Class, Comics, Critique, Essays, Gender, Opinion, Sexuality

Kingpin over Catwoman: Organised Crime vs Spontaneous Theft

Over a year ago Batman volume 2 #28 came out and introduced us to Selina Kyle as the new Kingpin of Gotham. She declared that Catwoman was dead–and I instantly disliked the new direction. I was expecting DC to introduce a new creative team and outlook. Writer Ann Nocenti’s run was widely disparaged (though I liked it for being the closest to what I wanted out of a Catwoman story in years) and sales were off. Still, I thought that the new story coming from Scott Snyder, who barely mentioned Selina in two and a half years of writing Bruce Wayne as Batman, was not a good sign. At first glance it felt as if Catwoman was being set up for a story like the one Grant Morrison has recently wrapped up for Talia Al Ghul. Later I realized that prediction wasn’t fair to Morrison. He was continually interested in Talia. Snyder still hasn’t written Selina in Batman in over a year.

In early July, before the Kingpin Selina Kyle appeared in Batman Eternal and Catwoman, DC Comics announced the new direction and creative teams for both Catwoman and Batgirl. Critics and fans immediately welcomed the new Batgirl design and the promise of a more upbeat direction. There wasn’t anything like that excitement for the new Catwoman, despite getting acclaimed novelist Genevieve Valentine to script it and an artist with indie sensibilities, Gary Brown, to do the art. The Batgirl team announced that their tone would be taking cues from the most well known versions of Barbara Gordon as Batgirl, including Yvonne Craig in the 1966 TV series and Batman the Animated Series’ version. In comparison the new direction for Catwoman seemed more divergent from popular versions. All I could see was the Batman team directing Catwoman.

I’ve since come to recognize some additional influences. This story builds on the popularity of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Batman: Dark Victory and Catwoman: When in Rome as well as writer Ed Brubaker and Darwyn Cooke’s (followed by Brad Rade, Cameron Stewart, Javier Pudillo, Paul Gulacy and for one issue Sean Phillips) run on Catwoman. From Loeb and Sale the Batman Eternal writers adopt the idea that Selina is a mob heiress, and from the Brubaker era their is a noir sensibility. And while they are able to reach new territory from these starting points, the new stories also overlook what made their predecessors so engaging.

[pullquote] In Catwoman, after taking the reins of the Family, she often states that her goal is to be equal to the legacy of her father and his contemporaries. She even asks her family’s lawyer, Ward, what her father would do in certain situations to help make up her mind. It is a direct contradiction of her insistence on standing on her own and being true to herself, as declared by Selina in the earlier stories.[/pullquote]The Loeb/Sale stories suggest that Selina Kyle is actually the exiled daughter of mob boss Carmine Falcone, who threw her away simply because he wanted a son instead. Part way through the plot of Dark Victory, Selina disappears from the plot to investigate this possible connection and that story is the basis for When in Rome. She declares that a reason she was stealing from Falcone in Frank Miller and David Mazzucheli’s Batman Year One was to take back the inheritance she had been denied. Ultimately, she doesn’t find definitive proof, but it doesn’t matter: she alone, and not her hypothetical father figure, determines who she is and where she’s going. The road to becoming a mob boss in Batman Eternal reverses all of the previous salient points. It creates a new mob boss, Rex “the Lion” Calabrese to be her father. Calabrese was Gotham’s crime boss before Falcone usurped him. Calebrese doesn’t reject Catwoman; he puts distance between them to protect her. This makes her stealing from Falcone in Year One an act of taking revenge for what he did to her father. When she later expresses anger at her father, it is tempered by knowing that she does value him enough to avenge him. The events that lead her to take control of the Gotham Crime Families start during a twelve issue stretch in which she doesn’t appear, emphasizing how little she influences the direction the story takes. In Catwoman, after taking the reins of the Family, she often states that her goal is to be equal to the legacy of her father and his contemporaries. She even asks her family’s lawyer, Ward, what her father would do in certain situations to help make up her mind. It is a direct contradiction of her insistence on standing on her own and being true to herself, as declared by Selina in the earlier stories.

The current storyline also changes the way Catwoman relates to Batman. And in my opinion, in a way that does not improve her character. In When in Rome she regularly reflects on how stifling she finds it to be around Bruce and Batman (she consciously remains ignorant that they are the same person, but her subconscious regularly links them together in frequent dream sequences). In Brubaker’s run of Catwoman she declares early on that Batman will never understand her world because his moral vision is too black and white. As recently as Nocenti’s run she admits to herself that Batman wants her to change too much to actually want her as herself. When in Rome also includes a scene where Catwoman remembers that Batman’s first words to her were “You’re wasting my time” (revisiting and clarifying a scene in Year One).

