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The Epistemology of the Phone Booth: The Superheroic Identity and Queer Theory in Batwoman: Elegy

By Andréa Gilroy

In the spring of 2006, DC Comics announced their so-called “Trinity”—Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman—would disappear from comics for a year. In a story arc titled 52, an all-star cast of writers and artists would explore what happened when the “B-List” heroes of the DC universe had to fill the super-shoes of their more famous colleagues. One of the main characters of the storyline would be Kate Kane, a.k.a. Batwoman. The news of the reintroduction of a long-forgotten Batman sidekick would have gone unnoticed by the general public were it not for one detail: this Batwoman is a lesbian. Media outlets around the world published the story with lurid titles like “Batwoman’s Other Secret Identity Turns Heads” (Williams) and “Holy Lipstick Lesbian!” (Robinson). Dan Didio, vice president and executive editor of DC Comics, claimed to have expected and even welcomed some controversy, but few people expected the amount of public interest in the sexuality of a second-tier superheroine who hadn’t appeared on comic book pages in decades.1

Since Action Comics #1 debuted in 1938, the figure of the superhero has transcended media boundaries and appeared in film, radio, television, novels and even poetry. As the lineup of summer blockbusters over the last decade attests, the superhero still holds power in the American (and increasingly, the global) imagination. Of the thousands of superheroes created since Superman, Batman has likely accumulated the most cultural cache in the past thirty years. He has appeared in television shows, films, and even remained quite popular in comics after overall sales of most titles dropped precipitously in the 1980s and 1990s. Superman may be the first, but Batman has unquestionably become the most popular of DC’s heroes.

As part of the “Bat Family,” Batwoman’s connection to one of the most recognized and beloved superheroes on the planet meant her “news” concerned more than just serious DC Comics fans. Many readers initially dismissed Batwoman’s sexuality as tokenism or shock tactics on DC’s part, even though she was not the first openly gay superhero (that title belongs to Marvel’s Northstar). The questions and concerns raised about Batwoman’s sexuality were less about her specific character than they were about the far-reaching implications her homosexuality had on the broader discussion about superheroes and sex, especially the contentious history of Batman’s sexual identity. While Batwoman’s sexual preferences made the headlines, the true innovation her first storyline, later collected under the title Batwoman: Elegy, lies in its construction and presentation of an inherently performative, queer notion of identity and the subject. Through complex art styles and the metatextual play of narrative, Elegy subverts assumptions of the role of sex and power fantasies in superhero stories, welcoming new forms of queer readings of the genre as a whole.

Batman first appeared in Detective Comics #27 in May 1939. Eleven months later, in Detective Comics #38, Batman’s creators Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson gave Batman a sidekick: Robin, the Boy Wonder. Popular with younger readers, Robin became an indispensable part of the comic. Robin was always present at Batman’s side, even when out of costume: Bruce Wayne took on the orphaned Dick Grayson as his ward. But all was not well in Gotham. Due to his close relationship with his ward and sidekick, Batman’s owners and creators have consistently attempted to ignore, refute, and cover up a question that will not go away: is Batman gay?2 This question is not a recent one, either—it has been debated since at least the 1950s. In his infamous Seduction of the Innocent, popular psychologist Frederic Wertham bluntly claimed, ” … the Batman stories are psychologically homosexual … Only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and of the psychopathology of sex can fail to realize a subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism which pervades the adventures of the mature ‘Batman’ and his young friend ‘Robin'” (189). Adam West and Burt Ward’s campy portrayal of the dynamic duo in the 1960s TV show would only further cement rumors.

In response to the scrutiny raised by Wertham’s book, the subsequent Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, and increasing pressure from the newly created Comics Code Authority, DC Comics debuted Batwoman in 1956. By giving Batman a heterosexual love interest, DC hoped to put the “is-he-or-isn’t-he?” debate to rest. Batwoman, the alter ego of the beautiful heiress Kathy Kane, became a crime fighter because she idolized Batman. She fought alongside Batman, Robin, and eventually Bat Girl, trying to save the day and win Batman’s heart. Though research indicates that Kathy Kane/Batwoman was popular with readers, she was phased out of Batman’s adventures in the late 1970s in favor of the reimagined Bat Girl, a role now fulfilled by Commissioner Jim Gordon’s daughter Barbara (Grandinetti). Batwoman languished, appearing only occasionally until 1985’s crossover event Crisis on Infinite Earths, in which she was literally erased from the DC universe.3

