NOTE: This article contains SPOILERS for Detective Comics #948
There was a time when the American readership of comic books relied on the youngest of (mainly male) minds to gain attention, reflecting the fact with heroes who transformed from everyday kids or teens into superstrong titans - and later, even the second string superheroes recruiting younger sidekicks to show every little boy turning the pages that they, too, could become "Superman's Pal." The medium exploded as soldiers overseas caught on, with the cover art and war stories reflecting their experiences as well. The result was a comic book universe that reflected the reality - perceived or legitimate - of its readership: white, predominantly male, and... less than interested in gender or identity politics.
But the times have changed. As the audience reading comic books has diversified, so too have the creators behind the scenes - many of whom grew up loving the medium, despite the lack of faces or identities that reflected their own. In the case of the big two publishers, Marvel and DC Comics, that means updating, re-imagining, or introducing characters that reflect the world they're shaped by and sold into. 2016 proved to be a unique year for DC in particular, given the rise of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer characters in prominent roles and books.
The charge was led by one of DC's most visible queer superheroines, Batwoman, becoming the face of charity drives, and gaining enough traction in James Tynion IV's "Reborn" Detective Comics to earn her very own solo comic starting in February 2017. The story expected to draw Batwoman out of Detective and into her solo book has officially begun, and true to the spirit of heroes familiar with 'wearing a mask,' the first chapter of "Batwoman Begins" plants one more flag for LGBTQ readers.
The best part? The newest ally of Batman isn't defined by her trans identity. In fact, if you're not one of the people whose existence is validated by the character's story... there's a good chance you wouldn't even notice it.
For those who haven't been following Tynion's Detective Comics since the recent "DC Rebirth," we'll offer a bit of context for the story at hand, since it dives pretty quickly into monster movie science fiction. As if it weren't bad enough for Batman, Batwoman, Nightwing, and more former sidekicks that Gotham was overrun with giant Kaiju monsters (yes, that definitely happened), it turns out that dealing with the corpses of said monsters is becoming a problem of its own. Since the monsters in question began as everyday human beings mutated into monstrosities by a chemical cocktail courtesy of the always-villainous Hugo Strange, the organic tissue left behind is a breeding ground for even more unpredictable mutations.
The organic matter covers a full city block, which has led to A.R.G.U.S. (the Advanced Research Group Uniting Superhumans), a government agency monitoring superhuman misbehavior, stepping in to place the affected areas on lockdown. That was the plan, at least. So when reports come in of seagulls feeding on the Kaiju carcass being twisted into half bird, half human horrors, it's a job for Batman. Having placed more and more trust in his cousin Kate Kane a.k.a. Batwoman since the launch of "Rebirth," Bruce tells her to accompany him (two Bat-vigilantes are better than one when it comes to putting down mutated carrion birds). The pair make quick work of the problem, but Kate needs to be brought up to speed.
For that, Bruce introduces her to the brilliant scientist placed in charge of Gotham's qurantine zone. Or, as she calls it: "Monster-Town."
Dr. Victoria October
Making her entrance with more than a little theatricality and personality, Dr. Victoria October invites Batman and Batwoman to enter the top secret research facility A.R.G.U.S. has erected on-site. Although being selected to oversee the operation, Dr. October immediately shows she's no stickler for red tape or proper chains of command - having gotten in touch with Batman by asking Jim Gordon to fire up his Bat-Signal, calling on the Dark Knight's assistance directly. It may seem a strange move for a government scientist, but while the character may be a brand new addition to the DC Universe, Kate doesn't take long to realize that Batman and Dr. October have a lengthy history together.
In fact, writers Tynion and Marguerite Bennett take it upon themselves to create a more-compellin-than-usual backstory between the two, beginning with the fact that Dr. October isn't fazed by the Batman one bit, taking in his cape, cowl, and accomplice without a second thought (remember that for later). That's thanks to familiarity, as Dr. October explains to Batwoman that the two have had their paths cross long before she was actually working with the (mostly) "good" guys. But back in those days, Dr. Victoria October wasn't exactly herself.