Catwoman PastThat

As he continues treating her like a waste of time in Batman Eternal, she doesn’t get to express anything like frustration, or reject him as she did in the earlier stories in either Batman Eternal or Catwoman. In Eternal she continues to seek out his help long after becoming Kingpin. In Catwoman their first encounter after she becomes the leader of a crime family shows that the distance she has puts between them is personal, not ideological. Her rejection of his opinion lacks the sincerity and decisiveness that mark the earlier stories. In a later issue, while at a low point, she hopes to get him to say that there is something worthwhile in her. The moment resembles a scene in the finale of Brubaker and Pulido’s “No Easy Way Down” arc. In that story she is also at a low point and makes a pass at Batman, only to be assured that he liked her before the traumatic conclusion of “Relentless” and that she can bring herself back from this darkness. In that case, it means reconciling with her estranged best friend (Holly) and making peace with her love interest (Slam).

In the more recent Catwoman, the rejection is more definite and it precedes the appearance of her new love interest Eiko. The two scenes show a greater value placed on the supporting cast in the Brubaker and Pulido era than in the Valentine and Brown one. It emphasizes that Selina and Slam’s relationship isn’t a rebound from Catwoman and Batman, in a way that doesn’t happen with Selina and Eiko. This is especially disappointing as Selina’s interest in Eiko announces her bisexuality, and there are already enough claims that bisexuality isn’t real. Using it as a stopgap relationship for a popular character isn’t helping.

The Brubaker and Cooke era of Catwoman has been extremely influential on subsequent creative teams. Looking through runs by Will Pfiefer and David Lopez or Judd Winick and Guillem March there are plots that deliberately echo the earlier run and even some panels that work as near quotes of earlier scenes. The Valentine and Brown run (soon to be replaced by David Messina) doesn’t have such direct callbacks, but there are ample similarities in plotting, and they generally don’t come off well in the new run. Most of this is related to problems in executing a soft reboot. The Catwoman run right before Brubaker and Cooke started a new volume proved to be incredibly unpopular. Storylines included sending her to prison and a section in which she thinks she’s being stalked by her sister Maggie, only to learn that it is a delusion. The series’ sales plummeted. The run ended with Catwoman’s presumed death.

[pullquote]Storylines included sending her to prison and a section in which she thinks she’s being stalked by her sister Maggie, only to learn that it is a delusion. The series’ sales plummeted. The run ended with Catwoman’s presumed death.[/pullquote]Cooke’s miniseries, Selina’s Big Score, ultimately revealed her death as a fake. The presumed death was incorporated in Brubaker and Cooke’s Detective Comics back up, “Trail of the Catwoman,” leading up to the all new Catwoman volume 3, issue #1. They are then able to redirect the character’s focus to the history presented in Year One and recast the late events in Catwoman volume 2 as a trauma she is trying to move on from by being better connected to her past. She sets up residence in the East End, the slums of Gotham she grew up in and declares herself its protector. As I said earlier, the runs that preceded the Kingpin storyline were also intensely disliked by fans and critics, but the move to Kingpin simply disregards what came before. In Batman Eternal Otto, a character created by Nocenti and Rafa Sandoval, gets murdered in prison, sparking a riot that is only quelled when Rex Calabrese reveals himself. Mr. Bones, a character created by Winick and March, kills a child when he is trying to kill Selina, prompting her to take her father’s offer to become Kingpin of Gotham. After these incidents, there are no real references to Selina’s life before becoming a crime boss. The characters that carry over to the Valentine and Brown run, including one who remains off panel, have only their names and careers in common with their predecessors. They are essentially new characters. This isn’t about building on history so much as it is overwriting it.

Valentine and Brown’s Selina doesn’t reflect on her personal history. Instead she focuses on world history. Each issue includes lines from a firsthand document about a famous historical woman, and Selina has thoughts or comments about each of them. This frames her mob boss activity as akin to what the aristocracy did for hundreds of years. There is a lot of emphasis on diplomatic relations between Crime Families. (Valentine’s recent novel, Persona is also about high stakes diplomacy, and it’s a very good read). The quotes also make Selina seem distant from her own actions and needs. Some of this may be intentional. Issue #37 uses a quote from Li Bai’s “The Song of Changgan” and in reflecting on its subject Selina admits, “I’m more interested in how she managed to retire.” The apathy extends into her professed goal in rebuilding Gotham. She declares it is an investment and the difficult decisions she makes are all based on what would be “good for Gotham,” but she is generally detached.

She looks especially detached if you compare her here to Selina in the Brubaker and Stewart story “Relentless,” in which she plans to open a community center in Gotham’s East End. That story deals extensively with her personal history. It’s hard not to compare the two stories. Besides focusing on Selina wanting to build something to better Gotham, they both have the same antagonist, Black Mask.