Batwoman resurfaced in 2006 as Kate Kane. In a full-black body suit with a long cape, red boots, and flowing red locks, Batwoman vamped her way into a DC universe bereft of its A-list heroes to fight the Religion of Crime. During the “Battle for the Cowl” following Batman’s death in 2009, Batwoman became the main character in Detective Comics in a storyline led by writer Greg Rucka and artist J. H. Williams III. Over 70 years after Batman’s debut, a character created to quell concerns about the sexuality of one of DC’s most popular characters was now a lesbian character taking over his flagship title. The Detective run was a huge gamble, but it paid off: Batwoman became very popular with fans and critics, and Detective Comics was nominated for and won several Eisner awards in 2010. The story even drew praise outside the comics world; GLAAD presented Rucka with a GLAAD Media Award for his work on the Batwoman run. Once Batman (inevitably) reappeared, Batwoman remained popular enough to receive her own title, which followed up her life directly after the events of Detective Comics run ended.4

Batwoman’s history is interesting because her existence and experience as a character, no matter how minor, connects her to every stage of the broad movements of the superhero genre. Her relationship to Batman and creation in response to the Comics Code Authority connect her to the Golden Age, though her post-Code creation means she is officially a Silver Age character. The Bronze Age, defined by attempts to address real-life issues and to reorganize the superheroic universe in order to appeal to an aging audience, ended when DC Comics published Crisis on Infinite Earths—where Batwoman met her fate.5 In true superhero fashion, Batwoman didn’t stay dead, and reappeared during the current “Modern Age” of superhero comics. Her reappearance coincided with a major crossover event, a marketing effort which, for better or worse, has come to define superhero narratives at the “Big Two” (that is, Marvel Comics and DC Comics) publishing companies since the turn of the century. The current Batwoman’s queerness challenges the role she played in earlier epochs while also updating her for a modern audience. In short, Elegy is a contemporary culmination of the history of superhero comics.

In many ways, Batwoman: Elegy is standard superhero fare. Like all the major licensed superheroes, her book and character are haunted by the specters of history, standing on over 70 years of stories in the DC Comics universe. Its production value corresponds with contemporary tastes: the collected trade is printed on glossy paper, with full-color illustrations collected from the monthly issues of Detective Comics. During the initial publication of the Elegy storyline in Detective Comics, DC still submitted their work for approval to the dreaded Comics Code Authority, and the issues of Detective Comics in which the story was originally printed had the Comics Code Authority seal printed on their covers6 (Figure 1).

Figure 1

The plot of Batwoman: Elegy juxtaposes her origin story with an exploration of the difficulty she faces balancing her superhero life with her civilian life and introduces readers to her own supervillain, Alice. In proper Gotham fashion, Alice is a dark mirror of Kate herself. Batwoman even cracks a joke at her nemesis’s unoriginality, claiming Gotham already has “one Carroll inspired freak”7 (Rucka).

At the same time, Batwoman: Elegy is anything but ordinary. Historically, Batwoman was among the first openly queer characters in mainstream comics to have her own book, and definitely the first queer character to headline a major title for one of the Big Two. Since her resurrection in 2006’s 52, Batwoman had been a relatively minor character in the DC Universe. Even if she was not a lesbian, a minor female character taking over one of the books of the single biggest superhero in the comic book world—another first in comic book history—is exceptional in itself. Flipping through the pages reveals another obvious difference. J. H. Williams III’s art jumps between standard square panels and explosions of color and line. The styles with which he draws the characters shift throughout the storyline, and often these styles blend into each other in a way that refuses the reader any chance to find stable footing in the stylistic representations of Batwoman’s world.

In Narrative Structure in Comics: Making Sense of Fragments, Barbara Postema insightfully argues that in the pages of a graphic narrative, “Style in effect ceases to be style, since it is no longer a superficial surface matter. Style becomes the substance of comics … style signifies in comics” (122). Batwoman: Elegy pushes this concept to the extreme, using distinct styles to signify the different aspect of Kate’s life. When Kate is Batwoman—the first style the reader encounters—the colors of the page are generally less saturated to reflect the nightlife of Gotham City (Figure 2).

Figure 2

The one, glaring exception to this depressed saturation is the bright white of Batwoman’s skin, the red of her hair and lips, and the details of her costume (the Bat symbol, her gloves, boots, belt, and interior of her cape). The ink wash shading of these pages, especially on Batwoman herself, creates a sense that the style of the book is more photorealistic than a traditional comic book. In fact, these pages which render Batwoman more “realistically” are the most stylized of all the different art styles, particularly in regards to page composition. Batwoman’s pages feature jagged, often nonlinear panels which act less as narrative beats and more like decorative pieces, frequently puzzled together to form the Batwoman symbol. Most of the panels transition between aspects, not actions, establishing a feeling and mood or capturing multiple viewpoints of a single moment, rather than acting as storyboard pieces that indicate progression in time (McCloud 72). While it is often rare to sacrifice narrative drive for mood in superhero comics, the use of such stylistic extravagance on Batwoman’s pages means that action scenes—the heart of superhero comics—are the most abstract and least accessible pages in the book.

