Every Tuesday, I post excerpts from my best-selling at not-selling super blog, Playing Favorites.
That said, sometimes all a story has is a good character. Detective Comics’ run as de facto “Batwoman” for the past few months (years?) is a prime example of that. Katy Kane is driven to contribute; to be something more. She refuses to compromise her integrity when trying to do just that as a military academy cadet, and when she can’t reconcile being forbidden to do what’s right by doing the right thing, she starts running down a path of self-destruction. It’s only when she sees Batman and realizes that she can be right and can contribute on her own terms that she finds her purpose again. She plays the wealthy dilettante just like Bruce Wayne, but seems to enjoy it more, even—perhaps especially—when she’s biting the proverbial hand that feeds. Her stepmother, Catherine, unknowingly foots the bill for Katy’s superheroics and doesn’t approve of Katy showing her homosexuality in public, but it’s unclear whether she’s doing this because she refuses to compromise who she is or because she like irking Catherine. I like the dynamic of two morally imperfect characters who likely have more in common than they care to admit because they each have issues they can’t get past (Katy’s mother’s murder doesn’t leave her with much room for a new mom, and Catherine doesn’t feel comfortable with her stepdaughter embarrassing her in front of her high-society friends).
Oh, the story is meh-to-crap. Long lost sister is the totally-not-the-Joker insane queen of crime with a white-painted face who wants to gas the whole city to death because...something. Also; there are werewolves. I like Batwoman as a person, though as a superhero, she actually leaves me a bit cold. Don’t get me wrong, sucker-drop-kicking a werewolf so hard he becomes human again is awesome, and I love all the work that goes into making her fight scenes address all of the technical challenges of her hobby/vocation, but I’d much rather read “’Katy and Catherine: The New Adventures of Batwoman,’ than actual ‘Batwoman.’
I don’t know if this makes me like Batwoman as a superhero, or Katy Kane. I’m thinking I like Katy Kane. I’ll have to find someone to replace her with, but just so her presence on my rough draft isn’t a complete loss, I’d like to point out that as a superhero, what I like about Batwoman is that she is authentic. Now, I’m not asking for super-reality or for someone to concoct ludicrous pseudo-science to explain how exploding gas bullets fired from a normal gun work; I’m just saying that—given she’s a person wearing a bat-costume in a universe where a Martian was burned to death by a freelance evil-doer working in the service of The God of Evil whose planet consisted of giant burning forges visible from space and who was then (talking about the Martian again) raised as an undead by rings powered by death, and was made alive again by rings slightly-more-plausibly-powered by life and given oreos (and all of this stuff happened in the span of two years)—that she feels like a real person whenever she’s “on screen.”
For a little bit more on this, look at All-Star Superman. He’s wearing trunks with a belt over tights. It’s not form-fitting unstable molecules or some shit; it’s just trunks, tights, a shirt, and a cape. There are seams on it for fucks sake. Whenever the other Kryptonians come to earth and begin violating the Prime Directive all over the place, they and those who want to emulate them are wearing clothes in a fashion that matches what Superman is wearing. This reinforces that Superman is wearing the clothes of his people. He’s donning Kryptonian formal wear to save Earth. It adds a lot of depth to the story and to the character because you realize there’s a whole culture and thought process behind this guy and what he’s doing. A Kryptonian tradition, not a rotely regurgitated superheroic culture.
Punisher: Long, Cold Dark also does this. Well, every Punisher comic probably does this. As a solo operator, Frank Castle’s inner monologue makes up most of the text we get. Long, Cold Dark starts with him in a wooded area just talking about guns and thinking about how things might have been. He has a variety of tools at his disposal. Firing guns is his mantra for achieving a transcendental state of meditation. Even if he weren’t The Punisher, he’d have to live his life specifically so he wouldn’t become The Punisher. And while the end consists of the same type of heroic healing you expect from a lot of action heroes (shot in the torso? Don’t worry, by the end of the next scene you’ll only have to hold a hand over it and wince. Scene after that? Show it some occasional attention. After that? Full bill of health.), up to that point, he takes hits and pays for them. He feels vulnerable and afraid because an innocent child’s life is on the line. He makes mistakes because he gets shaken. The Garth Ennis run on Punisher is great. You should check it out because it’s awesome and because it says “Garth Ennis” on the front.
I also just want to confirm that I don’t have to explain why Punisher is not and will not be on this list.
Jenny Sparks is listed here for the same reasons as Cloud 9 and All-Star Superman; there’s an arc to her character that begins in 1900 and ends in, well, you can guess when the story arc for The Spirit of the 20th Century ends. So yes, she’s written so that you can’t really bring her back (for long. That’s a whole other thing and why I specified the writers for her). Jenny Sparks is different from the others though; yes, her arc is compelling. She has a hundred years of regrets and triumphs to look back on, and that many differences faces and people to be in all those years. Jenny Sparks is the 20th century, at least the 20th Century seen by Warren Ellis, and it’s beautiful and sad and hopeful. It’s full of regrets and triumphs. It, like Jenny Sparks, isn’t perfect or evil, but while she’s filled with a relentlessness powered by a sense of responsibility achieved all-too late in her life, we had to ask, as we were leaving the 20th Century, what the world was filled with. Her story isn’t one of redemption or even victory; there aren’t any mistakes from her past that she rectifies as a member of The Authority and The Authority fights on long after she’s buried.
I know I’m being long on adjectives and short on actual explanation on why she’s one of the best superheroes, but I do find it hard to quantify. It’s not like I relate to her that much (in all honesty, I think I empathize more with Katy Kane than anyone else on this list) or that her character is that complicated. I think she might actually have been granted the irresistible draw the metamyth through her experiences. Resistant to entering her magical world, conflict and apotheosis with the dragon, death with the destruction of The High, then return to the material world to share her knowledge in the form of The Authority. Her transcendence of life and death is her literal death at the dawn of the 21th Century (as determined by the “bloody fish head majority” that “ran the entire century.”) and the creation of The Spirit of the 21st Century/3 Millineum (as far as I know, they’ve never been clear on exactly which one Jenny Quantum is). Maybe it’s because she’s got a lot of range. She convincingly changes from the depressed, recalcitrant (ie, ‘Resists the Call’) metahuman agent that she’s introduced as in StormWatch to a unquestioned, righteously indignant team leader who does pouting, regret, pissed, defeated, and determined indifference without ever losing the core of her character.
Jenny Sparks is one of my favorite superheroes who never wore a mask or really needed to control lighting to be totally awesome. All she really had to do was be a real person for 100 years and die like a real person at the end.
Well, she did die using the neural current from a being one-quarter the size of the Earth to fry its own brain.
Maybe her benefit is the one that Katy Kane has. In the few moments between punching threats to Earth in the face and frying their brains, The Authority was about seven twentysomethings sharing an apartment four miles long, stealing cigarettes from each other, bitching about what a flake the stoner is, and double-daring each other to sterilize the moon and punch regents from alternate universes in half.