The Twice-Named:

Batwoman and the Use of Space

Comics are often rigorous in their use of panels and page space. The shape the content takes through its panels has changed drastically through out the years, but a certain economic theory of panels has prevailed.

Rucka and Williams have crafted a comic that presses beyond this economy and creates a symphony on page. Even the first page works as a warning, a tuning up.

Opening we see a woman running through a black and white scene. There is nothing outstanding about the page which is a basic 3 panel set up. It is not until we move to the last panel do we get a color: a red bat symbol.

The reader turns the page and an explosion occurs.

Opting out of typical panels, Williams places a broken bat symbol at the top 3/4 of the page. Only inside each piece of the symbol is a different bit of the scene unraveling before the reader. Notice that the bat symbol all pulls your attention down and into the bottom panel which is an action shot of Batwoman kicking towards the reader, or the woman just chased.

It would be easy to say the panels are weird, perhaps even over done. But, this would be to miss some one of the best mysteries in some time.  Instead of allowing the mystery to unfold through the dialogue, Williams has opted to develop clues via his panels and character rendering that could be used in an expert class on subtly and elegance in comic books.

If you have never read Batwoman:Elegy I would skip this article because spoilers will persist.

What seems to be a simple crime caper story unravels into one of the most haunting family mysteries this side of Oedipus. When we are first introduced to Alice during Batwoman: Elegy she appears to be another sick psychopath villain.  Instead she is vulnerable in her insanity. She is also Kate Kane’s long thought dead twin sister Beth.

Obviously since she has blonde hair cut in a goldilocks style is it not hard to wonder how you never saw the clues of their being sisters. Looking below, if you examine the overall more cartoonish nature to the way Alice is drawn is starkly different than even her cohorts.  Also she looks drastically cartoonish next to Batwoman.

If you flip to the pages where Kate Kane is with her father, don’t those pages looking eerily similar to the same style in which Alice is drawn? Williams is adopting a different style in drawing Alice in order to highlight the familial bond to who Batwoman truly is: Kate Kane.

Instead of relying on the usual economy and placement of panels, Williams is employing them as the story. The panels do not just simply move the story, they are as integral to the story as the dialogue and art.

If still in doubt to the overall mastery of Rucka and Williams, below is the ballroom scene. Eight pages that flow like music across the page.

As we notice that the top banner of the page is sheet music, our eyes drop to the panel below and we can notice that the people are also spaced as if notes on the bars of the carpet. The angels acting as the ends to this bar all the while the characters and words are scattered to also reflect the wax and wane of a symphony that is conceivably being played in the background.

The it is that Kate and reader meet Maggie Sawyer which gives way to a beautiful dance scene.

This should have been a boring scene. By all rights dancing scenes are typically dull unless you are a fan of dancing. But Williams is not content to simply show them dancing, Williams is set on bringing it to life. You can see the pair dance across the two pages, the music gliding behind them. To further highlight how the music punctuates the scene, Williams uses the inner circles of musical notes to hold panels. It is an ingenious move that will further draw the reader in with its artistry.

But Williams seems to enjoy the change in style between the scenes of Kat Kane and Batwoman.  For Rucka and Williams they seem to have a deeper understanding of the character that comes across in the panels. For instance, readers may notice that Batwoman’s scenes all seem sharper, crisp, and realistic.  Where as the Kate Kane scenes all seem to share a certain more comic book appearance.

While many of the pages and panels have given clues, it is perhaps this page that is most revealing of Kate Kane’s story. At the top we are shown Batwoman in his sharp, stylized more real version.  We then see her body and scene blend into the scene and body of Alice. If you pull the book away a bit you can see that they are forming a ying yang shape.

While the first reaction is to declare this simply reveals Alice as her arch nemesis, it does more than that. It reveals Alice as Kate’s sister. Alice is a fiction, a reaction to a hard life while Kate is a realization and acceptance of a need to serve. This is also why the scenes as Batwoman have a edge of realism to them that Kate Kane’s scenes do not.

While Batwoman: Elegy is infamous for many reasons, it should be remembered also for its artistic mastery. A combination of script and art that coalesced almost as if a symphony.

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Kevin Thurman is a writer based in Chicago. He blogs about comics, life, and music at

See more, including free online content, on .

Also by Kevin Thurman:

Warren Ellis: The Captured Ghosts Interviews


Voyage in Noise: Warren Ellis and the Demise of Western Civilization


Shot in the Face: A Savage Journey to the Heart of Transmetropolitan


The Devil is in the Details: Examining Matt Murdock and Daredevil


a feature-length documentary film on celebrated comics writer Warren Ellis

creative consultant

Keeping the World Strange: A Planetary Guide



  1. David Balan says:

    Great article, Kevin!

    But I’m going to have to respectfully disagree. While doing things like the Yin-Yang symbol and the broken-bat symbol of panels is novel and may carry some degree of symbolic meaning (rivals, sisters, one cannot exist without the other, etc…) it is first and foremost – confusing.

    When I looked at that first spread (and take note, I’ve never read Batwoman: Elegy before) the first thing I thought was “Where do I go?” My eye instantly went down to the bottom panel, swept around the logo, and kept moving about. This is a wonderful work of design, yes – it has moved my eye around its composition. But it hasn’t told me a story. The first thing I notice is the design, and then I have to navigate it and stop, think, figure out where I’m supposed to go and how to get there, and then get back into the story.

    That’s not good. It’s taken me out of the experience of reading and has hit me across the face with what amounts to the penciler shouting at me, “HEY, LOOK HOW INTELLIGENT AND ARTFUL I AM!”

