Batwoman: Free of Guilt, Driven by Faith

Kate Kane, the Batwoman, is a remarkable character.  Even after a lifetime of being bored by Batman, I found her so compelling James Tynion IV’s Detective Comics – with Batwoman leading Batman’s team in Gotham – became a permanent part of my pull list.  Her solo Rebirth Batwoman title, penned by Marguerite Bennette and Tynion IV, soon followed.  Last Christmas I was excited to find trade collections of her earlier New 52 adventures had made their way under the tree.  What draws me to Batwoman is, while she wears the bat symbol, she transcends the most serious faults we see in the Batman.  In so doing, she’s not just a character I connect with and love reading about.  She’s also one who instructs and inspires transformation in her readers, as only the most important characters do.

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One symbol, two VERY different heroes. / Photo Credit – DC Comics

Part of what’s always annoyed me about Batman is he’s SUCH a static character.  Bruce Wayne sees his parents gunned down in front of him when he’s a child.  Obviously, this would be a deeply traumatic experience for anyone and it naturally left a serious emotional scar.  In the wake of his trauma, he learns how to be super sweet at punching people…and then grows-up to punch loads of people.  And okay, fair, that’s pretty much the definition of every superhero ever (save much needed exceptions to the rule like the ever-brilliant Doreen Green, the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl or Nadia Pym, the Unstoppable Wasp).  But Bruce Wayne – with all the money and resources in the world at his disposal – never does anything to address his trauma.  He never tries to grow or heal in any way.

This is such a hallmark of his character you can easily find hundreds of articles – and several books – discussing and diagnosing Batman as being every bit as mentally unhealthy as the villains he fights.

That’s always bothered me.  I don’t want perfect heroes.  We need broken, flawed characters because we’re all broken in our own ways, too.  Flaws help us relate to characters and, hopefully, they help these characters show us how to be better.  I want my heroes to show me how to overcome our shared brokenness.  I want hope and inspiration.  In the epigraph to Coraline, Neil Gaiman paraphrases G.K. Chesterton[1] saying, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”[2]  Or, as Joseph Campbell puts it when discussing the purpose of myths and heroes with Bill Moyers, “[myths show us] at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation.  The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come.  At the darkest moment comes the light.”[3]  I’ve never felt Batman does this.  In fact, I feel Batman actively avoids doing this.  The very nature of his character seems to say, “If you’re hurt, you will always hurt.  Easing the pain is for the weak.  Hold on to your pain, let it shape and fuel you.  There is no way to manage or overcome trauma, there is only vengeance forged in the fires of pain.”  To which I say, no thank you.

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You’re just a wee bit high strung here, Batman.  And let’s work on our listening and communicating skills too, shall we? / Photo Credit – DC Comics

Yes, Batman does let his trauma fuel his quest and he becomes an incredible hero in his own way (for a dour, emotionally closed-off kinda guy who has trouble communicating (a heavily exhaled “Hhhhh” or “Hhhhhhrm” isn’t communicating Batman)).  We can’t take that away from him.  But he never even begins to overcome his trauma.  Instead he welcomes it.  He nurtures it.  As a result, it shapes everything about his life and his relationships with others.  That’s not healthy nor is it inspirational.  Having spent over a year in therapy I can absolutely say living with an undiagnosed and unmanaged anxiety disorder, overdeveloped helper nature, some buried personal trauma, and being unable to articulate my needs or ask for help from others in a healthy way was significantly worse than being aware of, understanding, and working on all those things.  In other words, to paraphrase Neil Gamain’s paraphrasing of G.K. Chesterton, I don’t want my heroes to teach me to let those dragons forever consume me.  I want my heroes to teach me how those dragons can be beaten.

