The Silent Detective

Detective Comics #854

You don't need me to tell you that the visual aspect of Marvel or DC comics tends to get overlooked when it comes to online discussion. What's that old stereotypical review structure? Four paragraphs on the plot followed by one for the art? Or is it five for the plot? Either way, it's clear that the pictures typically don't receive the same attention as the words -- to the extent the elements are separable in a medium that demands their co-mingling as the basis of storytelling -- and there's reasons for that beyond simple discomfort with analyzing the technical aspects of drawing.

For example, there's the particular appeal of shared-universe superhero comics as individual windows to a continuous, sort-of consistent, never-ending master story; like it or not, that's the power behind the superhero throne, the engine of the pamphlet format's prevailing financial hits and its very generic uniqueness, encouraging storylines that 'matter' and plot beats groom as much for salivation as satisfaction. This condition, however, doesn't encourage discussion of sheer visual quality, because its primary virtues are Event and Correlation, which, in the abstract, exist apart from forms.

But even superhero series that thrive away from these mechanisms (or non-shared-universe genre-or-thereabouts work) tend to attract the most attention for their place in the continuity of their writers' works; just for fun, go back to all your favorite Seaguy: Slaves of Mickey Eye posts and check how much space is devoted to Cameron Stewart. Hell, start with mine, they're right down with the worst of 'em).

And then there's even simpler troubles; a lot of superhero art just doesn't warrant a lot of discussion, and the serial format -- though obviously not superhero-exclusive -- makes it hard for frequent commentators to find substantive things to say about perfectly competent, nondescript work, while self-contained books proffer the option of evaluating even uninspiring visuals as a closer-to-equal part of the closed experience. Put simply, sometimes "looks nice, doesn't fuck up" really is the most you can say without contorting yourself into suffocation, and the knot only gets tighter with each new chapter. Could this mean... waiting for the trade?!

It's funny though, because superheroes tore away from pulp characters with the might of visceral, two-fisted pictures behind them, and now the structure, economics and possibly the very appeal of the genre works against focused appreciation of the visual aspect.

That's why artists like J.H. Williams III are God's gift to superhero picture talk. These are pages that slap you in the mouth and say "holy shit, I am here." While other superhero pages sit at the bar chatting dryly amongst themselves, the Williams page storms into the room with a bouncer still clinging to one ankle, knocking down tables and fetching a whiskey bottle to smash over the head of some clown that looked at it wrong. Or maybe the whiskey was crap so the bottle was the real target; philosophical questions abound. Either way, I trust it's not denigrating to note that the excellence of Williams' art also manages an excellence at steering attention to its excellence, enough so that the commentator feels like an idiot not devoting copious space to its many other self-evident strengths.

And just look at that page above! I don't want to come off as saying Williams' material is without subtlety -- some of his work with writers like Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis is marvelous at drawing out added layers of meaning, quietly, through purely visual means -- but he does occasionally flatten a thinner script via blast force of style (see: his last Detective Comics issue, #821). None of that here - this is fun, witty stuff, with fine contributions by letterer Todd Klein and colorist Dave Stewart, of whom more will be said later.

But really, check out all that's going on above. Obviously the most striking bit is how Williams' uppermost establishing panel gives way to tight middle segments depicting Batwoman caressing the poor thug from chin to shoulder, after which the entirety of Gotham City vanishes into the sun with Our Heroine's embrace, but I also love the little triangle splashing down into the bottom panel. I love that it functions as both a fourth middle panel, creating an in-out-out-in sequence, and an out-of-sequence glimpse of Batwoman's emotions, also leading to the eruption at the bottom, which, by the way, takes the shape of a bat. Super power!

