Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Hunted became The Huntress

I can't say for certain exactly when I made Helena Wayne's acquaintance, but I do know she left an immediate, lasting impression. I'd been reading comics long enough to know who the major players were, but I hadn't quite wrapped my brain around confusing concepts like the DC Multiverse. I figured the All-Star Squadron were closer to their modern conception as the heroes of World War Two, rather than being from an alternate Earth with a continuity separate from that of the DC Comics I usually read. To have some unfamiliar heroine show up alongside them with the bona fide of being Batman's daughter kind of shook my world view, especially in light of a confusing timetable. It doesn't matter whether my first exposure was a mediocre Solomon Grundy story or a battle with a creepy ninja chick, this Huntress was a mysterious figure with a great name, a cool look, and an intriguing background that I wanted to read more about. Unfortunately, DC Comics didn't get very good newsstand distribution when I was a kid, and the ones featuring the Huntress were even harder to come by. Instead, Huntress was often a focal character of interest amidst a bunch of unknowns in random house ads, group shots, and giveaways like DC Sampler. That last one was an especially curious treasure, when the closest I came to a comic shop was flea market booths. I didn't know what an Ultra-Humanite was or why that black kid had feathers instead of hair, but whoever was drawing the Huntress amidst those weirdos was good. Beyond that, my only Huntress source was the occasional Wonder Woman back up found second hand or in a three-pack.

By the mid-80s, I'd outgrown most of the DC titles I could get my hands on. The only issue of Crisis On Infinite Earths I read in process was the seventh, so I was very aware of the passing of Supergirl, but missed the unremarkable death of the Huntress a few issues later. What I took from the series was that DC had killed off its sillier characters, that only one version of a given hero would continue to exist, and that their icons would now be handled in the contemporary Marvel manner. The hottest creators in comics were given essentially a blank slate with DC's biggest heroes, so I was all over that. No one bothered with the Huntress until 1989, when a revised version of the character was launched in her own series. I believe by that point I'd learned the old Huntress had been the Earth-2 Catwoman's daughter, but it wasn't the "real" version, which made the heroine seem irrelevant. Further, with Batman as your father, where do you go? It would seem to unfairly and unfavorably compare the character, her cast, and her stories to the entire Batman mythos. When I read the new origin of the rechristened Helena Bertinelli, which cast her as the sole survival of a mob family massacre who trained from childhood for revenge, I felt at least the Batman baggage was lifted. The backstory seemed derivative though, and the series failed to hold my interest, so Huntress went back to being a nostalgia character I read only in guest appearances.

After her series was canceled, the Huntress went unemployed for several years, until writer Chuck Dixon began using her in his Batman Family books. Jim Lee clone Travis Charest drew some eye-catching covers with the heroine, but as with her solo series, the interiors left a lot to be desired. Thanks in part to her lack of a costume material, I noticed the Huntress' uniform had been tweaked repeatedly over the years. It never had a particularly strong design, but so long as essential elements like the cape, the purple coloring, the long loose hair, and most especially the crossbow remained in place, the rest didn't matter especially much. In fact, it made a lot more sense to have a variety of costumes at the Huntress' disposal, and helped balance out the ridiculousness of an urban vigilante wielding a medieval weapon. I also recognized there had to be something more to my interest in the Huntress than fond childhood memories. The character projected confidence, mystique and attitude that DC heroines desperately needed.

Unfortunately, Dixon took it upon himself to saddle the Huntress with a pretty serious psychosis. Rather than considering the character as an independent entity, Dixon used her tendency toward unnecessary force to demonstrate the acceptable limits within the Batman Family, and how her willingness to induce serious bodily injury exempted her from inclusion. Further, it was teased that she might occasionally indulge in homicide off-panel, casting her as at best an anti-heroine and at worst a ticking time bomb. Next came a troubling spotlight mini-series whose script aped Frank Miller's Elekta: Assassin and whose art imitated Frank Miller's Sin City, neither to appealing effect. This characterization held up throughout the '90s, seeing Grant Morrison include Huntress in his JLA as an undesirable Batman substitute, whom the Dark Knight would himself "fire" from the team after a year.

This is not to say that Chuck Dixon's influence was entirely negative. Over the course of the 1990s, the Huntress overtly embraced her ethnic and religious identities as an Italian Catholic, giving a real world depth to the character often considered taboo for bigger names. The Huntress incorporated a large crucifix into her wardrobe, and began covering up all that once vulnerable flesh in her most practical and dignified costume. An intriguing dichotomy developed within the character, contrasting her faith and role as a school teacher with her violent actions. Artists also tended to draw the character with a lean musculature, making her visibly more formidable. Also, it was during these years that I went back and read more of her earlier solo stories and adventures as a member of Infinity Inc. While I thought it a shame to trade Helena Wayne's more lucrative law degree, social consciousness, and access to power for an emotionally damaged substitute teacher, Helena Bertinelli had a lot more personality and complexity.