Batwoman shines here.  Greg Rucka (as writer) and J.H. Williams III (as artist) created Kate Kane as a fully formed character in the pages of Detective Comics.  Then J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman wrote the first twenty-four issues of her solo New 52 title, turning Batwoman from a buzzy new character into one of the most significant, developed, and relatable characters of the modern comic era.  Much of Williams and Haden’s first seventeen issues revolve around Batwoman battling creatures out of urban legends, presented in visuals far creepier than a fair amount of horror movies I’ve seen.  We see the Hook, the Weeping Woman or La Llorona, Bloody Mary, and Killer Croc stalking Gotham and kidnapping children on behalf of a mysterious organization called “Medusa.”

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Batwoman faces La Llorona, while visions of her sister Beth swim in the waters around her. / Photo Credit – DC Comics

Looking for the missing children, Batwoman comes face to face with La Llorona in issue #5.  As they battle, the Weeping Woman tries to break Batwoman by literally drowning her in her fears.  Tears pour from La Llorona’s eyes and, as the waves wash over Batwoman, they bring on images of her failure to save her sister Beth, long thought dead who returned as the psychotic crime boss Alice.  I rarely talk about the art in comics, feeling untrained to do so, but Williams’ work is magnificent.  I’ve never seen a comic look like this and the way he uses the space, blurring and bending the panels, is mesmerizing.  As a result, when these horrific images wash over and through Kate, the reader feels it, too.  But HERE is where we see the brilliant and oh-so-important difference between Kate Kane and Bruce Wayne.  Batwoman tells La Llorona, “What happened to Beth…is NOT my fault!  You have no power over me.  I didn’t choose for my sister to become that…maniac.  But I choose not to feel guilty about it anymore.  You chose to be a drunken, careless mother…and you chose to kill yourself.  Because you knew it was your fault.  Your kids died because of you.  Now look at this thing you’ve become.”

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La Llorona tries to get inside Batwoman’s head. / Photo Credit – DC Comics

LOOK AT ALL THAT’S GOING ON THERE!!!!  First, at the most basic level, Kate is refusing to be defined by guilt nor will she feel guilty for that which she has no responsibility for.  That in and of itself is HUGE.  This is something so, so important for all of us to learn.  But Williams and Blackman go further.  They acknowledge this act is Kate’s choice.  She has power over her guilt as well as what feelings she chooses to allow power over her…and we do too!  Then, moving towards the Weeping Woman herself, Kate points out how her guilt over her role in the death of her children (quick sidebar for backstory: if you’re unfamiliar, La Llorona is the legend of a woman who drowns her children and then, when she realizes what she’s done, kills herself as well…only to come back as a weeping spirit who kills other children, forever seeking to replace the ones she lost) has turned her into a monster.  Think about that for a second.  If we allow misplaced guilt to consume us or if we don’t address our own emotions and take responsibility for the things we have done, we’ll become a monster.  We get all this happening on one page.

This – THIS – is why Batwoman will always be more powerful as a character than Batman.  She can move on.  She’s not defined by her past or trapped by her trauma.  Bruce is.  La Llorona is.  As a result, they each become a kind of monster.  Kate Kane isn’t.  She’s freed herself.  She can move on and grow.  It’s not hard to read the symbolism here when, after this proclamation, Batwoman is able to defeat La Llorona.  And this – THIS – is why Batwoman will always be a more important character than Batman, too.  In doing this, she is instructing us as to our own potential and inspiring us to reach it by her example.  We can all learn so much from Batwoman…Batman can, too.  This isn’t an exception in the title either.  It’s the rule.

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Photo Credit – DC Comics

With Batwoman, her psychological awareness and courage are only one part of what makes her the hero – both practically within the DC Universe and mythically in our culture – she is.  Batwoman’s clearly defined religions identity is a foundational part of her character.  Kate Kane is Jewish and her faith shapes everything she does.

In Detective Comics #860, written by Rucka, we have a flashback issue where Kate is preparing to begin her “official” career as a costumed vigilante, with her father Jacob Kane – himself a military man who runs black ops for the government – serving as her mentor, aid, guide, and/or “man in the chair.”  When Kate returns home after years of training abroad, Jacob is eager to show her what he’s been working on.