In the earlier story Black Mask is lingering in the background, planning revenge for how Selina messed up his drug trafficking operation in an earlier story. The only thing that matters in setting these two up as rivals, is that he wants to control the Gotham Crime Families. It’s a less engaging set up, and it doesn’t help that “Relentless” started in Brubaker’s twelfth issue, and this story starts with Valentine’s first, allowing the reader much more time to invest in Selina’s situation and supporting characters.

Another effect of the quotes from aristocracy is that it draws attention to how the current Catwoman takes place almost exclusively among the elite. This is a major change from most Catwoman stories since Year One. In fact this is an aspect of her character that appears in media outside of her comic. Michelle Pfieffer’s and Anne Hathaways’ characters in Batman Returns and The Dark Knight Rises don’t have much more than a name in common. Among the few things they share are crappy low-rent apartments. Every comic Catwoman origin story since Year Once has included references to growing up in group homes, abandonment and exploitation by various parental figures.

Catwoman MamaFortuna1 Catwoman MamaFortuna2

The well-laid foundation of having her from a lower class frequently manifests itself as a distrust of authority; however, her humble origins don’t have a place in the current Catwoman run. How Selina’s decisions as a mob boss affect the various strata of Gotham doesn’t matter, just this power play between elite groups. Comments within Catwoman indicate that her decisions are about what is best for Gotham. The absence of an effort at community engagement present in earlier runs, such as can be seen below, makes this one of the most class-unconscious depictions of Catwoman in recent decades.

Catwoman CommunityCenter1Catwoman CommunityCenter2

As I said earlier, most of the supporting characters created for Catwoman before Valentine took over writing are abandoned. But then, some of the new ones go through very similar stages of development as the old, so that things don’t feel quite so new. The most egregious example of this is in the characters of Nick and Antonia Calabrese, Selina’s cousins, created for this run. By the third issue of this run, Selina has Antonia kill Nick, thus echoing the two murders that Winick used to bookend his twelve-issue run.

Catwoman AboutNicksDeath

In story placement it resembles the murder of Lola, Selina’s mentor, fence and friend at the end of issue #2. As in that earlier story, we the readers are dealt the heavy emotional blow of the death of a character we are just starting to know. In both stories it is meant to be a turning point for Selina, creating guilt that will drive her decisions. As with the murder of Spark, one of Selina’s partners in crime in issue #12, Nick is killed because he is a police informant, and he is killed by Selina’s closest female ally. In the Winick story, that role belongs to Gwen Altamont, and the fallout from the killing takes her through most of Nocenti’s run.Catwoman SparkDies1Catwoman SparkDies2

Gwen kills Spark because the Penguin let her know that Spark was talking to some corrupt cops. This act leaves Gwen vulnerable to the Penguin, who blackmails her and later tortures her in a failed attempt to learn Catwoman’s identity. Killing her brother also leaves Antonia vulnerable to the same police he informed. This subplot is going to be carried on into the next arc, so I don’t know where it’s going. It is noticeable that Selina shares a scene with Antonia in issue #40 that closely resembles one between Selina and Gwen in issue #30. Selina rescues Gwen from her depression, and rescues Antonia from being attacked by Mason (a new character who claims to be Selina’s brother). Both scenes lead to Selina reclaiming the Catwoman title after having given it up. They are also both reconnection scenes between women. While I read the scene with Antonia I was reminded of the scene with Gwen. It’s a problem when a major plot point of the same issue is Selina making an alliance with the Penguin, and no one is able to comment on these similarities. These coincidences are probably due to editorial oversight.

[pullquote]I really did try to give this story a chance.[/pullquote]Despite being spun off from Batman Eternal there is little attempt at continuity.  In issue #35 Alvarez and Keyes discuss possibly bringing their investigation up to Gordon, despite the fact that Gordon is forced to resign as Commissioner and imprisoned in the first two issues of Batman Eternal. In most of the later issues Eternal Selina is accompanied by Killer Croc as a bodyguard. Croc never shows up in the pages of Catwoman.  Antonia is the only bodyguard even referenced for most of the run.  Croc only is mentioned in Catwoman #40, when the Penguin thanks Selina for sending Croc to escort him.  It feels incongruous with most of what has happened in the Valentine and Brown run up to that point.

I really did try to give this story a chance. I’ve read Valentine’s novels and some of her columns and do enjoy her writing. Tim Seeley wrote most of Catwoman’s story in Batman Eternal, and it left me underwhelmed even after liking his creator-owned comics. But from concept to execution, Kingpin Catwoman’s plot fails to get at what makes a Catwoman story work. In a jump towards something different they landed on something too similar to recent stories to feel like it is moving forward. I can’t say I have any interest in continuing with Catwoman despite an established attachment for the character.