Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Pre-New 52 review: Huntress: Year One...and Paul Levitz's introduction of the same

When DC originally started publishing Huntress: Year One as a serial miniseries in 2008, it seemed spectacularly unnecessary.

The version of the character under the mask at that point was a post-Crisis recreation, having her fairly simple origin told in a short-lived 1989-1990: She was a mafia princess orphaned as a little girl by the mob, who grew up to fight them. Her Italian-American ethnicity and Catholic faith being the main things separating her from the dozens of other similar characters.

She’s appeared fairly constantly in Batman books since the early ‘90s, was a member of the JLA during Grant Morrison’s widely-read run on the book, and has been a member of the Birds of Prey team for years. And, of course, Greg Rucka and Rick Burchett had retold her origin in a six-part miniseries in 2000, Batman/Huntress: Cry For Blood.

Unlike many of the characters and franchises that had parts of their fictional histories erased, added to or otherwise rejiggered by DC’s 21st century, time-and-space altering events—Infinite Crisis, 52 and Final Crisis—the Huntress was unchanged.

So why, I thought, was DC bothering with Huntress: Year One in 2008 instead of a new Justice League: Year One or Wonder Woman: Secret Origin or something…?

They never really made a case for the book’s existence back then, but read today in its collected format—which first became available in 2009—it’s worth noting that it’s actually pretty good. I guess it’s possible that maybe DC decided to go ahead and greenlight this strangely timed project simply because it was a pretty good story…?

That story, by the way, is from Ivory Madison. It features serviceable but unspectacular pencil art by Cliff Richards, who is inked by Art Thibert, Norm Rapmund or Rebecca Buchman, depending on the issue or page (Thibert inks the first half of the series, and then things get a little chaotic, with more inkers joining him more frequently toward the back end of the series).

It’s been long enough since I’ve read the other, older, Rucka-written Huntress miniseries that I’ve forgotten a lot of the details, but Madison seems to be keeping them—and/or events from the 1989 series—more or less in tact, as there are a lot of names and a few events that are thrown around as if they are ones a readers should be acquainted with. Madison doesn’t exactly hold a reader’s hand here.

She does play up the hunting part of The Huntress’ name, although the vigilante doesn’t officially adopt that codename until the very last panel of the book.

When we first meet here, she is twenty years old and living alone on a farm in Sicily, hunting with a crossbow for food and sport. Her real family were all killed by an assassin in Gotham City when she was just a little girl, and the family of assassins who raised and trained her in Italy are now either all dead or in jail.

We follow her as a member of her larger mafia family finds her and brings her back into the fold, as she visits with the man who served as her older brother and protector, as she readies to receive her massive inherited fortune on her 21st birthday, and as she runs afoul of mysterious and powerful criminal organization The Hand (It’s in Italian though, to differentiate it from Daredevil’s ninjas), and learns the names of the man who ordered her family’s murder and the man who pulled the trigger.

Madison’s tale is rather plot heavy, and while the Huntress remains a more-or-less generic character type that's too-familiar fromm action comics and movies, Madison does gradually add pieces of characterization to make her seem increasingly individualized.

The exotic setting and mafia trappings and Catholic rituals further distances the character from the rest of Batman’s sidekicks and the other female vigilantes of the DC universe. She doesn’t arrive in Gotham until the book reaches its climax, and, for the most part, she stands as her own character with her own goals, conflicts and agenda, independent of the Batman franchise that so quickly re-abosorbed her after her post-Crisis re-introduction.

There are a few things in the book I wanted to call special attention to.

As my last name may indicate to you, I’m Italian-American, and while my Italian blood is diluted by that of three other nationalities, my Italian-American ancestors were the dominant ones in my family, and I was raised in Italian and Catholic traditions.

Depictions of Italian-Americans in pop culture always make me feel…weird, I guess. I don’t identify as Italian-American enough that I ever find mafia stereotypes or talk of Latin passions or appetites offensive, per se, but seeing such depictions do make me wonder if this is what people of other nationalities or ethnicities must feel when they see their cultural identities portrayed in comics.

There are, of course, negative and positive Italian-American characters here, the hero and the villains are all Italian-American and, to varying degrees, Catholic. I can’t say how accurate Madison’s portrayals are. I’ve never been to Italy, and I don’t know anyone in organized crime.

I do note that I never see Italian-Americans in comics or movies that aren’t involved in organized crime, though, and I have trouble thinking of positive portrayals of Catholics, either. Daredevil is Catholic, although for most of the last 30 years or so, he hasn’t exactly been a positive character, despite being the star of his comic book.

