As I said the other day, this was meant to part of a single post about a couple of comics from DC’s relaunched ‘New 52’ line, but I fumbled the well-intentioned ball of concise fun-focus and found myself writing about other stuff that popped into my head while reading. Result: two columns, not one.
So welcome to Part 2, wherein I take a look at a well-known but nevertheless B(C?)-list member of DC’s mighty character portfolio, Catwoman.
In a sense, this is all quite well timed, as some of the stuff I’m going to get into connects rather closely to recent discussions on the world-renowned SF Signal podcast. I’ll link to the relevant episode(s), down below. I’ll also just note, by way of getting my excuses in early, that I have more questions to offer than answers.
Some of the other stuff I’m going to talk about is not nearly so tricky, though, so that’s probably the place to start.
written by Judd Winick, drawn by Guillem March, published by DC Comics
Catwoman – Batman’s slinky, light-fingered sparring partner in both comics and films over many decades – is Selina Kyle, a thrill-seeking, self-destructive loose cannon of a thief. Notionally, she’s a villain rather than a heroine, but she’s often operated in the grey area between the two and so it is here.
In the course of this first volume, Ms Kyle gets into hot water with Russian gangsters (the default choice for generic gang-types these days, it seems), a homegrown and slightly more supervillainy gangster named Bone, a load of corrupt Gotham City police and a pretty straightforward supervillainess called Reach. Oh, and she fights Batman, of course. Fighting is not the only thing she does with him, as we’ll get to later. I liked this quite a bit more than I expected to. It took me a while to figure out why, and the conclusion I eventually came to has two parts: nostalgia and some basic story-telling decisions.
Nostalgia. At root this reminds me a whole lot of the superhero comics I read, and got hooked on, 20+ years ago. That, as many readers of speculative fiction will recognise, is a potent thing. There will always be a special place in our hearts for the stuff that first sucked us into a genre. The scripting, tone and visuals are not those of my youth (they are, in some ways, better or more interesting than what I was reading back then), but the structure and pacing is certainly more familiar than a lot of today’s superhero stuff.
Some time ago, a trend towards decompressed storytelling took root in superhero comics. Storylines that once would have taken two or three issues to play out were spread over five, six, or more. There’re several reasons for this trend, including an adaptation to the format of the increasingly important trade paperback collections (an interesting example of storytelling styles being influenced by the economics and practicalities of publication methods). Catwoman doesn’t really play that decompression game, though. This volume pushes along, telling not a single long story but a series of very nicely paced and incident-packed shorter ones that maintain a through-line of theme and connection but to some extent stand alone. This is the sort of thing I grew up with, and I therefore instinctively recognise and am drawn to it. I like decompressed comics too, but think they’re actually harder to do really well, and sometimes aren’t.
What about those basic storytelling decisions I mentioned, then?
I think the most significant is that there’s a very strong focus on Catwoman herself. Nearly everything is presented from her point of view, often with first person narration. That’s a powerful and effective means of promoting immersion in a comic when it’s done well, as it is here. It both contributes to and benefits from a pleasingly strong and consistent ‘voice’ that Winick develops for her. He contrives to make me root for Selina Kyle without ignoring the rather unsavoury nature of her approach, ambitions and behaviour.
And yet … even as I was reading along, enjoying myself, a certain unease persisted. A nagging internal murmur of unfun.
There’s a perception that superhero comics have a certain … problem? Is that the word? … when it comes to the depiction of female characters. See SF Signal podcast #139 for related details, delivered quite eloquently by Lisa. Then, perhaps, check out #143 for not strictly related but possibly not entirely irrelevant real world context, albeit drawn from the SF rather than the comics fan community. Early on, there’s a sex scene between Catwoman and Batman that elicited a fair amount of fan comment at the time of its first publication (pretty inoffensive though it appeared to me). That, to me, is rather failing to engage with the forest because of the enormous tree with which you’re being beaten about the head. The forest lies in the accumulation of smaller decisions that together begin to suggest an aesthetic that is excessively concerned with the protagonist’s status as a physical object.
Sexuality and sex appeal have long been an integral part of the Catwoman character. That in itself isn’t necessarily a problem for me. But … Do I really need to see so much of Selina Kyle’s underwear or cleavage? No, not really; but I guess I can let that go. Would a male character have a zip on his costume that burst open like that when he got hit? I kind of doubt it, but that’s silly rather than worrying, right? The trouble is, the drip drip drip of small questions like these eventually prompts other, less obvious and clear-cut ones.
Would a male character be restrained in a chair, in costume, and beaten not once but twice in this single volume? I don’t know. Would a male lead character in a superhero comic so repeatedly use sex – principally the implied promise rather than the actuality of it – as a means of achieving their goals? I’m not sure, but if they did I think it would have a different cultural and social resonance. Would a male character be posed, in the art, in ways that appear quite so designed to convey a sexual charge? Not in mainstream superhero comics, no.
There is a complicated grey area – or at least an imprecisely located line – between legitimate artistic traditions, conventions and playfulness and the perpetuation of habits that singly may be easily dismissed but cumulatively are negative in their impact. I get that. But there is one question I have a definite answer to: Would I feel more comfortable about enjoying this comic if it was done in such a way that these questions never even occurred to me? Yes, I would.
Having read so much superhero stuff over the years, I’ve become a bit desensitized to this stuff. I think I’m so aware of, and frustrated by it here, because I like so many of the other things going on in these pages.
There are many touches that lean against a simple interpretation of what’s being done: when Catwoman needs help, it’s mostly to women that she turns; she wins her battles through an even-handed mixture of physical prowess, smarts and bravery; her relationship with Batman is complicated and I’m not sure quite how I feel about it, but it is decidedly not one of straightforward or unilateral dependency or submission.
Selina Kyle is given a character at least as complex and layered as most male superheroes ever get, incorporating many elements into a package that really did feel quite strikingly coherent to me. She feels, in short, more like a real and engaging person than most of the superheroes I’ve read about. That is no small achievement on the part of the writer.
Similarly, much of the art is very enjoyably fluid and energetic; nicely cinematic at times, nicely characterful at others.
I really do think this is a notably well done, traditional superhero comic that has a great deal to recommend it if that is your cup of tea. I enjoyed a lot of it, and will almost certainly be back to read the next volume. I just wish I didn’t feel compelled to qualify that endorsement with questions.