A real turning point came with the arrival of Devin Grayson as a writer for the Batman books. Grayson embraced the character, and rejected the more unsavory elements of Dixon's characterization, much to his chagrin. DC has a tendency toward treating their non-white and female characters delicately, often pigeonholing them in sanitized roles. As a woman herself, Grayson gifted Helena with dimensions denied her for decades. In a co-starring mini-series, Huntress and Nightwing's relationship shifted from the chaste fraternity of the Pre-Crisis years to uncomfortable sex buddies. Rather than being simply an untrusted rogue element, the Huntress was allowed to mock and otherwise criticize the Batman Family from the outside in. Perhaps in reaction to this, the Huntress was pushed out of her ghetto position in Gotham of the previous decade toward the greater DC Universe from which she was truly spawned as a member of the Justice Society of America. This would be no return to abandoned form, however, as Huntress bypassed that austere group to become part of the girl power clique Birds of Pray.

I spent twenty years trying to like the Black Canary, but despite her being a nice enough character appearing in solid stories, there's something essential missing from her to my taste. I read Chuck Dixon's work on the character off and on, but it took the arrival of the Huntress and another female writer, Gail Simone, to really turn me on to BoP. Once again, the Huntress was an agitator, but given sarcastic humor, legitimate sensuality and a recognition of her own questionable judgment that made the character sing. Simone continued this interpretation into animation, as the tough, sexy, charismatic Huntress appeared on Justice League Unlimited. There were some rough patches along the way, like a fairly terrible Birds of Prey television series, but I feel like the Huntress has finally begun living up to the potential and appeal I've always seen in the character. To contrast against Black Canary, I've suffered through a lot of bad choices made with the Huntress, but I could never be completely dissuaded from being her fan.


LissBirds said...

Nice writeup on Huntress. She's someone I've always felt drawn to, most likely because she rebelled against Batman's rules, and I like the vigilante/woman of faith dichotomy as well. Whether it's Methodism, Judaism, or the gods of Mars, I think it's nice to see the beliefs of heroes represented every now and then. Not only that, but she's got a cultural background which gives her some depth.

The JLU incarnation was pretty good (I wish they had chosen a less busy verion of her costume, was a tad gaudy, IMHO), and teaming her up with the Question was pure brilliance especially because she dished out the sarcasm as much as he did. It's too bad the voice casting for her made her sound so girlish. Huntress needs a sultry, Lauren Bacall voice.

Diabolu Frank said...

In a rare break, I'm going to disagree with large tracts of what you just said.

The Pre-Crisis Huntress, like Batgirl on Earth-1, initially operated without Batman's consent, oversight, or even full knowledge. However, Wayne to my recollection wasn't critical of the Huntress, and embraced his daughter's continuation of his legacy once he knew the truth. Further, Helena Wayne was a well balanced and socially active individual, and was a lawyer in good standing as a public advocate.

The Post-Crisis Huntress was intended to be largely divorced from the Batman Family, and when Chuck Dixon finally brought her in, it was as a lesson in how not to be a proper vigilante. Like the Punisher, Dixon's conception of the Huntress was a nutjob who was just discreet enough in her probable killings that she managed to avoid Batman's detection, but never his harsh judgment. Helena Bertinelli essentially replaced Jason Todd as the extant black sheep, barely tolerated by anyone. The Huntress didn't so much rebel against Batman as she was a borderline sociopath who tried but failed to operate within his graces.

The Huntress was saved by Devin Grayson, who righted her mentally and portrayed her as more the bad girl of the family. This interpretation was picked-up and developed by Gail Simone, who again took her to the far side of the Batman Family and allowed her enough autonomy and positive reinforcement to prove that she could be trusted as a reputable heroine.

Point being, the more the Huntress is defined by her relationship with Batman, the less healthy and admirable she is. On Earth-2, Bruce Wayne and Richard Grayson were occasional guest stars, but there was never any doubt that Helena Wayne was the capable star of the show. Her solo series stumbled, but it still provided the groundwork for the Huntress to function independently. For my money, her appearances in Birds of Prey have been among her best, as the main consideration is how well she plays off two similar heroines. While the Huntress may be the edgy contrast against a lighter and a more cerebral counterpart, she is ultimately defined by who she is, not by how she relates to others. When plugged into the Batman Family, she is instead portrayed as the most damaged, flawed and unworthy of a dubious lot, which I find disheartening and a disservice the the heroine.

