“Everything changes and nothing remains still … and … you cannot read twice the same book.” ~ Sorta Heraclitus.
I think a lot about what it means for art to be good or bad. I think one of the signs of good art is that you always find something more in it. There’s always something to say about it. And it is just so gratifying finding something new in it. This month I will have been writing for the Cultural Gutter for ten years. I wrote my first piece, “Catwoman: Silicon-Injected,” in August, 2006. It was about Catwoman (2002-5), specifically, the first twenty-five issues of Ed Brubaker’s run with art by Darwyn Cooke, Mike Allred, Cameron Stewart, Javier Pulido and Matt Hollingsworth. So this month, I thought I’d retrace Catwoman’s steps in one of my favorite runs of comics ever and definitely my favorite Catwoman story. They are Issues I love–art, writing, lettering and all.
I reread these books in a slightly different form. I originally read it in a mix of single issues and trade paperback collections. I have a copy of the first volume signed by Cameron Stewart himself. And the piece I wrote about it got me a nice email from Stewart. This time, I read it in shiny, much bigger, new collections: Catwoman, Vol. 1: Trail of the Catwoman (DC, 2011) and Catwoman, Vol. 2: No Easy Way Down (DC, 2013). This run of Catwoman begins after socialite Selina Kyle has run for mayor of Gotham and has ostensibly been murdered by the notorious thief, Catwoman. Gotham’s mayor wants to know for sure if Kyle is dead and hires private detective Slam Bradley to find out. The thing is, Selina Kyle is Catwoman. She faked her own death to free herself of the complications of being Catwoman and Selina Kyle. After a heist goes bad and her mentor-in-crime Stark ends up dead, Selina returns to Gotham. Over the course of the two volumes, she investigates the murder of prostitutes in her part of town; gets an ace private detective to cut her some slack; helps out an old friend; goes on a road trip; flies with Hawkgirl; has exciting adventures; and generally figures out who she is.
I still love the same things I loved in 2006. I love Selina’s joy in leaping through the city at night and her complicated moral world. I love the noir elements and Slam Bradley as Robert Mitchum. One of the things I’ve written about since is how rarely we get to see what femmes fatale want, what they think. And Catwoman gave me that. I love the punky girls in love. I love the practical outfit and stompy boots. It’s interesting to read it again after discovering that Ed Brubaker considers those same issues some of his best work.
When I look back at that, I’m so proud of the first 25 issues of that book, when I felt like everything was firing on all cylinders. I probably should’ve left when Cameron Stewart left instead of sticking around. That’s one of those things I look back at and think “Ah, I had a perfect run up until then!”….But anyway, I do feel like the first 24 issues of that book, I’m very proud of. The Javier Pulido arc might be one of my favorite things I’ve ever written. It’s all about the aftermath of a bunch of horrible stuff. The story’s divided up between Slam, Holly and Selina. I think we did a lot of experimentation in that.
He sure did. After Brubaker quit, the book led back to a different, more sexy-time Catwoman. One intended for a different audience. I was disappointed by her pearl-necklaced reboot in the New 52. Other people were more upset over the changes made to Starfire, understandably after her portrayal in the Teen Titans cartoon. Catwoman’s reboot was harder for me, but I still had those twenty-five issues of pulpy, noir splendor. I appreciate them more on the other side of the New 52.
In returning to Catwoman this time, I’m seeing a little more of how the creators changed, in particular, Darwyn Cooke. Catwoman, Vol. 1: Trail of the Catwoman includes material I didn’t read the first time through. I had read Brubaker and Darwyn Cooke’s “The Trail of the Catwoman,” in which Slam Bradley is hired to discover if Selina Kyle is really dead. I hadn’t read Darwyn Cooke’s 2002 “Selina’s Big Score,” and I’ve never really been sure why. I saw it around, but it never grabbed me. Now, having read it, I know a little better why it didn’t. Part of what put me off in reading “Selina’s Big Score” is that it isn’t really a Catwoman story. It’s a Richard Stark story, or rather Darwyn Cooke’s early presentation of a Richard Stark story. I recognized from the art that Selina’s mentor-in-crime in “Selina’s Big Sore” Stark was Lee Marvin as Parker-by-another-name in Point Blank (1967) and his Selina was Angie Dickinson in the same.
“Richard Stark” was a nom de plume for Donald Westlake, an author with many noms de plume. Stark was the name he used for his long series of crime novels involving the criminal genius and probable sociopath, Parker. Parker usually is involved in a heist. The heist goes wrong, usually because someone else screws up. Then Parker deals with the fall-out. (In this way, Parker is part of the general fantasy of competence that a lot of people find appealing in their escapist fiction).
You can catch a glimpse of Cooke’s hopes and fears in “Selina’s Big Score.” His fear that maybe this backstory in Detective Comics was his only chance to do a Parker story, and that he had to do it under wraps. And his hope that he could one day do straight adaptations of Westlake Parker novels. And he did adapt four Parker novels as graphic novels. He just did them for IDW Publishing rather than DC. In fact, I prefer them in a lot of ways to the novels, Sixties pulps often have a meanness to them and a sense of resentment that the world is not the way it should be–especially that women are not the way they should be. Cooke’s mid-century cocktail style leavens a lot of the meanness. And his mastery of the form and the media is amazing, particularly in his last work, Slayground (IDW Publishing, 2013). And it’s sad to read all this now, see all this growth, after Darwyn Cooke died earlier this year.
But I’m glad I’m reading it now and not in 2002 or 2006. It helps to have those other Parker novels to provide perspective and a glimpse of Cooke in the past that I didn’t expect. There are still things that bug me. Mostly that it is more about the men around Selina than it is about her and that Selina’s diminished a bit in Cooke’s desire to do right by Parker. It feels like moving Selina from one kind of male fantasy to another, the object of desire to the woman who tempts the immovable man. We are supposed to identify with the men’s feelings about Selina, and that is fine. But it’s also easier than understanding a femme fatale. And it’s just not what I am there for. I am there for Catwoman struggling with doing what’s right, helping people who have no one else and leaping from roof to roof. Also, daring jewelry heists.
While I’m not much for a lot of Sixties pulp, I am exceedingly fond of Thirties and Forties pulp and noir. I was always going to prefer “The Trail of the Catwoman” vision of Catwoman and Selina Kyle to “Selina’s Big Score.” “Trail” owes a lot to Laura (1944), as Slam Bradley tries to find out the truth of a woman’s death and then comes to believe he knows her like no one else. And it owes a lot to Out of the Past (1947), too, as he’s hired to find a woman and bring her back to a man he doesn’t trust. Plus, it still has Cooke’s excellent style and character design. (I was relieved however, once Selina cuts her Angie Dickinson ‘do, which feel so wrong after her short hair feels so right). Sure, it starts with the men in Selina’s life and how her death has affected them. But Slam Bradley and Bruce Wayne aren’t men pretending to be unaffected by dames–or anything, really. In the collection, “Trail” works as a nice segue from one pulp style to another, and moving from the men around Selina to Selina finding herself, even even if means realizing she’s only truly happy as an antihero with a purpose.
I never expected to like a comic as much as I did this run on Catwoman. And I kind of expect it’s unlikely I’ll find many books I like as much. But while I’m not exactly pessimistic, it does give me a little bit of hope that the one part that I didn’t like as much turned into so many other excellent books. And I could only have seen that by going back.
Carol Borden still has a pair of stompy black boots. She wouldn’t hardly be a lady without them.
This essay was originally published by the Cultural Gutter on Aug. 11, 2016.