The second style a reader encounters represents present-day Kate Kane’s civilian life. The style of these pages more closely resembles the traditional superhero comic style, wherein outlines of generally even weight depict caricatured but otherwise realistic looking human figures. The shading is accomplished with single colors and no transition between the light and dark (in animation this is often referred to as “cel style” shading). The colors are warmer; yellow and orange tones dominate. Panel transitions are driven by action and the passage of time, and the page composition consists of more regular, rectangular panels in grids. There is some compositional play, but overall the Kate Kane pages are far more accessible to the average comics fan than the hyper-stylized Batwoman pages.

Williams uses a third style to depict flashbacks to Kate’s past. The characters are rendered in an almost nostalgic style, outlined with thick brush strokes (Figure 3).

Figure 3

Here the colors strike a balance between the desaturated tones with bright red accents of Batwoman’s style and the warm yellows of present-day Kate’s. While there are many warm tones, they are less saturated than those of the present-day Kate pages, and the flashback pages also features many grays and blues as well. The bright exception is young Kate’s (as well as her twin sister, Beth’s) fiery hair and—in the climactic trauma of her childhood—the blood of her mother and sister. The panels of these pages are gridded even more regularly than Kate Kane’s pages, with virtually no exceptions to the rectangular shape. These panels, however, all lack a distinct panel outline. The color simply ends as it meets the white of the gutter.

These multiple art styles present an aspect of the construction of identity common in superhero comics that is generally limited to theoretical and academic context: performativity. A key aspect of performativity, especially of identity, is its invisibility to the performer. A human subject tends not to consciously think they are performing gender or subjectivity according to social norms. Instead, the performing subject believes they are acting in a way that reflects authentic and inherent aspects of their own unique personality and circumstance. In Bodies that Matter, Judith Butler argues performativity does not in itself reflect a completely conscious act on the part of the individual, but instead is necessitated by the expectations of the society in which the performing subject lives and the “regimes of discourse/power” which also create that subject (15). In addition to being an unconscious act, “Performativity must be understood not as a singular or deliberate ‘act’, but, rather, as the reiterative and citational practice by which discourse produces the effects that it names” (2). The interplay of Williams’s art styles illustrates this aspect of performativity perfectly.

Rucka and Williams achieve this sense of performativity by playing with the tension between visual realism and a narrative sense of authenticity. Despite the excessive styling of the panel composition, in pages featuring Batwoman, Williams renders the character with a more photorealistic style of shading. In the fantastic and overwrought world she inhabits—reflected by the baroque panel composition and the intensely different visual styles of the villains she fights—Batwoman appears the only “real” body on the page. In theory, Batwoman is a persona Kate Kane adopts. However, next to the renderings of Batwoman, Kate Kane in her daily life (Figure 4) looks positively cartoony. Batwoman’s art style argues that while her situation is fantastic and extraordinary, Kate Kane herself is most “real” when she is Batwoman.

Figure 4

At the same time, the Kate Kane pages make their own argument for an objective reality. Kate’s pages are clearly influenced by the ligne claire style made famous by Hergé’s Tintin comics, but adapted to be modern and more adult-oriented, like the work by artists Geoff Darrow and Seth Fisher. Lines of generally even weight, the absences of heavy blacks or hatching for shading, and flat colors define the ligne claire style. The result is, as McCloud describes it, “a kind of democracy of form in which no shape was any less important than any other—a completely objective world” (190). This sense of objectivity creates what Charles Hatfield calls an “ideological burden” (145) to tell the truth of the world an artist is trying to convey. Thus, when a reader encounters the image of Kate entering the Morning Glory restaurant the morning after a fight as Batwoman, and is able to perceive the details of the waiter’s apron and see the pats of butter on Anna’s eggs rendered with the same detail as Kate, he or she is compelled to feel that Kate belongs in this setting. Unlike the photorealistic rendering of Batwoman on the earlier pages, the democratic simplicity and legibility of the style of Kate’s pages seem to create a concretely imagined, fully established world. Interwoven with the Batwoman pages, however, the distinct lack of mimetic realism in the rendering of the pages becomes apparent and undermines the objectivity of this ligne claire style.

