I was astounded by how impressive Billi 99 was, and I was stunned that I’d never before heard of this graphic novel. (I only read it because we had a copy tucked away on a back shelf, a remnant of KC’s far-away days on the Dark Horse comp list.) Then I realized why it may have been overlooked: although technically a superhero book, it’s very different in tone and mood, and as written by Sarah E. Byam, it’s focused on the female and community instead of the lone male.
Billi’s the daughter of a deceased industrialist who was also secretly the Sword of Toledo. At the same time she’s deciding whether to carry on his legacy, his company needs her stock in order to put off a takeover. They’ve been making business decisions based on ethics, not just money, and that luxury is in danger without a strong hand at the helm. Oh, and she’s suspected of murdering her father, just to add another complicating factor. Instead of using his money to do good, she’s hiding out, getting fired from low-paying waitress jobs for helping the hungry.
Tim Sale’s art is wonderful, even in black-and-white (with plenty of grey). It’s moody and oppressive, just like the story’s setting. This is what the Huntress should have been, a story about next-generation legacies and a woman making her way in a man’s world. Think Batman: Year One, only more complex and nuanced. The superhero isn’t the sole focus; instead, she’s part of a larger society with concerns beyond the single person. The book is atypical in widening the viewpoint beyond the single vigilante.
The theme is ownership — what is ours, and what villains try to make theirs. There’s a singer in contractual slavery, a well-padded upper-class man picking up hookers he thinks disposable, Billi’s struggles with both of her inheritances from Dad, employees choosing between stock ownership and a strike. Classical allusions describe a world of individualism taken to the extreme. When everyone’s out for themselves, Billi’s selflessness is what sets her apart. She’s almost old-fashioned, although her story is told in a very modern, near-future setting.
This graphic novel is highly recommended for an unusual mature take on heroics.