    I don’t care. Tell me a story, not a lecture. If I have to work to figure out what that story is, you’ve lost my attention and a great deal of my interest. Artful composition and meaningful visual design is not opposed to storytelling – it’s easy to put a yin yang symbol on a page and use it as a metaphor for the characters in the story – it’s much more difficult to be less blatant about it and show that relationship through the events of a clearly told story. It’s also much more effective. Symbolism is designed to be subconscious – not at the forefront. It should never get in the way of the story.

    But great symbolism and great storytelling can indeed be united! I seem to bring this comic up in half of my conversations here, and I wish I had another example, but Watchmen employs clear storytelling and subtle symbolism very well. The symbolism runs just beneath the main narrative, and if it’s your first voracious reading of Watchmen you might miss all the finer points – which is how it should be. They worked in the subconscious to enhance the effect of the story.

    By contrast, the symbolism here is getting in the way of the main narrative and lacks subtlety or depth in its execution.

    But – I’ll be damned if J.H. Williams doesn’t draw beautiful people.

    • I think what you raise, David, is that there’s a difference in comics between great art and great storytelling. I always think of Jon Van Fleet in this regard. I can’t stress enough that love his artwork and bought his hardcover book of art. But reading comics by him, I sometimes feel lost in the detail of the panels, which are so beautiful, and this gets in the way of moving forward.

      J. H. Williams comes close to that line and occasionally crosses it. I don’t feel lost, but I do feel a bit taken out of the story. I think that worked with Promethea, because that was a more intellectual, idea-driven comic. But I do agree that this is an issue worth discussing.

      Still, yes, I’d gladly take this concern over most others, because it is a beautiful comic that’s trying to do something a bit different, and I’ll always support that.

      • The fact that Williams, and Rucka, were attempting something different is laudable, but the art itself is so gorgeous and moves in a great rhythm that many new artists could learn a lot from.
        While I can see how it can take you out of the story, I think there is something to be said for how the art puts you into the story. Even if the reader goes outside the story at some points, JH Williams reminds the reader page after page that the story is all there is. That the art and story mesh together so well that it can remove that feeling of being pushed outside of the story. Or so I like to believe.

      • David Balan says:

        Agreed, reading Williams is vastly more satisfying than many other artists today, because he’s pushing boundaries, even if he’s not successful. The dance spread you put up was in particular I think, quite successful. It used comics form in a novel way, but it was still readable.

  2. Thanks for the reply David!
    To me, what worked was how Williams’s did not hinder himself by the page. Granted the ying-yang symbol is not subtle, it is when you just look at the page as a whole. But, what I find amusing is that Williams is often cited as a genius for his work in Promethea and chided for his work on Batwoman.
    I think that Batwoman on the whole is far greater than its parts. This is true. You do have to work for it. But, I am not sure why that would detour anyone. Listen, for me it’s like comparing Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow to Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss. One can be read in a sitting, no problem. The other is rather a chore to get through. While I am not saying complexity equals beauty, isn’t there something to be said for works that require that type of unpacking? That require you to really mull it over and not just breeze past the page and panels.

    • David Balan says:

      You bring up a good point, that there may be some value in the idea of material that is challenging to approach – James Joyce and others in literary circles, etc…

      It’s a question I’ve been grappling with for awhile now. My current view (subject to change!) is that although there’s certainly not NO value in work that is formally mystifying for a purpose, I find that it comes off rather pretentious, whether or not the author intended it that way.

      Once you learn vocabulary, it’s very easy to communicate complex ideas in complex terms. Piling word upon word, esoteric phrase upon esoteric phrase, where it sounds like one is speaking about something very complex and beyond the grasp of the layman – when really, it’s not that mysterious, it’s simply that the author is trying to cover all the bases of the idea through throwing words at it – rather than summing it up.

      By contrast, it’s very difficult to communicate complex ideas in simple, easy to understand terms. The entire career of teaching depends upon that skill. Being able to say something that has broad-reaching implications that forces the reader to think, but not to scratch his head and wonder what the hell you’re talking about – that’s hard.

      I think there is a middle ground – content that is easy to understand and makes you think, therefore inviting you to mull upon its pages, but not requiring you to do so to understand what is happening. That kind of content will both reach a broader audience and probably have a lot more to say.

      That’s my current take on that issue of complexity. But I’m open to debate!

      • David,
        I always enjoy when you comment, you give me a lot of food for thought.
        “I think there is a middle ground – content that is easy to understand and makes you think, therefore inviting you to mull upon its pages, but not requiring you to do so to understand what is happening. That kind of content will both reach a broader audience and probably have a lot more to say.”
        I think that what you said is the key: a great work is, perhaps, one that does not require the reader to negotiate the art, but can if they so desire a fuller meaning from the work.
        Then again, that in and of itself has pitfalls I am sure.
        But, I will say that I do not think complexity for complexities sake is artful or should be accepted. This was part of the downfall to works like Final Crisis that read like Pynchon took speed and LSD and made a comic. I mean that as a quasi compliment. haha

  3. Greg Martin says:

    nice article and i think jh williams proves to be something of a confounding subject…there is no doubting the exceptional talent and willingness to experiment. but does he tell a good story? i agree with david here…i find his storytelling to be more than a bit wanting. his art, while truly delightful-and he captures the female form in ways few can, smacks of the smug show-off. in fairness if i could draw like that i would show off too :D…but i digress.

    now im nowhere near the storytelling puritan that david is :D, but even for me i find the pages more than a bit confusing and the flourishes both unnecessary and pretentious. when i think of jh williams i can’t but think of p craig russell-both fine artists-but russell always advanced the story in a meaningful way…even when, or maybe especially when, he was on challenging and lyrical material like elric for instance. the things we should praise williams for is unabashed love for the character and excellence at his craft…on a book like sandman i think this style works perfectly-on batwoman less well.

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