I’m just rambling. I’m not offended by anything in this book, I’m just noting, “Hey, a bunch of Italian and Italian-American characters! And they are associated with organized crime!” I guess.

The one scene I thought was kinda weird in that regard, although I found it funny rather than offensive, was the scene of Helena’s family shown gunned down at dinner around her, the spaghetti sauce and blood mixing into a huge pool of red, so it’s impossible to tell if its blood or tomato sauce or both. Visually, it suggests if you perforate an Italian family, spaghetti sauce pours out.
I’m sure that wasn’t the intent, but that’s what it looks like.
I hadn’t noticed until actually reading it, but the Huntress gets a new costume in this series. It looks a lot like the one that debuted during the Batman crossover event series Contagion, which was basically a black bodysuit under the purple bathing suit her creators outfitted her with.

But it’s a sleeker one, with the purple bits now looking functional, like something there to support her Barbie doll breasts, and/or provide armor, and the lack of gloves and boots give her a sleeker appearance.

It’s the best Huntress costume I’ve ever seen, I think, head and shoulders (and torso, legs and feet) above the one Jim Lee designed in “Hush” and that Ed Benes so enjoyed drawing during his Birds of Prey run, and far better than the heavily armored look she has in her “New 52” incarnation.


A brief history of Huntress costumes...

Her original costume, as drawn by Brian Bolland

Joe Staton's post-Crisis costume, as drawn by Staton

Her 1996 costume from the Batman books, drawn by...I wanna say Graham Nolan...?

Jim Lee's redesign, as drawn by Mark Texeira

The New 52 costume, as drawn by Guillem March


I liked this bit a lot, where we learn where she got her costume:
Is she the only, or at least one of the few, superheroes to have a designer costume?

The book loses a bit of steam as it reaches its climax; more is happening faster, but it's too much and too fast, and nothing feels to have the same weight of emphasis as the events of the earlier scenes. By the final issue, it seems like the series was cut short, and Madison had to jam two or three issues worth of plot into a single issue and wrap things up quickly.

When the Huntress gets to Gotham and meets its famous residents while pursuing vengeance, the narration boxes get bigger and wordier, the dialogue gets more obvious and explanatory, and action scenes become overly compressed.

Madison writes the Bat-characters really well, though. There’s a neat little scene where Batman fights the Huntress (after she clobbered him while he was out of costume as Bruce Wayne), and Catwoman rattles off a list of observations about Batman’s fighting styles and habits that seems…just right.

Madison’s take on Catwoman is kind of cute too. Her interest in The Huntress seems a bit forced, but Madison gets the character, particularly at this phase of her career where she’s most concerned with having fun, stealing things because she wants ‘em, and flirting with Batman.

I was pretty surprised to see her smoking though:
I didn’t know Catwoman smoked, but then I never read Mindy Newell’s 1989 miniseries about the Year One era Catwoman, and I can’t remember if Selina Kyle lit up in Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One or not. Where does she keep her cigarettes and lighter in that suit though? Maybe she just has ciggies and lighters stashed on rooftops all over Gotham…?

I was also surprised to see Madison was so specific with ages. In addition to letting us know that Huntress is 20-21 throughout this story, Catwoman reveals that she’s “only 29.” This being sometime during Batman’s second or third year (Catwoman says she’s been being chased by Batman for two or three years now, and Robin hasn’t yet been introduced), and DC’s pre-New 52 timeline being at least 11 years long (The post-Zero Hour 10-year timeline, plus the 52/"One Year Later" time jump), that would mean that Catwoman was 38 or 39 by the time Flashpoint saw print. Huntress would have been 29 or 30, and Barbara Gordon would have to be somewhere in that neighborhood, too.

Gordon appears in the story, as both a legal librarian with the U.S. Attorney’s Office (so, she’d have to be around 23 at that point) and as Batgirl.

The continuity is wonky here though, as Gordon is already Batgirl and working with Batman before Bruce Wayne has even met Dick Grayson, let alone debuted a Robin (Another cute moment is when Batgirl hears Batman refer to his friend Bruce Wayne for the third or fourth time and says, "I think it' sfunny how you talk about 'Bruce' as if he isn't you").

The book contains an introduction, by Huntress co-creator Paul Levitz. I love introductions in collections, and think they should be required. This one is pretty funny though, given that Levitz wrote t in 2009 and, starting in fall of 2011, he was once again writing the Huntress character, not the new, Helena Bertelinni version, but the “Earth-2”, Helena Wayne version Levitz and artist Joe Staton created way back in 1977.

