Batwoman #4: Smart, Feminist and Very Very Lesbosexy

Do you know how many times Batwoman issue #4 passes the Bechdel test? Five million and a gold star many times. Crime-fighting women not running around wearing stilettos many times. Female characters not being introduced by an ass-shot many times. Women not standing in awkward tit-and-ass shots many times. Gay women having sex and sweetly making out in a way that is not creepy-old-man voyeuristic many times. What I mean here is many, many times, guys.

Let’s start off with why this is important: The 2011 re-booted Batwoman comic series stars an out and proud lesbian, Kate Kane, as Batwoman, and while the idea of a lesbian Batwoman might seem like a spur-of-the-moment, dank fratboy party “guys, they’re lesbians let’s watch them make out” kind of ploy, it’s not — the series stems from a brief Batwoman arc that occurred in DC’s 2006 limited series 52, where DC’s staff decided that Batwoman would be gay (and Jewish) in an effort to diversify DC’s characters. The result: A Kate Kane whose identity is so tied up in being queer that her back story, iterated on the title page of every issue of the comic so far, notes that she was expelled from the United States Military Academy at West Point under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. The moment was illustrated with an unexpected amount of sincerity and thoughtfulness on the issue of LGBT rights.

via change.org

Not only is the comic tackling a lesbian main character in a way that is tasteful and well-thought-out — many of the main characters in this comic are women in positions of power and plot magnitude, from the villains to the good guys (which also means you won’t see many women functioning as undulating flesh backdrops in strip joints). It was amazingly refreshing to read Batwoman #4 — this shit passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. In it you’ll see women warning each other about getting in dangerous situations, women talking about (lesbian) sex, women discussing ongoing police investigations, women interrogating other women about dead bodies at an illegal supervillian healing clinic, women deceiving other women into divulging information — and the list goes on.

As I’m going over the comic again to recount how many times this comic passes the Bechdel test, I’m even surprised that the writers, J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman, cast a woman as the main clinician at said supervillain clinic, a brief appearance that didn’t need to have a woman in the lead. But there she was.

No stilettos to be seen

And Batwoman has continued to surprise me. I bought all four currently released Batwoman comics to get a sense of how the story arcs are done, and while I was a little annoyed (but not at all surprised) that all the Asian characters are either thugs, dead bodies wearing dragon symbols, or smugglers operating out of a noodle restaurant, I was happily surprised by the number of Latino individuals who appear in the comic. I was skeptical at first because the Latinos in the comic are seen mainly in a position of disadvantage and victimization (the plot centers around a series of missing Latino children and their devastated families) and because the Latinos are in a position of being helped by a series of white people (-1! But who also happen to be women in positions of power — +1!).

I was pleased to see these depictions balanced out by the array of Latino characters in Batwoman #4, though — while most of the Latino individuals do appear briefly and often without a lot of personal plot focus, a central, seemingly evil spectral female character, La Llorona (“The Weeping Woman”) of Mexican legend, is Latina as well. Taken separately, the victimized Latino families and the spectral Latina villain become imbalanced racial tropes, but when put together, you can tell that Williams and Blackman are trying to flesh out a racially diverse Gotham that is not very often seen in the DC universe. The balance between La Llorona and the abducted Latino children is a little tenuous, but the effort is definitely being made not only to familiarize readers with the Latino residents of Gotham but with the cultural legends that these minority residents might be aware of as well.

And yes, Batwoman #4 has copious amounts of tastefully done lesbian sex panels. I will just stop talking at this point and just show them to you.

Weirdly, I’m more excited about the comic passing the Bechdel test than about the satisfying amount of “O” faces that appear the comic. I know. What’s going on with me? But I think this reaction is pretty telling, because the highlight of Batwoman #4 isn’t so much women having sex with each other but the women themselves — what they do, what they say, who they talk to, who they sleep with — where the sex isn’t so much spectacle but an emotional outgrowth and fluid plot development of a well-developed romantic arc that has been progressing over the previous three issues. On top of that, the sex becomes an artistic device — it happens at the same time that something horrible and violent is happening in a completely different place, where images of pastel black-and-white intimacy are overlayed over violent, wintery, full-color imagery. The sex storyline laces all of the plots together with a sense of guilt or dread that’s likely to peak in the next issue.

Sex happening not just for the sake of sex happening is something noteworthy, too — not only with lesbian sex, but with heterosexual sex in comics. We can compare the tasteful sex scenes in Batwoman with a distasteful and controversial heterosexual sex scene that appeared in Catwoman Volume 4, issue #1, also published by DC Comics, where in the final panel of the issue, the title character does it on a roof with Batman. No smoke. No mirrors. Just penetration. It’s so gross I’m not even sure about the physical possibility of what’s happening here — why are they positioned like that? How on earth is pole A positioned so that it can go into hole B? How on earth are her tiny inhumanly disproportioned legs managing to go all the way around that massively steroidal Batman man-torso?

