Let’s take a look at some graphic novels with leading ladies (mostly).
Batgirl – The Flood
Written by Bryan Q. Miller, illustrated by Lee Garbett & Pere Perez
Barbara Gordon was my Batgirl, played so enchantingly by dancer Yvonne Craig in the dog days of the Batman television series, but now Babs is wheelchair bound and using her computer skills to co-ordinate the efforts of Gotham’s costumed crime fighters. Stephanie Brown as the new Batgirl is her prize protégé and must step up to the crease when her mentor is taken prisoner by arch-nemesis the Calculator. The Calculator has used his abilities to turn a significant portion of Gotham’s population into binary spouting zombies obedient to his will. While Oracle battles the Calculator in virtual reality, Batgirl has to wade her way through swathes of brainwashed enemies, including Catwoman, The Huntress, and Man-Bat, to finally free her mentor with the help of the Calculator’s estranged daughter. The story is set against a backdrop of heavy precipitation, hence the title, and there’s a codicil in which Clayface features. Finally we get a rather twee standalone story in which Supergirl is in town and so there’s a girl’s night out which involves vampires. I liked the main story (we won’t mention the Supergirl thing as it was simply embarrassing for all concerned), especially for the motivation and methods of the Calculator, though I did feel that Batgirl was punching above her weight and should have been flattened by any of her adversaries (perhaps the whole zombie thing slowed them down), and it was nice the way in which personal details were incorporated into the narrative. Excellent artwork accompanies the text, with good contrast and use of light. I liked it (and according to Amazon it’s rare and quite valuable – such a shame I have to take it back to the library).
Batwoman – Elegy
Written by Greg Rucka, illustrated by J. H. Williams III
With Batman off in super hero limbo, Detective Comics got taken over by his female counterpart for a number of issues. Gotham is menaced by a cult called the Religion of Crime, with thirteen covens under the command of new-girl-in-town Alice, who takes the Lewis Carroll character as her role model and is hell bent on destroying the city. It’s Katie Kane as Batwoman to the rescue, with backup from her Colonel father and an assist from a group of shapeshifters. It’s a fast paced story with a memorable and chilling villain, and if that was all there was to it, I’d be satisfied, but Rucka enriches the narrative with a wealth of Back story, personal details and little touches that all combine to make this tale rather special. We learn of Katie’s military background and how she was expelled for refusing to hide her sexuality. We witness the steps that led to her taking on the mantle of the Bat and how her father was persuaded to help his daughter. We see the difficulties she has combining her costumed career with a romantic life. We discover the secrets of her childhood and the identity of Alice, a revelation with shocking implications for all concerned. There are even some moments of light humour courtesy of Katie’s filthy rich stepmother. Best of all, is the artwork. The cover conveys the impression of a somewhat anemic rendition in the style of Charles Vess, but the interior is a completely different matter. There’s an innovative use of panels and striking imagery, with sumptuous colouring throughout, especially in the use of Batwoman’s signature red and black, while some of the splash pages take your breath away. It is the complete package and I loved every page of it.
Birds of Prey – Club Kids
Written by Tony Bedard, illustrated by Diverse Hands
Birds is the all-female super group organised by Oracle to fight crime in Gotham, and this book collects several of their adventures. Big Barda is stalked by her enemies, while Oracle tries to argue Black Canary out of marrying Green Arrow. The Huntress foils a bomb plot orchestrated by the Atomic Skull. Oracle and the Calculator, both in their civvies, search each other out at a tech company open day. Lady Blackhawk goes off the reservation. Misfit and Black Alice find themselves pitted against each other in an illegal fighting ring. There’s nothing particularly memorable to any of these and some of the plot elements I found unconvincing, such as the blithe way in which mobsters kidnap super powered females and compel them to fight each other, or Blackhawk’s bender. A lot of it felt like padding – e.g. Blackhawk again, and Oracle’s reminiscing about past failures as she ramrods the Huntress. The artwork is okay, albeit with a slight lean towards gratuitously revealing and skimpy (impractical) costumes – Barda is supposed to be a warrior, but looks more like a Victoria Secrets model. The book was fun in a pass the time sort of way and I’m glad I read it, but I don’t think Birds will make any best of lists for me.
