The Comic Book Club: “Batwoman: Elegy” and “Werewolves of Montpellier”

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This is what happens when Techland goes to the comic book store: we end up talking about what we picked up. This week, Douglas Wolk, Evan Narcisse, Mike Williams and Graeme McMillan discuss Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III’s Batwoman: Elegy (see our interview with Williams) and Jason’s Werewolves of Montpellier (previewed here yesterday).

DOUGLAS: Hey, two comics with werewolves in them in the same week!

GRAEME: Batwoman: Elegy: Now here’s a book that’ll just break your heart. Not because it’s not good – It’s very, VERY good – but because one of the reasons why it’s so good won’t be involved with any future stories with the character for the foreseeable future, and the book ends on something resembling a cliffhanger. I have no idea how J.H. Williams and Haden Blackman will do as writers when Batwoman (eventually) returns, but I can’t believe that I won’t miss Greg Rucka when it happens. His work here is some of his strongest for years, economical but full, and without some of the earnestness that can creep in sometimes. He manages to make Kate Kane a believable character very quickly, way before we finally get her origin story. And what an origin, playing off Batman tropes all over the place, what with the loss of a parent in early childhood and her own version of a playboy period, except Kate lives the debauchery because she lacks the determination that Bruce’s loss gave him, and is left with the pain and loneliness alone. Even more than Williams’ stunning artwork, it’s Rucka that emerges as the star of this collection for me.

(Which isn’t to say that Williams’ work is any less amazing the second time around, because it’s not. His work, and also Dave Stewart’s wonderful colors, make this one of the best-looking superhero comics in years.)

DOUGLAS: Rucka’s best comics are always the ones where he’s got a protagonist he finds fascinating, and he clearly goes really deep with his conception of Kate Kane. (Also, she has a more convincing reason for putting a bat on her chest than any other member of that particular family.) You just know there are specific stories behind each of Kate’s tattoos. The West Point sequences are particularly great–I practically cheered when Dan Choi showed up. And I love the fact that every single line of Alice’s dialogue, except her last, is a quote from “Alice in Wonderland.”

But yes, holy heck, J.H. Williams III. (And Dave Stewart, who outdoes himself with the colors.) I can’t think of any other currently active superhero artist who pulls off this kind of form-follows-function design work on every single page. Did y’all notice that every scene in which Batwoman’s in action has the jagged bat-shaped panel borders, except when she’s drugged by Alice and the panels start going soft at their edges and distorting into Alician curlicues? And when Abbot takes over the action, they assume “ripped” outlines? And all of Kate’s modern-day civilian scenes have that kind of ligne claire look, with flat-toned rather than modeled color? And the way the scene where Kate gets from her motorcycle on the plane “ascends” from the left of the spread to the right?

Williams is such an incredible mimic, too. A lot of people have remarked on the David Mazzucchelli technique he uses on the earliest flashbacks of “Go,” but is it me or are there also a couple of pages of dead-on Paul Gulacy impersonation in the final chapter?

EVAN: There’s a sensual, sinuous quality to the storytelling here. Your eye’s weaving in and out of the panel cutouts, to follow action and dialogue; your focus pulls out to take in the architecture of the page and then pushes back in to pick the layers of details. The act of reading Elegy is very, well, active. The artistic sensibility here works off a premise that design comes first, and that’s what makes it so fun to read.

Part of my enjoyment of Williams’ art here is because it reminds me of Trevor Von Eeden’s old DC work. I remember picking up some of his World’s Finest issues as a kid and getting blown away. There’s a genius in the way the panels and the characters stretched and moved yet retained the same familiarity of the same Batman and Superman I’d see in a zillion other places. Williams’s Batwoman work isn’t really structurally similar, but reminds me of Von Eeden anyway.

