A whale of a disappointment

Some time ago when I was relatively new to the comixweblogosphere, I encountered Orca, probably at the Absorbascon. This whale-woman enemy of Batman had some great visuals and seemed like an intriguing and appealing character, so I immediately added her three-issue story arc to my back-issue buy list. Last week, I finally got around to buying and reading the issues.

Batman 579-581, July - September 2000
Written by Larry Hama & Scott McDaniel
Pencils by Scott McDaniel
Inks by Karl Story et al

Man, was I disappointed. Even going into this with low expectations, I didn't get near the level of fun I expected with Batman going up against a lady jewel thief with a more than passing resemblance to Shamu.

Some elements were pretty cool: Playboy-Bruce makes an appearance, and is given a nice combination of social responsibility and elitist smarm; Batman goes in disguise again, apparently as the "crazy vet" from Year One; Alfred gets to shine as the perfect factotum; and Orca is singularly impressive: a big hunk of a swimming, leaping, and ass-kicking woman.

Yeah, a lot of the pieces were there, but somehow the magic that pulls them all together never appears.

Part of the blame lies in the art. McDamiel's layouts are serviceable, and I like his penchant for horizontal panels, but his figure-drawing - anatomy, proportion, movement - looks more like sketches of supermarionation puppets than real people. Heads are too big, limbs bend at odd angles, people pose oddly. The deficiency shows up mostly in the civilians, but even Batman looks oddly deformed from time to time, and I found it a real distraction.

Without giving too much of a spoiler away (not that anyone who has read, oh, two or three comics before won't see it anyway), I was also sorry to see that Orca's real identity was not a plus-sized woman, but a typical, generically-body-typed woman. I really wanted to see a large lady presented as a strong, capable, powerful character - and I was imagining Orca as a bit of an anti-Selina Kyle in appearance and affect. But, no such luck.

But the biggest fun-killer was the writers' choice of the central theme of the story. Y'see, Orca is a jewel thief with a heart of gold: she steals the "Flame of Persia" diamond from Leona Helmsley Camille Baden-Smythe - right in front of Bruce Wayne - so that she can raise money for a soup kitchen-rehab facility-daycare center. Batman cannot countenance this felonious behavior, even for a good cause, and tracks Orca down relentlessly. In each of their encounters, Orca and Batman exchange philosophical sallies over the nature of moral relativity:

Hama & McDaniel really stack the deck. Baden-Smythe is a right rotter: disdaining "the hoi polloi" -and anyone else - to the extent of endangering lives to protect her jewel, bribing officials, throwing people out of their homes, terrorizing innocent people - all the usual behaviors of a robber baroness. The jewel that is stolen is of uncertain provenance and probably doesn't even belong to her. And yet Batman, even while being pilloried in the press as the puppet of the rich and losing the respect of Gotham's lower class, won't give a girl a break, and tracks Orca like she was the Joker or something.

It just didn't wash for me. I don't consider myself a strong proponent of situational ethics, but you can't convince me there isn't a difference, at least in degree if not in kind, between property theft and exploitation of humans. And you can't convince me Batman doesn't see that difference. Its not the theft of his mother's pearls he's been working himself up over all these years.

I can take Batman versus property criminals when it's a ripping yarn, a puzzle piece, and the real-world themes are left out. Or I can handle Batman going after thieves when they actually endanger the innocent; it's their violence he's responding to, not their redistribution of wealth. But if you try to make a socially-conscious jewel thief a major villain while bringing in real class and economic struggles - well, you've lost me.

What's worse is that the script tries to have its cake and eat it, too. In addition to hunting his killer-whale criminal, Batman also manages to take down Martha Stewart Baden-Smythe. Unfortunately, the writers have to use such implausible plot developments to do so (excuse me, but people like that do not actually handle the molotov cocktails they give to street urchins to toss at buildings) that it actually reinforces the feeling that the elite can literally get away with murder while lesser-ranked criminals get slammed.

Actually, the story is much more believable if we take Batman as an unreliable narrator: he really doesn't care morally about the theft of the jewel, he's just pissed that the crime happened right in front of him. With that motivation, his doggedness, if even less laudable, at least makes a lot more sense.

Oh well, at least with the return of the multiverse, I can imagine that somewhere there is a happy Orca, swimming her way through Gotham Harbor, stealing marine-themed baubles from waterfront museums - and occasionally a kiss from Batman.