Spoiler Warning! Minor Spoilers for Batwoman #33-38 ahead.
Huzzah! Some of my favorite comic book weirdos are relevant again thanks to Batwoman. Marc Andreyko has thrown some mystical curveballs at Kate Kane this past year that led to what is possibly my favorite team up of all time: “The Unknowns.” Batwoman joins forces with Etrigan, Ragman, Clayface, and her sister, Alice, to battle some dark evil brought about by Morgan le Fay (yes, THE Morgan le Fay). Andreyko teases this new ragtag group in the title’s Futures End one-shot, but then decides to skip straight past the team’s origin in the regular timeline and then backtrack. Issue 34 ends with some vampire manipulation, and in issue 35 we’re immediately thrown into an outer space demon battle. So what’s going on here?
Batwoman has been building a reputation for protecting the creepier side of Gotham, and bringing in vampire Nocturna prior to this new storyline was a great way to firmly establish a supernatural feel, although it created yet another controversy over the treatment of Batwoman from fans. Amidst a crisis with her long-time girlfriend/fiance, Maggie, Kate is now dealing with a vampire who has glamoured her way into a relationship while occasionally outright controlling Batwoman to do her bidding (further reading on queerness and female vampires available here). While many fans read Nocturna’s vampire glamouring as rape, writer Marc Andreyko, who is gay and has a reputation for writing both gay characters and strong female leads, assures fans there’s more to be revealed with this relationship. Despite the plot jumping from questionable vampire seduction to the Unknowns, Nocturna is still very much in the picture and in Kate’s head. Luckily for her, help comes in the form of a demon.
There’s a handful of characters that DC writers often toss into storylines to spice them up a bit, and Etrigan is the best of them. A literal demon from hell, Etrigan is sometimes a villain, often a hero, and occasionally a simple agent of chaos. He’s actually a creation of the great Jack Kirby, first appearing in 1972 in The Demon which ran for a whopping sixteen issues before ending. This short series also introduced the Witchboy, Klarion, and his cat Teekl, so you can probably get a sense of the magical, hellish themes happening here. Back in Medieval times, the demon, Etrigan, was bound to a mortal man named Jason Blood. The two basically take turns existing on the mortal plane; Blood’s life is often controlled by Etrigan’s actions, but at least he gets the benefit of being immortal.
Etrigan showed up at the very beginning of The New 52 in Demon Knights, a regrettably short-lived comic created by Paul Cornell and Diogenes Neves that was basically a series of D&D campaigns. His most iconic characterization, however, occurred in the 1990s relaunch of The Demon. The insanely weird series ran for more than 50 issues with a slew of guest appearances including Batman, Wonder Woman, and Lobo. Initially helmed by popular writer of the time, Alan Grant, and then ending with Garth Ennis, the story began in hell where the yellow, web-eared brute wreaked havoc while his human counterpart, Jason Blood, stumbled around in despair. This series also reintroduced one of Etrigan’s most unique personality traits: his tendency to speak in rhymes. Fortunately for us, this is the version of Etrigan that Andreyko is channeling in 2015.
Etrigan is no stranger to Gotham, most often encountering the Batman himself. Batwoman first meets the Demon as he’s about to murder Jason Blood, who at the moment is mysteriously not tethered to him. A fight ensues, but once Kate and Etrigan realize they have a common enemy, they take to each other right away. He’s even able to sense and then sever Nocturna’s connection to Kate, at least temporarily. Etrigan is a great anti-hero in that way, because as long as you’re already fighting on the same side, he can be a great ally, but if you’re at odds, he will try to murder you with fire breath.
Another classic character appearing on the Unknowns roster is Ragman. While Etrigan is a force from hell that occasionally fights for good, Ragman is a force of good that occasionally gets possessed by evil. Also known as the “Tatterdemalion of Justice,” Rory Regan was introduced in 1976 with Ragman #1. He and his father ran a second hand store together, Rags’n’Tatters (which appears in Batwoman before Ragman shows up), until his father is tragically killed in the alley behind the store. Rory later finds a costume his father had poorly sewn together for a costume party and takes up the mantle to become Ragman.
Very similar to Etrigan’s evolution, Ragman was relaunched in the 1990s (if you want a concise but detailed introduction to the character, get your hands on a copy of Batman #551). Rory Regan’s origin was kept remarkably intact, but it was given depth when it was revealed that Rory was Jewish and the Ragman costume was actually mystical and tied to the mythical guardian in Jewish folklore the Golem. In the 16th century, a rabbi used the mystical secrets of Kabbalah to create a clay monster who protected Jews living in Prague ghettos. Uneasy with a soulless protector, a council of rabbis replaced the Golem with a living costume, animated by a human agent, which was passed down through generations. The rags on the costume each represented the soul of an evil-doer that the Ragman absorbed as punishment; this also gives Rory magical abilities. The downside is that the rags often seek their own vengeance, and sometimes Rory is the one being controlled by the Ragman, making him a well-meaning but often unreliable ally.
Along with these two supernatural characters, Batwoman finds herself allied with two rogues with histories of mental illness. Clayface was an unexpected but surprisingly spot-on choice for this team; despite his gruff attitude and slimy exterior, he’s somehow endearing as he tries to keep his teammates from floating away in the vast chasm of outer space. Morgan le Fay’s acolytes used his body as a vessel, consequently wiping his memories and making Clayface a blank slate that could become yet another reformed Gotham villain. And Alice, now Red Alice, will obviously be somewhat of a wildcard, considering her often fragile state of mind. Her role reversal with her sister in the Futures End one-shot doesn’t bode well for either of them, even if it is an alternate timeline.
I have to admit that it’s been a hot minute since a DC title has truly excited me, but I’ve found a new favorite in Batwoman. Marc Andreyko made an inspired decision to showcase these classic characters, and with artwork by Georges Jeanty, famous for his long run on Buffy, this is like candy for fans of female heroines and the uncanny. Andreyko’s success comes from the fact that he’s built a supernatural world that’s still accessible because it deals with realistic issues. Kate even attends therapy (something any Gotham vigilante should consider) to tackle all the baggage she carries from her failed relationships, complicated history with the military, and all the awfulness she faces as Batwoman. There’s a sense of genuineness alongside these weirdos, proving that you don’t have to tone down odd characters to make them thrive in a comic universe that shoots for realism. If you haven’t been reading this comic, there’s still time to catch up with the Unknowns saga, which will wrap up the series as Convergence takes over the DC universe. Pick up Batwoman starting with issue 35 and stick around for the conclusion in Batwoman Annual #2, coming out this April.