Jacob – “We can go over the tech and ops details later.  But first…I think you should try on your uniform.”

Kate – “Pop…are those heels?”

Jacob – “They were the only boots I could find in red.  It’s a good color, doesn’t pop during night ops.”

Kate – “Red and black…Gevurah, the Pillar of Severity…the colors of war.”

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Photo Credit – DC Comics

For a bit of context, gevurah is an idea that comes from Kabbalah, the mystic branch of Judaism.  All enduring religions have mystics and a mystic branch within their traditions.  In Kabbalah, gevurah is seen as one of the emanations of the Divine, strength, as personified in the archangel Gabriel.  It is balanced by chesed, or loving-kindness, personified in the archangel Michael.[4]  Continuing this juxtaposition, gevurah is seen as the quality of restraint in life, balanced by chesed as generosity. Within this restraint we see gevurah as the way God judges humanity and punishes the wicked – hence the severity.  This is because gevurah “represents universal justice as well, it understands that everything impacts and has repercussions.”[5]  In her costume, Batwoman is to be a force of severity which serves this idea of God’s justice and balance in creation.

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Kate works on her costume in the present day.  Incidentally, the fact that Kate has short hair in real life and wears a long wig as Batwoman is BRILLIANT when it comes to managing a secret identity. / Photo Credit – DC Comics

It’s rare a superhero has a clearly defined religious identity.  It’s even rarer that this identity plays a prominent role in their superhero life.  But looking at Judaism’s concept of God, we quickly see how Kate’s faith influences more than just her costume’s colors.  In our modern world, where monotheism is the norm, it can be easy to lose sight of the tremendous significance of Judaism’s contributions to religious thought.  Yet it can’t be overstated how big a theological game-changer the God of Abraham was for the world – both in God’s oneness and God’s character.  In his definitive text The World’s Religions, religious scholar Huston Smith describes it in this way:

The God of the Jews possessed none of these traits, which in greater or lesser degree characterized the gods of their neighbors.  It is here that we come to the supreme achievement of Jewish thought – not in its monotheism as such, but in the character it ascribed to the God it intuited as one.  The Greeks, the Romans, the Syrians, and most of the other Mediterranean peoples would have said two things about their gods’ characters.  First, they tend to be amoral; second, toward humankind they are preponderantly indifferent.  The Jews reversed the thinking of their contemporaries on both these counts.  Whereas the gods of Olympus tirelessly pursued beautiful women, the God of Sinai watched over widows and orphans.  While Mesopotamia’s Anu and Canaan’s El were pursuing their aloof ways, Yahweh speaks the name of Abraham, lifting his people out of slavery, and (in Ezekiel’s vision) seeks out the lonely, heartsick Jewish exiles in Babylon.  God is a God of righteousness, whose loving-kindness is from everlasting to everlasting and whose tender mercies are in his works.[6]

God is a God of righteousness, of justice.  This is clearly seen in the Exodus, the primal narrative of the Jewish people.  Here God frees the Israelites from slavery in Egypt after hearing their cries.  Through these actions the Jewish people learn God is unimaginably powerful (God brings Pharaoh/Egypt to their knees), loving (God saves the Israelites simply because they cry out), and intensely concerned with human affairs (God opposes slavery and the empire that’s enslaved the Israelites because it’s wrong).  God has a vision for the world and God will work to bring it about.  But God is not alone in this task.  Turning again to Smith:

Given these three basic disclosures of the Exodus – God’s power, goodness, and concern for history – the Jews’ other insights into God’s nature followed readily.  From the goodness of that nature it followed that God would want people to be good as well; hence Mount Sinai, where the Ten Commandments were established as the Exodus’ immediate corollary.  The prophets’ demand for justice extended God’s requirements to the social sphere – institutional structures, too, are accountable.  Finally, suffering must carry significance because it was unthinkable that a God who had miraculously saved his people would ever abandon them completely.[7]

From God’s goodness, it follows that we are to be good as well.  As illustrated in Leviticus 19:1-2, “The LORD said to Moses: Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them: Be holy, for I, the LORD your God, am holy.”  We see variations of this repeated again and again through the law codes.  God is to be the metric by which we measure our behavior.  We are to be good.  We are to be just.  We are to be holy.  We are to do this because God is good, just, and holy.  And the structures of our society are to be good, just, and holy, too.  As Batwoman, Kate Kane is working to serve and embody this justice – protecting the widows, orphans, lonely, heartsick, and enslaved.  All those on the margins of society, all those who can be easily forgotten, have the Batwoman as their protector.

