By: J.H. Williams III & W. Haden Blackman (writers), J.H. Williams III (artist), Dave Stewart (colorist)

The Story: Unlike another firebird themed heroine, Bette Kane may not rise again.

The Review: I’m always doubtful when artists take on the writing role, and that’s admittedly a bit unfair.  After all, there are those who dedicate themselves entirely to writing and yet much of what they produce is disappointing, to say the least.  And I’m honest enough to admit that as a writer, the idea that someone can draw and write well irks me to no end.  So it’s with some chagrin but mostly pleasure for me to say that Williams is doing wonders in both art and words.

And before anyone gets indignant, yes, Blackman co-writes the series and his role in its success is undoubtedly essential, possibly critical.  Whatever the case, he and Williams have produced some of the most consistently gripping scripts in the new 52, and this issue exemplifies that with every page.

Let’s start with the opener. Last issue, Bette reacted quite violently to her cousin’s declaration that she’s not cut out for the vigilante business.  Here, she goes out of her way to prove Kate wrong and in the process does almost the opposite.  While she makes small work out of your common thugs, and shows some grit against an impossibly bigger opponent, her bravado (“You know how many heroes have me on speed dial?”) ends up her undoing.

In most circumstances, the scene would underscore Flamebird’s trademark egomania, but then she follows up by stressing she’s “the real deal.”  Considering how pained she was being told she didn’t have what it takes, her boasts here feel less like overconfidence and more like an attempt to convince herself of her competence.  That makes her defeat all the more painful to watch; you’d like for her to beat the odds, but she only highlights her own limitations.

Just as Kate predicted, Bette also becomes a liability to her cousin when the D.E.O. takes advantage of her helpless state to strengthen the connections between her and Batwoman, who is only the first prong in their stepladder investigation to the Dark Knight himself.  They’re getting very close to taking that first step, as Cameron Chase, in a sick but brilliant tactic, tricks the dying Bette into thinking she can’t be saved and asks her to name someone so she won’t have to “die alone.”  And guess whose name Bette whispers?

As for the lady Bat herself, she spends a ravishing night with Maggie Sawyer, in the afterglow of which Maggie hardens her resolve to continue the search, which seems to encourage Kate to do the same.  Her investigation reveals an old truth about ghost stories, which is behind each dark tale is one of great tragedy.  I won’t go into the particulars, but the possible origins of the Weeping Woman involve family grief of the deepest kind, which Williams-Blackman portray with incredible sensitivity and emotion.

It’s almost pointless to talk about Williams’ art because that man does not have off days, it appears.  Instead of trying fruitlessly to critique it, let’s talk about a couple of the countless thoughtful, brilliant touches he gives to the issue.  How about the flaming panels he uses for the Flamebird sequence, which slowly burn out into dank smoke when she finally falls?  How about the black-and-white panels Kate’s night of pleasure interspersed throughout the same sequence?  Or maybe the little photos of Maria and her kids strewn across the liquor-drenched floor in her father’s apartment?  It’s a treat to get this kind of art on a monthly basis.

Conclusion: Nothing in this world is perfect, but this title does a pretty good impression.  A joy to read, from text to imagery.

Grade: A

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: – Maybe it’s because I just completed a torts final, but I’d be pretty interested to know how a negligence charge against Maria for being drunk while her children drowned by condemned boathouse would go.  Any lawyers in the building?