Huntress: Year One

I was part of the review copy blitz on this book back in April, and it’s taken me this long to get around to reading it. That’s because the Huntress used to be my favorite character back when she was Batman’s daughter. Once that had to be changed, where they turned her into the child of a mob boss instead, I lost much of the interest I had in her. In my mind, mobsters and superheroes don’t mix very well — one is all gritty death and the other is brightly colored imagination.

(Why she was my favorite character: She was clearly a big deal in the DCU, but she had her own name, unlike Batgirl or Supergirl, appendages to a better-known male hero. She was brunette and beautiful but not as unapproachable or perfect as Wonder Woman. She seemed the coolest when there weren’t a lot of other choices.)

Huntress: Year One cover
Huntress: Year One
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After having read this story, originally published as a six-issue miniseries, my overall reaction is: why bother? Writer Ivory Madison tries to bring vendetta mixed with feminism into a world of family obligations, priests, and violent revenge. She’s relatively successful, but ultimately, it doesn’t matter, because there is no ongoing vision for this character in the bigger DC universe. If you like this story, there won’t be any more, and the revelations and motivations of this background won’t have much influence on the character going forward. The promise of a superhero universe is the idea of a never-ending story, of tales that weave as threads into a bigger tapestry. This story is a patch on the corner of the fabric that stands out for its more ambitious attempt at coherent characterization and depth.

A woman who fights back against sexist institutions that have harmed and tried to kill her is a relatively unusual motivation for a female superhero, but the message is undercut by the overall surroundings. Even if the Huntress is made unique by this story (within the relatively limited world of superhero comics, anyway), she’s still going to be used as random plug-in costume chick, regardless of appropriateness or distinction, in references elsewhere.

Is this a good enough story to overcome those inherent limitations and be worth reading on its own? No. Helena Bertinelli watches her family murdered in front of her as an eight-year-old. (Why was she saved? That’s never explained or revealed.) She hides out and trains on a farm in Sicily, mentored by a man who’s like an older brother to her and later shows up as a) a priest, because he fell in love with a nun who then dumped him and b) a hostage, because that’s the kind of world we’re playing in.

Someone sends goons to kill her, waiting 13 years until she’s able to fight back. When she beats them up and finds out the boss is an “uncle”, they have tea. (Didn’t he just send guys to kill her?) Her first superhero mission is an attempt to get all the money her family left her, which makes her seem remarkably greedy (2 million isn’t enough) and rather conflicted (it’s mob money, but it’s still her inheritance?). She takes the title “huntress” after a discussion on how words like “actress” and “heroine” are sexist. The contradiction is never explained.

That’s not the only loose end. Some of her actions are also unexplainable. Who thinks the right thing to do, no matter your emotion or motivation, is to start beating up prison guards when visiting jail? That’s not going to accomplish anything. It’s just plain stupid. In context, it reads like “oh, wait, this is a superhero book, need an action scene here.” The prose is purple at times — literally, with overwrought narration boxes colored that way with white text. The art is competent and tells the story with no noticeable glitches. (Sadly, in the superhero realm, that’s praise, since many artists are more interested in framing figures ridiculously than carrying a narrative.)

Once the rest of the Bat-Family — Batman, Catwoman, Batgirl — show up, I also have problems with the Huntress being the “Bad Bat” because she’s willing to kill and use guns. If you want to keep pushing Batman and his hangers-on towards being darker, you’re going to have to face that wall, and having everyone judge her because she crosses that unrealistic line is ridiculous (and whiffs of sexism, with Batman as the father figure who must be obeyed). Personally, I’d rather none of them kill, but as long as you’re chasing gore the way current DC titles do, that inconsistency sticks out.

As a revenge fantasy, this isn’t very satisfying, because slaughtering the people who ordered your loved ones massacred is ultimately unrewarding and also conflicts with the higher intellect of this story, which aims to be about a lot more than “you hurt me, so I’ll hurt you”. None of these people really seemed hurt to me, anyway — reflecting on it, I’m disturbed by how little I cared about Son missing Mob Father after his death or Helena beating up Goombas A-C because they were ordered to kill her.

