Interview: BATWOMAN and LGBT Visibility with J. H. Williams III

Batwoman #17J. H. Williams III (Promethea, Detective Comics, Batwoman) has in essence become a comic book legend. A three-time Eisner Award winner, critics and audiences continuously praise his artwork which has been described as positively gorgeous. He is also the recipient of the 2012 GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Comic Book for his work on Batwoman (co-authored with W. Haden Blackman) and is currently nominated in the same category for the 24th Annual GLAAD Media Awards. In addition to his duties as a writer and illustrator, Williams recently appeared on SyFy’s reality competition Face Off for the episode “Heroic Proportions,” offering creative input to the show’s contestants.

J. Skyler: Hello and thank you for agreeing to do this interview with me. It’s an honor to be speaking with one of industry’s most prestigious talents.

J. H. Williams III : Thanks. I’m more than happy to talk to people.

JS: It’s self-evident Batwoman has become one of the industry’s most popular characters. What has truly enthralled you about her?

JHW: I feel like, from a writing stand point, I’m trying to get characters to have a lot of dimensions to them.They have to be a real person. When you approach a character from that point of view, there is always something new to explore. It reveals new facets about their personality. The real juice is in her interactions with other people in her life.

JS: How was it you initially came to be teamed with Greg Rucka on Batwoman?

JHW: It was happenstance really. I was tagged to be on Detective Comics with Paul Dini, but I still had a commitment for Seven Soldiers over my head. By the time that was complete, too much time had passed to do Detective with Dini. Eventually, I was offered the chance to work with Greg on Batwoman, spinning out of 52. The benefit of working on Batwoman, besides getting to work with Greg, was that she was a character we could build from the ground up, so that was really exciting.

JS: You and co-author W. Haden Blackman were given the task of launching her solo title as part of DC Comics’ New 52 initiative. You’ve mentioned in your blog how Batwoman #17 was a bittersweet issue for you, not only because it concluded the Medusa story arc that began with issue #1, but also due to the fact you will no longer be doing the interior art for a character you’ve visually defined since her recreation. Is it difficult letting someone else take the reins on a character you’ve been so close too?

JHW: Yeah, yeah. It can be. A lot of creators feel that way when they’ve spent so much time on a character or a series. You have to be able to feel that devotion, but at the same time be able to let go and trust what others can bring to the table. It’s challenging, but I look forward to it. It’s tough that it will be quite some time before I get a chance to do the actual art for Batwoman again.

JS: You’ve stated that Batwoman is a socially important character. In the past, I’ve written about how the intersection of her varying identities—as a woman, as a lesbian and as a person of Jewish descent—has to be approached with the utmost caution, if a writer is not to disparage the very people her character is meant to represent. As a trans woman of color, I empathize greatly with her characterization. What is your frame of mind when writing a character like Batwoman, who would be considered to suffer a “triple threat,” being a part of three disenfranchised groups?

JHW: The challenge is developing them as a real person. You’ve got to be faithful and true to the fact she has to be relatable and that means treating her as a real person. If you have that, you begin to respect the character. Regardless of what social groups any character is associated with, all characters should be treated as if they are real people. You can’t be afraid to take risk with these kinds of subjects.

BatwomanColorJS: I chose to name my column for Comicosity “LGBT Visibility” to highlight the nature of censorship and erasure the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community has historically suffered within the comic book industry. How do you personally define your role in bringing greater visibility to the community, especially when we are in the midst of an ongoing civil rights movement?

JHW: The reality of comics is to entertain those that read it, so it’s hard to really define that role until the audience has had a chance to absorb it. Once it’s in print and analyzed in greater detail, that’s when such a thing can really be defined. I know there are parts of her story that are socially important to American society and I want to explore those, but I really want outsiders to be able to come in and really test the validity of those stories.

JS: Batwoman reminds me of Black Lightning and other African-American superheroes created in the 1960s and 1970s that were designed to be role models for minorities. Of course in 2013, it would be silly, if not offensive, to shoehorn the word “Black” into a superhero’s name for the sake of ethnic diversity, which is why I think a number of LGBT readers raised an eyebrow at the Batwoman’s official description as a “proud lesbian.” However, when you stop to think about the fact that we are in the midst of a civil rights movement, when people (and youth especially) are frequently committing suicide because of the heterosexism, homophobia, biphobia and transphobia they face, it’s actually a bit eloquent that Batwoman is equally unapologetic about her sexual orientation. I think certain readers need that hint of pride in a character that is otherwise all business.