Diabolu Frank said...

Whew! Moving on, the cool thing about the Huntress' faith is how jacked up it is. Batman is the stern priest who's secretly shagging a parishioner, yet secure in his righteousness. Nightwing is the alter boy who is outwardly noble and loved by all, but is also quietly shagging a fellow parishioner. Huntress is indiscreetly shagging whomever she damned well pleases, then feeling guilty about it. She's the damaged human being who feels like something less, where Bruce is the missionary man, and Dick the faithful servant.

I've come to appreciate the JLU/Jim Lee costume's good points (cool mask, bike, costume with embedded crucifix) and try to ignore the bad (exposed belly, booty shorts, manga affectations, stupid armor.) I think it's cool how Huntress gets a new costume every few years with radical alterations while still being totally recognizable. I also believe she's one of the rare characters whose solid first costume still benefits mightily from the renovations. It wasn't bad, but it's probably her worst.

Finally, I thought the Question relationship was inspired, but I was fine with her voice actress. The Huntress is always a degreed professional, but she's also always a young, "green" one. You figure seven years to become an attorney, but I'd subtract a few years off high school, given her background. Wayne would have passed the bar at 22-25, with a couple years experience under her belt, placing her in the mid-to-late twenties. Bertinelli lacked some of those advantages, but private school and a four year degree could see her as young as her early twenties.

Wayne wasn't especially sultry, and Bertinelli isn't especially polished, so I can't hear Becall for either. Factoring in their youth, I'm willing to give an actress portraying the Huntress a lot of slack. I'm most concerned with attitude and athletic ability. I don't care how "sultry" Scarlett Johansson was supposed to be as the Black Widow, she and her obvious stunt double had no business playing Milla Jovovich's god-given role. In trying to think of someone with the physicality and presence to play the Huntress, my first choice would probably be Michelle Rodriguez. She's not Italian, but I'm more worried about her punch than her ethnicity.

LissBirds said...

See, I haven't read BoP or Chuck Dixon's Huntress, so my conception of her is probably different than yours. I've only read No Man's Land--she really shined there--Hush, and Cry for Blood. In NML she wanted to play by her own rules, do some good where others had given up, and wanted to be a member of the Batfamily until Batman kicked her out. (But was later forgiven...only after getting shot...) I like her within the Batfamily because she's a foil to Batman's "one rule" and, given free reign, she could probably stop crime better than Batman does. But she doesn't need to be psychotic to do so. Nor do I want her to be psychotic. Ideally, I see her as an old time Catholic school teacher who didn't think twice about smacking an unruly kid in the face while at the same time teaching The Golden Rule to the rest of the class...and who treats criminals the same way. If you're a bad guy, tough, you're getting an arrow through the wrist and maybe worse, and yet she never misses a Holy Day of Obligation and Confesses her sins...but doesn't regret bending the rules.

For whatever reason, I just don't want to read Birds of Prey anytime soon, but maybe if I do I'll know where you're coming from. I didn't like her sleeping around with everyone because it just degrades her into being taken less seriously and furthers the "she's not as good a person as Batman" argument. Plus, I can't help but feel mildly annoyed whenever I see the Catholic-school-girl-gone-naughty trope/stereotype, and I always think writers secretly enjoy taking a little dig at a Catholic character. That's probably an irrational assumption, but eh, that's how it strikes me. (Yet shooting people with arrows doesn't bother me...go figure...then again...nuns hit people and it didn't bother them.)

This all made a LOT more sense in my head and before I got semi-delerious, which I can't even spell. But I know where you're coming from by saying she works better on her own because she was written as the lunatic fringe of the Batfamily.

Michelle Rodriguez! I loved her in Lost. She's a little rough around the edges for Helena, though, but I could see her as Helena. I can't think of anyone who could play her, as I never was any good with fantasy casting.

Diabolu Frank said...

I really liked how Dale Eaglesham drew Huntress in NML. She looked tough as hell. I only skimmed the series, though.

It isn't so much that I want the Huntress to be promiscuous as I'm just happy there are super-heroines allowed to have sex outside a steady boyfriend or marriage. Super-heroes do it all the time, and the prudery gets my dander up.

LissBirds said...

Huntress in NML was a great read. If you can tolerate five trade paperbacks of Batman-ness, I highly recommend it. (Actually, Batman isn't in it all that much in the beginning.) (Bonus--lots of Two-Face in there, too.)

Ahh, I see. Yes, there is that double standard. Well, okay, let some other heroine have all the fun. Of course now I can't think of any who aren't married or in some sort of relationship, or are not dead. Power Girl? Fire? Bea with a new boytoy every week--I wouldn't mind that one bit.