Comics Anatomy: Art Styles in Batwoman

By Harry Kassen — When it comes to Batwoman, there is no creator more heavily associated with the character than J.H. Williams III. From drawing the “Elegy” story arc in Detective Comics, written by Greg Rucka, to co-writing, with W. Haden Blackman, the majority of the New 52 Batwoman series and providing a good portion of the art for that run as well, Williams’ take on the character is the one that comes to mind whenever I think of Kate Kane. Reading back through his run on the character, however, has shown me that, visually, there isn’t just one version of the character, or any character in the series. Williams shifts his style constantly to give information about the characters and the worlds they inhabit, a brilliant move by a brilliant artist.

This technique isn’t restricted to Williams’ work on Batwoman, showing up in his Batman: The Black Glove with Grant Morrison, but Batwoman is the longest run that demonstrates this, and shows the most variety and depth. Also different is that Batman used it to highlight differences in era, highlighting which publishing period each Batman aligned with most. In Batwoman the differing styles are used to tell the reader information about aspects of the characters themselves, and not used as meta-commentary about publishing history.

I’ve broken down the use of different art styles into three categories, and I’m going to go through each of them chronologically, showing how that particular use of this technique evolves over Williams’ time with the character.

Two Gothams

The first difference in art styles that I noticed was the difference in how Batwoman and Kate Kane are depicted. Batwoman is drawn in what is now Williams’ regular style, if he can be said to have such a thing. He uses ink washes in addition to areas of full black to give characters, usually Batwoman, a highly rendered, realistic look.

Colorist Dave Stewart contributes to this effect by using subtle gradients and a slightly grainy filter. These choices give the art the dirty, rough look of real life, albeit a little stylized. Given that, it’s appropriate that this is the look that is used for most of the series, even in scenes without Batwoman.

By contrast, the scenes with Kate Kane are mostly done with no ink wash, only black and white. There’s a lot of white space left in the lineart, so it’s not as dark and moody as the Batwoman scenes.

Stewart’s coloring is cleaner, with no grainy texture, and brighter palettes. The rendering isn’t as painstakingly realistic, and there’s a sort of sheen to many of the characters. In my endlessly subjective terminology for comics coloring, these scenes are “candy colored.”

What’s so brilliant about the way this works in Batwoman, however, is that it isn’t just a distinction between the way Kate and Batwoman look. The change in art styles tells us about the characters and how they relate to the world.

Looking only at Kate/Batwoman, at least initially, we see the distinction that I already made between the Kate look and the Batwoman look, but there’s more to it than just that. The moments of transition between the two looks reveal a lot about who Kate Kane is as a person. In Batwoman #1 there’s a scene where Kate and Bette are suiting up to go on patrol and it shows Kate changing slowly from the Kate Kane look to the Batwoman look.

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This shows that the looks go beyond just showing us the difference between Kate and Batwoman or night and day. The looks correspond to personas that Kate uses in her life, and we can see her shifting from one to another right there on the page.

A later issue shows more about the two worlds Kate Kane inhabits. In issue [issue number], Kate Kane arrives at home to discover Director Bones and Agent Chase (whose aesthetic I’ll discuss later) in her apartment.

Over the course of the conversation, she transitions from the Kate look into the Batwoman look, but doesn’t change her costume. What this tells us is that the Kate Kane look, and therefore the Kate Kane persona, is an act she uses to cover up that she truly is Batwoman, even when she isn’t.

Another character with a similar visual language is Maggie Sawyer. The scenes between her and Kate, starting with the one where they meet, are drawn as Kate Kane scenes, in that same shiny, brightly colored style.

Her first appearance in the New 52 Batwoman series is a scene in the police precinct where a couple reports the disappearance of their child in a fight involving Batwoman. This scene, which takes place during the daytime, is also rendered brightly, with no ink wash, and the same “candy” coloring. 

A later scene in the same issue shows a different side of Maggie. She’s investigating the case that was brought to her and she’s discussing particulars with Commissioner Gordon.