In terms of damning with faint praise, it’s more complex than many other superhero origin stories, but I don’t think it needed to be. That complexity leads to loose ends and inconsistencies that come from trying to insert a shaded story of hatred and revenge and standing up for women into an existing, badly treated character with no future.

(A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the writer.)


10 Responses to “Huntress: Year One”

  1. Mark Says:

    I keep hoping there is another TPB of the Pre-Crisis Huntress stories..,,

  2. James Schee Says:

    I haven’t read it but from your review it sounds like it just mines material already regurgitated by past creators.

    From O’Neil, to Dixon, to Rucka to Simone, etc. they’ve all done this or very similar things with the character. Can’t the character ever move forward or will we get another “Huntress doesn’t fit in with the bat=characters, has to confront her mobster family past” again in a few years?

    BTW, since I just read it for the first time recently. What’d you think of the Helena Wayne Huntress in that JSA annual last year?

  3. Guy Smiley Says:

    Totally agree with James on how they keep treading the same water with the Huntress (though, of course, in an origin piece, you expect that).

    The Huntress was my favorite character, too, and the Crisis change that upset me was her elimination.

    After Paul Levitz and Joe Staton stopped doing the pre-crisis character, those Wonder Woman backups got absolutely awful, and I’m glad they remain uncollected. When that writer, Joey Cavalieri, launched the new Helena, even with Staton back on art, I never cared.

    Oh — and I caught the return of Helena Wayne in that JSA annual, and didn’t like it. She seemed whiny and lost, none of the spark Levitz gave her. And do I recall them surfacing the hint of sexual tension Levitz/Staton had briefly written in, all those years ago? Kinda not a good idea, that …

    I’ve gotten to like the current Helena Bertinelli, esp. in Simone’s Birds of Prey, and I do wish they’d do something good with her. I enjoyed this mini, with quibbles, but you’re right, Johanna, they’re never going to take the character forward, and that’s disappointing.

  4. Johanna Says:

    James, well, to be fair, it was a Year One. You kind of have to cover the origin. My gripe is that we never see anything done in depth with the character beyond that.

    I don’t recall a JSA annual, sorry.

  5. James Schee Says:

    Yeah I guess they have to cover the origin in an origin story, but it just doesn’t sound like they ever go beyond that. Maybe they should just stop doing origin stories?:)

    JSA annual had Power Girl get zapped to an Earth 2 that seemed pretty similar to the classic one. Yet as Guy said Helena Wayne was a bit more wimpy and lacked a lot of what I liked in her previous stories.

    Of course it was written by Geoff Johns, not exactly known for his great female portrayels.

  6. Blog@Newsarama » Blog Archive » Thursday Linkblogging Says:

    [...] Johanna Draper Carlson looks at Huntress: Year One. [...]

  7. Alan Coil Says:

    I seem to have liked it a tad bit more than you, but I heartily agree that there appears that there will be no followup to this mini. It’s a stand alone story that most likely will be undone.

  8. Shawn Hill Says:

    Huntress has been such a disappointment to me. Not even Morrison in JLA or Gail Simone in Birds of Prey could do much with her. How foolish of DC not to realize how cool Helena Wayne was. They’ve finally gotten it together with Power Girl again, why not Helena?

  9. Dwight Williams Says:

    One of those inter-universe crossovers, they have GOT to get these two Huntresses together for at least a coffee-and-chatter session.

  10. Helena Fan Says:

    I was lucky enough to find the tpb Dark Knight’s Daughter with Helena Wayne. I love her character too. She was competent and well-adjusted, in contrast to Helena Bertinelli who seems to be perpetually in a snit.

    Here’s hoping that Levitz gets back to writing her now that he has more time

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