn’t exactly a “classic” character, unless you consider stories about her hitting villains with her purse, and hiring Bat-Mite to her publicity agent. Kate and Beth Kane were written out of the comic abruptly in 1964 with no fanfare for being “too silly” which is ironic considering that we were about to enter the BAM! POW! era of Batman. Kate returned briefly in the 70s, retired as a heroine and managing a circus before being abruptly killed off by Bronze Tiger. You would think this plot twist would attract a lot of attention as character deaths were still a rarity this would attract a lot of attention, but today it’s a piece of barely remembered Superhero trivia.
Another personal issue is well… wouldn’t it be a better story if Kate’s sexual orientation remained a secret until revealed to the reader as a total surprise? Not unlike how Renee Montoya was outed in Gotham Central a few years ago? I remember a couple of years ago when some fans thought Marvel was overplaying the fact that AraÃƒÂ±a was the first Hispanic character to hold her own book, but it’s kind of hard to not mention the character’s race when you have an obviously Latina girl on the cover of your comic. That isn’t the case with Kate, and I don’t see how it would hurt DC to wait a few months before letting the cat out of the bag?
One of the shakier grounds that D.C. stands on is just how will the character be presented in the comic. Having a lesbian character means you could use her to explore how the discrimination both overt and institutionalized affects people (like Renee Montoya’s depiction in Gotham Central) or it could just be an excuse to have two half-naked women making out (like Renee Montoya’s depiction in 52.) I suppose a male fantasy of what a Lesbian might be like is a half-hearted sign of progress at best, but maybe it’s a little better than next to no representation. Then again some male fan boys are such horndogs that they would sexualize the character even if she was written by Daniel “Ghost World” Cloves and drawn by Andi (“Love Fights”) Watson.
As for the costume I actually really like the design. It’s got a little bit of the old Kathy Kane mixed in with the Batman Beyond design mixed in. A number of critics have spoken up about the high-healed boots, which look completely impractical. Still when the worst aspect of a female characte’s costume is her choice in footwear, well that strikes me as a step in the right direction.
Perhaps the most important problem with the new Batwoman is well let’s face it as my colleague Jeff Ritter put it rather bluntly DC comics doesn’t exactly have the best track record of treating it’s minority characters. To make matters worse in recent years there’s been a rather unpleasant trend of lurid, misogynistic images in DC’s books. Remember the last female member of the Batman books to make waves in the mainstream media Steph Brown becoming Robin the Girl Wonder? What you don’t? Oh wait I forgot that’s because within weeks of putting her in the Robin costume the brass at DC saw fit to have the character humiliated, made responsible for the violence of War Games storyline, bound, tortured with a power drill by Black Mask, and then finally bleeding to death as she was denied hospital care. Also the fine folks at http://girl-wonder.org/Girl-Wonder.org have pointed the power drill comes included with Black Mask’s D.C. Direct action figure? So fans at home can can reinact the toture scene with their D.C. Dirrect Robin/Spoiler figures. Oh wait, I forgot Steph Brown never had her own action figure. Hell there isn’t even a memorial to her in the Batcave.
Or how about Cassandra Caine, the second Batgirl whose book was canceled despite strong sales because the editorial team thought she didn’t fit in? In recent months we’ve been subject to such images as Cassandra being impaled on a meat hook (she got better), killing Shiva who she believed to be her mother (she got better), and being turned into a cold blooded villain in one of the most head-scratching plot twists in recent months?! Or how about Vesper Fairchild, the romantic interest who killed and promptly forgotten for the sake of the forgettable “Bruce Wayne Murderer/Fugitive” arc,? They had the nerve to place a picture of her bloody corpse in the official the DC Comics Encyclopedia!
Oh and I haven’t even gotten around to Identity Crisis, or the rolling head of Pantha. If Gail Simone was still writing Women in Refrigerators list, she would have to add an entire crisper drawer to DC’s recent years.
Which isn’t to say that a writer should never kill a woman, or a minority character BUT… considering how it’s 2006 and the vast majority of superheroes are still white males, it sure seems like an disproportionate number those who are least represented in comics are the ones most likely to meet unpleasant fates.
Which is one of the reasons why I’m rather uncomfortable about this new character. How do I know that 4, 5 years from now some editor won’t decide she doesn’t fit into the Batman family? How do I know they won’t need another female character to kill for the sake of the next War Games/Bruce Wayne Murder/No Man’s Land event? How do I know that some editor won’t decide that Kate is simply too controversial and simply writes her out of continuity with no fanfare, the way Kathy Kane was all of those years ago.
I don’t know. Which is a crying shame.
Because some people use the argument “think of the children” to say DC and Marvel Shouldn’t introduce gay characters, but that’s part of the reason I think they should. America as society we don’t express concepts of human sensuality in a very healthy manner. It strikes me as absurd that we consider try to mask the existence of 5% of the population from our youth, and yet we do. We try to hide any reasonable discussion of homosexuality from our children, then should them feel attracted to members of the same sex once they reach adolescence they feel like freaks and outcasts. Does that sound healthy for a society?
From Cardcaptor Sakura’s Tomoyo Daidouji, to Haruka Tenou & Michiru Kaioh of Sailor Moon fame, to Gravitation’s couple of Shuichi Shindo & Eiri Yuki anime and manga have been dealing with these issues in a healthy manner for years. And despite what a “concerned woman” like Robert Knight might have you believe, Japan hasn’t suffered some major social breakdown. Tokyopop and Viz’s refusal to bow to censors on these issues (Cardcaptor Sakura carries an all ages rating) may be one of the reasons why manga has become so popular in adolescent circles.
Batwoman isn’t the first gay comics character, or even the first one to lead a title (that belongs to Holly Robertson taking over the reigns of Catwoman) but she has potential to be an important one; perhaps even one who could even break into the mainstream consciousness. Still between a rough direct market that chews up and spits out new concepts at a frightening pace, a publisher with a less than stellar track record for treating female characters, self-righteous bigots, and close minded fan boys… I’m not holding my breath.