This scene is drawn in the “Batwoman” style with the ink washes and the realistic coloring. Maggie can exist in this darker world as well, and does so often in her life as a detective.

As with Kate, the art in the series doesn’t just show us that Maggie inhabits both of these worlds, it shows us which one she lives in and calls home. The scene that shows us which one it is happens in the second issue of the New 52 series. Kate walks Maggie home after a date and the whole date is drawn in the Kate Kane style, and at Maggie’s doorstep, they’re still drawn in the Kate style.

What’s telling in this scene is the way Maggie’s house is drawn. It’s got the same shadowy ink wash art as the Batwoman scenes, showing us that Maggie literally lives in that world.

There’s a little more variation in Maggie’s portrayal than Kate’s, and from that, we can try and discern a bit more about her character. With Kate/Batwoman, the styles are pretty clearly defined. When she’s out as Kate, the lighter style is in use, and when she’s out as Batwoman, the darker style is in use. There are rare occasions when Kate is shown in the darker style, but only during certain moments, and only around people who do know her secret. For the most part, the art styles are assigned to specific identities. Maggie is different. No matter where she is or what she’s doing, she’s Maggie Sawyer. She doesn’t have multiple personas, so there’s no easy split.

It’s not as simple as a day and night split, because Maggie is shown in the lighter style during both daytime and nighttime scenes. She isn’t shown in the darker style during the day but that has more to do with the real way the split is decided. It also isn’t about whether or not she’s on the job, because in that first scene in the New 52 series she’s working but she’s still drawn in the lighter style. It’s important to note that she is meeting with Kate after that first scene, but what I take from the way it’s drawn is that she presents a composed, brightly colored front when dealing with the public, and then when she’s working with other cops or on her own, she’s drawn in the darker style.

Beyond just showing aspects of Kate and Maggie as individuals, the various styles that Williams and Stewart use show elements of their relationship. I’ve explained how the lighter style is used to show that Kate and Maggie are hiding parts of themselves that they can’t let show. When Maggie and Kate are out on a date together, they’re drawn in the lighter style. This is the case when they meet for the first time, and when they go out on their date in Batwoman (2011) #2.  Their true selves are hidden when they are around each other. 

This all changes in the sex scene from the fourth issue in the series, when Kate and Maggie have sex. Those panels are drawn in an entirely new style that consists of only ink washes and no full black or color. In the simplest of terms, the difference between the Kate style and the Batwoman style is the presence or absence of ink wash, so it makes a statement to draw this scene in only washes. My understanding of this is that the ink wash is the part of themselves that they have to hide in public, but in this moment they are sharing it with each other. When the moment ends and they wake up together, though, they’re back to being drawn in the lighter style. Their facades are back up and they’re once again hiding their true selves from each other. It isn’t until Kate’s proposal to Maggie that they once again let their guard down around each other. The proposal scene isn’t the first time Williams and Stewart show Batwoman and Maggie together in the Batwoman style, but it’s close. The importance of this scene is that Kate is revealing her secret identity to Maggie, and is again letting down that wall and showing her true self. Telling us this in the art allows the whole sequence to be silent, which enhances the juxtaposition in the scene and makes the moment more powerful.

Another character who gets shown in these two styles, among others, is Bette Kane. In her first appearance in this series (Rucka/Williams/Blackman), the ball where Kate and Maggie meet, she’s unsurprisingly drawn in the Kate style.

It’s a scene in the Kate style, and at this point she has nothing tying her to the darker world of Batwoman. When she appears in the New 52 series, she’s being trained by Kate. Kate gives her a new costume and bars her from using her old identity of Flamebird, insisting that she’s not ready for it yet. At the start of this scene, both Bette and Kate are drawn in the Kate style. I’ve already mentioned that in this scene Kate shifts from the Kate style to the Batwoman style as she puts on her costume, but Bette does something different. She transitions to a new style, but it isn’t the Batwoman style. While in her gray outfit, Bette is drawn in a darker, more shadowy style than the Kate style, but it lacks the ink washes that distinguish the Batwoman style.