The final of the three main styles, that of Kate’s history, seems to undercut the notion of an objective, “true” identity in another way. While almost all supeheroic identities are necessarily split between the public and private selves, surely the identity of the character before their decision to become a superhero is more authentic than the later split personality. However, Williams undermines the authenticity of Kate’s past by using a deliberately nostalgic style for Kate’s memories. The colors are faded and the characters are rendered in chunky brush lines and shaded with heavy blacks. In these pages, Williams forgoes traditional panel borders and simply stops the panel as it reaches at the gutter, implying the indistinct, uncontained nature of memory. At the same time, the panels are regularly placed and use traditional narrative transitions, indicating a deliberate construction of indiscrete memories in order to make sense of a complex past. The style shifts closer to the second style, including more details and using finer line work—becoming clearer—as the narrative moves closer to the present. In short, the panels of Kate’s pre-Batwoman life look like memory feels, which is anything but objective.

The different styles Williams utilizes do not imply performativity on their own; they work because they work together. Kate’s decision to become Batwoman centers on childhood trauma: Kate was the only survivor of a terrorist plot to kidnap her mother, her twin sister, and her. While for Kate this experience is definitive, Williams’ art style reveals the indeterminate nature of Kate’s own memories. The resulting identity Kate constructs for herself is inherently split between Batwoman and Kate Kane. These styles are entirely extradiegetic: Kate herself does not notice the style changes; in her experience the world is a singular whole. Her childhood leads directly to her present, a present defined and built upon specific moments and experiences of her life. While Williams’s art styles simultaneously reveal that neither of these identities is more “authentic” than the other, both identities rely on the reader’s belief that these wildly different styles represent the objective reality of a single identity. Kate’s fractured identity only makes sense in light of Williams’s stylistic emphasis on the un-objective nature of the memories on which Kate has built her identity.

While the shifting art styles reveal one aspect of Kate’s performance of identity, Kate Kane performs her identity through her actions within the story in multiple, gendered ways that challenge stereotypes and assumptions about gender, especially as they relate to superheroes and the superhero genre. For example, while Batwoman’s glossy lipstick, thick curly hair, and heightened sense of style mark her as “femme,” in her civilian life, Kate Kane dons a much more punk/goth/butch persona. Kate even purposely wears a tuxedo to a charity ball in order to scandalize her image-obsessed stepmother. However, the “femme” Batwoman is, in fact, the aggressive superhero, even conjuring the image of a dominatrix, while visibly more “butch” Kate Kane is generally passive and plays the role of a spoiled socialite. Her sexuality as Batwoman and Kate Kane is therefore represented by intentional performances that simultaneously embody and challenge common assumptions about those performances. The different art styles reinforce the notion of these identities as performance, not separate aspects of some “true” character.

Any notion of identity as inherently performative is at some level a queer reading of the concept of identity itself. In Touching Feeling, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick argues, “the ‘queer’ potential of performativity is evidently related to the tenuousness of its ontological ground” (3). The larger scope of queer theory is not a question of proving whether or not texts, identities, and concepts are homosexual or heterosexual, but instead to break down the ontological certainty of concepts our modern society has naturalized—especially sex and the subject—by revealing the constructedness of those concepts. Because of the methodology’s connection to queer studies, queer theory is generally more concerned with the construction of sex, gender, sexuality, and identity. A queer notion of identity is therefore not limited to the sexual attractions of its subject, but one that destabilizes the notion of a singular, definable subject altogether.

In Batwoman: Elegy, Rucka’s and Williams’s ability to portray a queer notion of identity is aided by the fact that Kate Kane/Batwoman is, explicitly, a queer woman. Despite the lurid headlines attempting to simplify her queerness—calling her a “lipstick lesbian,” for instance—Kate’s own journey to understanding her identity as a queer woman is inextricable from her understanding of her mission to serve the public—a mission that results in her creating Batwoman. The performative aspects of her identity are made legible by their connection the narrative of a lesbian “being in the closet” and “coming out.” The narrative of “coming out” anticipates the performativity of identity in its own way; Sedgwick goes so far as to categorize “the closet” as more than a representation of performance, but a representation of Western epistemology itself.

In Kate’s case, that Western epistemology is explicitly connected to American politics. An important aspect of Kate’s backstory involves her involvement in the US military. As a result of her traumatic childhood, Kate decides to “serve” the public in order to protect others from experiencing tragedy like hers. Because both her mother and father were members of the Armed Forces, Kate decides to join the United States Army. She is a celebrated West Point cadet until she is asked by her superiors to respond to claims that she has violated the clause against homosexuality. Because honesty and integrity are part of the military code to which she has dedicated her life, Kate refuses to lie and resigns, officially coming out to her superiors and, as a result, her father. When this storyline was written, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” was still in effect, and Rucka consulted with and credited First Lieutenant Daniel Choi, a West Point graduate and Iraq War veteran who was discharged after coming out on national television. Kate’s backstory is thus an open and explicit challenge to the legally enforced closet forced on thousands of American servicemen and women.

