Gender, Identity, and Batwoman: Elegy

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After the publishing of Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent in 1954, rumors regarding Batman’s homosexuality became a controversial topic. Consequently, Kate Kane and her alter ego Batwoman were introduced two years later to play the love interest of Batman and serve as his female counterpart. She ultimately served as an object of desire for the male gaze. Her weapons consisted of mostly stereotypically feminine objects including a purse, lipstick, jewelry, and hairnets (Les Daniels, Batman: The Complete History, San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1999). Moving forward to 2006, writers reintroduced her character, only this time as a lesbian. However, Kate Kane is still subjected to notions of gender conformity in costume and appearance (Paul Petrovic, “Queer Resistance, Gender Performance, and ‘Coming Out’ of the Panel Border in Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III’s Batwoman: Elegy,” Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics 2 (2011): 67). The history of the character is important in considering the latest reincarnation of Batwoman in Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III’s graphic novel Batwoman: Elegy. Both writer and artist are able to elevate her character to an “alpha superhero” (Caroline Hedley, “Lesbian Batwoman is DC Comics’ first gay superhero,” Telegraph, February 11, 2009). No longer stuck in her passive female role of the past, Kate Kane is now a powerful figure representing women, gender queer, and Jewish people. Rucka and Williams work together to create an emancipating story for Kate Kane, but the ostentatious design of the graphic novel is most representative of this. Through the mixing of different art styles, the exclusion of panel borders, and repetition of scenes, Batwoman: Elegy serves as an illustrative testament to the fact that Kate’s life is vastly improved when she no longer has to hide her gender queer identity, which coincides with her identity as Batwoman.

One of the most notable features in this graphic novel is the mixing of art styles. Not only is this a drastic departure from normal comic book visual design, it also serves as a representation of the fluid nature of Kate’s identity. The mixing of styles can be seen most clearly in a comparison of present day scenes to flashback scenes. The first time this occurs is just after Batwoman faces her nemesis Alice, a woman who speaks in riddles taken from Lewis Carroll’s novels. Directly after the climax of the battle, the story shifts abruptly to a flashback scene from Kate’s childhood. Her family background is explored, which reveals that she once had a twin sister who was kidnapped and presumed dead along with her mother, and also serves as a tragic backstory that sparks her intense desire to serve in the military. The story then shifts forward to the recent past where Kate is forcibly “outed” at West Point military academy. She then struggles with finding a way to fulfill her willingness to serve, just as her mother and father did in the military. Throughout this part of the story, the graphics are rather simplistic. There is very little realism attempted in these sections, where the colors are bright and flat and there is little or no shading. It is not until Kate’s first encounter with Batman that an attempt at realism is made. In this section Kate remains in the simplistic and cartoonish style previously used for the flashback scenes. On the other hand, Batman is more detailed, with shading and texture more evident to give a realistic impression. Although they appear in the same panels in some instances, the difference between the art styles is jarring and calls attention to itself as a significant point in the story. In an interview the artist J.H. Williams III insists that the choice of mixing art styles here symbolizes that Batman has found meaning in his vigilantism while Kate “has not fully realized herself” (Chris Mautner, “The Bat Signal: J.H. Williams,” last modified July 8, 2010, http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=26981). After she has lost her purpose and struggled with finding a way to work that would allow her to be herself completely, Kate is emancipated when she meets Batman because he has shown her how to reconcile her struggle with her identity.

The use, and sometimes exclusion, of panel borders in the graphic novel are representative of Kate’s expression of gender. Whether or not the panel borders are constituted relies upon Kate’s confidence in her identity. For instance, in the extended flashback scene the pages loosely follow a strict grid pattern typical of standard comic books. However, Williams omits a border on each panel, letting them run off the page, uninterrupted. With the scene where Kate first encounters Batman serving once again as a transitioning point, the style as well as the use of borders is symbolic of Kate finding her purpose. The panels with Batman in them have a thick black border around them, while those with only Kate remain unconstituted. Williams plays with the borders throughout the graphic novel, incorporating the Batman icon into the design or using a highly designed approach to make the pages visually appealing and add fluidity to the storytelling (Mautner, “The Bat Signal: J.H. Williams”). One of the best examples of the playfulness of the borders occurs on a two-page scene that takes place at the Annual Gotham City Police Department Charity Ball. Kate dons a tuxedo to the formal event, which is deemed inappropriate by her stepmother. The Captain of the Major Crimes Unit for Gotham PD, a woman named Maggie Sawyer, also shows up wearing a tuxedo. The two characters bond over their similar attire and eventually share a dance, which is the subject of the two-page scene. During their dance they discuss how long they have been out, past relationships, and being unchallenged in their display of sexuality. In this scene, the traditional panels have been abandoned and replaced by musical notes that flow across the page along with Kate and Maggie’s dance. This scene is important because it is symbolic of Kate’s fluid expression of gender. The tuxedo represents a queer or gender neutral aesthetic with the musical notes being symbolic of the fluidity of gender Kate expresses. In comparison to the flashback scenes it becomes clear that Kate’s gender identity is a part of her character, and hiding her sexuality while serving in the military is not possible.

