When Kate Kane admits she’s gay in Detective Comics 859 (November 2009, Greg Rucka / J.H. Williams III), she does a lot more than out herself. Under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), the US law that prohibited gays and lesbians from serving openly in the country’s military, she gets herself kicked out of college and separated from the army. She denies herself the chance to follow the family tradition that had defined her goals since childhood.
And she makes herself worthy of wearing the Bat-symbol.
In the introduction to the 2010 collected edition Batwoman: Elegy, Rachel Maddow (yes, that Rachel Maddow) writes that Kate’s adherence to West Point’s honour code “rings in my ears like Lieutenant Dan Choi reciting the same code to me on television in March 2009, proving that ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ forced him to lie as a condition of his military service.” She commends Williams’ art for “capturing both a turning point and a nation’s moment of decision. It actually feels in America, right now, the way [Kate’s father] Colonel Kane looks in [one]panel.” It’s an issue—an arc—reflective of and influenced by a moment in time; it represents a struggle that is still only inching forward. But according to current Batwoman writer Marc Andreyko, it’s past its prime.
Speaking to Comic Book Resources’ Josie Campbell last month, Andreyko revealed plans to erase DADT from Kate’s origin, likening it to “referencing that Flash Thompson fought in the Vietnam War. It’s dated.” This is despite the fact that DADT was only fully repealed in 2011; current servicemembers as young as 23 or 24 would have graduated while it was still in force. The move also ignores the repercussions that DADT had on Kate’s character development: it is inextricable from her relationship with herself, her family, and her mission as Batwoman.
Erasing the importance of DADT to Kate’s character progression is not only unnecessary and illogical, but a step backwards in terms of representation at DC Comics. It represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the character and what she stands for.
Certainly character origin retcons are common in comics, which is, after all, a medium with a relatively flexible approach to timelines. Prior to the New 52, Green Arrow was updated to refresh his 1980s drug-war image, while over at Marvel Iron Man’s war has seamlessly slid from Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan. Yet these examples don’t affect the core of the character. It doesn’t matter whether Tony Stark’s cave and box of scraps were put together in the 1960s or the 2000s, whether Ollie is angered by pushers selling crack, heroin, or K, as long as cause and effect remain the same.
In cases where the defining event of the character cannot be replaced without damaging the story, comics have wisely chosen to trust their audience to discern between the spirit and the letter of the story’s logic. Magneto is a prime example: as recently as 2008 in the comics, and currently in the X-Men movies, Magneto has been portrayed as a Holocaust survivor. Given time’s passage, this is at best unlikely and at worst impossible. Yet the backstory remains because it allows for a metaphorical alignment between mutant and Jewish minorities—and because it provides representation to a marginalized group. The origin is an indelible part of Magneto’s character and motivations. The same is true for Kate’s experiences with DADT.
In 2010, Greg Rucka said that Kate’s refusal to lie about herself “was where Batwoman was born. […] This is the moment, in my opinion, that defines her as a hero.” Although Kate may be in violation of military law, she remains true to herself and to a code of honour both military and personal. Making the impossible choice not only demonstrates her strength of character, but also sets her on the path that ultimately leads to donning a cape.
Kate entered the military out of a desire to serve: DADT robs her of that. Although her honesty emphasizes the solid relationship she has with her father, she drifts at loose ends until a run-in with Batman. It takes her refusal to be a victim and her subsequent internalization of Batman’s mission to show her that the Batsignal functions as a “call to arms.” She is then able to carve out her own space outside of a structure that excludes her (a survival technique that’s more than familiar to members of minority groups). In becoming a crimefighter, she finds her own way to help people while remaining true to her own identity.
But without DADT, why did she leave the military? When were her honour and integrity tested? How did she and her father achieve the extremely close relationship that allows him to assist her crime-fighting? DADT forms the cornerstone of her backstory; remove it and the events collapse, unconnected. Her very self is damaged.
Thanks to DADT, Kate Kane is not only a queer superhero: she is a superhero because she is queer. Her career as a crimefighter comes out of her inability to stay in the army, and she is unable to stay in the army due to being gay.
This was revelatory in 2009, at a time when DC had much better lesbian and queer representation. As Batwoman, Kate was headlining Detective Comics while the backup featured her ex, Renee Montoya, as the Question. Midnighter and Apollo were making waves at Wildstorm. Secret Six included multiple queer characters whose sexualities were the most normal elements of their lives.
In 2014, the New 52 has negated many of these advances. Renee’s touching, revelatory arc of self-discovery and imperfect heroism has been reduced to tossed-off comments and mysterious references. Scandal Savage is gone—though I understand Vandal has a new daughter now—as are her friends and lovers Knockout, Liana, and Jeannette. And though some important new characters have appeared, such as Alyssa Yeoh, Barbara Gordon’s trans roommate in Batgirl, series like Demon Knights and The Movement have almost ghetto-ized the appearance of gender and sexuality minorities in DC (and have not been tremendously successful).
Batwoman was the first queer superhero to headline an ongoing, established series like Detective as well as to have her own ongoing as part of a prominent relaunch like the New 52. Were all the other queer characters I mentioned still visible at DC, she would be important; without them, she is even more so. Her heroism is not merely about being a vigilante, but about being a proud queer woman without compromise: an aspirational, representational icon for queer readers. She has undergone uniquely queer struggles and become a hero through them and because of them. Retconning DADT negates that recognition for queer readers both inside and outside of America. The move also raises echoes of the last controversy raised around Batwoman: the editorial edict against her marriage. Both are representative of the continuing struggle for queer rights in the United States. Refusing these portrayals is not necessarily a homophobic act, but it is also not an act taking place in a vacuum, divorced from context.
Andreyko claims that he wants to get away from didactic, ultra-timely political issues and write stories that focus on the interpersonal. Yet what he seems to forget—oddly, for a gay man—is that the personal is political. Sexuality does not merely influence who a character dates; it also affects their worldview. Dismissing the DADT arc as “didactic” insults the creators as well as those of us who responded to its artistry and meaning. Is it a teaching moment? For readers who never had to consider the impact of the DADT law, perhaps; realizing that someone affected by the law can be something other than a justified loss could very well have been revelatory. But more importantly, it is inclusive: it is a chance for a marginalized group to say, yes, here I am, here in this medium that I love; here is a character who has faced issues I have faced; here is how she overcomes them and goes on to become more.
Popular culture is always tied to the era in which it is produced. Stories always carry the context of their production with them. Good stories comment on that context. And the best stories speak from their contextualized position: they create a text that simultaneously captures the struggles of its era and yet appeals as a story regardless of its time.
With Batwoman’s defining run in Detective Comics, Rucka and Williams created a character whose compelling backstory was simultaneously specific and universal. Kate Kane spoke to servicemembers who had been discharged under DADT: she showed them that they could be heroes regardless. She spoke to gay, lesbian, and queer readers: she emphasized the importance of honouring one’s own truth. And she spoke to anyone who has experienced injustice: she reminded us that there are always ways to fight.
Retconning her history with Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is a poor storytelling decision as well as a cop-out in terms of representation. It needlessly erases a meaningful and important element of comics history. But it’s sadly par for the course from a company that seems determined to ignore that smaller acts of heroism can be just as important as punching supervillains.