The Femme Fatale is well known in detective stories, particularly ones with a noir feel—a woman from an investigator's past returns, bringing mystery, deceit and danger into their life. BATWOMAN VOL. 1: THE MANY ARMS OF DEATH, written by Marguerite Bennett and James Tynion IV, not only plays with the expectations of the trope, it shows how the role may shift based on perspective.
The volume collects the Rebirth one-shot and issues #1-6 of Batwoman’s ongoing series as an investigation into black market deals and unearths details of what Kate refers to as "The Lost Year" via flashbacks. The first appearance of the Femme Fatale is usually what kicks off the story and that much is true here, but instead of asking Kate for help as per usual, this book’s Femme Fatale, Knife, appears and assassinates her only lead. This checks off a lot of the boxes of the role while subverting it at the same time. She appears suddenly, it makes her irresistibly intriguing, it shifts focus from another case to her, and she compels Kate to revisit and examine a chapter of her life she'd prefer to stay closed.
That chapter takes place on Coryana, an island that was once a haven for pirates and smugglers who were loosely banded together in peace by a woman named Safiyah, and involves the Kali Corporation, run by creepy twins Elder and Younger. As in most noir, our Femme Fatale has a connection to the primary villains. However, instead of being betrayed at some point down the line, it's revealed almost immediately that Knife is working with them. There is a betrayal of trust, it just happened years before.
Kate spent her Lost Year on Coryana, rescued by Safiyah after cracking her skull on some rocks and nearly dying. They ended up in a relationship, much to Knife's displeasure. From her perspective, Kate is the Femme Fatale. It's Kate that appears suddenly. It's Kate who is irresistibly intriguing, causing Safiyah to shift focus from her and leading Knife to feel betrayed by it. This makes Knife reexamine how she came to be on the island, how she ended up with Safiyah, and leads her down a much different path. From her point of view, Kate is to blame for everything falling apart, but it doesn't absolve Knife from the poor decisions she's made.
The ability to play with conventions, conscious or not, is partly owed to the unique nature of Batwoman—there just aren't many series whose main character is a lesbian detective/crime fighter. By having a hero we don't get to see often—a perspective that isn't often centered—it automatically revitalizes stories and relationships that may be seen as "standard" and subverts certain tropes. Kate Kane has endured a childhood tragedy, has a reputation for enjoying partying and women, and secretly fights crime dressed as a bat after being inspired by a Bat. But Kate is very, very much her own person and exploring who she is turns out to be absolutely compelling.
It also helps that Batwoman has a distinct visual style. The art by Steve Epting, Stephanie Hans and Renato Arlem, and the distinct palettes used by colorists Jeremy Cox and Adriano Lucas, certainly enhanced the story's atmosphere and impact. Kate's pale skin and red hair/costume accents really pops against the black of her costume and makes her stand out even more from the rest of the world. It's almost like she's in a black and white movie that never completed the colorization process—something completely appropriate for a detective story.
As Batwoman's saga continues, so will the opportunities to break new ground or repave what already exists. And I look forward to seeing where the road takes us.
Tamara Brooks writes about Rebirth for DCComics.com. Look for her on Twitter at @MisfitsTamara.