The loss of her ability to serve through military service directly results in her decision to become Batwoman. What is ironic in Kate Kane’s transition from cadet to superhero is that through her decision to serve Gotham, Kate must effectively return to the closet. While she no longer has to lie or cover up her homosexuality, she must now lie to her friends and family about where she’s been and cover up the bruises and injuries from her secret escapades. The first image we see of Kate Kane as herself—and not Batwoman—involve her girlfriend breaking up with her because she thinks Kate has been partying with other women. Kate, of course, can’t say that she was actually fighting crime in a black dominatrix outfit. She’s left the closet in West Point to walk back into the closet of her own Bat Lair.

Imitating the classic superhero origin story with an explicitly queer character reveals the ease with which the superheroic identity, especially the problem of the secret identity, can be mapped onto not just queer identity, but a queer understanding of identity as a concept itself. Superheroes are subject to an epistemology of the phone booth wherein any superheroic identity is necessarily broken into several identities, each determined by the secrets they must keep. (In Kate’s case, the “Bat Lair” is more accurate than the “phone booth,” but any space that symbolizes the juxtaposition of identities within a single body will do.) Those secrets are in turn determined by the way that bodies act and present themselves for different audiences; all major characters are always performing at multiple levels. Their identity is never stable and only found in the performance of certain conceptions of gender and sexuality. I will stress that I understand superheroes are fictional creations, while the subjects of Sedgwick’s discussion are real people truly oppressed by real and damaging systems of power, and I do not want to suggest that superheroes are oppressed figures or that their struggles in their fictional world are in any way truly comparable to the ongoing struggle for human rights in ours. However, because of the importance of the superhero in the imagination of American society and popular culture, the similarities between the identity formation of these figures and identities formed by “the closet” have interesting implications for American culture more broadly.

Sedgwick’s notion of epistemology is deeply connected to sexual identity and desire. The construction and representation of the superheroic identity is also deeply connected to sexuality; one of the most common criticisms of the genre is that it only exists to fulfill the lurid fantasies of white, straight, 18-35 year old males. The men are powerful and strong, nigh unto invulnerable, while the women—even the heroines—are pliant and vulnerable, displayed for the sexual pleasures of the slavering boys reading their books. Occasionally a dissenting voice will argue that male superheroic bodies are also sexualized and engender damaging body images for the boys reading them. Critics respond that while there might be a sexual aspect to the representation of superheroic men, it is not objectifying in the same way women’s bodies are: Men’s bodies are the creation of men’s power fantasies; women’s bodies are the creation of men’s sexual fantasies.8

This claim, while valid, too easily dismisses the sexual nature of extraordinarily fit men running around in skintight costumes. The male superheroic body displays an uncomfortable relationship with its own sexuality. Since the early days of the superhero, their underwear is on the outside, forefronting their sexuality. Super suits are skin tight, if they even exist (some heroes, like Namor, are naked without their underwear). The underwear, though, seems to hide nothing more than a Ken doll’s lack of anatomy. The sexualization of the male body in superhero comics is both obvious in its celebration of male physical prowess but undermined by its juxtaposition to more overtly sexualized female characters. The very idea that sexual prowess and physical authority can be separate implies a discomfort with the multiple meanings of the body. For example, Wonder Woman’s connection to sadomasochistic imagery is as inherent to the character as her connection to Gloria Steinem and feminism.9 The superhero fantasy is always about power, but it is also always about sex as well—for male and female superheroes.

The normalcy of the narrative of Elegy—the superhero origin story—is juxtaposed with its obvious visual difference. When biological women put on outfits and act “normally,” it is not the product of some true aspect of their nature but instead a response to a set of socially constructed gender roles. Drag thus “implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself—as well as its contingency” (Butler 187). By performing the gender expectations of women while being a man (or vice versa), a drag performer in turn exposes gender expression as part of a performance. Due in large part to Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, the lens of queer theory has transformed (or perhaps made over) drag performance from a sideshow pleasure to a subversive act that reveals the inherent performativity of gender. Drag is not just imitation. It is a peculiar kind of imitation that doesn’t try to “fool” the viewer into thinking the drag king or queen is a man or a woman. Drag performances are named as such; the audience is in on the fun. While any imitation reveals the illusion of origins, drag also laughs at its original notion—gender roles and representation—through its exaggeration. This exaggeration in addition to imitation is what truly allows drag to challenge the claim to “natural” gender and sexuality.10 The imitation is pushed to caricature, to its extremes.