JHW: I completely agree. We felt that we did want to call out the fact that she is in fact a proud lesbian, but also we called out other aspects of her identity. So if you look at it academically, we wanted to give acknowledgment to all aspects of who she is, not just her sexuality. I find it interesting some readers latched onto that one phrase out of the paragraph [which reads "Now she is many things: estranged daughter, grieving sister, proud lesbian, brave soldier, determined hero. She is Batwoman."], but as you said, there is that need for her to be proud of that one aspect of her identity because it’s a part of who she is.

JS: The new arc you and co-writer W. Haden Blackman have embarked on with issue #18 is said to set a new status quo for Batwoman. I’ve noticed similar statements in next month’s solicitations for a few other characters at DC Comics. Is this a uniform strategy in attempting to define the internal continuity and vision of The New 52?

JHW: I do find it interesting about some of the language used in the solicitations, but for us specifically, there was a time a few months back when we were no longer able to write our own solicitations for DC; that part of the publication was taken over. So, if it’s meant to be a strategy for the entire New 52, I can’t actually say. I think at the end of each arc, a character should always be at a new point in their history, since comics should always progress.

JS: So using the term “status quo” is silly because characters should never be stagnant in the first place?

JHW: Exactly. As you said, it becomes stagnant if it’s always the same thing. Who the characters are as people and the events that change them, that should always be evolving. You and I may be walking down the street and an event could change our lives forever because we’re real people. So characters have to experience those same far-reaching changes as their stories progress.

nXz2vJS: You mentioned the symbolic element coursing through the new arc, This Blood is Thick, is fire. Can you give us any insight as to why?

JHW: I think that may have been misinterpreted. I was mostly talking about the visual for the covers. Actually, the fire represents the end of the third arc. Kate’s home has been destroyed. So everything about her life is upside down and it’s a new point for her life to evolve. It’s a moment of rebirth and renewal. It’s a symbolic answer to the imagery seen on the cover of issue #1, which was water. The fire is a cleansing and a rebirth. Symbolically, it indicates a change.

JS: It would appear as though you and Blackman have been laying the groundwork to have Bette Kane become a force to be reckoned with in The New 52. Had she played a supporting role to a male character, her mutilation probably would have been tagged as a classic “Women in Refrigerators” moment. However, what I appreciate is that like Barbara Gordon after The Killing Joke, we are seeing her work through her recovery—physically, emotionally, and mentally. People who survive that kind of assault work tirelessly to reestablish themselves and the road to recovery isn’t smooth or easy. What can readers expect from her new persona as Hawkfire?

JHW: We’re going to see that she really understands the consequence of real-life decisions. Before her encounter with the Hook, she was playing superhero, which is what Kate had tried to warn her about. Now that she’s gone through that, she’s taking thing seriously. She was over-confident and cocky, but now the universe is telling her she needs to wake up and be better prepared. That was the main goal with writing her experience. As far as Hook, we wanted to show how an individual can be completely twisted and at the same time how his exposure to the hook made all those traits worse. How an individual can be pushed to do terrible things by outside forces. There are a lot psychological and analytical ways to look at the Hook. Those are things we’ve seen in real life tragedies as of late.

JS: Family is a critical theme in Batwoman’s characterization. From her estranged relationship with her father, her less than mutual respect for Bette, the as of yet unexplored relations between her family and Bruce Wayne’s, to the much-anticipated return of her twin Alice (and a plot twist with the D.E.O. I don’t think anyone expected), how important will the concept of family be to Batwoman’s mythology as the book continues?

JHW: I think it’s the core or central theme of the series. Family is going to be a thing of evolution for her. It’s something that we can all relate to—changing family dynamics. The continuous role it plays, either with a positive or negative impact.

BatwomanKissJS: It would also appear that wedding bells will soon be ringing for Batwoman. If she successfully ties the knot, hers would be the third most high-profile same-sex marriage in comic books, behind Apollo and Midnighter and Northstar and Kyle Jinadu. What brought this on?

