Home > Comics, Storytelling, Weekend Feature > Batwoman: from 50s super-square to lesbian icon

Batwoman: from 50s super-square to lesbian icon

Batwoman #10 Comic Book CoverBatwoman is the badass Batman spinoff you’ve never heard of: born out of the 1950s censorship scare in an effort to make a non-threatening, hyper-normal Bat-family, the character has been reborn in the 21st century as a soldier-turned-vigilante and proud lesbian.

Batwoman debuted as Kathy Kane, a glamorific dame with a utility purse full of combat mirrors, lipsticks and hair netting. Whether battling criminals or baking a casserole, Kathy was the stay at home sidekick and romantic interest needed to keep Batman’s adventures with the Boy Wonder from looking too gay.

Batman jerk Kathy Kane Robin Batwoman

A “stay at home” sidekick in the truest sense.

Kathy was also boring as hell. In 1967 she got the hook and Batgirl was born: a spunkier, more energetic female influence for both comics and TV’s Batman. Batgirl Barbara Gordon was more interesting to DC editors, so Batwoman went on the shelf and was written out of continuity.

Batwoman Katherine Kathy Kane

Even utility purses go out of fashion.

But if there’s one thing for sure in comics, it’s that no one ever stays dead or gone. Given enough time, a comic book writer will eventually reach back in time and recast an obscure character in a new way.

That’s exactly what happened in 2006. DC’s 52 series covered a one-year span during which heavy hitters like Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman were off dealing with the dimension-crossing Infinite Crisis storyline. That’s when the new Batwoman debuted to keep an eye on Gotham City in Detective Comics, written by Greg Rucka and drawn by J.H. Williams III. New Batwoman Rebecca “Kate” Kane came with a new black and red costume and new red hair, but she kept the lipstick and maintained a mask reminiscent of her 1950s incarnation.

The modern Batwoman is a step outside the norm in Batman’s family of devotees. She’s no starry-eyed, nerdy Batgirl, nor does she have a gymnastics background, a mop of black hair and a penchant for green tights. She isn’t a Batman-certified tag-along; she’s a true soldier at heart, driven to live up to the example of military heroism set by her father. Batman has tried to take her under his wing, and she has refused. For her, the Bat signal in the sky is a call to arms, not a reminder of who’s boss.

Kate Kane has her own family fortune, her own host of complex family issues and her own need to offer up her abilities in service of others. She’s not a suave billionaire hiding her pain; she wears her struggles on the outside, and only the Batwoman costume can hide those vulnerabilities.

And Kate Kane definitely isn’t the post-Comics Code Kathy. She is a lesbian and a survivor, the only one to escape a terrorist kidnapping that killed her mother and twin sister. Her colonel father is her role model and support, providing training and technology for her one-woman war on crime.

Kate Kane Batwoman saved

Kate, saved by her father from terrorists.

Kate is mum about her Batwoman alter ego, but she doesn’t hide the fact she is gay. Violating the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell rule got her kicked out of West Point and eventually led her to her vigilante calling. She hides her Batwoman identity, but she’s got no problem hitting a Gotham socialite ball wearing a tux.

Kate Kane Batwoman Elegy Maggie Chase Tuxedos

Kate’s got a thing for cops.

There’s plenty to talk about in terms of Kate’s character, but it’s impossible to talk about Batwoman without talking about the art.

J.H. Williams III has really been the superstar of her modern form. His artwork is incredible, and his paneling is gorgeous. He absolutely captures the empowering state of mind that comes with having a super alter ego. His Kate Kane panels are bright, soft-colored and straight-edged boxes (see below), while his Batwoman panels are fluid, beautiful and intricate. He uses motion to create flowing panels that hold the action of the page in Batwoman’s billowing cape, or follow her combat moves across the page.

Batwoman’s life is graceful and brutal; Kate’s is exposed and vulnerable.

Batwoman J.H. Williams III

A Batwoman panel by Williams.

With the New 52 relaunch, Batwoman was tapped to join the 52-strong list of titles. Williams got the nod for both writing and drawing duties, and he has turned Batwoman into one of the strongest titles of the revamped DC line. He has kept the continuity of his and Greg Rucka’s award-winning Batwoman: Elegy and is now building a mythos around this fresh, compelling character.

And there’s no denying Kate Kane is a 21st century superhero. One of the most satisfying parts about the character is that her homosexuality doesn’t become a distraction to the art or writing. J.H. Williams III doesn’t resort to cheesecake art to sell to a male teenage audience, and he doesn’t go out of his way to preach equality and acceptance. “It is a part of her character, so it’s going to come up,” said Williams in an interview. “It’s about presenting who she is and the things that she experiences in her life, and if that ends up resonating with people and making a point, that’s only because those points are there in society, they need to be made.”

If you’re intimidated by the massive continuity behind long-standing superheroes, Batwoman is absolutely worth a look. If you’re hesitant, pick up the #0 issue for a tight origin story (one I’ve praised before). If you really want to hang with Kate Kane, look up the GLAAD Award-winning Batwoman: Elegy or read Batwoman Vol 1: Hydrology, the collected first storyline from the New 52 relaunch.

This is a beautifully drawn, well-written character that’s becoming more than a Batman clone. J.H. Williams III’s talent alone makes Batwoman worth a look.

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