Catwoman in The New 52: Selina in Redux

by Andrea Macalino

▶︎ And by “redux”, I mean a restoration into a former, less refined version. By which I really mean, “reduced.”

I’m not sure exactly how I got into the graphic novel mood again, much less how I landed into Selina Kyle’s world. To tell you the truth, it probably had to do with wondering what I could change my Facebook cover image to, which reminded me of a piece of fan art I’d seen around the Internet.

More curious, I’d noticed a shiny new badge on the cover of every Catwoman issue I came across. If you aren’t familiar with it, The New 52 refers to DC’s 2011 relaunch of its whole superhero ensemble into 52 new titles. Even for someone who’s more well-versed with DC’s Vertigo via Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, the task seemed daunting to me, carrying with it a hint of inevitable nostalgia and disappointment, though secondhand. Not being an avid reader of the Batman graphic novels myself, I can only imagine what readers of the discontinued titles might have felt (though one can never presume that there is general dissatisfaction with all the The New 52 titles).

In any case, I was only in it for Catwoman, and I was prepared for a wild ride. Instead, it was underwhelming.

Selina Kyle: Origins Unknown

By now, I’ve read all the titles of The New 52’s Catwoman, the last being Catwoman #21: Gang War, released just this June 26. This relaunched series starts with a half-hearted effort at a narrative in medias res. In issue #1: And Most of the Costumes Stay On, we’re given the original Catwoman, Selina Kyle, trying to escape from immediate danger, establishing sense of familiarity with the character’s taste for the illegal and the dangerous.

However, if you’re not careful, you might miss issue #0: Zip Me Up, where Selina’s evolution to Catwoman are somewhat explained. Not that it completely remedied the mess of the issues by Winick which had already been released. As the general framework of the story progresses, some hints of Selina’s pre-Catwoman life are dished out piecemeal by Judd Winick, such as in the following exchange between Selina and Spark (From issue #10, The New 52. Art by Guillem March):

And in the following flashback, where, disguised as a bartender out to spy on the Russian equivalent of a mafia, Selina finds an old enemy (From issue #1, The New 52. Art by Guillem March):

But because these snippets seem more like a mediocre way of tantalizing the readers into imagining a horrible life pre-Catwoman, they don’t provide anything refreshing to the story. We understand that somewhere, beneath her all-leather, skin-tight suit and goggles, there’s a  meat-and-flesh Selina Kyle, who, as anti-hero and foil to Batman, has dimensions founded on trauma, much like many comic book characters. Unfortunately, Selina’s depth of history is not given the multidimensional aspect by the flat narrative.

It’s probably why DC released the aforesaid Catwoman #0 after Winick started work on the series, with Ann Nocenti now steering the story. Still, this is essentially what I find problematic with the new Catwoman. All the promises of a new take on Catwoman, the snippets-of-conversation-as-title, the shiny new covers — they all carry the promise of a pack-a-punch storyline.

Unfortunately, the inside pages never deliver.

Empty Stories

The best example of failed execution is probably the Dollhouse subplot, where the disappearance of sex workers and street children prompts Catwoman to investigate. The goal of the villain is inevitably, deliciously evil. She soothes her kidnapped victims, assuring them that she only wants to help them recover from the filth of the streets, covering her real motive: to sell their organs in the black market and keep their hollowed bodies as dolls in a real life tableau.

In fact, it is the grotesque character of this subplot that inspires the feeling that we’re about to get into the epitome of graphic novels: the suspicion that there is something dark and imminent fueling the events in the characters’ lives, best shown in the mix of shadowed images, careful inking, and the mere shapes  and shades of speech balloons.

Still, the potential of this subplot, which spans issues #7: But There’s No Harm in Taking a Good, Hard Look” through 12: It’s Nice to Know I Have Someone I Can Rely On, implodes in on itself because what is used as a character flaw (Selina’s apparent lack of strategy) and the identity of the villain (Matilda the Toyman’s daughter) are not given enough weight. As such, their revelation comes off as flimsy. Although Selina’s plan to rescue the missing victims is foiled, the disappointment which the reader ought to have felt quickly dissolves. This is due to the fact that at a certain point in the story, Matilda was presented as desperate  for spare internal parts. Because of this, it becomes surprising that she had the time to put together a plan which, although not exactly complex, confuses Catwoman, her mysterious ally Spark, as well as Detective Alvarez.