Listen to Levitz:

Comics often demonstrate one of the magical characteristics of folk tales: the ability to tell and retell a story, changing with the times and circumstances of the listeners, and of the storyteller, until only the essential kernel remains intact. In the process, the tale is kept alive and relevant to new generations of listeners…


It’s good to see my old character, suitably transformed, in the hands of a writer whose skills should make her one of comics’ most talented new voices. Ivory’s version is far from the story I imagined in Greenwich Village last century, and that’s as it should be. For a folk tale to live on, it needs to evolve through the centuries, and here, then, is the first definitive version of the origin of the Huntress for the twenty-first century.
Two years later, Levitz was once again writing the character he imagined in Greenwich Village last century, devolved backwards and reusing her origin for the twentieth century audience, in Worlds’ Finest, a new title teaming the late seventies version of the Huntress with the late seventies version of Power Girl.

So much for keeping things relevant for new generations, huh?

I’m also stuck on what Levitz said about Madison, how this story demonstrates that she should be “one of comics’ most talented new voices.”

What happened to Madison after this? The only other comics credit I can find for her is a short story in Batman: Eighty-page Giant 2010 #1.

I wonder why DC didn’t give her one of those 52 new series they launched in 2011, with Birds of Prey or Catwoman being some obvious choices.

The former, of course, went to crime novelist-turned-comics writer Duane Swiercyznski (it excised Huntress and Barbara Gordon from the cast, of course, but the Huntress fan behind DC Women Kicking Ass seems to like it okay) and the latter went to Judd Winick, a comics writer whose work no one seems to like and whose name stopped generating noteworthy comics sales years ago, but who nevertheless keeps getting high-profile books from DC.

Given the lack of female creators working on the New 52 books (It’s been a while since I’ve seen the math; it was just Gail Simone writing Batgirl and co-writing the early issues of Fury of Firestorm, right?), Madison would have seemed like a good person to have pitching Bat-adjacent books.


Anonymous said...

http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10150289410150832&set=t.635625831&type=3&theater (hope this link works) - it's me last year in Sydney at SupaNova

Jacob T. Levy said...

Huh. You persuade me. I got awfully fond of the Helena Bertinelli Huntress thanks to Birds of Prey (and to a lesser degree JLA), but I skipped this series precisely because it seemed so unnecessary.

I don't know how anyone ever drew that Jim Lee costume and then said with a straight face that DC didn't have some serious gender problems. In my view it was worse than that of Power Girl-- who was, after all, invulnerable. The logic of "I lack superpowers and will fight knife- and gun-wielding criminals with my belly bare, and I hide in the shadows but will leave lots of light-colored skin showing all over the place" was never even pretend-explained.

And, yes, the wonderful Gail Simone somehow talked as if she loved Ed Benes' drawings of Huntress, even in that costume. I don't understand that either.

Diabolu Frank said...

I really enjoyed the early issues of Huntress: Year One, and still held a positive view after the pacing progressively collapsed into a superdense mass of meh. I liked the art, too. I never cared for Greg Rucka, Cry of the Huntress, or its implications. I much prefer that if Huntress is not the Darknight Daughter, she should be allowed as much independence from Batman as possible. Also, it isn't safe to assume that Madison not working for DC was entirely DC's decision. Like a lot of writers, it could simply be that after dipping a toe in waters tainted by Dan Didio, she recoiled shivering. Perfectly natural reaction, but then again, maybe Geoff Johns took a power drill to her in a back room. I know I always hear Steeler's Wheel whenever I think of the DCFU Trinity of Didio, Johns and Jim Lee.

Akilles said...

Selina smoked in Batman:Year one.

Akilles said...

Also, I think that Madison may be busy being a lawyer and stuff like that. I could be wrong though.


Anonymous said...

HI Caleb, I do like the new Birds of Prey okay, of course I also thought that Helena Bertinelli was going to be a big part of the new 52 given her mini. Who knew they would revert back to Helena Wayne?
I agree with you on Ivory Madison. While Huntress:Year One wasn't perfect her writing is miles beyond some of the stuff that's shown up since in DC. I suspect the reason there was a Huntress Year One had to do with bolstering the character a bit after Canary left Birds of Prey but I don't know for sure.
And in case you're interested I did a retrospective on the costumes of the Huntress that has a few more than you have here.