 

Oy vey. via comicsalliance.com

But the main question is, though, why do we need to see that? Laura Hudson discussed the comic on Comics Alliance asking the same question: “What does it accomplish or tell us about the characters that would have been lost if that page had been omitted? The answer is nothing.” This is what happens when sex serves the purpose of being sex — it becomes gratuitous, kind of creepy, not very important, and it becomes an issue of sex being catered to the desires of the audience rather than the characters themselves. And when sex ceases to be something owned by the characters and their emotional arcs, the comic becomes kind of trashy. And I’m relieved that when I flipped through the pages of Batwoman #4 none of the normal red lights crossed my mind — why is this here? Why is this important? Why am I looking at this?

The work that Williams and Blackman are doing on the new Batwoman isn’t perfect, but it’s definitely moving the depiction of gender, sexuality and racial identity in mainstream comics in a direction where tokenism and spectacle are no longer king —instead, the fleshed-out portrayal of well-developed and diverse main characters, side characters and sub characters matters more than a diversity quota. The comic has handled Kate Kane being a lesbian exceptionally well, putting her into a class of superheroes where her emotional arcs are conducive to fitting romantic and sexual plot lines. The (male) writers’ attempts to understand what it’s like for a queer woman to patrol Gotham, to be expelled under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and to have a fulfilling romantic life with other crucial Gotham characters is also touching and real — Williams and Blackman are making a huge effort, and it’s obvious and greatly appreciated.

TL;DR: Go buy the comic and support Batwoman.

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Whitney is a lover of food, books, comic books and journals made for left-handed people. She is a Ph.D. student at Northwestern University, where she studies video games and new media. She is also a graphic designer, writer and editor who has worked for places like Opium Magazine, Literary Death Match, Publishers Weekly and The Feminist Press. Check out her blog at whitneypow.com and follow her on Twitter @whitneypow.

Whitney has written 51 articles for us.

48 Comments

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      It’s interesting – they retconned Renee’s character in the new storyline; she’s no longer the Question (or at least, not yet) in the new version. She showed up in a photo on the wall as a honored policewoman in the new Batwoman, so she’s significantly still around, and word is she’ll show up again in her police role. I’m interested in what they plan to do with her. I really liked her as the Question, even though I found the 52 series hard to read. The stand-alone trades of her as The Question were much better.

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        That makes me super-sad, though (like all the retcons, pretty much) because she was such a frigging awesome superhero as the Question. I loved the friendship/chemistry she was beginning to develop with Huntress and the Birds. She was a great cop and the storyline in which she left the cops sucked (hard) but I’m going to miss her as the Question. it’s not like the Gotham superhero squad needed to get even more white.

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    This comment contains SPOILERS, so if you haven’t read #4, please go out and buy #1-4 right now and read (you won’t regret it, I promise!) then come back here and read after.

    It bugs me a bit that the sex scene between Maggie and Kate is juxtaposed frame by frame with the violent fight where Flamebird is injured, though. I think they could have been show consecutively, not concurrently and still conveyed the power of both scenes.

    I think intercutting them together is maybe intended to set Kate up for feeling responsible for what happened to Flamebird, and that worries me, because she shouldn’t feel guilty about spending time with Maggie as her true self, but the storyboarding here may be implying that indulging her sexual needs means that she’s neglecting her responsibilities to look after Flamebird and keep her safe.

    Also I’m uncomfortable with the associate of sex and violence as counterpoints with one another. I don’t think of them as “opposites that are related” or as escalation of violence mirroring the arousal of sex, etc., which is often what is intended to be conveyed in scenes like this when it happens in movies or on TV. Violence isn’t a turn-on for me; this seems to suggest that it should be.

    But none of this undercuts all that you say in the article about how cool this storyline is! I love this comic, and I love Kate Kane.

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      The sex scene visually interlaced with Flamebird being injured is unsettling, I agree. And by putting together the sex scene with the violent fight scene, the writers definitely are setting up Kate for feeling responsible for Flamebird, too — like, “oh no I was having sex and not saving my almost sidekick from that scary fate Batman mentioned and made me feel horrible about.”