My understanding here is that Bette isn’t fully a part of the world of Batwoman, not having earned, in Batwoman’s eyes, the right to wear a costume or use a codename. We are either seeing Bette through Kate’s eyes (not having earned it and thus not being a part of it) or through Bette’s own eyes (not being fully a part of that world because she’s being denied her identity and costume).

When Bette first dons her Flamebird costume in the New 52 series, she instantly takes on the Batwoman style, showing that she is a full part of that world. She has reclaimed her identity and is using her name and costume.

This change grants credence to the second of the interpretations I offered above. We are seeing Bette through her eyes, and in the gray costume she isn’t a full part of the world of superheroes because she isn’t allowed to be Flamebird. When she is allowed to be Flamebird, she sees herself as being a full superhero again and can claim the art style that signals it.

After she goes out that night, Bette gets attacked and ends up in the hospital for a significant portion of the series. When she recovers, she begins training with Jacob Kane. This training is shown in a two page spread from the third volume of the New 52 Batwoman. The left side of the spread has Jacob and the right has Bette. Each side shows one character sitting down and thinking about what’s happening in that moment before beginning to reflect on the events of the series so far. As the spread progresses from top to bottom, both characters shift from the Kate style to the Batwoman style. This shows that the training is allowing them to be a part of the Batwoman world. The ultimate proof of that is when Bette shows up later in this arc with a new costume and the new identity Hawkfire. She is always shown in the Batwoman style, and is accepted by Batwoman in this style. She’s earned her place in the world, proving to everyone else, and also herself, that she can be a superhero.

Beyond Gotham

Outside of this split between the Kate and Batwoman styles, there are more art styles that are used for other people and situations. Sometimes these styles are just used briefly to give a scene some flair, as in this scene. At other times, though, they are used to permanently distinguish a certain theme.

The D.E.O. are a significant part of the New 52 run, and are given a special style to distinguish them from the other characters. As a shady superhuman spy agency run by a skeleton man, they do not exist in Kate Kane’s shiny, brightly colored world. They also do not qualify as superheroes, and thus cannot be drawn in the Batwoman style, which is reserved for Gotham’s criminals and crime fighters. Because of this, the D.E.O. are given their own separate art style that exists apart from the Kate-Batwoman continuum.

When we first meet Agent Cameron Chase and Director Bones, they’re drawn in a new style that is used only for them.

This style looks like something straight out of a spy comic, with high contrast between light and dark areas, gritty textures, heavy use of shadows and negative space, and flat, high contrast coloring. All of this gives the feeling that these D.E.O. agents are inhabitants of a world outside of the familiar art styles of Gotham, inhabiting their own world of spies. Even in scenes drawn in other styles, Agent Chase is drawn and colored in the D.E.O. style. 

There are two scenes with Chase and Maggie Sawyer, one done in the Kate style and one done in the Batwoman style. When Chase and Sawyer first meet, Sawyer is out for a run in the park.

This scene is drawn in the Kate style because Sawyer is out in public and not working. She is presenting her lighter self to the world here. When Sawyer encounters Chase, she is drawn and colored in the D.E.O. style. This makes her stand out against the background and sets her apart from other characters. She clearly appears as someone from a different world.

The other scene with Chase and Sawyer is a crime scene investigation at night, and as such is drawn in the Batwoman style. The characters in the scene are Maggie and Harvey Bullock, drawn in the Batwoman style, and Chase and another D.E.O. agent, drawn in the D.E.O. style. The background and all of the dead bodies on the ground are drawn in the Batwoman style. Against the deep shadows of the Batwoman style, the D.E.O. style and characters feel less out of place, but they still don’t completely match. The bold, flat colors pop them off of the deep blue background immediately, and the lack of ink washes separates them from the other characters. The D.E.O. are literally not a part of the world they inhabit and appear to be imposed on it, rather than truly being in it.

