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Batwoman, the Military, and Rock’n’Roll

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Batwoman_main
JH Williams III's Batwoman

Her sexuality isn’t the only thing ‘alternative’ about Kate Kane.

by Neil Ellis Orts • Illustrations by JH Williams III

Once upon a time—1956, to be precise—there was Kathy (Batwoman) Kane, a character created as a romantic interest for Bruce (Batman) Wayne because some psychologists were writing about the homosexual undertones of a single man like Bruce being the sole guardian of young Dick (Robin) Grayson. Kathy Kane appeared in Batman comics for nearly a decade and, save for a smattering of appearances in the 1970s and early ’80s, pretty well disappeared after 1964.

Fast-forward to March of 2006, when the New York Times runs a story on diversity in mainstream comics. Although a new Batwoman character had been rumored for months, the NYT article revealed that this new Kate Kane would definitely not be a romantic interest for Bruce Wayne, but would instead be a “lipstick lesbian.”

Fast-forward again to June of 2009. Detective Comics #854 debuts, headlining a new Batwoman series by novelist and comics writer Greg Rucka and acclaimed comics artist JH Williams III. In the intervening three years, Batwoman made a few appearances in comics published by DC Comics, but her origins remained a mystery, and her personal life—not to mention her personality—remained fairly undeveloped. Rucka and Williams have shown there is much more to Kate Kane than the initial “lipstick lesbian” description. Fan and critical response has been overwhelmingly positive.

JH Williams III makes an appearance this month at Houston’s Comicpalooza (see sidebar next page). His artwork has gone a long way toward creating a distinct look and style for the Batwoman character, not only through his atmospheric artwork, but also with his unique sense of layout and design. In anticipation of his first visit to Houston, we caught up with him and discussed his involvement with this landmark character.

Neil Ellis Orts: In what way would you say you’ve influenced the Batwoman character?

Batwoman_JH Williams
Batwoman artist JH Williams III also worked on Promethea, another graphic novel superheroine.

JH Williams III: I’d say one of the biggest influences I’ve brought to the table is my general visual aesthetic, the attitude of the art in terms of what things look like when she’s Batwoman and what things look like when she’s Kate Kane—some of her personal style in terms of how she dresses and some of the things she’s interested in. There are little visual cues in the background of some of the pages that give people an idea of who she is as a person. A lot of that came out of my discussions with Greg, I think, and he was really open-minded about what little tidbits we could give her to round out her personality.

Many superheroines have more T&A appeal. This Batwoman is less sexy, despite the tight leather. I assume that’s a conscious decision.
Yeah, pretty much. I guess it’s how one views the term “sexy.” For me, a lot of female characters in the superhero genre, for lack of a better term, are treated as eye candy. Lots of writers certainly give them personalities and so forth, but in the visual context, a lot of times they don’t come across as somebody you can believe in. That’s my goal any time I deal with female characters in superhero stories or other fantasy comics. I want them to be people. It’s relying less on eye candy and more on the sexiness of the person you might get to meet standing next to you.

She is definitely still wearing a tight suit and there are shots where she has slightly bullet breasts.
Yeah, there is definitely a fetish-ness to her look as Batwoman. One of the things I wanted to do is to have this sexiness, but not the sexiness that people come to expect, particularly out of superhero comics. I was looking for something a little darker, a little bit more on edge. That comes from Greg really wanting her, when she’s Batwoman, to seem relatively vampiric in the way she moves. In her personal life, she’s into alternative music and rock ’n’ roll, so those aesthetics kind of made their way into how she presents herself as Batwoman.

In the Kate Kane scenes, her use of makeup is rather extreme.
Her appeal is definitely counter-cultural and definitely urban, and that’s where the rock ’n’ roll attitude comes from. A lot of the edgier rock ’n’ roll artists will use makeup, or they’ll have the smoky eyes and more of a graphic appearance. There are plenty of people in reality who run around with that kind of look, but you don’t see a heck of a lot of it in mainstream superhero characters.

But her look, besides the edginess of it, you can tell she’s not shopping at second-hand shops. She’s got some cash flow. It’s like high-end punk.
It’s kind of a rich girl with funky tastes. That’s one of the cool things about rock ’n’ roll fashion. There’s this mishmash of different sensibilities thrown together. A good example of that is Gwen Stefani. Some of the things she wears or designs herself are a fusion of many different things. Someone like Kate, who has money but is interested in rock ’n’ roll and art, she’s going to dress fitting her personality, but it’s not like she’s going to necessarily shop at the cheapest places.

I read an interview with Greg Rucka where he said no one really knew Kate Kane but him and you, and maybe you were in for some surprises. What sort of surprises has he thrown at you?
Probably the best thing is the fact that here’s this, for lack of a better term, rock ’n’ roll superhero chick who lives on the edge, but she comes from wanting to live this rigid military life. She grew up in this military family and saw herself being in the military, and that’s a very rigid life. I think that’s a very interesting surprise in terms of where she was before she became Batwoman and where she is now, and it shows how people can change.

Batwoman_coverThere’s been this sort of apologetics about her being a Bat-character who just happens to be lesbian, but at the same time, being lesbian is pretty essential to the original story. If I’m reading it right, had she been straight, she would still be serving in the military.
That’s right. Or if she felt that she could lie, she would still be in the military.

It definitely puts her in the real world where people are discharged from the military for kissing someone of the same sex.
Right. We are pointing fingers at the utter ridiculousness of that. I’m proud of the fact that we did it in a way that didn’t sound like we’re on a podium spouting off, and I think that makes the message stronger. We’re not sitting here trying to make a political diatribe.

What kind of response have you had from the LGBT community?
Everything I’ve heard has been extremely positive. Through my website, I get quite a few posts and messages and e-mails from fans who are gay and they’re really enthused about the work.

Do you have gay and lesbian friends looking over your shoulder?
[Laughing] A little bit. But they know me well enough that they know I wouldn’t involve myself in anything that would paint them in a negative light.

There have certainly been other gay and lesbian characters in comics, but you slap a bat on the chest and it sort of ups the ante. Do you feel the weight of that?
I think Greg thinks about it more than I do. I don’t think about it because for me I think it should be a non-issue. It’s just another facet of what it means to be a human being.

Neil Ellis Orts interviewed choreographer Trey McIntyre for the November 2009 issue of OutSmart magazine.
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Comicpalooza
March 26–28 at the George R. Brown Convention Center

In three short years, Comicpalooza, Houston’s comics, science fiction, and gaming convention, has grown from a small gathering of local comics fans and creators into an event that needs the George R. Brown Convention Center to contain it. Gaining support from such Houston institutions as NASA, The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and the Houston Museum of Natural Science, among others, Comicpalooza promises to be one of the more unique and varied conventions of the 2010 season.

Appearing at the convention are such media stars as Brea Grant of TV’s Heroes and Tyrese Gibson of both Transformers movies. Comics fans will have a chance to meet such legendary creators as Bernie Wrightson, the artist who co-created the Swamp Thing, and current hot artist Ethan Van Sciver, who is currently best known for his work on Green Lantern.

Of particular interest to OutSmart readers is the screening of The Variants, a web sitcom set in a comics shop, created by the owners of Dallas’s Zeus Comics. The clever webisodes feature more than one gay character and has great fun with the comics subculture. The screening is followed by a Q&A with the creators of The Variants. Watch all of the currently available webisodes at thevariants.com.
For a full listing of artists, writers, actors, and other creators of science fiction and fantasy, visit comicpalooza.com.

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Neil Ellis Orts

Neil Ellis Orts is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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