      That being said, I don’t think that the sex and the violence are meant to go together in terms of both of them combining to form to an arousing set of panels, or that the violence is supposed to accentuate the sex (or be sexy) in any way. The purpose seems to be to create another emotional story arc that hasn’t been obviously talked about yet — Kate’s feeling of responsibility and older sisterhood toward Flamebird, which is something that also resonates with Kate’s twin sister problems in 52. That’s what I love about how the sex scene has been placed in the comic — it’s sexy, but the sex scenes are not just about arousal and sex; they’re contributing to a greater plot picture that’s been hinted at for a several issues (with Kate being wary of Flamebird as a sidekick, Flamebird keeping an extra costume stashed away, Batman warning Kate about sidekick fates, Kate kicking out Flamebird, saying she isn’t good enough, etc.). I really appreciate here how the sex is being used as a serious plot device that creates new emotional tensions and character arcs.

      That ALSO being said, it is kind of sad that sex can’t just be happy / celebratory / yay relationships sex in Batwoman #4. I totally agree with you that the guilt and violence and bad feelings associated with the sex in this issue is not a great thing, especially since it’s a lesbian sex scene and there’s already enough culturally bad stuff being said about gay couples and their sex lives. But ultimately, dramatic plot is dramatic plot, and I like that the writers are doing something a little different, plot-wise, with the sex scene rather than turning it into a gratuitous Catwoman money shot.

      1,000 Kate Kane high-fives!

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        But let’s not forget that in issue 3 she basically kicked Flamebird out of the house. Then Maggie showed up and kissed away the pain. So it’s not like Kate’s going to beat herself up just for having fun. She’s also going to feel horrible because the last time she spoke with her cousin, it was to tell her she wasn’t ready to be a superhero. And then Flamebird proved that statement to be true. That scene was pretty forced and bizarre.

        I really hope Montoya comes back. It’ll be awkward having to play second fiddle to her former boss.

        I would also like to point out that, in the next page where Kate climbs out that guy’s window, the neighborhood is totally Gotham’s version of Washington Heights.

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    Is the 2006 limited DC 52 what led to Greg Rucka’s Batwoman: Elegy? http://bit.ly/gOei9M Or is that something else? Anyway, that was really awesome (Maddow wrote the introductio, too) and I was kind of sad that Rucka’s Batwoman ended up being a one-off.

    I’ve been super skeptical of DC’s New 52 (for reasons you mentioned). I might wait till the first few issues of Batwoman come out in a trade… or maybe I’ll stop by Forbidden Planet on my way home.

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      Batwoman:Elegy is basically all of the Batwoman origin story from Detective Comics issues #854-860 collected into one book. I recommend buying that instead of buying all of the individual issues of that series. Then buy Batwoman 1 -4. It’s a really great series and really sticks out since most of the other reboots in the DC franchise have been disappointing.

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        I wanted to add that Elegy picks up exactly where Elegy left off. For those that are worried that they will be lost. That’s why I recommend reading Elegy first since it covers Batwoman’s origin story and really introduces you to all the players in the series.

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      Yes, Turkish is right. Elegy is the 2009-2010 series, which is *WAY* better than her introduction in 52. It’s the series that got me super excited about Batwoman coming out in the new 52! It’s pretty rare to find, but do your best to pick it up at your local comic shop!

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      The 2006 DC 52 series (a set of 4 trade paperbacks) did lead into Elegy, which was much better. DC 52 covered a whole bunch of more minor superheroes, and Kate Kane’s Batwoman was one of them. But it was pretty dense and hard to get through, because there was tons of backstory from the whole DC universe that was covered, and if you don’t know all of those story lines, it’s hard to read. It did also cover Renee Montoya, who then went on to have a couple of trade books as The Question, which was cool, too.

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      As they said before, Elegy is a great backstory, intro comic.

      Also, Rucka and Williams were supposed to launch an entire Batwoman Series in 09 via New 52, but when it was released that Kate was a lesbian, there was a lot of press that latched onto that and made it a WAY BIGGER DEAL THAN IT REALLY IS. DC grew incredibly nervous and killed the series, annnd, if I remember correctly, Elegy is the book that was produced instead. Which, sucks, because I love Rucka and would have like to see him helm the series for awhile.

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    So I was so bloody excited for the Batwoman comics to hit in the new 52. But upon reading #1 and #2 it became clear that the book was going to focus less on her “real world” action style she sported through most of Elegy, but on the supernatural and the fallout of “the order” or something. It seems strange to me to have a modern “batman begins” style gritty hero using real military gear, but facing hyper supernatural villains. But I could deal with that because Kate was such a compelling character, right? she was a sweetheart who had her heart torn out not only as a child but time and time again as she couldn’t hold onto a relationship.

    God, this character was so compelling!

