Thursday, 5 October 2017

Helena Wayne 40th Anniversary: Looking Back on Huntress: Crossbow at the Crossroads

HUNTRESS: CROSSBOW AT THE CROSSROADS
Written by PAUL LEVITZ
Art by MARCUS TO
Cover by GUILLEM MARCH
The Huntress, Gotham's mysterious vigilante, will hunt down evil no matter where it takes her. This time it's to Naples to shut down a shipment of Gotham-bound illegal weapons before it can even hit the water. Helena [Wayne] cracks the container but finds it's transporting more than just guns. She uncovers a human trafficking ring, and with it, a new reason to go on the hunt.

As the Huntress tracks the source up the ranks of the city's underworld, she's astounded how high the corruption goes. Once she uncovers a conspiracy of Italy's most dangerous gangsters, high-ranking government officials and foreign powers, the situation becomes especially perilous for one lone vigilante with a crossbow.
OCTOBER 30 | RATED T | $14.99 | PRINT | DIGITAL

INTRODUCTION

Six years ago today, the first issue of Huntress: Crossbow at the Crossroads was released. It is admittedly not an easy work to talk about, mainly because it was launched during an early period of transition for DC. At the time of this book's release, we were a month into a new line-wide reboot (The New 52) and DC was still sorting a lot of things out. Originally, when this miniseries was solicited, it was solicited as a Helena Bertinelli Huntress story with original Helena Wayne Huntress co-creator Paul Levitz as the writer and Marcus To as the artist.

By all accounts and purposes, Huntress: Crossbow at the Crossroads was a Helena Bertinelli Huntress story. The setting was in Italy, her villains were the mafia, and she even wore a cross on her costume--three identifiers that inform the reader that the Huntress fronting this story is Helena Bertinelli. Even her initial characterisation in the first issue of the series presented her as "edgy" and prone to kill, which are also traits that are easily identifiable to Helena Bertinelli.

The premise alone presented no issue. Fans were in fact informed on the kind of story they would be getting and who the hero of this story was. Where DC misfired was in deciding at the last minute to retcon Helena Bertinelli as having been the Earth-2 Helena Wayne the whole time. This was not originally communicated to the reader prior to the release of the first issue and readers only became aware of this change when editor Eddie Berganza hinted in the "All Access" column of the book that this Huntress was really Helena Wayne. The Huntress' identity was not explicitly confirmed until a few months later, much to the detriment of the comic itself.

I don't know the details of how this came to be, but based on how the comic itself was written, the decision to turn this story into a Helena Wayne Huntress story was made sometime during or after Paul Levitz wrote the first issue of the miniseries. In the first issue, the Huntress did read unquestionably like Helena Bertinelli and even a bit in the second issue. It was later revealed through a Comicvine podcast interview with DC writer James Robinson that the decision to make the Huntress miniseries about Helena Wayne happened very early on as part of DC's launch of their new Justice Society title Earth-2. It was even further confirmed by Huntress artist, Marcus To, that he knew he was drawing Helena Wayne from Earth-2, but at the beginning, he was informed that he would be drawing Helena Bertinelli.

Given the circumstances that led to the haphazard production of this miniseries, this book is often very strange to read (especially now) and even harder to discuss. In the end, I feel that this is a story more appropriate for Helena Bertinelli than for Helena Wayne despite covering an issue that would in fact be important to Wayne. Had this story been told with the version of Helena Bertinelli that debuted in the Grayson series by Tom King and Tim Seeley in 2014, this could've been a great story that would've also avoided some of the casual racism present in the actual story (more on that later).

I also feel that Helena Wayne should've been introduced under way better circumstances and should've been marketed as herself from the get-go. In not informing readers that Helena Wayne would be making a comeback with the New 52 reboot, DC missed the opportunity to court her actual fans (many of whom are Justice Society fans) into buying this comic. They especially missed out on courting Batman and Catwoman fans who would've also invested in a comic about her in heartbeat.

These were among the problems that bled into how this comic was written (and even received by readers), leading to that bizarre reading experience I as describing. What makes it even harder to talk about is that all of these problems have to be acknowledged in order to explain some of the bizarre creative choices that happen throughout this story, some of which are completely out of character for Helena Wayne. At least by explaining most of the "background story" here in the intro, I can hopefully focus on discussing the work itself.

THE GOOD

After re-reading this story recently, I can't say that my thoughts on this comic has changed much from the first time I read it six years ago. At best, I've developed a more informed opinion on this story since my initial reviews of it in 2011 (which were incredibly amateur), and I would like to think I've become a more seasoned reviewer in 2017.

To this day, my favourite aspects of this book continue to be Helena Wayne's layered characterisation and Marcus To's gorgeous artwork. The problems I have with this story are the same ones I had back in 2011. As a story, there are many interesting ideas that are thought provoking, but are not necessarily well executed.

Starting with the parts I do like, let's talk about what's strong about this miniseries: the protagonist herself. When it comes to Helena Wayne's depiction in this story, writer Paul Levitz provides the most layered characterisation of his own character since the last time he wrote her in 1982. In some respects, she does read a lot like the original pre-Crisis version of the character. In others, she embodies character traits more appropriate for Helena Bertinelli.