In point of fact, she wasn't 'Dr. Victoria October' at all.
It's Not a Reveal - It's an Afterthought
It's possible - wonderfully possible - that readers will take in the issue without reading a second thought into Victoria's description of her previous career comprising her "pupal stage, before I came into myself" - a time in which insects are undergoing a transformation from their initial form to their 'true' one, for those unfamiliar with insect terminology. It's at this point that the real beauty, elegance, and dignity with which Tynion and Bennett have treated this reveal becomes evident... since it's not treated as any kind of "reveal" whatsoever. Wherever Victoria is now - confident, well-dressed, and blessed with one truly impressive hairdo - is simply a better, truer place than she had been when she first knew Batman.
When Batwoman notes just how unique a surname like 'October' actually is, Victoria confirms that the name is a self-assigned one to match her bold nature, admitting that "my deadname didn't have half the panache, I'm afraid." Another word that will fly, unexplained, by most readers who aren't part of or close to the transgender community. The term "deadname" is often used to refer to the name given to a trans man or woman at birth (which may or may not be gender-specific). Victoria October doesn't go into any more detail (why would she?), only offering a sly smirk to Batman, thanking him for the card he sent when she, presumably, completed her transition.
It's testament to just how varied the human experience can truly be that, for readers who define themselves as transgender (those whose gender identity does not match their sex at birth), Victoria's brief comments say more than enough. And they truly are comments, not statements, and not declarations: This woman is not announcing her gender identity to the world, since it's nobody's business but her own, and that of those close to her - a group that apparently included Batman.
When the issue ends, the fact that Batman has shown support for Victoria becoming what is quite clearly her most confident and empowered self isn't all that significant. Strictly speaking, it makes perfect sense that a little boy who wears the mask of a happy billionaire, but is truly 'himself' when hidden beneath the cape and cowl would empathize with Victoria. In fact, it's fair to say she's sorted her identity in a healthier way than Bruce Wayne ever did. Either way, the real point remains: Bruce Wayne didn't just show his support for a trans person finding their truest, most productive identity, but did it in the form of a card - as Batman. Groundbreaking, in its own way.
As the online conversations surrounding every move towards diversity, inclusivity, or just women in the modern realm of comic book entertainment has shown, there will always be those who complain that simply acknowledging transgender people exist amounts to "forcing it down their throats" (a conversation for another time, if ever). But Tynion and Bennett handle the introduction of Victoria October with the skill we've come to expect from them both. And while it may feel crass to address her appearance, Ben Oliver's depiction of Victoria as an even more commanding, self-assured, and playful woman than Kate ever appears is just as laudible.
And as another case of art imitating life, the fact that most readers will simply take Dr. October as the woman she appears to be is a best-case scenario - and all that would be hoped for, in life, as in fiction.
The tastefulness with which the storytellers have begun Kate's story speaks for itself, and is guaranteed to (rightfully) be commended. And as always, even the slightest acknowledgement of readers typically not seen in superhero comics can make all the difference in the world. So in the spirit of the comic book community, we have one question above all others: Is the good doctor a truly new character in the DC Universe... or does that only apply to the identity of 'Victoria October'?
Is it possible, for instance, that after years of abuse from his father led him to torment others by immersing them in their "deepest fears," adopting a grotesque identity to deny himself true happiness, Dr. Jonathan Crane put 'Scarecrow' aside to find out what he was actually afraid of? If so, then Batman's decision to be an ally to members of a different community than his own would be twofold.
We don't expect (or actually need) any answer at all, since in this case, the question seems to be the point. There are few cities populated with more troubled, depressed, or downright tortured souls than Gotham City. It only seems right that Batman should celebrate one of those souls rising to something better - whether it's a new character, or a new gender identity.
Detective Comics #948 is available now.