Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
[In a happy accident, Michael May and I were both planning to examine the current Catwoman series, so we decided to join forces for a special two-parter.]
TOM: For a little while last September, the first New-52 issue of Catwoman was one of DC’s more infamous books. It started literally with a shot of Selina Kyle’s bra, and it ended with her and Batman doing it, as they used to say, like they do on the Discovery Channel. Back then, Catwoman #1 was yet another example of DC Doing It Wrong, trading on cheesecake to sell comics, and ignoring what the likes of Ed Brubaker, Darwyn Cooke, and Will Pfeifer had done with the character in the process.
When I read Catwoman #1 along with every other New-52 first issue, honestly, the sex scene bothered me. It seemed unnecessary in the context of a pretty decent first issue, and it did seem like writer Judd Winick and artist Guillem March were taking a characterization shortcut by establishing Selina firmly in relation to Batman. Granted, it was presented as Selina practically willing Batman into the act — she notes that he “protests,” then “gives in” — but all things being equal, I’m still not sure you want your first issue to end with “and then I seduced the heck out of Batman.”
Nevertheless, I thought there was enough in that first issue to justify a look at issue #2 — including March’s elegantly-rumpled art — and I wound up staying with the book. Re-reading the first six issues, it’s not the most polished superhero comic on the stands, and it is definitely not for everyone. However, I don’t think it’s as bad as the reputation of that first issue might suggest.
For one thing, it uses the serialized format very effectively. Each issue is fairly self-contained (although subplots carry over, obviously), and just about every issue has ended with some kind of cliffhanger. Winick is also good about using just enough exposition to orient a reader, working it into Selina’s first-person captions fairly naturally. The book is told largely from Selina’s perspective, and Winick has a decent handle on her voice. “Cynical and sarcastic” may be the default mode for any number of superhero titles, but the combination of Winick’s words and March’s art — especially the way March makes Selina’s eyes pop — goes a long way.
That said, the book seems committed to a few main topics: Selina’s sexuality, her relationship with Batman, her love of danger, and her tendencies towards violence. If just about every issue ends on a cliffhanger, just about every issue contains at least one bit of voyeuristic cheesecake and one of violence. This makes Catwoman basically a sex-and-death cocktail, where the main character’s addiction to self-destructive behavior turns her entire life into a desperate cry for help. She knows she needs saving, but (for reasons the book lays out) she doesn’t want anyone to save her, until the end of issue #6, when she finally confides in a new ally. She is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl with a heck of a dark side.
From what I understand of Catwoman’s overall character development, this leaves her a few steps behind where she’d been prior to the New-52 relaunch. I hate to admit it, but somehow I missed much of the Catwoman comics from the past two decades, so I can’t speak to specifics. Regardless, Catwoman started off as a femme-fatale villain, committing cat-themed crimes while she and Batman shared various degrees of flirtation; and for forty years or so that was the status quo. Not much was known about her origins, just that she was good at stealing things, she liked cats, and she liked Batman. (One account stated that she used to be a stewardess, and turned to crime when a plane crash gave her amnesia.) When Kathy “Batwoman” Kane was in the picture, Catwoman wasn’t even Batman’s One True Pairing.
In the early ’80s, though, things started to change. Catwoman became less of a villain and more of an anti-hero. She had a backup feature in Batman, and when Talia seemed to split up the Dynamic Duo, she teamed up with Robin to help them take down Ra’s al Ghul. Over the next few years she learned Batman’s secret identity and became Bruce’s significant other. Next to Jason “Robin” Todd, she was a fairly regular part of Batman’s career. That all changed in a 1986 Detective Comics two-parter (#s 569-70), when the Joker kidnapped her and brainwashed her back to a life of crime. Despite the Joker getting a good Bat-pummeling, Catwoman stayed bad.
Not too long afterwards, though, the character drifted back into a grayer area, thanks mostly to revisions in 1987’s “Batman: Year One.” When she finally got her own series in 1993, writer Chuck Dixon and artist Jim Balent took her on globetrotting adventures, not necessarily concerned with Batman or his world. Still, she helped the Justice League take out Prometheus, after the villain had defeated Batman. That series lasted almost 100 issues, giving way to a relaunch under Ed Brubaker and Darwyn Cooke; and that series (more Gotham-centered) lasted almost as long as its predecessor.
