I (finally!) got my hands on the loose issues of Detective Comics #854-57, the first Batwoman arc titled “Elegy.”  I knew nothing about the character and dug this issues up solely based on the tremendous press the story has gotten from various comic book reviewers and bloggers.  Oh, that and the fact that it is written by Greg Rucka, whose batman work I’ve enjoyed immensely–particularly on Gotham Central, a non-superhero/crime book written in a superhero universe that should be considered a must-read by anyone who calls themselves a Batfan.

Imagine my surprise when I found myself not even looking at the words.

The magic of comic books is that they can combine the best elements of film (i.e., visuals) and novels (i.e., words) to tell a story in a unique way–one that couldn’t be told by either of those other media.  The best comics are those in which the writer and artist act as one, with the words complimenting the pictures and the pictures telling us more than words can.  I’m thinking of the fluidity of Frank Miller and Klaus Janson’s Daredevil work; the way that Frank Quietly manages to fill in all the narrative holes left behind by Grant Morrison; and the way that Sean Phillips and Brubaker seem to mind-meld on every one of their projects.  But at bottom I’m usually a “words” guy–I’ll buy a book for the writer even if I don’t love the artist.

But, again, when I dug into Elegy I realized I wasn’t reading it.  I was watching it.

I didn’t know anything about JH Williams III coming into this book, but the man is a master of the double-page spread, telling the “super” parts of the story often through panels arranged in the shape of Batwoman’s chest symbol and the “secret identity” parts through close, taut sequences.  But that’s just in the beginning.  As the tale picks up speed, the panels become more jagged, more chaotic, even as the heroine herself descends into a mad hallucination at the hands of her adversary.  Artistically, this is the book that should be held up when people say, “Why should I read comics when I can just watch a superhero movie?”

But I don’t want to skip over the words, because after I spend sufficient time admiring the images, I went back to the script, and this is some of Rucka’s best work.  He was able to introduce me, a Batwoman neophyte, to a character who apparently had a rich history without miring me in minute backstory that, frankly, I could care less about.  And he’s got some great one-liners as well, from the tough-talk when Batwoman crashes a gang of henchmen while looking for the gang’s female leader (“Names mean power.  You fear mine.  I want hers.  And at least one of you is going to tell me.”) to when Batwoman first confronts her adversary–a lunatic modeled after Alice in Wonderland–with the words: “You speak fluent crazy. . . Didn’t anyone give you the memo?  Gotham already has one Carroll-inspired freak.”

And, yes, Batwoman’s secret ID is a lesbian.  But Rucka handles this well, without fanfare.  The woman is gay because she’s gay, not because DC is trying to be inclusive.  She’s not a trophy or a token, she’s a real person.  Rucka has done this before, in the pages of the afore-mentioned Gotham Central, and the lesbian police captain from that series reemerges in this title as well.

A truly amazing book.  I will be ordering the hardcover because, as they say, this one is a keeper.