Review: Catwoman Vol. 1: The Game trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, July 02, 2012

Judd Winick writes a wild, violent, sexual tale of Selina Kyle in the DC Comics New 52 debut 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.
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17 comments:

  1. Great, balanced review. After one issue, I decided this was not for me, but it's good to see a literary analysis (and even defense) of it. Ultimately, I think you have it right that it's a misstep in the context of the relaunch.

    When all characters are being rebooted (at least in part), then any portrayal meant to contrast with the core character (Batman's) is problematic. Since this is a new Batman (no matter how much DC claims every story in the past few years still happened), there is no contrast. This is now Batman, as much as the one in Snyder's book. Just icky. It might have worked as a standalone out of continuity graphic novel, much in the way we were able to dismiss All-Star Batman and Robin, but as part of the NewDC...

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  2. Excellent point that even if the reader can separate the Snyder-Batman and Winick-Batman, they ought not have to, and especially not at the outset of the DC New 52. It's not a stretch to say DC is having the same problem right now with Superman, in the trouble readers are having trying to rectify the Morrison-Superman with the Superman of the greater DCU.

    There were continuity/storytelling mistakes coming out of Crisis on Infinite Earths, and it was maybe unrealistic to think DC wouldn't have the same in the New 52 -- that the New 52 would be "perfect." Obviously that's not the case, and maybe/maybe not DC should be forgiven some missteps; I will be curious to see ten years down the road how the New 52 initiative is remembered, what's still canon, etc.

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  3. It probably will, at least as much as Infinite Crisis (we only ever talk about the reality-punching).

    And yeah, Superman's the other good example. His current day series started with him acting "out of character", as if we knew what that meant.

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  4. I seriously don't see anything wrong with Batman and Catwoman having sex. It's not like any of them is in a serious relationship with someone else, and while Winick may have a bad habit of doing deliberately controversial stuff to get people's attention, in this case it completely fit the book's harsh tone.

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  5. I didn't pick up Catwoman when it was coming out because I already had enough on my plate, but I regretted it after reading The Game. But perhaps the fact that I read it as a whole is the reason why I enjoyed it.

    In the spirit of being Collected Editions, I feel this story definitely benefits from being read together. By doing that you can see the self destruction Catwoman goes through, and that this Catwoman is exactly that: self destructive. Whether she's an adrenaline junkie, trying to avoid a "real" life (with real consequences), or just plain nuts (in much the same way Batman is nuts for dressing up as a bat to fight crime) it's a very interesting character study.

    And as the conversation went at my LCS: "We knew Batman and Catwoman were doing the do, we've just never had to WATCH it before!". I do really like the fact that you bring up Batman's thoughts and feelings, something I hadn't thought about. For the hero who is supposed to be in total control, what goes through his head to make him go at Catwoman like this?

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  6. @Shagamu: It's not the sex I objected to, it's the gratuitous way it was presented, in the context of an issue where the protagonist was constantly falling out of her clothes. It read as a male fantasy, where the man shows up and the hot chick just gives it up. Tawdry.

    This, in the context of DC claiming the New52 was designed to bring in new readers. You'd have thought female-led books would have been designed to attract and keep female readers (a neglected demographic), but no, not only was Catwoman a wet dream on adrenaline, but Voodoo was even worse. If you're trying to get new readers, remember that each book could be a person's first DC comic.

    Obviously, some people will like it, I'm not disputing that. I'm just criticizing it as a reader recruitment strategy, and using it as an example of DC's current tone deafness.

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  7. I liked the trade and thought it was an interesting take on Catwoman. I did have huge problems with the portrayal of Batman, but he always felt like a prop in the story and I think he was mostly in the story to sell copies to diehard Batman collectors. If DC thought they could get away with it, I suspect Winick would not have included Batman in the story at all.

    It felt to me like what a fresh Hollywood take on the character would end up being today in a movie or television series. The CW treatment, if you will, with more sex and violence.

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  8. In terms of what Siskoid and shagmu were discussing, there are two threads in Winick's Catwoman book -- one is Catwoman's self-destructive life, of which sex with Batman is a part; the other is the book's objectification of Catwoman.