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Do you see what I mean about the layouts??  The art is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a comic. / Photo Credit – DC Comics

We see this point illustrated so directly in Williams and Blackman’s first arc as Batwoman is trying to rescue kidnapped children to reunite them with their grieving parents.  She is donning “the colors of war” in the name of protecting the most vulnerable of society, children taken from their parents.  Her faith shapes her costume and her faith fuels her actions.

As the months stretch on and there is no sign of the children nor any clear lead on where they might be, the people of Gotham grow restless.  The GCPD never stop looking but their faith in themselves, just as the people’s faith in them, begins to waiver.  But Batwoman’s faith never falters.  She promises the parents who’ve lost so much she will return their children to them.  And as she battles all manner of man and monster across Gotham and the globe, it’s apparent she believes in her own abilities to move the heavens and earth, if need be, to do so.  She will not be stopped.  She will not fail.  She has faith, in the face of all the cold leads and monstrous adversaries, she will find and free these children in the end.

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Photo Credit – DC Comics

This faith permeates her whole being.  Kate Kane has faith in God, in herself and her abilities, and in those she holds close.  In that faith, she’s unstoppable.  She literally won’t stop until she’s found the children because she has faith she will find them.  She refuses to give up hope because she has faith she’ll succeed.  As with her emotional awareness

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Photo Credit – DC Comics

and control over her feelings and her guilt, Kate Kane models for us the power of faith and what a life lived in faith – in God, herself, and others – looks like.  Nowhere is this faith more clearly illustrated than with Maggie.

Kate has faith in her girlfriend Maggie Sawyer, a detective with the Gotham City Police Department, a faith that is beautifully reciprocated.  In their mutual faith in one another we see a relationship radiating with love, support, respect for one another’s boundaries, intimacy, vulnerability, trust, communication, and active listening.  Kate and Maggie’s relationship, started by Rucka but fully developed by Williams and Blackman, stands as one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of what a healthy, loving relationship is, not just in comic books but in any medium – novels, short stories, movies, TV shows, and plays included.  Their relationship is so beautiful.  I feel them in my heart when I read and it makes me so happy.  In this way, too, Kate serves as an inspiration and a guide.  She models an ideal relationship in an age when pop culture prizes presentations of insta-love and superficial romance.  Here too, she’s teaching.  Kate instructs by showing us what a healthy, loving, supportive relationship actually looks like by her and Maggie’s example and she inspires us to reach for it ourselves by showing us how beautiful and nourishing it can be.

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This scene comes after Maggie gets a call from GCPD on a date night where they’d both promised no phones, no calls, and no texts.  I love them soooo much. / Photo Credit – DC Comics

Kate Kane is a character who lives and breathes, who jumps off the page in how real she feels.  Her realness is all the more important as she is also a character who shows us how to live lives of psychological awareness, filled with faith in something more than ourselves, and anchored in loving and supportive relationships.  Kate can do all this and we can, too.  She feels so very real which makes the lessons she imparts on her readers seem all the more reachable, too.  Batwoman is a hero who teaches me – who teaches all of us – how dragons can be beaten.

