Renee Montoya will likely never be DC Comics' most well-known character. Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman have iconic looks, cool powers, and decades of success in multiple media. However, she has proved surprisingly versatile, beginning her career as a cop and token Hispanic in a cartoon popular with nerds and children, made detective and headlines by coming out as a lesbian in an award-winning comic, nearly drank herself to death as a turn on that venerable American character, the hardboiled detective, and finally, became a bona fide superhero. She added diversity to American comics, provoked considerable fan reactions-- and dated Batwoman.
Her fictional life begins on television-- sort of. The creators of Batman: The Animated Series developed the character.1 A working class female cop whose parents came from the Dominican Republic, she added diversity to the Dark Knight's cast. She works closely with an established character, Gotham City police detective Harvey Bullock. Although created for the show, the comics integrated her before the first episode aired, and she made her debut in Batman #475.
Greg Rucka, the writer who most developed her character, wrote his first story about her for Batman Chronicles #16, in 1999. This story pairs her with Harvey Dent/Two-Face, a Batman villain who will become significant in her life. His influence on her will be, appropriately, divided. Over the next few years he assists Montoya on several occasions, but he also develops a decidedly unhealthy interest in her.
Early in her career (although this would not be revealed until much later) she pulls over speeding socialite Katie Kane, the future Batwoman. They begin a relationship that does not last, in part because Montoya will not go public with her sexual orientation, because she fears the reaction of her fellow officers and her conservative Roman Catholic parents.
Commissioner Gordon promotes her to detective after her involvement with the Batman story, "No Man's Land." She works with Bullock and later Crispus Allen. In the early 2000s she appeared in the webseries Gotham Girls, and its related comic book. Adrienne Barbeau provided her online voice.
Montoya rose to greater fame in the short-lived but critically-acclaimed Gotham Central. The series, which depicted the lives of Gotham City police officers, centered its second story, Rucka's "Half a Life," on Montoya. Here we learn for the first time that Renee is gay: as do her coworkers and her parents (Her brother, we discover, has known since she was fifteen). A vengeful criminal hires a private detective to dig up some dirt on her; he takes a revealing photograph and publicizes her sexual orientation. When someone murders the detective, Montoya becomes a suspect. While she proves her innocence, her parents disown her, her girlfriend leaves her, and she quits the force. "Half a Life" won the 2004 Eisner Award for best story. While the original comics did not sell particularly well, they provoked considerable reaction, and the trade paperback became a popular item. In response to the controversy, Rucka claims that he never "made" the character gay. The tough-girl officer, in his opinion, always was a lesbian; earlier writers simply shied away from saying so.2
Renee Montoya reappeared in 2006 in the influential series 52. A hard-drinking hardboiled detective with a penchant for casual sex, she regains her life after she encounters The Question. The masked vigilante hires her to assist with his investigation of Intergang, and their queries lead to more serious matters. As their friendship grows, the Question reveals that he is dying of cancer, and that he intends to train Renee to be his replacement. Their friendship, crossing boundaries of gender, sexual orientation, and age, resulted in, arguably, 52's most compelling storyline.
After much training, the former police officer becomes a superhero. She has access to the original Question's various tools, and acquires a high-energy pistol during her own adventures. She has since appeared in various comics, maintained an uneasy relationship with Batwoman, and in 2009 became the back-up feature in Detective Comics, DC's eponymous title, and the longest-running American comic book. While superheroes have fared better in comic books than regular detectives (Slam Bradley preceded Batman in Detective; we don't hear too much about him these days), many people prefer the character in her earlier roles. The strength of comicdom's minor stars, however, often lies with their versatility and adaptability. Montoya has demonstrated staying power through her various incarnations, and we can hope that she will remain part of the DC Universe for some time to come.
Update: ...we can hope she will, despite the fact that DC's 2011
reboot reintroduced the original Question, and has stayed away from Montoya, prompting complaints from those unhappy with the post-reboot handling of females and minorities at DC.
1. rootbeer277 reminds me that this show also created Harley Quinn, who has become a significant player in the DCU.
2. Greg Rucka. "Introduction." Half A Life. DC Comics, 2005.