All of these decisions serve to give the D.E.O. a unique look throughout the series and set them apart visually. These distinctions convey a lot of information about the D.E.O. without ever taking up any time and energy to state it explicitly. So much of the character work is done in the art styles, not even the specific art, that it frees up the individual drawings and all of the dialogue to do other things.

In this series, Wonder Woman also has a unique style that signals who she is and what worlds she is and is not a part of. When she shows up in the third arc of the New 52 Batwoman series, Wonder Woman is drawn in a shiny, but still realistic style.

The linework is similar to the Kate style, and also lacks the ink washes of the Batwoman style, but Wonder Woman is colored differently. The coloring is shiny like the Kate style, but instead of being cel shaded with some white highlights, the rendering is done in a more traditional (for superheroes at least) airbrushed style. This coloring style being the one used more traditionally for superheroes signals to the reader that Batwoman and the other characters in her world (i.e. drawn in her style) are not traditional superheroes. Batwoman, Maggie Sawyer, Flamebird/Hawkfire, and Batman are all a part of Gotham’s shadowy crime fighting world. Wonder Woman, on the other hand, is a part of a similar, yet completely different world of superheroes who operate in the light, and not the shadows like the ones in Gotham. Once again, the style used to depict a character gives us all of the information needed to understand who they are and where they come from, freeing up the rest of the book to do other work.

Another character from Wonder Woman’s world, though not the world of superheroes, is Pegasus. The son of Medusa, he holds vital information that Batwoman and Wonder Woman need in order to defeat her. They seek him out and when they find him, he’s been defeated and crippled.

What’s interesting about him though is the way he’s drawn. Everything about the way he’s portrayed, from his design, to where he lives, to the way he’s drawn, smacks of Silver Age Western comics. This move is pure personality. Rather than establishing a larger world that Pegasus is part of, it shows the world he’s created for himself and the way he sees himself. This attempt is also interesting because it seems to emulate a particular creator rather than a general era or aesthetic. The brushiness of the rendering and the specific shapes of the strokes reminds me strongly of Jordi Bernet, a classic Western artist who drew Western comics in Europe as well as Jonah Hex for DC. Evoking Bernet’s style in this section ties Pegasus into the Western aesthetic that he’s going for and shows many elements of his personality in the linework.

The final style that exists specifically for one person’s world is for Jacob Kane in the flashback scenes from Elegy. In Go Part One, there’s a scene where we see Jacob Kane and another soldier at war.

The art style for this scene is different from any other style used in the series. When Jacob gets home from war, he’s drawn in the same style as the rest of the flashbacks (more on this later). It is only while he is in this scenario that he looks this way. This creates the impression that he’s putting on a different persona when he’s in different contexts, as many people, especially people in those situations do. What’s notable about the style used for the war scene is that it’s inspired by a specific artist, much like the Western style. The style used for this scene is reminiscent of older DC war comics, which were mostly drawn by Joe Kubert. Kubert’s omnipresence in early DC war comics means that his style is the one that comes to mind when people think of classic war comics. Using his style, or an approximation of it, instantly creates the association between this scene and War comics in general, which is clearly Williams’ intent. Jacob Kane is yet another character who has a great deal of his personality shown in the art style before any of the writing happens.

The Many Faces of Kate Kane

As I mentioned above, Kate Kane, along with the rest of the story, is drawn in a great variety of styles during the origin flashbacks that occur in the Go arc and the second #0 issue from the New 52 series. The first part of Go, which takes place 20 years before the Elegy arc, is drawn in a style similar to David Mazzucchelli’s Batman Year One.

Specifically, the art is very brushy, with blobby ink lines and occasionally some grittier textures. The coloring is almost entirely flat, with some grainy texture layered in. It should be pretty clear why connecting Kate’s origin story and Batman Year One makes sense. It immediately sets the expectation that this is going to be an emotional and introspective look at who Batwoman is and how she came to be.

