This stuff is Cardinal Sin territory when it comes to comics. If your comic isn't readable, that's a HUGE structural problem. And yet, here, it's actually working quite well.
Let's delve into why, and why I think it's important.
Check out this page:
But it's also kind of a mess to read.
Here's the page again, with the two possible paths of reading drawn in:
See the problem here? It's difficult to know just how we're supposed to follow the narrative. And, what's more, this is only one of multiple such complex page structures within the series.
The thing is, though, the odd, ambiguous order is somewhat odd to get used to, but it's not that distracting once you realize that the order doesn't really matter that much.
Look at that triangular panel. Does it really make sense to say it comes before or after the other three panels joined together in this shape? Nooot really. Well, it does... if you're reading a comic like a film, where one panel follows another chronologically. And that's totally understandable! Most comics are written that way; it's something we're primed to expect.
But what we're seeing here is more like a split frame in a film--we've got two views of the same moment. It's even more dynamic than that, in fact, because we don't have the film making a deliberate cut to tell us when the split screen starts or ends--we decide for ourselves when that smile occurs, how long it lasts, and so on.
It's very similar to Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly's ground breaking comic We3. Check out this rather gory two page spread:
|Apologies for the crap scan quality. Oh, and the hyper violence.|
The clusters in this sequence don't actually flow in a coherent order. They're small snap-shots jumbled together. It gives the piece a frenetic, panicked energy that's far different from the samurai-movie aesthetic of Elegy, but it's still upsetting our sense of the relationship between panel and chronology the same way. Both of them have a definite action-flick flair to them--it's just that We3 is more like, say, FLCL, and Batwoman: Elegy is more like, say, Samurai Champloo.
This gives Elegy a stylized drama that's just plain breathtaking. It's a gorgeous noire epic (fitting, considering some of its Art Deco stylings) that emphasizes the fact that these characters are larger than life. They are not constrained by the panels the way normal characters are. They belong to a world that is almost classically heroic--it is a theatrical performance, and the set draws attention to itself. GOD is it exciting!
What happens when these characters return to life?
|Note also the cleaner lines and simpler colors...|
What a perfect blend of theme and aesthetic. It's not even the main theme of the comic, for goodness sake! But the world of the Hero and the world of the Civilian are delineated by the pages themselves, divided and cloistered from one another. And those moments when one word intrudes into another... well, those are the moments of the greatest dramatic tension, where the stakes become as personal as possible.
If it wasn't obvious, all of this stuff gets me disturbingly excited. Actually, the explanation for why I go so crazy for this stuff is the subject of one of my early articles, entitled Some! Things! Comics! Do! Well!. It's not one of my better articles (it's, in fact, one of the very first, when I was still kind of floudering around, trying to find a voice that worked for me) but I still agree with the central thesis:
Comics are an AMAZING medium for the expression of fantastic, larger than life experiences. And Batwoman: Elegy just so happens to be a perfect manifestation of that idea. It's loud, it's ornate, it pushes the limits of the plausible in countless ways, and uses the structure of the page itself to heighten the drama on a deep, visceral level. That building and breaking of tension that I talked about in the other article? This work has it in spades. The sharp transitions between worlds that I discussed in reference to a Dresden Codak strip? Yup, that's here, too. Sure, the script is shaky in some places, and there are some elements that could probably be smoothed out a bit, scenes removed, incidentally characters that really don't need to be there... but I'm really far less interested in that question than the promise and potential that this work represents. It shows what comics can really do.
And... are you ready for the first stinger of this article?
This comic does all that with a protagonist that ISN'T a straight male.
This is staggeringly important to keep in mind. It would be easy to look at my call for greater drama, overblown theatrics, and so on, and consider that an excuse to return to the classical Hero: the straight, white male. What's more, it could even be seen as a call to ignore unique, character-driven human drama in favor of rote cliches that exist only to support the style.
Let me be clear: Batwoman: Elegy works ONLY because its style is grounded with a very resonant set of complex characters. It ONLY works because it includes a series of resonant and meaningful relationships for the protagonist--relationships that are, yes, lesbian relationships, but are treated as normal and real relationships rather than male sex fantasies. It ONLY works because the author cares enough to include a brief but absolutely scathing critique of the cruel, boneheaded illogic of the thankfully deceased Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy.
It only works because we give a damn about these characters.
And what's more, it works despite the fact that the protagonist isn't your typical fantasy fare.
Which leads me to the last stinger:
Why are Marvel and DC so damn scared of women, queers, people of color, &c.?
I mean, it doesn't kill a narrative if you have some diversity! This story works despite the fact that the character isn't a bloated power fantasy version of your average basement-dwelling neck beard. In fact, it enhances it, because it makes Batwoman into a dimensional, complex character.
But the big two are still staggeringly resistant to diversity in their comics.
And what's more, I realized a rather depressing fact once I finished this collected volume:
I have no real desire to seek out more of the story.
Even a brief, cursory glance at the wikipedia page for Batwoman reveals that her story sprawls across multiple special crossover events, a number of different books, and multiple writers and artists.
I would like to read more.
I really would.
But I can't figure out what fucking comic to buy next!
This, ladies and gentlemen, is a catastrophic system failure. If I, a reader totally inspired and energized by this comic, who is interested in the character, interested in the medium in general, and interested in seeing where the plot is going, can't be bothered to read further because it's too damn confusing, the system is FUNDAMENTALLY BROKEN. And it's broken in a way that no reboot can fix. (In fact, the reboot is part of the problem--what's the point of following the story further if DC might decide to just "New #1!!!" the plot at the drop of a line graph?)
And before you lay out the whole list of what I should be purchasing for me in the comments, stop and consider: should it really be this difficult, so difficult that you have to SELL DC's COMICS FOR THEM? You are essentially doing unpaid promotional work to someone so disgusted with the byzantine, backwards Big Two that he probably won't bother going to the trouble of seeking out all the single issues, anyway.
It's a hideously Sisyphean task.
And it shouldn't be this way. I shouldn't leave this work with a bad taste in my mouth because I know what a rarity it is. I shouldn't leave it irritated because I'll have to go through a bizarre process of acquisition just to read the story's continuation.
This work is a perfect example of everything that comics can be, restrained by the shackles of what they are.
But let's not leave on that note. This really is a wonderful book that I urge all of you to pick up at a library, at least. Check it out, read through it again and again, and see all the wonderful, baroque complexity of its construction. It's a big, flashy, well-wrought confusion.
And I wouldn't have it any other way.
You can follow me on Google+ at gplus.to/SamKeeper or on Twitter @SamFateKeeper. As always, you can e-mail me at KeeperofManyNames@gmail.com. If you liked this piece please share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave some thoughts in the comments below.