From start to finish, Helena is written as meticulous, passionate about justice, and confident in her own abilities. She is also shown to have compassion for other people as demonstrated by her decision to liberate North African women who were forced into sex slavery. In addition to being a passionate crime-fighter, Helena is also shown to have a sense of humour and demonstrates a more quirky side to her personality as shown by her unwavering love of sweets. This is most evident by her tendency to "take breaks" from her case at random to check out any bakeries that pique her interest. She'll even eat leftover pastries left behind by others instead of letting them go to waste.

Other things that are notable about Helena in this story is that she's quite snarky, happy, and optimistic, which is still very reminiscent of the pre-Crisis version of the character. She is also shown to be clever, astute, and deceptive as a way of progressing her case. She is also not beyond using her sexuality as a way of getting information quickly.

When it comes to handling dangerous situations, Helena is quick to put aside her more friendly persona and is shown to be quite aggressive as the Huntress.  She is even depicted as being willing to kill, though this isn't always handled in a way that stays true to her character in writing. For example, it is not out of character for Helena to kill a dangerous person in a position of power as a way of protecting a more vulnerable person in a life-and-death situation.

The life-and-death situation was very much the reason Helena killed the Chariman of Kufra (shortly after he murdered a young woman) and set Mr. Moretti to die as the other man responsible for countless abuses against the enslaved women. This creative choice from Levitz does make sense within the context of this story, especially since the two men are the primary antagonists who hold the most power. What didn't work in favour of Helena, however, was Levitz depicting her casually killing henchmen and having zero regard for their lives. Not only is this completely out of character for Helena, but it's also not a trait that any daughter of Batman and Catwoman should possess as they would have taught her better.

On the art front, Marcus To similarly demonstrates a strong understanding of the lead character. The way he draws Helena's facial expressions, body language, and sense of fashion augments Levitz' script in a way that feels harmonious. At no point in the comic does To's art feel out of sync with Levitz writing, effectively keeping you engaged. His layouts are also consistent and easy to follow. He also does a superb job at capturing Naples' rich landscapes and architecture, which are not easy to pull off given how detailed they are. His artwork is also further augmented by Andrew Dalhouse's colours.

One thing that is easily observable about To's depiction of Helena that is independent of Levitz' script, however, is that his Helena looks Spaniard rather than of British ancestry as she's been depicted in the past. It is possible To initially gave her this appearance to try to make her look Italian (though it is worth noting that Italians and Spaniards are not interchangeable) when he thought he was drawing Helena Bertinelli. It is equally possible that he kept this appearance for her even after he knew he was drawing Helena Wayne as a way of maintaining a consistent look. It is also possible he kept this appearance for her as a way of staying consistent with her mother's side of her heritage, especially since Selina Kyle has been established as Latina for a decade at the time of this story's publication. Either way, this is a modification I enjoyed to Helena's more classic look.

Having discussed characterisation and the comic's artwork, we now get to the part of the comic we haven't talked about yet: the story itself. This is admittedly the one place where the comic starts to weaken in part due to Levitz' limited knowledge on the political issue he chose to build a story on, and in part due to weak execution.

On the front of story, Levitz chose to bring to the forefront a human rights issue that gets way less attention than it should: human trafficking and sex slavery. On a strong point, Levitz does correctly show that poor women of colour are at high risk for abduction and having sexual violence committed against them due to colonialism, misogyny, racism, and normalisation of rape culture throughout the world. All of this is intersectional. Levitz also correctly shows that the primary investors and perpetrators of sex trafficking tend to be people (mostly men) in positions of power, including government officials. Where all of this misfires is in the execution, which now takes us to the second part of this post.

THE BAD

One major flaw of this story is that Levitz has the Huntress take down the people running the sex trafficking ring, but fails to have the Huntress take down the investors funding this criminal organisation in the first place. In real life, the Chairman of Kufra would most likely be an investor in the sex trafficking ring as a government official. In the story, however, he functions more in a partnership role with Mr. Moretti in running this ring, which means someone else is providing the funding. This puts the Chairman in a position of providing a "product" to an unseen client rather than function in that role himself. Because Helena only goes after the perpetrators and not the clients, she only treats the symptom of the problem and fails to dismantle it at the actual root, thus leaving the investors in a position to simply assemble a new sex trafficking ring.

Another major issue with the execution of this story is that all of the villains in this story are people of colour or dark-skinned Italians, with Helena Wayne and the two reporters being the sole white-passing heroes. This presentation incorrectly puts people of colour in a position of power they don't actually possess in real life, which creates three problems. First, it perpetuates the myth that all human beings possess equal power in the world, which is far from truth. Second, it puts Helena in a position to perpetuate the white saviour trope in this story, which she does. Third, this imbalanced representation makes the story casually racist in a way that unwittingly validates the white supremacist notion that "dark-skinned people are naturally dirty and dangerous" coupled with "white people are naturally clean and heroic."

