Catwoman: The Game. Here, Winick tries to fill gigantic shoes that preceded him, the iconic Ed Brubaker run that redefined both the look of Catwoman and what a Catwoman story could be -- nuanced and intelligent and steeped in crime noir. Winick follows in this tradition, but he is less apologetic than Brubaker, for better or worse -- his Catwoman bounds from impulse to impulse, disaster to disaster, without the altruism that writers often feel compelled to inject into Selina's stories.
That Winick's story and Guillem March's art offer content perhaps better suited for a Vertigo or Marvel Max line have earned Catwoman: The Game no end of controversy. Still, even if Winick's content is taboo, that Winick pushes taboo boundaries is not in and of itself a bad thing.
[Review contains spoilers]
The first chapter of The Game, on its own, is macabre to the extreme. No sooner is her apartment firebombed in revenge for one heist than she's taken on another, and in the middle of that she's distracted by an old foe; twelve pages in, and Winick shocks the reader with Catwoman committing violence of the severity not often seen in DC's best-recognized titles. And no sooner does Catwoman escape than Winick presents the infamous Catwoman/Batman sex scene.
Never in the six issues collected here does Selina throw a brick to help Batman stop a villain, as she did in the first issue of Brubaker's Catwoman series, nor does she meditate on joining the side of the angels. Winick's Catwoman blissfully, even foolishly, does wrong -- she steals a bag of money, discovers it's a far greater and more dangerous sum than she'd believed, and rather than leaving town, Selina spends it in an ostentatious show that lands her in even greater trouble. Winick often even puts the reader ahead of Selina, telegraphing that Selina's run afoul of the corrupt Gotham City police far before she knows it herself.
Brubaker's Catwoman was unquestionably brilliant, a nuanced exploration of addiction and co-dependence that deserves its current re-release in expanded trade form; also, in its respectful, classy, but still sexy presentation of Selina Kyle, Brubaker's Catwoman was largely un-controversial. Whereas Brubaker's Catwoman, however, made Selina likeable, Winick's Catwoman does not, necessarily. Rather the reader likes those around Selina who like her, like Lola and Batman, and this makes Selina a readable if difficult protagonist.
The Game is at times a heist comedy, at times a graphic and violent crime story, but despite Selina's blitheness, the book itself is not blithe. Winick may be pushing boundaries, but not blindly -- see the book's tight narrative structure, including the three specific times Batman shows up in the story. From the moment of Selina's nonchalant reaction to an attack on her own home, those around Selina can tell she's not "all right," and her self-destructive behavior escalates to The Game's conclusion, when Selina finally admits her own death wish. Whether comedy or tragedy, The Game is at its core a purposeful psychological drama -- controversial and even offensive, but not aimless.
Winick depicts Catwoman and Batman having sex, something that earned Catwoman great notoriety and derailed to an extent DC's initial New 52 launch (MTV Geek says, "This is not a mature take on Catwoman"; the Discriminating Fangirl calls the last scene "embarrassing and unnecessary" and Digital Spy describes it as "a work of unnecessary and unimaginative crassness"). Whether this is suitable content for a mainstream DC Comics title is worthy of debate; under other circumstances, however, it makes what Winick examines no less interesting. Batman is a hero and Catwoman is a villain, but yet it's always been understood (whispered, even, in the halls of the Justice League satellite) that they share an attraction, that they do at times "shack up," and that because of it Batman may even look the other way when Catwoman commits crimes.
Brubaker, and Jeph Loeb in Batman: Hush*, rationalize the relationship by making Catwoman Batman's ally. Winick, again, is unapologetic; the two "hook up," in the crassest sense, Selina out of this same thrill-seeking and Batman -- Winick doesn't go into Batman's head, actually, but in words and in March's pictures, the reader is constantly shown how "angry" Batman is -- disappointed in himself, to be sure, and embarrassed and ashamed by his illicit relationship with one of his foes.
When Batman sleeps with Talia al Ghul in Mike Barr and Jerry Bingham's classic Son of the Demon, the events have an almost royal, romantic air. They do not get to the root contradictions that Batman, meant to be the hero most completely in control of his surroundings and himself, is romantically involved with a number of his enemies. What does it say about Batman, that this is the case? What weaknesses, on significantly deep levels, does this reveal? How does Batman justify this to himself?
Winick's Batman is not Scott Snyder or Grant Morrison's Batman -- it's quite unlikely Winick's Batman could exist and be viable as a character in the light in which Winick displays him. But the aspect of Batman that Winick examines here is no less valid or worthy of consideration than Brian Azzarello's young, spoiled Bruce Wayne in Batman: Broken City or Martha Wayne's rejection of Bruce's Batman persona in Death and the Maidens. This is not super-heroic Batman but rather disturbed loner Batman, not the Batman you'd want to read every week but still one that deserves contemplation.
Guillem March's art is right for this story, but may not at times help defray the controversy. Selina is objectified, half-naked, from the beginning of the book, whether by March's fiat or Winick's decree, but since the story is not specifically about objectification (as opposed to Morrison's Seven Soldiers: Bulleteer), this muddies what the book tries to say. When March is on track, as in the book's closing sequences, his Batman and Catwoman resemble Tim Sale's; when March swings wide, as in the sex scene or the third chapter's two-page spread of an upside-down Catwoman flung through the air, the composition borders, intentionally or not, on the absurd. Still, March has a leg up on his contemporary artists; Catwoman is depicted sexually because Winick's Catwoman is a sexually-charged book, a far cry from tentacles attacking spread-eagle teenagers in Jose Luis's Teen Titans: The Hunt for Raven or Ed Benes's super-buxom, chained Wonder Woman in Justice League: The Injustice League.
Winck's misstep in The Game is Reach, the only overtly super-powered foe that Catwoman faces. Setting aside that March's design for the denim-clad, ripped-stockinged bruiser is far too straight from the 1980s, Reach's presence also ruins the magical realism of Winick's story. Thus far -- setting aside men dressed as bats and women as cats -- Catwoman has been mostly believable, a crime drama of good thieves and bad cops, but Selina's fight with Reach makes the story mundane; it becomes, all of the sudden, just another superhero versus supervillain story. That Selina actually bites off Reach's ear is in the top most outlandish moments of The Game; hopefully that marks the end of that character, as well.
Judd Winick's Catwoman: The Game cries out, even begs, to be controversial, from the front cover image of a half-undressed Selina Kyle scattering white diamonds across her chest to the first chapter's final Catwoman/Batman mash-up, through the book's copious mayhem and to the end. There is plenty to be upset about here, not in the least that DC published this at all instead of letting Winick take the same ideas to a creator-owned Vertigo series; a better option might have been Winick exploring these ideas in another forum and publishing a more Brubaker-esque Catwoman in the mainstream.
But the chips have fallen as they have, and Winick's book, if inappropriate, at least appears to have something going on, as opposed to the same old thing in DC's New 52 Green Arrow, for instance. Whether Winick's second volume is equally layered will be the real test of whether something is actually going on in Catwoman or not.
* In the introduction to the Absolute edition of Batman: Hush, Jeph Loeb reveals he wrote a scene where Batman and Catwoman have sex with their masks on, and artist Jim Lee, later an architect of the DC New 52, nixed it, saying "This feels like ... something children shouldn't see." The times, they have a'changed.