Through it all, Catwoman was self-sufficient and fiercely independent, even at her closest points to Batman. She was his equal, not his sidekick or even his partner, which made her a formidable opponent and a fascinating pairing. Whatever demons were in her past had been conquered. Thus, for Winick and March to paint her as damaged and/or dependent practically flies in the face of history. The current series also has a habit of showing Selina in various states of undress, including wearing nothing but her catsuit (no mask, boots, gloves, or gear); and thereby emphasizing her vulnerability.
Even so, I get the feeling that Winick and March are showing Selina in a rebuilding phase, re-establishing certain foundations of her life and career. For lack of a better phrase, she needs help to maintain her independence. She’s acknowledging that help, however reluctantly, as part of this introductory arc — but I know a lot of fans would say she never should have been put in that position. Apparently the sex was just symptomatic.
MICHAEL: My knowledge of Catwoman’s history is even more limited than yours, so my starting point was general impressions formed by Julie Newmar and random Bronze Age appearances I read as a kid. I formed the same opinion as you about her early-‘80s comics appearances: that she was almost Batman’s equal and would have been his equal if a) she wasn’t a guest in his comic book, and b) was a guy. Even so, she always seemed very capable of taking care of herself.
From my perspective, it was the ‘60s Batman TV show that added this element of crazy to her: all the purring and licking herself and the idea that she was self-destructive; that maybe she wanted to be good, but she just couldn’t help herself. Maybe that had already been introduced in the comics by then, but I didn’t notice it until much later.
When I recently linked to the This Is What Women in Superhero Comics Should Be blog, I included a few panels from Darwyn Cooke’s Catwoman and got some criticism about that. The panels were supposed to represent that Catwoman is a complex character, but I can see how someone might possibly interpret that brief exchange as her looking to Batman for validation. That’s certainly the way she seemed to be portrayed on the TV show. And it seems to be the way she’s portrayed in Winick and March’s new series. Though there’s hope that that could change.
I’m with you about that first issue being an unnecessarily shaky start to what’s actually an interesting study of this character. I’m glad that I committed to reading several issues of the series before judging it, because Winick and March’s Catwoman is relentlessly self-destructive at first. Actually, by the end of the sixth issue, she’s still that way, but what’s changed is that she seems to realize that she is and finally wants some help in doing something about it. Up to then, she’s simply made bad decision after bad decision; for no better reason than “it’s fun.” And I’ll argue that she’s been doing that for a lot longer than the current series. What’s potentially cool is that Winick has realized this all along and has been building to this point where Catwoman finally gets control of herself.
I remember when Gail Simone took over Birds of Prey and the first thing she did was tell a story where Black Canary was taken hostage … again. That kind of thing had been a major object of criticism during Chuck Dixon’s run and a lot of readers hoped – based on remarks Simone had made in interviews – that she was going to put a stop to it. What wasn’t immediately clear just from reading the comic was that this was The Last Black Canary Hostage Story. Simone needed to tell that one in order to explain why it would never happen again. I wish I could be more confident about this, but I hope that Winick’s telling The Last Self-Destructive Catwoman Story.
I just don’t know that I care enough to stay with the series and find out. March’s art can be stunning at times, but off-putting at others. He’s got a wonderful gift for expressive faces, but then he’ll throw in some weird, contorted anatomy that hurts to look at. And on the writing side, as much as I’d love see Catwoman grow into the confident, healthy character I vaguely remember from childhood, I really don’t want to have that hope dangled in front of me as she spirals further and further down the drain. Not knowing which way Winick’s going with it, the safest choice — financially as well as emotionally — is just to check out. On the other hand, it’s a testament to how real Winick’s Catwoman feels to me that I don’t want to see her destroy herself. I’m truly torn about whether or not to keep reading.
[Continued in Michael’s next Women Of Action!]