The framing and repetition in the flashback scenes where Kate is forcibly outed at West Point and when she comes out to her father create an interesting parallel in the story. Shortly after receiving her honorary ring, marking her official membership into the West Point community, Kate is anonymously outed to Colonel Reyes who is forced to reprimand her. It has already been revealed that Kate is in a relationship with her roommate Sophie, which is in direct violation of a rule regarding homosexual conduct in the military. Colonel Reyes gives Kate the opportunity to deny her sexuality in order to allow her to continue to serve in the military. However, Kate chooses to recite the cadet honor code, “a cadet shall not lie, cheat or steal, nor suffer others to do so,” knowing that by doing so she is required to testify her sexuality. Colonel Reyes represents the patriarchal culture of the military when he enforces disciplinary action against Kate under the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy even though he acknowledges that Kate is “a damn fine cadet.”  The next scene shows Kate returning home after being discharged from the army and coming out to her father, Colonel Kane. Both of these scenes require Kate to testify her sexuality and the parallels between the scenes are unmistakable. Her face is framed the same way in each scene, in a square panel that focuses like a close-up shot on her face. She remains calm, silently contemplating the implication of her actions, but at the same time her declaration of her sexuality is resistant to the heteronormative discourse of the military. What is significant in these two scenes is the response from each of the Colonels. At first Colonel Reyes’ response suggests he is only there to execute disciplinary action on Kate, but when compared more closely to the response from Colonel Kane it suggests much more. By echoing the first scene, Colonel Kane commends Kate’s actions, stating that she kept her honor and integrity. The strong parallels between the two scenes focus attention on to the responses of the Colonel’s who might seem to represent the heteronormative discourse of the military but actually represent more personal response of individuals within the military. By including this into Kate’s background story, Rucka and Williams place Kate into the cultural and political context of the real world. The scenes of Kate’s coming out to Colonel Reyes and her father provide new insight into how individuals might have reacted to the discriminatory policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

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By having Kate take over the role of Batman, she is inherently reclaiming the image of the superhero for women. Upon meeting Batman, Kate disidentifies with him, meaning that she reclaims and re-appropriates his ethics and purpose and transforms them into something meaningful to her (José Esteban Muñoz, “Introduction: Performing Disidentifications,” in Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 4). Through the process of disidentification she adapts characteristics of the Dark Knight to create her own image. Kate still dons the cowl and cape of the Dark Knight, but adapts some elements to make it her own. One of the most obvious differences is the inclusion of the color red that gives her an iconic image. Also, her female figure is clearly seen. Kate’s disidentification with Batman also relates directly to the history of the character Batwoman. Most notably Kate’s costume and appearance drastically depart from past incarnations of the character. For instance, her Batwoman costume as well as general appearance is not overly feminine or sexualized. While her female figure is still apparent, Kate’s Batwoman costume values practicality. Williams includes a character sheet at the end of the graphic novel explaining some of the costume choices for Batwoman. Her long red hair is part of the costume and is used as a detachable wig. Her utility belt is now tightly fitted and the cape is much longer, which are both direct references to the impracticalities of her original appearance in the 1950’s.

Rucka and Williams draw heavily on the past to create a new and inspiring incarnation of Kate Kane. The mixing of different artistic styles, use of panel borders, and repetition of scenes in Batwoman: Elegy allows it to serve as an illustrative testament to the fact that Kate’s life is vastly improved when she no longer has to hide her gender queer identity. Considering how the flashback scenes drastically depart from the ostentatious layout of the present day storyline and the lack of panel borders in these sections suggest that Kate lacks a cohesive identity. The constant dislocation from past to present makes the memories seem segmented and unconnected in a way that not even the order of military school can fix. However, once Kate meets Batman, he inspires a new direction for her life that empowers her and fulfills a solution to her identity struggle. Both Batwoman and Kate Kane provide positive representations of women and queers in comics. Her elevation to an “alpha superhero” is one that can finally be celebrated as a woman reclaiming her image in comics.

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