In addition to its role equating the queer identity with the superhero identity, Elegy takes on a new aspect of performance when it comes to superheroes and sex. Batwoman appears to be a representative example of the sexy superheroine. Like Batgirl and Supergirl, Batwoman’s own name implies a subordinate position to and imitation of a male hero. She’s sexy in her tight-fitting catsuit, its Bat symbol drawing attention to her ample bosom. Her nearly knee high red boots and long red locks seal the va-va-voom deal. But the presentation of her sexuality and her body as sexual is pushed beyond the limits of the usual superhero book. The tension between the expected reality and the unexpected, exaggerated performance calls to mind the theoretical trope of drag. It is impossible to ignore, or to pretend Batwoman’s overt sexuality is subtext. Her opening line to the whole book is, “You know what I want … I want your secrets” (Rucka). Paired with her cherry-red lips and a high-kick to the reader’s face, Batwoman immediately pushes her sexuality to the forefront of the book in a way that does not allow the reader to ignore it. Batwoman drags us in.

She also makes clear that her superheroic sexuality, like all other aspects of her identity, is a performance. In an early meeting with Batman, he tells her that long hair is dangerous because someone could grab at it. She says nothing to him, only to take her wig off on the next page. But what kind of performance is it? We know from her own history that Batwoman is lesbian; therefore this sexuality is already queer at some level. But there is more to her performance that unsettles the notion of the superheroine as a passive sexual fantasy. Her costume is not so far from a dominatrix, nor is her combination of sexuality and violence/power. It also echoes the vampire—that monster made of violence and sexuality run amok. In Figure 5, for example, our heroine not only rises above the panels of her fight, she penetrates in and out of the panels, bending not only the action of the scene but the representation of time itself to her will. And yet this page composition reveals something interesting: the very power of her legs—that which gives her the physical advantage over her opponents, which gives her the penetrative power over time and space on the page—comes to a point between her legs. And rather than focus on something like her buttocks or thighs—Williams gets us right to the point. We are literally confronted with her sex as power.

Figure 5

This is not the only page that draws the connection. In her first battle with her archnemsis Alice, Rucka creates a scene in which Batwoman becomes the anti-prince to Alice’s damsel in distress (Figure 6). Batwoman kidnaps Alice away from her minions, carrying her into a tall tower. As they grapple, it is difficult to tell whether they are fighting or engaging in foreplay. Several panels feature Batwoman leaning menacingly over a prone Alice, trying to overpower and disarm her. Batwoman attempts to remove Alice’s guns from her shoulder holsters in a way that explicitly mimics Batwoman palming Alice’s breasts. In the next panel, she removes a knife (more than a little phallic) from Alice’s elaborate garters. Two panels later, in a panel that juxtaposes the gun stealing/breast-palming image on the previous page when the book is open, Batwoman leans in to threaten Alice, but it looks like she is about to kiss her instead.

Figure 6

One disturbing implication of the fight with Alice in particular only appears retroactively. Alice, Batwoman’s arch nemesis, is in fact Kate’s twin sister, Beth, who Kate believed was killed by kidnappers when they were eight years old. Neither Batwoman nor the reader knows of Alice’s identity at this point in the narrative. Kate’s flashbacks to her childhood reveal not only Kate’s and Beth’s close relationship, but the extent to which they view themselves as a single entity. The opening memory consists of Kate’s mother scolding them for pretending to be each other in school and doing each other’s homework. In another memory, the girls have just discovered their father has been promoted. This conversation marks the end of their idyllic childhood and paves the way for the traumatic kidnapping in Brussels which leads to the deaths of Kate’s mother and (she assumes) sister. As the page fades, Kate tells Beth, “I don’t want to leave.” Beth responds, “We’ve got each other, Kate. We’ll still be together.” In the final image of the girls, a dialogue balloon floats between them with the words, “We’ll always be together” (Rucka). Unlike the earlier parts of the conversation, this balloon has no tail to show who speaks this line. It could easily be either sister. Even as a child, Kate’s identity was created through discourse with other aspects of her identity—in this case, her twin. As an adult, Kate must balance multiple identities in one body, but as a child, she tried to combine a single identity across two separate bodies. The battle between an adult Kate and Beth embodying different identities is in tension with their childhood desire for unity with each other.