Meanwhile, since the identity of Matilda is tied more to her family rather than to anything intrinsic to the larger storyline (that of Selina and Spark’s wish to rob Penguin blind), the so-called revelation of her origins becomes a mere note, an irksome distraction. It just diffuses the narrative. And as one is quick to learn, the storylines in the graphic novels universe are already more than a little confusing, without the readers having to be told that they need to read The New 52 Detective Comics Volume 2 for more information on Matilda.

Other characters are also inserted and just as easily dropped in this relaunch of Catwoman. My biggest pet peeve would have to be Trip Winter, the middleman who gets Selina some gigs. One minute, Selina tells Trip that his client is the Joker, who taunted Selina with memoirs of her late best friend Lola and orchestrated a larger-than-life chess game all over Gotham in order to lure Catwoman into his clutches. The next we see him, it is strongly implied that he and Selina have something going on.

Now even as a fan of the Batman and Catwoman pairing, I have to say that Trip Winter didn’t seem so bad a match for Selina. Then again that opinion is more a fruit of the guessing game rather than a reaction to having witnessed any skillful development of Trip’s character because, as it happens, the narrative doesn’t offer any.

Next thing we know, Trip Winter is watching a tender moment between Catwoman and Batman in Catwoman #18: He Said, She Said, and the only explanation we get is contained in a few lines:

“I was worried about her. So I put a tracker on her bike. Why did I bother? I fed her two bad heist jobs, and she came back an emotional mess. No way will she trust Trip Winter now” (Nocenti 11).

Of course, the hint as to why Trip distanced himself is there, but because we know nothing prior about this criminal middleman, his decision seems like a spur-of-the-moment decision, rather than something substantive to his character. Additionally, this set of lines comes as a too-late explanation of why Trip hadn’t answered to Selina’s cry for help in Catwoman #17: Rat Tales.

The Visual and the Conversational

In terms of graphics, everything is impressive at first glance. Comic books, however, are not made only for the first glance. What the characters say needs to be supported by the images, and what is unsaid between characters is often laid bare to the readers by virtue of small clues in the background. Emotions are evoked by the subtle use of panel shapes and two-paged spreads usually convey striking scenes. Particularly for action-packed superhero comics, an understanding not only of geometry but also of physics as portrayed on paper is essential to the art (From issue #17, The New 52. Art by Rafa Sandoval and Jordi Tarragona).

Perhaps it’s that whips weren’t made to be the easiest weapons for the eye to follow in comic books. Unlike a blade or a bullet from a gun, after all, the movement of a whip would be more fluid. To suggest motion, an artist must study its possible flow. I can see the effort that was put in, I suppose, but I have to admit that to my untrained eye, at least, I could not really see the fruit of it (the same can be said in issue #s 16: Assault on Argus and 21: Gang War, but there are just too many confusing panels to choose from).

Not to mention, there’s apparently been a lot of negative buzz about Guillem March’s handling of Catwoman’s form in the cover of Zip Me Up. It just goes to show that contrary to what may be popular belief, not all graphic novel depictions of women in black leather result in mindless sex fantasies.

Meanwhile, the dialogue was also underwhelming. For a comic book that’s supposedly an immersion into Catwoman’s psyche, Selina Kyle’s inner monologue and conversation with others just…well…don’t seem so catty. There’s an attempt to insert some sarcasm injected with the mark of trauma. But falling short, Selina’s description of her fears and her beliefs in life sound petty, distracted, flimsy. If I had to pick out the best lines, they would probably be her inner monologue in #13: A Death of the Family (Prelude):

“Never trust a warm bed, a happy life. Better to tear down the house yourself before someone beats you to it” (Nocenti 5).

But perhaps Selina’s conversational skills become wittier, more savvy, when faced with someone who has a more complex dynamic than her, you might think.

Which brings me inevitably to Batman.

Enter the Dark Knight

What I find intriguing about the Catwoman comics is the fact that it’s a decentralization of the normative consciousness which readers are familiar with, whether or not they have a relationship with these characters predating their cinematic or televised counterparts. It’s a given that Batman will show up one way or another, and those parts I found, were awesome.