And that's not all:

Here's the next page, which uses exactly the same layout to conclude the sequence with reversed elements. The longshot pinning of Page A is the burning embrace of Page B. The middle three panels tilt the perspective away from Batwoman as the dominant force. The likewise double-motivated triangle replaces that extreme, personal close-up with the POV of a totally different character, Batman from way above, and the concluding bat-symbol thus becomes Batman's presence, rather than an externalization of Batwoman's power. Page A starts far, then gets close and hot; Page B serves to cool, while removing the focus from Batwoman to the more familiar, looming hero.

Almost every 'superhero' page in this comic is like that, often crashing across double spreads for maximum exhibitionism. It's not enough for Batwoman to take on a gang of villains; inset panels must transform into red-tinted lightning bolts raining from the sky. Perversely, it's not a quick read at all, since these vainglorious layout do everything to grab your attention as soon as you turn the page and force you to linger on their contours, even as, say, a panel of Batwoman getting into costume is shaped as an arrow, guiding you to the next image in a way that draws screaming attention to the obvious act of reading in sequence.

It's crazy! If Morrison & Frank Quitely are trying to instill some of the old camp in Batman and Robin, Williams threatens to draw camp from the very idea of the superhero action comic, which strikes me as far more daring.

And yet!

The out-of-costume scenes are totally different. Kate Kane's daytime life is strictly squares and rectangles. If Batman chides Batwoman on her flowing, distracting red hair in those eye-catching super-layouts, the wig coming off (yep, it's a wig) causes the pages to straighten as well. If superhero writing is often powered by 'momentism' -- the pursuit of moments that most keenly encapsulate the iconic status of superhero characters -- Williams' storytelling not only agrees, and indeed casts superheroism itself as superficially nothing other than attention-grabbing instances, but contextualizes such momentism as the active desire of this new, young Batwoman, a wordless motivation, the flailing for a gravitas she can't have yet built. A common superfoe, as you are surely aware.

Speaking of which, you should probably be aware that writer Greg Rucka's plot is near-comprehensive superhero introduction boilerplate, if snappily executed. She's unlucky in love! Here's a hint at the pain in her past! New villains, but not too new! Maybe it helps to have read 52! Yes, Batwoman is still after those crazies to subscribe to the (literal) religion of crime, now led by a goth lolita Alice of a woozy underworld wonderland. She's actually pretty amusing for her five panels, but she's nothing compared to the Alfred character, Kate's pop (as in apparently her actual dad), a vaguely Frank Castle-like military guy whom Williams gives an amazing dead stare whenever he's not looking directly at weapons.

Still, such light, basic plotting might be just fine to let the visual concepts establish themselves. And I don't know who's idea it was for Kate to flash a distinctive V for Vendetta grin on her solid white face while father shows her the artillery, but it was just the right touch for a scene transitioning from the fundamental calm of life to the vicious cabaret of fantasy hair and special effects.

It's gradual, the costuming. The panels remain staid (in fact mirroring an earlier 'tour' of Kate's living quarters), but Dave Stewart changes. You've no doubt noticed the coloring effects at play: grimy paint effects and blasts of washing color for the superhero moments, with unfailingly bold hues for the plainclothes parts. Williams may step away from the latter, but Stewart assures us that these scenes are gently artificial as well; there is no real life for Kate Kane, just shifts in tone, as the superhero colors begin to take hold in her Bat-lair, her preparation climaxing with the aforementioned arrow panel. Move right along.

And the comic glories in this. It's new, for an old thing, and long-awaited. And it revels in that feeling. Not just Williams, the whole visual aspect. Batwoman isn't just white, she's bright, her always-blinding face (the issue's key visual constant) and her gleaming outfit often a touch lighter than every person around her, save for when Alice arrives to sear the environment as a veritable walking source of lumination. I didn't see these superpowers on Wikipedia, and I don't know if they'll last for the next creative team, but here their glow compels further consideration of the novice superhero mystery: how to be seen?

If nothing else, we're assured the hero and her villain are the most vivid actors on the small location rented for them. They'll have other parts, and life will go on, but this short and mad time will soon pass away, wordless and unacknowledged, as art often is in this place.