Batwoman co-writer and artist JH Williams III discusses what may be the most beautiful — and adventurous — mainstream comic book on the market.
On a superficial level, the DC Comics character Batwoman appears to be just as her name implies: a female version of Batman. And, yes, in many ways Batwoman’s origin story mirrors that that of Dark Knight.
Like Bruce Wayne, Batwoman’s alter ego, Kate Kane, is a wealthy heiress and, as with Wayne and various other members of the extended Bat family, Kane turns to crime fighting in part because of a family member’s murder, in this case her mother and — maybe — her sister.
But there are a few key differences between Kate Kane, Bruce Wayne and the other less alliterative Bat-inspired heroes, including Damian “Robin” Wayne and Dick “Nightwing” Grayson.
First and foremost, she does not typically work with Batman. As ‘Batwoman’ co-writer JH Williams III says, “most of the characters in the Bat world have either been brought on or sanctioned by Batman, whereas Kate Kane saw his idea and stole it.”
Second, Batwoman is, as you may have heard, a lesbian. In fact, Williams and former writer Greg Rucka won a GLAAD award for their portrayal of Kane’s private life, especially the torment she felt after being booted from the army for violating the now-defunct ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’
But most notably, Batwoman’s adventures aren’t of the typical criminal variety; they take her to Gotham’s darker, more supernatural realms, as seen in her brief stint as the main character in DC’s flagship title, Detective Comics. That story, called “Elegy,” was later released as a wildly popular collector’s edition with an introduction from Rachel Maddow.
Now, after about two years of lying low, Batwoman is making her return to DC Comics with a much-anticipated solo series. Even if you’re not a comic fan or you are and don’t want to follow the story, which you will, you’ll be astounded by Williams’ art: images that are as deep, vivid and varied as the narrative he creates with co-writer W. Haden Blackman.
In this interview, Williams discusses Batwoman’s lesbianism, his mesmerizing art work and why Gotham City is so damn psychotic.
Andrew Belonsky: What drew you to this character, after Greg Rucka left the series?
JH Williams III: When Greg wanted to leave, at first I thought I should go, too, but DC was very also interested in keeping me hooked into the company. I had been asking about getting some more writing opportunities for a while, and had actually presented a different concept to them that they were interested in, but when Greg made his decision, they basically asked me to continue Kate’s adventures. I think they came to me because the concept I had was more of a mini-series that would have had Kate as a guest star in it, along with somebody else, and they saw that I still had a creative interest in working on the character and offered me an ongoing title with ‘Batwoman’ instead. Some of those pieces that we had intended for a mini-series will actually be working their way into this series.
AB: Is this the first time you’ve been a co-writer on a series?
JW: No, I’ve co-written stuff in the past, in a slightly different capacity than now. In the past I co-wrote ‘Chase’ for DC and ‘Batman: Snow’ for DC. On ‘Chase,’ I had less to do with the actual full-on scripting, where as in ‘Snow,’ I had a little bit more hand in that, but in ‘Batwoman,’ there’s much more of a 50/50 partnership on it. [Collaborator W. Haden Blackman] and I actually co-wrote a ‘Hell Boy’ short story quite a few years ago together, the ‘Hell Boy: Weird Tales.’ So while I’ve been dabbling with writing for a while, it’s just nothing as prominent as ‘Batwoman.’
AB: Is it difficult as a man to write a woman? To get inside of her head?
JW: Sometimes, yes, and sometimes, no; the more difficult thing is writing a scene that gets misinterpreted. Some readers project what might be going through our heads as the reasons for the scenes’ existence and things can get misconstrued.
As an example of what I mean, look at the two scenes of Kate and cousin Bette “Flamebird” Kane changing out of clothes from civilian life to their more extreme crime fighting life. Some people have misconstrued those scenes and read them as if we’re trying to be salacious. It surprised me, because I tried my utmost best to keep it clinical. There’s no cheesecake shots to it at all. Because it’s a female character, I think people maybe misinterpreted our intention, the symbolic meaning of those scenes about the duality of their lives.
AB: That brings me to the next point: one of the most notable things about Kate Kane is that she’s a lesbian. Do you consider your work on this title to be activism? I know that when Batwoman was in ‘Detective Comics,’ you guys won the Outstanding Comic Award from GLAAD. Do you feel that you’re sending a progressive message, or is the gay aspect secondary?
JW: It’s a balance: it’s a yes and no answer. With ‘Batwoman: Elegy’ there was the point to be made about the obtuseness of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy and how ridiculous it was, and how it really trampled on people’s rights. With the new title, we don’t have the luxury of having to toy with that so much, because it’s already been covered.
We do have plans to go into a different territory in terms of basic human rights that we’re building towards. So, in that regard, yes, it could be considered activism. But that’s not our main goal.
Our first and foremost goal is to make the series entertaining, to treat the characters as real, solid characters and tell our story, because it is an adventure action series, but at the same time, she is a lesbian. It is a part of her character, so it’s going to come up; it’s going to be a part of her story. 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.
AB: Let’s discuss business real quick: there are plenty of websites where people post pirated comics. I recently read an interview with someone I can’t remember at the moment [note: I later dug it up; it was Joshua Greene's oft-cited interview with Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow] in which this person basically said he doesn’t mind pirating because it gets stories and art out there. There’s less of a concern on bottom line. [Said Barlow, "If I give my song away to 20 people, and they give it to 20 people, pretty soon everybody knows me, and my value as a creator is dramatically enhanced."] What is your take on pirating?
