In 2001, Catwoman was everything I ever wanted in a comic. I admit I was a sucker for her new look. A woman’s stompy black boots are her pride and Catwoman’s boots were stompy, black and flat after years of thigh high Pretty Woman stilettos. Not to mention that zippers with rings, black leather, kitty ears and experimental night vision goggles are just cool, way cooler than purple latex. The art by Darwyn Cooke, Cameron Stewart and Mike Allred was loose, expressive and playful. Ed Brubaker’s writing was hardboiled, but took after Raymond Chandler’s fragile and battered humanism rather than Dashiell Hammett’s breezy amorality.
As in Chandler, Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman) discovers that getting ahead as a hero is often just being able to walk away and call it even and that a second chance is its own reward. A lot of beat up Robert Mitchum look-alikes teach her about regret, loss and the necessity of doing the right thing—from offering a petty thief the second chance his father never had to giving a diner waitress $100,000 for years of tolerating the “Midwest Mob.” I am a total sucker for all that—nice art, good writing, noir, the vulnerability in standing up for what’s right. It was too good to last.
While I was busy enjoying the writing (old guys filled with regret, lesbian punklings in love) and the art (so fun and expressive), I should have paid more attention to the letters column because, in the end, I am not the demographic DC wants. Fans complained that the art was cartoony and when Darwyn Cooke and Cameron Stewart moved on, Catwoman’s costume underwent another redesign. The new costume wasn’t a purple bodysuit but hearkened back to Frank Miller’s “realistic” re-imagining of Selina Kyle as a dominatrix. The next thing I knew Brubaker was still writing, but Catwoman had a new pair of boots—low pointy heel, but ankle-breaking just the same—and a larger pair of breasts, which have been steadily expanding since.
Writing and art are carefully balanced in comics and I honestly couldn’t say which weighs more heavily in my decision to pass over a comic or not. At least I couldn’t until Catwoman. I might have felt it in some way before, as I cringed through copies of X-Men, but now I know that the deal breaker for me is breasts. Superhero boobs pretty much represent everything I find painful and alienating in comics. Teen heroes and sidekicks have breasts the size of real adult women. Full grown superheroes have breasts that are impossibly huge, impossibly perky and impossible to subvert no matter how artists try. They endure as buffed, waxed and gleaming as a vintage Sunbird and, along with every superhero’s musculature, as carefully highlighted in white cg airbrush fuzz as conversion van fantasy art. Yes, the hot art in comics right now looks a little automotive to me. If only they used larger metal flake and more chrome on their rides.
Fans complained that the art was cartoony and unrealistic. I think what they meant was that rendered in a more obviously abstracted way, wearing a more practical (in the same sense that Batman’s costume is practical) outfit, Catwoman wasn’t special private time material anymore. The lesbianism Catwoman’s usual fans want isn’t cute girls in love, it’s a little more Reform School Girls. And the outfits they want Catwoman to wear aren’t for crimefighting, or even catburglery. Batman’s life in leather might be a subtext, but Catwoman’s life in latex isn’t. Her old costume features her breasts in a way that rendering her nude cannot: shiny, sleek and frequently nipple-less. Somehow, the absence of nipples makes Catwoman appear more naked than naked.
Before Brubaker’s run, the writing was frequently all about putting Catwoman into certain places, positions and purple latex. It reminds me of porn narratives. I’m not denigrating porn here. It’s just that porn narratives are not character or story driven. They are goal-oriented. They provide short hand reasons for why things happen in the story: Protagonists meet because he’s a pizza delivery guy or she’s stealing a statue of Bast.
So on one side, it’s me (hi!), all excited about Catwoman in her ‘kickers, finally noir like I always wanted. On the other side, there are many, many more male fans with particular needs they expect Catwoman will fulfill. I think on both sides we look at comic breasts in the same way, take them as the same signs, and draw different conclusions. Every time I see the huge, buffed and sanded, silicon-injected, all-weather rated breasts of superheroines, I see all the desire and expectation and hope that fans can put into them and all the impossibility of those breasts in the world (or maybe even their terrifying reality). I see a reminder that Catwoman is intended for another audience. But even though it seemed there’s no way to compromise between my cool antihero and their safe fetish pin-up, something broke through. For 25 issues, I got mine.
This month’s Guest Star writer is Carol Borden. Born to two international catburglers, Carol Borden turned her back on her heritage to take up a life of art. Sometimes, late at night, she regrets her decision.
(The article was originally published at The Cultural Gutter on August 16, 2006. All rights, Carol Borden and The Cultural Gutter)