The persistent sequences of violence against people of colour by a white-passing heroine throughout this story is the kind of imagery a white supremacist would find empowering and a person of colour would find discomforting. This problematic one-sided representation of all parties involved could've been easily averted by providing more diverse representation of the communities present in this story. Perhaps instead of making the two reporters white-passing, perhaps they should've been conceptualised as people of colour so that there is more balance.

Similarly, if this story was fronted by the real Helena Bertinelli (who is a person of colour in the current continuity), this would've avoided the racist overtones significantly as it would've shifted the message from "white-passing woman putting some dirty people of colour in their place" to a woman of colour holding members of her own community accountable for their actions. Another way this one-side representation could've been averted would've been by showing the investors (or "clients") behind the sex trafficking ring in this story. In real life, this would statistically be wealthy white men as they have the most political and socioeconomic power around the world. They are also the group responsible for colonisation of most of the free world, leading to the formation of the systems of oppression that facilitated the slave trade around the world both historically and currently.

Another major issue with the execution of this story is that the sex slaves themselves are largely voiceless and have zero agency throughout the story. This reduces their role to being nothing more than props, which is pretty objectifying. Though it is Levitz' intention to show the reader that sex trafficking is misogynistic and dehumanising, by not any giving the victims a real voice and agency, he unwittingly reinforces the problem he's trying to challenge. At best, in the fourth chapter of the miniseries, Levitz does try to shift power back to the abused women when he depicts Helena giving them the opportunity to get revenge against their abuser on his own yacht. However, he failed to take into account that abuse victims learn to fear their abusers and are rarely able to overpower them for this very reason. As such, realistically speaking, Mr. Moretti would have more power in Helena's absence.

If it was Helena's goal to grant the abused women an opportunity to seek revenge against their abuser, Helena actually needed to stick around to ensure Mr. Moretti wouldn't shift control back to himself instead of departing the way that she did. On an additional note, this is still out of character for Helena to do as she would've known better than to further traumatise the women by forcing them to confront their abuser on their own. If Helena had been written in character here, she would've actually helped the women escape from the yacht and she would've killed Moretti herself as the person with the most power in this situation (especially without any real authority to turn him into as the story established both the government and police were corrupt). Getting back on topic, a better way the women's lack of agency could've been averted would've been by having at least one the enslaved women take an active role in helping Helena free the other enslaved women in the story.

Another major issue with the execution is the overwhelming lack of diverse representation of Italians in this story despite being set in Italy. Time and space notwithstanding, representation of Italians in this story is very much limited to the two good reporters and the mafia. Any other Italians that happen to appear tend to be set decoration. Beyond that, they are pretty none existent, thus giving us the emptiest version of Italy imaginable. One thing that could've been done to avert this was show the existence of Italian non-profit organisations and activists who are aware of the sex trafficking epidemic in Europe and taking a stand against it. These individuals could've easily been protestors on the street demanding the government to act. They could've also been the people the reporters interviewed, and even be the people Helena contacts to assist her in dismantling the sex ring. All suggestions would've enriched the story significantly.

The last major issue with the execution is incorrect use of the Italian language in most of the instances where it is used in the story. Examples include use of the word "lupa" (she-wolf) as an insult when this is not considered an insult in Italy. Helena being referred to as "signora" (which is reserved for older, married women) instead of "signorina" (young, unmarried woman) is another example. A major error was Levitz' incorrect use of the first person conjugation of the verb "arrestare" (arresto) to have a guard tell Helena to halt, which was really bizarre and unintentionally comical to read. In Italian, saying "arresto" by itself translates to "I stop" in English, which is an incomplete sentence because it's missing a direct object. The correct word to use in this context is "ferma!" which is telling someone to stop the way it's intended in this sequence. This one could've been easily averted by consulting with a fluent Italian speaker.

Pacing-wise, the story tends to alternate between "action-filled" chapter and "filler" chapter, which is an odd way to tell a story. The "action filled" chapters are the ones that move the story forward while the "filler" chapters tend to feel like padding. When you remove the "padding" it seems that Levitz could've told the entire story in only three issues.

VERDICT

On the whole, the comic's strengths mostly fall on Levitz' solid characterisation of the lead heroine and Marcus To's artwork coupled with the colours by Andrew Dalhouse. The comic's weaknesses, however, fall largely on weak execution of the story itself. Levitz chose an important human rights issue to build a story on, but he needed to do more research on the systemic nature of human trafficking and sex slavery. Specifically, he needed to better understand the power dynamics involved in an issue like human trafficking and sex slavery.

Levitz especially needed to develop a deeper understanding of colonialism as the root cause of the systems of oppression leading to the existence of sex slavery and human trafficking around the world in order to tell this story in a way that's more thought-provoking. As it stands, the issue of human trafficking and sex slavery does nothing more than add a gritty texture to the story. At best, Levitz knew what he wanted to say about the issue, but didn't know how to execute it in a non-problematic way.

Levitz additionally needed to put more thought into the heroes and villains he created for the story in order to avoid reinforcing harmful stereotypes that come from a place of racism in particular. When wanting to use phrases in another language, it's always best to consult with someone who speaks the language fluently, or use the brackets that are always used to indicate that a foreign language is being spoken if a fluent speaker isn't available.

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