Still, overall I felt dissatisfied. Instead of presenting itself as a supplement good enough to stand on its own, thereby enhancing one of the key insights into “the greatest detective ever” while revealing a new side to Catwoman, this retelling of Selina’s story diminishes Batman’s facets. And not simply because the dark knight isn’t the central character, but because it presents him like some boy toy in Selina’s world. If more often than not the existence of a damsel in distress becomes problematic, this time it is the existence of the dark knight in shining armor, presented as a trivial matter-of-fact (and deus ex machina in Catwoman #12: I’m Just Refilling My Coffers).

Now I know I’m about to touch on some pretty sensitive areas. Exaggerated physiques and overtones of sexuality pervade graphic novels; one could even say that such images have been so deeply ingrained as part of the form that you can’t enjoy or even appreciate comics without at least suspending your bias against such images.

All of which, I think, is true.

It’s not that I read any of the graphic novels I’ve encountered so far while attacking the given; it’s more that I was surprised to find that the trivialization of characters could be found in both Batman and Catwoman comics. In the Batman comics, there’s an attempt to establish Catwoman as Batman’s equal, a kind of counter against the Robins or Batgirl. We see her in action, particularly in the Hush saga and in Batman Incorporated Volume 1 #1, fighting side-by-side Batman. Still, there’s always that crucial moment when Catwoman needs Bruce Wayne’s alter-ego to save her (for instance in Batman #613: Poster Child for Crime and #616: The Assassins).

But perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the New 52 Catwoman series is the portrayal of the sexual relations between the two. As many readers have apparently complained about, the first issue shows a devastated Catwoman looking to Batman for comfort that starts at the beginning of this premier issue and culminates in issue #2: I Could Say That I’ll Sleep Better, but That’s a Lie, where Selina says,

“I’m not trying to be crude, but it plays out a lot like a bar fight. Bodies get hurled around. Things get broken. Some pretty filthy language is uttered. Some very misplaced anger is present. And tomorrow, there’s definitely going to be some bruising” (Winick 1-2)

But it is crude. And while initially, it may make the heart of fan girls flutter at this confirmation of any erotic relationship between Batman and Catwoman, it is not so much the implication that it is an ongoing sexual relationship which they have, but the way it is presented: with the two still somewhat clad in their disguises, on the floor of Selina’s “borrowed” penthouse (From issue #1, The New 52. Art by Guillem March).

As some have expressed, it just seems more like porn than anything.

The problem with this so-called re-launched Selina Kyle is that she seems to have all the trappings of a feline femme fatale, without the complexity (sexually and mentally) of her past representations. Her thought process seems to be stuck in a perpetual static crisis of being unable to reconcile her goals with her plans, with her inability to piece together the fragments. Not that the old DC Selina was always so put-together, mind you (heck, she got her heart pulled out by Hush; going further back to When in Rome will show her apparently failed mission to find the truth behind her parentage, which is touched upon in Nocenti’s “pre-52” #0: Zip Me Up).

Her past portrayals, however, had a kind of finesse worthy of her feline name. The current Selina, however, seems little more like a teenager in her “oops” moments. While the pre-52 Selina navigated comfortably the line between villain and heroine, this Selina falters and questions herself and her nature in a true Hamlet manner.

Still Curious about the Cat

So is there any hope for this new, “re-launched” Catwoman?

Even economic production and profits aside, I’d have to say, yes, particularly if Nocenti follows the approach she has already started in trying to salvage the series. That is, if she can connect the fragmentary pieces that diffuse the narrative (as she has already, linking Selina’s stuffed bear in #0 to the one in #15, for instance) and re-introduce the fierce Selina who, though still susceptible to the politics of the criminal underground, horrors of her unknown past and Batman, can persist.

Catwoman, after all, like many of her colleagues and foes, is timeless. As a female character in a literary universe that easily objectifies both male and female characters through its accepted forms, Catwoman has been re-launched at a time when feminism is being used to criticize concepts of women’s self-hate and analyze appropriate armor for fantastic characters in literary epics.

For only in such a tension-fraught context can a woman like Selina Kyle rise, claws and whips ready to face Gotham — and beyond, the world. ***

Andrea Macalino is a graduate student of Comparative Literature. This was published in her blog in June 2013.