Wonder Woman – Amazons Attack
Written by Will Pfeifer, illustrated by Pete Woods
Wonder Woman is one of DC’s big hitters, though she’s never quite reached the star spangled heights of comrades Batman and Superman. I’ve always felt the mythology behind the character – Amazons, invisible planes, magic lassoes etc. – was a bit hokey, and there’s plenty of that here (contrarily, I never have any problem with Thor’s Asgardian antecedents, so perhaps these reservations are down to gender prejudice on my part). Evil enchantress Circe has raised Queen Hippolyta from the dead, only she’s not really feeling herself and so invades Earth at the head of her Amazon legions. This is the cue for destruction of Washington monuments, indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, and the US Army and Air Force effectively countered by warrior women armed with bows and swords. Visually it’s rather like a production of Independence Day in which every other character dresses up as Xena. The heroes of the Justice League are pretty much confined to damage limitation, while the government flounder and a fifth column spread destruction. Of course WW comes to the rescue in the final reel with help from the goddess Athena, but there’s another, final reveal that suggests more and worse to come. Sorry, but I can’t quite take this seriously, while the narrative is reduced by having so much take place off the page, with summations at the start of each chapter to bring us up to speed (we don’t see WW rescue somebody, but we read about it). It looks good, if leggy Amazons in battle gear are your bag, but as a story I found it profoundly disappointing, a mish mash of superficial plot devices none of which really convinced me and, by such failure, undercut the seriousness of the violence going on. War is hell, as somebody important once said, but here it’s just a comic book.
Green Arrow and Black Canary – Big Game
Written by Andrew Kreisberg, illustrated by Mike Norton & Bill Sienkiewicz
Okay, despite Oracle’s protests, Black Canary did marry Green Arrow and now they have problems. She’s worried that he is becoming too taken with his vigilante role, giving in to violent impulses. And then there is Cupid, the madwoman who has a thing for GA and thinks that all it will take is to remove BC from the picture and he will return her love. There’s a villain called Discord, who sucks the sound out of Star City, prompting riots and civil disorder on a large scale; defeating him is the cue for BC to reminisce about her origins and take on an unhealthy dose of guilt as she wonders if she does more harm than good with her sonic scream ability. There’s also the threat of the titular Big Game, a cut price Kraven without the animal print pjs and faux fur collar, who’s in Star City to get revenge for something or other, an agenda that brings him up against our costumed crime fighters. There’s the return of Speedy and some soul searching come borderline psychotic break for Arrow/Oliver Queen, and finally there is Everyman, a villain who can be anybody and may just have taken on the identity of Green Arrow, unbeknown to the Canary. I have mixed feelings about this book. There’s a lot going on, and some of it doesn’t quite gel, while at the finale we have enough loose ends to remind us that this is a collection of issues of the comic rather than the standalone adventure status it seems to be pitching for. On the plus side, there’s a lot of back story and characterisation thrown into the mix, while Cupid is an engagingly off the wall villain. The narrative has some interesting storytelling devices, such as parallel columns in which the hero and villain lay out their schemes, with the reader left to conclude that just maybe there isn’t really that much difference between them, twin sides of the same coin. On the down side, well just as with Marvel’s Hawkeye, I have always felt that a hero whose special ability is being really good with a bow and arrow is a bit naff (how’s that work against automatic weaponry?). And though the artwork is striking, with effective contrast between clean lines and more impressionistic panels, I’m dubious about the portrayal of Black Canary. While hard bodies and skintight costumes have mostly been a given in comic books, for the men as well as the women, BC with her fishnet stockings and heaving breasts seems a far more obviously sexualised figure. She’s fine as a role model, – an intelligent and caring woman, brave and aware of the needs of others – but you might not want to embrace her dress sense, for reasons of practicality if nothing else. Kreisberg writes her as an adult, but she’s drawn as a fantasy/fetish figure for hormonal teenage boys, and while this might very well be the ‘traditional’ way in which Canary has been portrayed it’s perhaps past time we moved on with a revamp to something more appropriate for the character.