    Then why the hell did they make her so nail grating in BW #1&#2? I actually couldn’t stand the way she was treating Firebird so much that I had to stop reading the books. I realized that she was going through a lot, but as a reader I just got frustrated watching a *new* book have a *new* character just chase everyone in her life away like a jerk.

    I just want that strong, lost soul from 2009 back and not this coarse/grating/angry character who kept kicking back attempts to humanize the character.

    That being said, I’m going to give #3&#4 a chance thanks to this review, it seems she may have gotten better in subsequent issues.

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      Well, she just realized her twin sister had died and that she was indirectly responsible for that (see Elegy.) As a redheaded Jewish lesbian twin, I know I’d be pretty upset about that. (PS I would totally date Maggie AND Montoya so I’m just going to pretend that I’m Kathy Kane.)

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      I was lucky enough to sit in on a panel at Wondercon last year that was all about LGBT in comics. It spanned a lot of titles, indie and the big two (Marvel and DC) and most of the writers representing were queer or, had made significant contributions towards writing LGBT characters.

      Someone asked out of Marvel and DC who was better for queer characters, and the unanimous answer was DC. Apparently up until the last ten years or so Marvel has been very negative about LGBT characters (and minority characters!), whereas DC has been letting writers portray gay characters in healthy, functioning relationships, since I think the 80s or so. Marvel has just recently gotten into the game of allowing strong, prominent gay characters in their teams but usually it’s younger, teen characters in ensamble casts. Overall DC has shown more support in the long run.

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    Another stellar article about comics! I also like that you don’t just point out the female-related reasons why this comic is great, but also the race-related issues that are coming up, and how we could see things improve with the DC team.

    And on a totally unrelated note to that stuff, is anyone else REALLY grossed out by Batman’s abs? WHAT IS WRONG WITH HIS OBLIQUES

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    I was wondering it Autostraddle was ever going to do an article on Batwoman #4. Being gay and very into comics I was all “MOAR LESBIANS NEED TO BE AWARE OF THIS.”

    In closing my roommate just bought me a little Batwoman figurine for Christmas (to stand next to Batgirl and River Tam).

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    I loves me some comics, I was wondering when this article was gonna show up. This site is the best, talking about comics and videogames, much love for the geekery, and from the queer woman’s perspective? It makes me very happy that this exists. I’m also very excited that their is a gay super heroine out there now, since when I was younger it was all oooh lets swoon over the big muscled heroes ladies, and wear leather and stilettos to fight. Comic portrayal of woman is making headway,and while we have a ways to go its still very exciting.

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    I love Kate Kane. Batwoman Elegy totally made me cry the first time I read it; then again, I was dealing with confusion about my sexuality at the time, so… yeah. She’s my favorite superhero ever. <3

    I was worried that the reboot was going to mess her up, but so far I'm happy with her treatment. :3

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    Can someone tell me where Batwoman and Rennee Montoya first show up and if possible the titles of the comics I should get. I am sooo new to comics and I don’t have this girl in my class that got me into comics to ask all these questions…

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    Ha. I just tried to purchase issues #1-#4 (issues? Is that what they’re called? I know very little about comics… but quite a bit about issues as it turns out), as recommended above (for my gf – call it a New Years present) on eBay (if anyone can direct me to reputable online store that will ship to Australia for non-exorbiant fee, do let me know) & “did I mean Batman #2?”. No.

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    Arg, I so want to be reading this. I missed Batwoman #1 when it came out in September and then got wicked busy and gave up on going to the comic book store and trying to track down the issues. Anybody know a good way of tracking down issues from past months? I asked the guy at my local store for a copy of #1 a while ago, but it hasn’t come in yet. Even if it does come in I will still have to track down #2-#4 at this point.

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      I order all my comic books from midtowncomics.com The pricing and shipping is pretty damn cheap. And they have all of the Batwoman issues save for Elegy, which is a little harder to find. I found it at my local comic book store but I think Amazon still has some available. You can also advance order/subscribe to upcoming Batwoman issues so they arrive at your house on the release date.

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    Wow, this article just made me interested in comics and superhero stuff for the first time in my life!! I need to search if I can find them here now. That last picture ruined my enthusiasm a bit though, grossgrossgross.

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      Since there’s just 4 issues, it’s easy to start with #1. There’s an origin comic that’s harder to find (Elegy,) but you can pretty easily read a little info on Wikipedia to get the backstory and dive right into the comic.

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    I need to pick these up! How did I not know they were out? I’m thoroughly ashamed of myself right now. I’m really happy they took a mature approach to this since the concept in the beginning made me question how they’d portray Kate.

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