Overcoming trauma, drawing strength in faith, believing when all seems hopeless, nurturing healthy and supportive relationships – can there be a more important model for us right now?  Kate Kane, the Batwoman, will always be relevant.  She and all she represents will always be necessary.  But right now, today, as the coronavirus continues to keep us in quarantine – when we struggle with feelings of anxiety, doubt, and the loneliness born of such prolonged isolation with no end in sight – Kate Kane’s instruction and her inspiration feel more important than ever.  Batwoman can choose to navigate and master her trauma, guilt, and pain.  Batwoman can find strength in faith.  Batwoman can nurture healthy relationships that keep her connected and grounded while living in a mad, dark world.  We can, too.  And it’s all the easier to do when we have Batwoman to show us the way.

 

 

If you’ve never read any Batwoman comics and would like to try some, I humbly recommend you begin with Batwoman by Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III, which introduces Kate Kane as a character and gives you all the basics of her backstory, and/or Batwoman: Haunted Tides which collects the first year of J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman’s run on her solo title.  One follows the other but both serve as excellent introductions.  Those trade collections form the basis of 98% of what I’ve discussed here, too – but they have SO MUCH MORE than what I’ve covered!  They are a perfect introduction to a character you need in your life.

 

 

_____________________________________________________________________

[1] “Goodreads Librarian Discussion Group: This topic is about Neil Gaiman  Issues with Quotes > misattributed quote,” Goodreads, Published July 12, 2013.  Accessed April 16, 2020. https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/1407558-misattributed-quote

[2] Neil Gamain, Coraline, (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), epigraph.

[3] Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth.  (New York: Anchor Books, 1991), 46.

[4] Rabbi David A. Copper, God is a Verb: Kabbalah and the Practice of Mystical Judaism, (New York: Riverhead Books, 1997), 51.

[5] Ibid., 90.

[6] Houston Smith, The World’s Religions, (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 275.

[7] Ibid., 306.

4 thoughts on “Batwoman: Free of Guilt, Driven by Faith

  1. I genuinely know nothing about Batwoman but I am intrigued by the intersection of her heroism and Jewish faith. Does the series dive deeper into it, exploring different points where her religious identity informs her decision-making?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It depends on the author. DC’s New 52 relaunch (which the Batwoman solo series I reference in this piece was a part of) began in 2011. So in the almost ten years of stories since then, her character’s been in the hands of several authors – some seem more…let’s say “aware” or “comfortable with” her Jewish identity than others. Sadly, Williams and Blackman both left the title after issue #24 when the DC editorial staff made it clear they would never allow a marriage between Kate and Maggie to take place. This is so, so horrible in so many different ways but it clearly killed a brilliant creative team’s run with her character. Seriously, every issue got better and better.
      It’s anyone’s guess how Batwoman would’ve continued to flourish under their stewardship.

      In regard to her religious identity and decision-making, generally you see more “minor” comments about Judaism – mentioning bat mitzvah or the like – which can be seen almost as an aside. It reminds you of her Jewish identity without making it such that it would exclude readers who don’t have a developed understanding of Jewish belief. Even still, you can read so much from those asides. For example, as “bat mitzvah” means “daughter of the commandment,” when a child becomes a bat or bar mitzvah in Judaism they become an adult and take responsibility for their own sin. Something like this isn’t a casual aside for a character like Batwoman, who lives her whole life committed to justice and it’s easy to see the tie between the theology and who she is/how she lives. Still, as a religious studies nerd, I wish they’d do a bit more with it all the same :).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That is sooooo ridiculous that DC wouldn’t allow the marriage of Kate and Maggie to take place. This actually could have been a fascinating angle on Kate’s Jewish faith. But it seems like DC (like so many other media companies) would rather appease a small segment of fans who are uncomfortable with…oh what is the word I am looking for…LOVE!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I read so few superhero comics these days. Often they feel like the same story told over and over again with different costumes and different gimicks for each bad guy. But Batwoman sounds superb! There seems to be a depth, balance and morailty in the writing on this title. These are the things that really interest me. Where Batman feels stuck in his vengeful rut, constantly poughing the fields of his pain, Batwoman shows us this different , more healthy path. I love it!

    Thanks so much for your excellent essay. I will follow your recommendations and start reading this book. She really is a superhero I could follow.

    Like

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