With a work this beautiful, there’s a danger in ignoring the writing, so I’m also going to co-sign Graeme on mourning Greg Rucka’s absence from the future of this character. I have friends who find his work underwhelming, but his output has been far more “hit” than “miss” for me. Too few superhero writers understand character; Rucka doesn’t have that problem. Checkmate, Gotham Central (with Ed Brubaker) and his Wonder Woman run all showed a keen understanding of interpersonal dynamics. What we get in Batwoman is that stuff boiled down to a steely core. It’s leaner than a lot of his other stuff and all the better for it.

GRAEME: Werewolves of Montpellier: I have this love/hate relationship with Jason; I like his work, and think he’s a master of understatement, but every single time I finish one of his books, I’m always left feeling dissatisfied, as if there should’ve been something more to it. This was no different; it’s definitely funny and full of witty twists and lovely “small” important details in the art, but… I don’t know, I feel like it was missing something. Or maybe I’m missing something? Someone tell me what I should’ve thought instead, quickly.

DOUGLAS: I pretty much have a love/love relationship with Jason’s books. I mean, it’s possible to describe this one by saying it’s a low-key domestic drama, with a Harold Pinter play’s worth of portentous silences, about a bored, disenchanted young man who’s in hopelessly in love with his lesbian best friend. Or you can say it’s about a jewel thief who discovers a secret cabal of werewolves. It’s true that you have to pay attention to catch the details: the fact that Jason draws everyone with animal heads makes it a little bit harder to read some of the characters’ interactions. But maybe Jason’s central joke is that you have to take extreme measures to create certain kinds of drama when a lot of the time people aren’t feeling anything in particular. (The fact that every single panel is the same dimension, staged roughly the same way, etc. adds to that effect of total neutrality, even when there are goddamn werewolves attacking. As un-Von Eeden as it gets!)

I love all of Audrey and Sven’s interactions, the high drama of all the werewolf cabal’s conversations, the page where they take a trip to the ocean, Audrey singing “Moon River,” and maybe most of all the bits of nothing in particular happening before the final confrontation: the old werewolf making a cup of tea and reading a book, Audrey’s cat cuddling up to her, Sven checking his e-mail. And I really like Jason’s habit of setting up details in earlier scenes that don’t stick out at all (because, again, everything’s so neutral-looking) until later scenes explain them. (I didn’t realize until my second reading, for instance, what Sven sees on the balcony at Audrey’s party.)

MIKE: I agree with Douglas that there are many ways to look at this book: love triangle, costumed jewel thief, werewolf thriller, etc. But for, me the best scenes in the book were the interactions between Sven and Igor. There was something very Seinfeldian about their interactions. Completely at ease with each other–they even play chess off by themselves at a party.

I did feel the need to read through this book twice. Some of the nuances were lost on me, as I had a tendency to race through the sparse panels the first time. For example, when Audrey’s girl is packing up and leaving, she utters “She’s all yours” on her way out. Perhaps her astute judgement of character is what makes her such a good poker player?

Oh, and I’m not up on my werewolf lore but I thought they were like vamps in that you had to be bitten to be turned into one? Maybe the rules are different if you are already a bipedal dog?

DOUGLAS: No, check out the rooftop confrontation at the end: there is indeed a bite!

MIKE: Ah, I thought that there was some kind of spirit possession that happens when a werewolf dies in front of you.

EVAN: I really liked this book but, in the main, I like most of Jason’s stuff. The way he paces his pages and draws expressions is so damn dry that I don’t know whether to cringe or laugh when reading his work. I also enjoy the weird window into this fake Europe that Jason gives us, too. His characters are always meeting cafes and smoking and just kind of shrugging their shoulders.

The fact that the werewolves are practically indistinguishable from his normal people is hilarious to me. You could read it as a deep metaphor or as stylistic rigidity, and it works either way. From a narrative perspective, I like that all the characters struggle to reconcile their wants and needs. At the end, when the werewolf chasing down Sven finally catches him, the scene goes from “vengeance!” to “screw this!” in an instant. There’s a little existential tremor there that goes unexplained, and I love that.