JW: That’s kind of an interesting statement. I can relate to what they’re saying about being glad their stuff gets out there and people see it, but ultimately… It’s such a dicey issue, because people have to make a living. If publishers are having their materials stolen, and that revenue is taken, that effects everyone. It can ultimately affect people’s livelihoods. And that’s the thing that bothers me the most about it.
If somebody is going to illegally download something, and they actually like it, then they admit that and they go and actually buy a physical copy to show their support. But there are a lot of people today who don’t really think about the economic factors, don’t think about the fact that people who produce this material need to be able to make a living.
It’s not all about what the corporation is making. The corporations have to be able to afford to pay good people and pay good talent. It’s a tricky subject, and it can definitely go into ugly places.
AB: Well, let’s talk about something beautiful: your art. You make so much use out of your pages. You used the word “duality” earlier, and you used it in another interview while discussing your aesthetic philosophy for Batwoman. I was wondering if you could extrapolate on what you envision when you sit down to work on this title.
JW: There’s many aspects I take into consideration. I take the design into consideration; what can the power of the design say about the feeling of a scene? Or maybe the design is commenting on the scene; or the art style has a subliminal emotional impact, triggering things subconsciously in the reader that they might not even realize are being triggered.
An example of this is Kate Kane in her daylight scenes versus Batwoman in her alter ego scenes.
In the Kate Kane scenes, all the design is taken out, for the most part. The pages become very traditional, the layouts are not as fantastical; I remove 99% of all the black from the art in those scenes, because I want this sense of clarity. These are all things to make it very simple and very direct and very clear, and this all subconsciously says that Kate Kane — and I think this is key, because her being gay and wanting this character to be a good symbolic character of someone who’s gay, someone who’s accepted that and is not struggling with it — Kate Kane knows exactly who she is, so the clear art and all the details being very prevalent is symbolic of that. She has nothing to hide in terms of who she is deep down inside.
Now, when she’s Batwoman, that’s where things become more ambiguous for her. Though she knows who she is as Kate Kane, she still in a lot of way is figuring out who she is as Batwoman. That’s a much darker, spookier world, and less sure; it is also a more extreme and harder-edged world, and the art, these painterly approaches and murky textures in combination with sharp, rigid panel arrangements and more fanciful layouts, speaks to the extremeness of that.
AB: Kate, like Bruce Wayne, turns to crime fighting because a family member has been murdered. Are they motivated solely by revenge or is it something else?
JW: It depends. I think some of them are motivated by revenge, or by the fact that at one point in their life they felt powerless. It’s a reach for external power, to try to control the environment around them. Sometimes that requires gaining an internal power, so for some characters I think it can be revenge, but for others — something horrific has happened and they see that there’s something wrong with the world around them and they have to do something about it.
For Kate Kane, with her father’s military background and what happened to her, she definitely has this compulsion to serve, to be a soldier and be some form of protector. Earlier in her life, before Batwoman became any notion in her head, the soldier aspect was “here is how I can serve and be a protector.” But when that didn’t work out and she has this brief encounter with Batman, something triggered in her. She saw that just because she can’t serve the country in bigger terms, she can still serve in her community. She saw what Batman represented and thought, “I could do that. I can still be a soldier.”
AB: Her relationship with Batman is interesting. He’s an inspiration, but you see that they have an antagonistic relationship — she’s very possessive of her crime scene. I find that to be very intriguing.
JW: Yeah, I do too, and what I like about the dichotomy between the two of them is that most of the characters in the Bat world have either been brought on or are sanctioned by Batman. In some form or another, there’s always been this very direct connection, whereas Kate Kane/Batwoman, she saw him and it kind of stole the idea.
While she’s got this respect for the concept of what Batman represents, the idea, she doesn’t know if she likes the man behind it, the personality behind the person she sees. She can relate to Batman’s desire to do good, but maybe not the man himself.
AB: Finally, ‘Batwoman’s’ story arcs will span various genres, whether they be horror or noir. The first story line is more spooky. It’s called “Hydrology” and shows Batwoman’s investigation of the ghostly Weeping Woman, who appears to be kidnapping and drowning children. You’ve discussed how Gotham City is “meta-physically unique,” which gives Batwoman entry into the supernatural side of DC. Can you explain your thinking here?
JW: We wanted to push further into based on stuff that was happening in “Elegy,” and I thought it was kind of a cool angle to have Batwoman, this grounded, non-superpowered person facing off against things that — how does an ordinary person deal with them without having powers? How do you fight the Weeping Woman?
It feeds into this whole idea with the metaphysics of Gotham for me. We want to show that, yes, there’s this supernatural side to Gotham City and that the darker side of the supernatural stuff in Gotham feeds off of the thing that you can’t put your finger on, that thing that allows something like a Batman to become, or the Joker to become.
Some of the villains in the Bat world are so extreme and so psychotically unique. They’re very, very dark, and we want to explore that. Why is it that this particular place in the DC Universe is where the most horrific crimes take place? We’ve figured out that there has to be something about the energy of Gotham City, the metaphysical energy that coalesces there that causes the city to be so uniquely twisted in some regards.
That’s something that we plan on exploring much more deeply as the series goes along and we want to eventually get to the point where readers understand there are reasons that someone like the Weeping Woman would happen in Gotham City — not Metropolis or Seattle — and it all ties into the bigger picture that we’re going to be exploring over the first three arcs.