J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman announced late last night that, after having given the matter much thought, they have decided that they can no longer work under their current state of editorial interference, and will be walking off DC’s Batwoman title as of issue #26. Batwoman, a perrennial GLAAD award nominee, is also the first superhero title at Marvel or DC to feature a lesbian character in the lead. Williams and Blackman have said they were upset at long outlined and communicated plot events being overturned by editorial at the last minute, but the one that bothered them most was DC prohibiting them from ever allowing series lead Kate Kane to marry her fiancée Maggie Sawyer.
Williams has been with Batwoman as an artist (and since the New 52, writer and co-writer) since her soft reboot in 2009, when a character was needed to headline Detective Comics while Batman was dead/lost in time under Grant Morrison‘s Batman R.I.P./Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne. It was this series, written by Greg Rucka, that truly established the current character of Kate Kane (though she was reintroduced to the DC universe in 2006), giving her a backstory rooted in current events like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and a moment of superheroic inspiration that established explicitly and thematically that she is Batman’s equal. Rucka, unsurprisingly, called the news “disappointing.”
Blackman said in his post, “we are committed to bringing our run to a satisfying conclusion and we think that Issue 26 will leave a lasting impression.” After that issue, none of the original creative team will remain on the book, and for fans, the future of this version of character is wholly up in the air. It seems most shocking to me that DC would allow someone like Williams, an artist considered one of the most inventive, if not simply one of the best, in the industry right now, to become so frustrated with editorial that he would walk off a project that he’s clearly so invested in. Then again, editorial over-meddling has been a very common theme in creator walk-offs since the New 52, from Rob Liefeld‘s departure to Gail Simone‘s firing (she was later rehired). And if I may indulge in some dark humor for a moment, there’s at least one ray of hope in that DC might be just dysfunctional enough to, as in the case of Gail Simone, be able to fix this after the controversy blows up. UPDATE: So far, the publisher’s only official comment on the walk out, from a DC spokesperson, is as follows:
As acknowledged by the creators involved, the editorial differences with the writers of BATWOMAN had nothing to do with the sexual orientation of the character.
Indeed, let us turn to the matter of DC’s prohibition on Kate and Maggie tying the knot and how it is and isn’t emblematic of DC’s hamhandedness when it comes to its minority characters. DC was uncharacteristically mum on the PR front when Kate proposed to Maggie, a puzzling move that I, at the time, chalked up to the company wanting to stay in spoiler averse J.H. Williams III’s (currently the artist on a highly anticipated Sandman “sequel” comic penned by Sandman creator Neil Gaiman) good graces. After all, they’d gone gang busters to let everyone know that they were introducing a gay Green Lantern in an alternate universe (his long-time boyfriend was killed in the second issue in which he appeared), and they’d just had a controversy that spread into a small retailer boycott over the participation of anti-marriage equality activist Orson Scott Card in a Superman anthology. Why wouldn’t they want to get the word out that their highest profile gay character in the main DC universe was engaged in a happy, supportive, committed (and, if Gotham City is indeed in New York State, fully legal) marriage?
Well, it makes sense if DC is staunchly against marriage of any kind in the New 52, which is not unlikely at all. It did not go unnoticed that among the many casualties of the almost exactly two year old reboot were many, many of the DC Universe’s high profile married couples. Superman and Lois Lane were broken up, as were Barry Allen (The Flash) and Iris West. A number of otherwise established couples have also simply not been reintroduced to the main DC Universe, like Big Barda and Mr. Miracle (recently reintroduced in a parallel universe, too early to say if they’re still married), Ralph (Elongated Man) and Sue Dibney, and Wally West (The Flash) and Linda Park West, Jay Garrick (The Flash) and Joan Williams, and Adam Strange and Alanna Strange.
However, an action doesn’t have to be intentionally insensitive to be insensitive, and I would argue that’s what has happened here. Gay characters in most other mediums, have long, long operated under widespread stereotypical themes that denied them long lasting presences in stories, much less long lasting relationships. There’s a trope named after it, Kill Your Gays, and it’s a deadly drinking game to start listing gay characters who never dated or who couldn’t be with a willing partner because they lived in a place in which that would not have been acceptable, who died prematurely due to events that were coded “gay” (i.e., AIDS or violent hate crimes), or whose partners died in the sorts of deaths that are still very closely associated with gay characters. Now, we all know that inside of comics, almost nobody gets a stable relationship, but given the context of the kinds of stories that are told about gay characters, and that have been told about gay characters for years, it is insensitive to simply view “postponing, denying or destroying a marriage between gay characters” to have precisely the same narrative weight as “postponing, denying or destroying a marriage between straight characters.” And that’s without even considering the real life struggle of real people to have their right to marry recognized by the society around them.
A college classics professor one told me something that’s stuck with me for a very long time as a lover of superheroes: the point of heroes, narratively, is to break boundaries, so that we normal people will know where the boundaries are. He was talking primarily about tragic heroes like Achilles, but this applies as well to comedic heroes (in the old sense of comedic, i.e., heroes who get to win) in a slightly different way. Superheroes break boundaries so that we know what boundaries are possible to break. For many years now, merely getting equal legal recognition for their relationships has been a boundary that the gay community has been fighting to break. Now imagine that I am saying this very slowly: If you are a person who has ever had your life touched by a fictional hero, you should be able to understand how very important it is to allow gay heroes to break that boundary.
I try not to get personal in posts like this, but if there was one thing I could say to DC about this latest in a long list of editorial snafus, it would be this: I fully intend to, one day soon, have a Batwoman themed image marked indelibly on my skin. My first, and possibly only tattoo. You are in an industry that survives on people loving a certain character so much that they’ll stick with them regardless of creator changes, reboots, and retcons. I will be taking Batwoman off my pull list after issue #26. I might pick up the trade of the next story arc, if I hear it’s good. I’m not going to stick around or put down money up front to see her potential as a hero for actual people who do not have very many examples like her hampered by editorial meddling. And that’s not because I don’t love her enough. It’s because I love her too much to watch that happen to her.