Last time I reviewed this comic, I quickly dismissed the Question back-up feature as “not worth your time.” Well, that may have been true a few issues ago — if a bit harsh — but it’s certainly not true anymore. The Question story has kicked itself up a notch, but what makes it really resonate this month is the way it unfolds in contrast with the Batwoman feature.
Because Renee Montoya appears in both stories this time, and even though her vivacious arrival in the saga of Kate Kane takes place in the past, the way she used to act during the old days informs the somber, dutiful approach she takes in the back up tale. There’s no direct link between the plot of the two features, but Greg Rucka is hard at work layering in the different levels of her attitude. If his Montoya-as-Question has seemed a bit stripped of life — and she has, ever since “52” — then this issue reminds us how much she’s changed as a character. And the implicit meaning is powerful: the burden of her new identity has taken a toll on her, she has a legacy to live up to.
Still, the Question back-up isn’t the reason to buy this comic, it’s just a nice added bonus. It helps make “Detective Comics” #859, pound for pound, the best superhero comic of the season. But it’s the lead feature that shines. It’s J. H. Williams III that performs the magic.
The lead feature continues the part-flashback, part-present-day structure of the previous issue, as we learn more about Kate Kane’s younger days. This time it begins at West Point, when Cadet Katherine “Candy” Kane faces a moral dilemma that forces her out of the academy. Actually, it’s not much of a dilemma for her — the choice is clear: honesty. And revealing her homosexuality means that she can no longer follow in the footsteps of her father.
But we also get bits of Kate’s later life, interspersed with a fantasmagoric sequence in which Batwoman assaults some underground monstrosities — sometimes her allies, sometimes her enemies, these creatures have always known about the other Kane sister, and Batwoman lashes out at them for their secret knowledge.
The contrast between the Mazzuchelli-esque flashbacks and the luxuriously painted superhero action show Williams always-impressive range, but they also push the boundaries of superhero art. There’s the old saw about art-in-service-of-the-story, and then there’s J. H. Williams, a level above everyone else, showing that the art is the story.
And when Batman pops in to Kate Kane’s civilian life in the flashback, he’s part of that future, superhero, painterly world, and when his leather-gloved hand reaches to grab her simply-rendered, delicate fingers, it’s two artistic worlds colliding. Two realities meeting. And it’s profound.
As good as the Rucka and Williams’s opening arc on “Detective Comics” was, this arc is even better. This is the kind of comic that we’re going to remember for a long, long time.