The battle between Kate/Batwoman and Beth/Alice on these pages further emphasizes the nature of sexuality and power in Batwoman’s identity performance, but also highlights the tension of opposing identities struggling for power within a unified subject. Alice is portrayed as the polar opposite to Batwoman. While Batwoman’s costume is sleek and menacing, flowing black and red, Alice’s costume is elaborate and frilly and white. Where Batwoman is covered, Alice’s costume is revealing—made of a short tutu and a bodice that reveals her cleavage. Batwoman fights with specifically nonlethal gear; Alice is armed with guns, knives, and hidden razor blades. Even their speech is marked as opposite—while we cannot hear a visual representation, Alice’s dialogue is written in white text on black word balloons, while Batwoman’s speech uses the traditional black on white. If the different styles did not already reveal a tension within the performances of Batwoman’s identity, her opening battle with Alice literalizes the tension, elevating it to an actual physical battle. Her sexuality—embodied by its literal queerness—is thus revealed to be one of the axes on which the struggle of an identity compromised of multiple, often-conflicting performances occurs. This sexuality is subject to the appropriation of heterosexual desires, but also undermines those normative desires in its celebration of the physical power and prowess of queer feminine sexuality. In yet another way, Batwoman: Elegy portrays a queer notion of identity that highlights the performative aspects of gender and sexuality.

One uncomfortable aspect of the fight between Kate and Alice (in Figure 6) is the possibility of reading the scene as a representation of rape. Batwoman is a menacing figure using her physical prowess—portrayed in a highly sexualized manner—to overpower a prone and weeping woman. Batwoman appears around the corner, towering over Alice, who is costumed like a virginal bride (down to the frilly garter). Batwoman’s excessive sexuality is therefore connected to images of violent male sexuality. Is Batwoman subverting male sexual fantasies or simply reinscribing them onto a lesbian subject fetishized for heterosexual male viewers? There are many ways Batwoman’s sexuality is appealing to heterosexist fetishization of lesbianism.

At the same time, this page reveals the sexual nature of any physical encounter between superhero and villain. Take, for example, one of Batman’s most famous battles—Joker and Batman in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (Figure 7).

Figure 7

If we read Alice and Kate’s fight as a form of sexual violence, this battle must also be read in the same way. Batman towers over a figure in white—this time the Joker instead of Alice. Without the final image, the first two rows of panels could easily be the shots of a Hollywood sex scene. The closeups of their faces show Batman, grunting with physical exertion, atop a screaming Joker. If he wasn’t the Joker, always laughing maniacally, his laughter could even be described as orgasmic. Even formally, the page resembles an orgasm: it builds a frantic pace with tiny panels, regularly spaced, until the tension of the Joker’s death releases into an open panel exploding outside any panel borders. In the final panel, the dead Joker’s hand has fallen over his crotch, pointing at the connection between a physical confrontation and a sexual one.

It is not that Batwoman’s connection between physical power and sexuality is not problematic. It is problematic, and even deeply troubling with its connection to incest and sexual abuse. However, what these pages accomplish is a drag performance of superhero comics that reveals, through its exaggeration, the connection between physical prowess and power and sexual power in even the most classic of superhero battles. Because of Batwoman’s explicit queerness and the hypersexualization of Williams’ art, many readers are more likely to see sexual imagery in Elegy than they would in Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. In retrospect, however, if the fight in Batwoman is sexual in nature, many superhero battles must be equally sexual in nature.11 The subversive performativity of Elegy, therefore, sheds light on the disturbing connection between sex and violence in the superhero genre. Unfortunately, it must participate in this disturbing trend to do so.

The representation of queer sexuality and identity in Batwoman: Elegy is unique, interesting, and powerful in its own right. However, the text’s metatextual relationship with its genre also creates exciting implications for the superhero genre. Like a drag performance, Batwoman: Elegy‘s imitation with a difference allows its readers to confront the construction of the superhero genre from a new vantage point. Beginning with the origin story of a superhero, Batwoman: Elegy presents a notion of identity that is explicitly queer, but through its imitation reveals an implicit queerness in the construction of identity in superhero comics. This illuminates a queer construction of identity for those not so readily versed in queer theory as well as providing new modes for reading the superhero—one of the most enduring creations of American popular culture. As corporate, popular characters subject to licensing agreements and headlining blockbuster films, superheroes are, at first glance, anything but subversive. The representation of women in superhero comics is deeply problematic. Even within comics studies, many scholars feel superheroes are often entertaining, corporate hackery at best. At worst they are misogynist, violent manifestos meant to indoctrinate children. Therefore, finding alternative and resistant readings within the superhero genre allows readers not only to come to newer, more complex understandings of identity, but also to use the products of hegemonic, heterosexist regimes of power against them. Batwoman: Elegy is, therefore, not only an exciting text in its own right, but also exciting in the potential it provides comics studies, the study of the superhero, gender studies, and cultural studies.