    As I said in my review, I don't think this latter thread really manifests, as compared to Seven Soldiers: Bulleteer -- Winick is saying something about vigilantes under the covers, but he's not saying much (at least not that I could discern) about objectification. Unfortunately, I think this dissonance wrecked the Catwoman title out of the gate; the two threads were conflated (especially in light of just the first issue) and couldn't be rectified.

    By the end of The Game, the focus on objectifying Catwoman to some extent falls away (the general foci of Guillem March's art notwithstanding) and what's left is the psychological drama solely -- anyone who read just issue #1 of Catwoman ought perhaps also go and read issue #6, and then let the chips fall where they may. Unfortunately six issues is a lot of time to give a title, easier in collected form than monthlies.

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  9. I can see that, C.E. A lot of it, for me, had to do with the art, and Winick's never been a must-read writer for me. Liked some of his stuff, disliked other stuff, so the writing alone wouldn't have kept me there.

    If I need to read some Catwoman, I'll read the Brubaker and Pfeiffer series... after all, I never have!

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  10. I read 1 & 2 then abandoned the book as a certain opinion of it formed at that point. Seeing some counter reviews on subsequent issues, I was inclined to get the trade. Really glad I did as the rest of the story gives a more valid context for what is shown in issue 1.

    One other thing I noticed, the book seems much more filthy in digital format, than in print. Just a byproduct of seeing panels in isolation.

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  11. I enjoyed this book, though certainly it's quality doesn't quite match up with the other new 52 books I've been reading. Like most people, I'd heard a lot about how the first issue ended before reading it but since Catwoman is one of my favourite characters, I decided to chance it (plus I did hear some favourable reviews). And yeah, it wasn't perfect but it was still fun and I definitely plan to read more in the future.

    One thing that I really do miss (and one thing that makes figuring out Batman's current "canon") though is Catwoman knowing who Batman is. That said, I do actually like her being more of a villian than a hero.

    So yes, I'll read more, though I won't be anticipating the next book for this series as much as some of the others.

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  12. Just noting the current rumour that Winnick is off the book and Ann Nocenti is taking over. That'll see me done with the title.

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  13. I'll probably end up giving this a try at least, but I dunno.. Winnick these days isn't simply the same he was back in the early 90s. While his Kyle Rayner or G.A. were smart, fun and intriguing he seems to be pretty crass and 2-dimensional these days on the funny pages..

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  14. Great review. I read the first issue and it wasn't enough to get me to keep buying, but I'm glad the story at least went somewhere. I think your point about "at least it has something going on, unlike Green Arrow" is right on the money. I'd rather read something that's borderline inappropriate but still interesting or thoughtful than something that's bland and same-old, same-old. That's why I ended up buying Swamp Thing when I wasn't expecting to like it, and why I didn't keep buying JLI or Green Arrow even though I was expecting to like them.

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  15. That, as Hix says, this book seems "filthier" in digital is an interesting point. I thought it was interesting a while ago when Geoff Johns said (some interview, don't remember where, sorry) that he's started to pack panels with more going on, with an eye toward someone reading in digital seeing the panels in isolation. As I'm reading Mark Waid's Insufferable and such, I'm curious to hear about this kind of phenomenon.

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  16. I just read this and I really enjoyed it. I'm new to super hero comics, most of what I've read in the past is really just the classics, Watchmen, Preacher etc. I didn't realise that this was controversial.

    I've jumped on with the new 52 trades, and all the bat books have been great. I didn't think the Batman here seemed too different from the other books, I found it less of a stretch to believe Batman had an existing relationship with Catwoman that I did to believe Bruce Wayne would be fighting criminals along side his 10 year old son.

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  17. That this book is not all that shocking if you tend to go for more mature fare is an interesting point. Again I think that if Winick had written a book about an archetypical female villain and male hero, reaction would be considerably different than the fact that it's Catwoman and moreover, Batman. Ed Brubaker had his share of mature content in his Catwoman run (mitigated only, perhaps, by Darwyn Cooke's and Cameron Stewart's more cartoony style), but when you bring Batman into it, you run into that dichotomy -- on one hand, he dangles criminals from rooftops, but on the other hand, he appears on Underoos, and people can't separate one from the other when it comes to a book like Winick's Catwoman.

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