JHW: It is something we always wanted to lead towards. It’s something that has to be explored, not just for the gay community, but just people in general. You don’t see that kind of relationship really explored in superhero comics. It will be interesting to explore, not just because of what it means for Kate, but what it means for Maggie. It’s trying to show something real, not just a publicity stunt. I feel like some creators get to that point with good intentions and then it doesn’t go any further than that. Some things in the past have been approached like “Here! We did it!” without being left any room to grow. So here, we really want to see how far this relationship can go and how it will develop over time.

JS: I have to ask: Where. Is. Renee. Montoya? Even if her romance with Kate has ended, I can’t imagine her being indefinitely absent from The New 52.

JHW: We finally have some answers from upper editorial now, as to what we can do. We’re still figuring it out, but I agree it has to be addressed at some point.

JS: Would you consider having Batgirl as a guest star in the book? The two had an… interesting confrontation under Gail Simone’s pen.

JHW: Yeah, I think Gail did a great job. I’d love to have Barbara to show up in Batwoman in some point. Sometimes it’s just difficult to coordinate guest characters appearing in someone else’s title, but I’m open to the idea.

JS: I’ve joked with you over Twitter that Batwoman seems to be the anti-social member of the family, missing out on the festivities like Night of the Owls and Death of the Family. Are there any plans to have her forge better relationships with the rest of the Bat clan?

JHW: The new arc is going to explore some of that. I can’t talk about that too much, but I do feel like we have to be really careful with characters in the Bat-verse. We don’t want to have all the Batman characters telling Batman’s story instead of their own. I’ve always like the fact that Batwoman saw what he was, respected it and stole the idea, but never really got to known him personally. It really set her apart. What does that mean for her? And how does she deal living in Gotham in the midst of Batman’s world and how does Batman react to her being there as well? We’re always touchy about the fact that we don’t want Batwoman’s story becoming Batman’s story.

JS: While your literary voice will remain with Batwoman, you’ll soon be illustrating Sandman: Zero with writer Neil Gaiman. Is there anything in particular you find exciting about this new project?

JHW: There isn’t much I can talk about, but I’m really excited. I got a chance to look over the first few scripts and I think it’s going to amazing. I couldn’t be happier about it.

Deathwish_3JS: A fellow trans advocate, Natalie Reed, asked that I question you about the mini-series you illustrated, Deathwish (1994), which is unique in that it is one of the few comic books in publication to feature a trans woman as a protagonist: Marisa Rahsm. Reed stated that your artwork gave the character a sense of realism versus the hyper-sexual/normative imagery most women are drawn with. How would you describe your experience rendering her character?

JHW: From what I remember, I was really excited. I loved the fact that it hadn’t really been done before in mainstream comics. I really enjoyed drawing that character a lot. How that experience relates to my other work is that I want to have my characters as someone you can believe in, not just a hyper-idealized definition of beauty. I see so many comics approached from such a highly fantasized point of view that it might be fun to read, but then you have to consider is there any believability to it? So visually, I always try to give these characters a root, something grounded, as far as their physique goes. That goes back to what I said earlier about treating characters as real people.

JS: Reed innocently insisted I also give you “a very gentle, tender kiss on the cheek, and say ‘that was from Natalie Reed’.” It goes without saying she is very fond of your body of work (though, aren’t we all?)

JHW: Haha. Well, thanks!

JS: I believe trans and intersexed individuals are some of the most severely overlooked and underrepresented minorities in the comic book industry. Gail Simone won’t release any details, but she has stated that she is planning on introducing a trans character and is determined to have one starring in their own solo title. Would you be interested in scripting a trans man or woman’s narrative as well?

JHW: Yes, actually. I agree with you on all fronts. There is no proper representation there. Not just in comics, but in all media. That is very lacking. It’s a concept we were leading with the character Sune. We’re not sure where we want to go, but we wanted to at least address the idea with that male/female/intersexed subtext. I think as much fun as it would be to write something along the lines of a transgender fantasy, I think it would be more challenging to write a realistic drama of trans issues in comics. That would be fascinating to explore.

JS: Absolutely! Well, I’d like to extend my thanks for agreeing to this interview. I couldn’t be more appreciative. I sincerely hope our paths cross again.

JHW: Definitely! I’d just like to say thanks to everyone who is reading what we’re doing. So, thanks to all you guys!

 

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  • CraigMax

    Batwoman is one of my top 5 comics right now (the others being Earth 2, Justice League Dark, Saga and Chew). The artwork is great, and Kate Kane is THE best new character to come out of comics in the last 20 years or so.

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