[1] Certainly acceptance of queer characters and the portrayal in other media and genres paved the way for the acceptance of Batwoman: Elegy. On TV, Xena: Warrior Princess—which aired from 1995-1999—frequently flirted with lesbian attraction between its two principle characters, Xena and Gabrielle. Tara and Willow became a couple on the popular TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 1999. In the comics world, Fun Home—Alison Bechdel’s memoir of growing up with a closeted father and coming to terms with her own sexuality—garnered seriously critical and popular acclaim upon its release in 2006. However, the superhero genre, especially those titles published by DC and Marvel Comics, tends to be quite conservative. Though queer superheroes existed in both universes, Batwoman taking over Batman’s position in his flagship title (Detective Comics)—especially when Dick Grayson/Nightwing was not only present but acting as Batman—can only be considered a seismic shift for the visibility of LGBT+ characters in superhero comics.

[2] For a more detailed discussion of the history of the reception of Batman and Robin’s relationship, see Frederic Wertham (Seduction of the Innocent), Will Brooker (Batman Unmasked), Travis Langely (Batman and Philosophy), and “Open Secrets in Cold War America” in Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality. For more information on Wertham, the Comics Code Authority, and the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, see Bart Beaty’s Frederic Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture, David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague, and Amy Kriste Nyberg’s “Comics Code History: The Seal of Approval.”

[3] After 50 years of continuity, the DC universe of superheroes had become quite convoluted.

Popular characters had multiple origin stories, gained and lost powers, and had multiple identities and incarnations. In order to make the universe more accessible, DC launched the first major crossover event, Crisis on Infinite Earths. The “Crisis” posited that the stories of the DC universe actually happened in a multiverse. Through a rather convoluted series of events, the multiverse collapses into one universe while retaining some elements from each of the universes, creating a single, far more legible universe (at least until Infinite Crisis or The New 52).

[4] Batwoman was also popular enough to survive the “New 52” purge, when DC “rebooted” its universe and “started over” all its titles.

[5] The Bronze Age is perhaps the most difficult to define of the class “Ages,” and its beginning and end are hotly contested among fans. Regardless of the exact date, most scholars and critics agree that the genre of superhero comics experienced a paradigm shift in the mid-1980s.

[6] While Marvel Comics officially severed ties with the Comics Code Authority (CCA) in 2001, DC Comics and Archie Comics continued to submit its materials to the CCA until January of 2011. A day after DC cut ties, Archie Comics code followed suit and the CCA essentially died (Nyberg).

[7] The “Carroll inspired freak” Kate refers to is The Mad Hatter, who joined Batman’s rogue’s gallery in 1948.

[8] The differences in the representation of men’s and women’s bodies in superhero comics is brilliantly parodied by the website “The Hawkeye Initiative,” whose aim is, according to Tumblr user and artist gingerhaze, to “fix every Strong Female Character pose in superhero comics” by “[replacing] the character with Hawkeye doing the same thing.”

[9] For more information on Wonder Woman and subversive sexuality, see “Wonder Woman: Bondage and Liberation” in Ben Saunders’s Do the Gods Wear Capes? and Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman.

[10] For more on drag performance, see Judith Butler’s “Imitation and Gender Subordination” and Carol-Ann Tyler’s “Boys Will Be Girls: The Politics of Gay Drag.”

[11] The fight between Batman and Joker in The Dark Knight Returns is only one example of many possible examples of the more disturbing connection in superhero comics between violence and sexuality. It’s a recurrent theme in Frank Miller’s work: the climactic moment of Bullseye and Elektra’s iconic battle in Daredevil #181 (1982) ends with Bullseye literally penetrating Elektra with her own weapon. In Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1986), the Comedian’s rape and beating of Sally Jupiter are pictured as one and the same action. In DC’s infamous series Identity Crisis, the second issue (2004) features Ralph Dibny (the Elongated Man) describing his wife Sue’s rape in terms of a fight. The action is part of a battle both between Dr. Light and the Legion of Superfriends and between Sue and Dr. Light: “He couldn’t beat us … So he decided to beat her. She told me she fought. I hope she fought.” Most recently, Robert Kirkman and Ryan Ottley’s Invincible became a center of controversy when, in issue 110 (2014), their main character Mark Grayson battles the female Viltrumite Anissa. After Mark becomes physically aroused during the fight (but explicitly not interested in having sex), Anissa beats him to the ground and rapes him.

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