As the Batman franchise has evolved, so has the mission of the character. While Bruce Wayne’s original goal in creating the Batman persona was to strike fear in the hearts of criminality, the 21st Century has seen a shift in the way Batman is perceived in fiction and in the real world. The Bruce Wayne of Batman Begins (2005) committed himself to an ideal, to becoming an incorruptible symbol that would terrify evil, but also inspire and empower ordinary men and women. In 2010, writer Grant Morrison gave that idea physical form with Batman Incorporated, in which Batman recruited an army of Batman-inspired allies from across the globe. “Starting today, we fight ideas with better ideas. The idea of crime with the idea of Batman.” (Batman: The Return)
But in both of those instances, the symbol still had Bruce Wayne behind it – the symbol, for all intents and purposes, was still just his signature. He was there to guide it, mold it, and decide what it means. A symbol becomes truly immortal when it can be appropriated by others, independently, and still hold meaning. This is what makes Kate Kane, the Batwoman, the ultimate evolution of The Batman Idea.
Kate Kane is a Marine officer candidate whose dream of service is denied to her based on the US military’s (now-defunct) “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, in which a serviceman/woman could be dishonorably discharged for homosexual activity. For years, Kate drifts, drunken and depressed, until a brief, silent encounter with the Batman inspires her to put her life together and start down a new path.
But her reaction isn’t to seek out Batman and ask for his help, or his blessing. It’s the symbol, not the man, that gives her strength. She takes the iconography of the Bat and remakes it in her own image, in a sense restoring the Milleresque ideal of Batman as a street soldier, solitary, clinical and precise, but she’s not a “female Batman.” She’s every inch her own character, with her own methods and motivations.
Like Bruce Wayne, Kate spends years training for her mission, but while Wayne’s journey was often zen and meditative, a spiritual journey as much as physical, Kate’s is by-the-numbers, owing to her military background. Through connections acquired by her two Marine parents, she trains for years with military specialists (Colonel Kane’s “Murder of Crows”) in urban and non-lethal warfare. She uses a soldier’s equipment, tactics and attitude. Her Batwoman suit isn’t a costume, it’s a uniform. Being a soldier, she’s not personally opposed to using lethal force in the field, but her commitment to the symbol of the Bat includes an obligation to what she calls the “Batman Rule,” and so she’ll never take a life as long as she wears the uniform.
But when Batman finally invites her to join Batman, Inc, she turns him down. Because it’s not about him, it’s about the symbol, and she can honor it with or without his involvement.
Out here in the real world, Batwoman has an even greater symbolic value than in Gotham City, being the most high-profile lesbian in superhero comics, and one of the most popular new characters of the last decade. Her debut in the pages of 52, her origin in Detective Comics and her eponymous ongoing series have all been critically and commercially successful. Batwoman comics carry the Batman brand, but rarely involve Batman. They have a unique tone, they approach different subject matter, and they have a larger and more memorable cast of villains than Dick Grayson has accumulated in the thirty years since he went solo.
The power of symbols and mythology is ever-present in the Batwoman solo series. The first 17 issues of the series are dedicated to a long, multi-part storyline in which Batwoman combats a force that can harness superstition and belief, bringing terrible legends and folktales like La Llorona and Bloody Mary to life. (The force in question is later revealed to be the actual Medusa from Greek mythology.) The ability of a legend to live in the collective imagination for generations, to the point that it actually takes on a life of its own, is personified perfectly in Batwoman herself.
A testament to the way a symbol and a mythology can mutate and change form, Batwoman stands out as a more contemporary character than Batman, who, while more popular than ever, is still a product of the late 1930s. Batwoman is a new character for a new, more progressive century, and the more diverse and mature comics reading audience that comes with it. And as her library of stories grows, along with her popularity, her version of the Bat-symbol will continue to accumulate greater meaning, and maybe even inspire a legacy of its own.
Josh Howell is a cartoonist and animator living in Brooklyn, NY. He’s worked as an animator on short films, personal projects, and as an Assistant Animator on Season 3 of Superjail at Titmouse NY. Check him out on Twitter, tumblr and YouTube.
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