As the story continues, time advances and the art style evolves. The second part of the story is set seven years in the past, and details the end of Kate’s time at West Point and the period of soul searching that followed, culminating in an encounter with Batman. The style in this section is still brushy like the previous issue, and still feels like the Mazzucchelli style, but it has taken on a style more similar to J.H. Williams’ style that you might find in earlier works of his, and more importantly, similar to the styles used in the rest of Batwoman. The book, and by extension Kate, is becoming what it is meant to be.

In the third and final part of Go, there are a few different art styles being used in the flashbacks. It opens with the same Mazzucchelli/Williams mix as the previous issue, which isn’t a shock given that it takes place four years in the past, just three years after the last part. In the second scene in this issue, we see our first instance of Kate Kane as a vigilante. The art at this point, while still brushy and flowing, has lost almost all of the Mazzucchelli elements. The rendering is finer, and there are more hard angles and sharp edges. The coloring has also taken another step toward what it looks like in the present day, with palettes and textures that land somewhere in between the Kate and Batwoman styles. The page where Kate discusses her vigilantism with her father is an interesting one that showcases many things I’ve talked about.

While this page is drawn in the same style as the rest of this portion as far as I can tell, there’s something about it that feels like the present day styles. There’s a level of shadow and a certain sheen to the cel shaded coloring that evokes both the Kate and Batwoman styles. In this Kate Kane, both identities exist together. She hasn’t separated them into two distinct personalities yet. Additionally, in panel four, Jacob Kane is drawn in a similar, yet slightly different style from the rest of this scene. Some of that brushy, Kubert-esque linework has made it into his face. His war has followed him home.

The next scene is a training montage, and as we see Kate preparing to take on the mantle of Batwoman, the art style has changed once again.

The art has shed all of its Mazzucchelli influence. Gone is the brushy softness and the flowing linework. Angles are sharp, lines are thin, and edges are hard. This style isn’t seen anywhere else in the series, but the closest one to it is the D.E.O. style. At this point, Kate isn’t a superhero, she’s a highly trained special operative. Along those lines, the next scene, showing Kate’s return from her training tour, is drawn in almost exactly the D.E.O. style. Kate and Jacob are essentially their own secret organization here. The final flashback scene comes a page later when Kate and Jacob are in their cave and Kate tries on the Batwoman costume.

This scene is still drawn in the D.E.O. style, but the Batwoman costume, and Kate when she’s wearing it, is drawn in a style almost like the Batwoman style but lacking the ink washes. She’s almost become the Batwoman she was meant to be, but she isn’t quite there yet, and as Jacob gets ready to add the finishing touch, the scene fades out.

I know I’ve essentially talked this series to death at this point, but there’s one more image I want to explore. Kate Kane’s first encounter with Batman is shown at the end of the second chapter of Go. After fighting off a mugger, Kate is startled by Batman’s appearance and falls down. Batman, drawn in the Batwoman style, reaches out a hand to help her up, and once she’s standing, he turns and grapples away, leaving Kate staring at the Bat Signal.

For the lost Kate Kane, Batman is a window into the world of Gotham superheroes, and the signal is a call to arms. She chases the dream of being a Bat and she finds a place in that world. More so than anything else these changing art styles tell us, they tell us who people are, and Kate Kane was a lost woman who found inspiration in an unlikely place and chose to follow it. Dark as this series may be, the art tells us that it’s founded on the hope that we can find our place in the world, much as Batwoman did.

Check out Comics Anatomy: Velvet’s Perfect Page, Comics Anatomy: Captain Marvel Pushes Boundaries!, and Comics Anatomy: Gotham Central and Lettering!

Harry Kassen is a college student and avid comic book reader. When he’s not doing schoolwork or reading comics, he’s probably sleeping. Catch his thoughts on comics, food, and other things on Twitter @leekassen.