Review: Catwoman Vol. 2: Dollhouse trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, March 18, 2013

Catwoman Vol. 2: DollhouseThe shame of it is that Judd Winick’s Catwoman: Dollhouse gets good only right at the end, when Winick leaves the title. Leading up to that point is a passable Catwoman story, but one that seems to play a little safer than Winick’s previous, outrageous Catwoman: The Game, and that’s a disappointment.

I can’t help but wonder, however, whether the story in Dollhouse would fare better too if Darwyn Cooke or Cameron Stewart were drawing it, instead of Adriana Melo or Guillem March. The model for the New 52 Catwoman appears to be costume unzipped, cleavage exposed; Catwoman’s chest ends up in every panel and there’s no in-story reason for it (especially since she went through so many of Ed Brubaker’s Catwoman issues with her costume zipped up) besides a paltry attempt at titillation. In this way, the book’s art does its story a disservice.

[Review contains spoilers]

It’s perhaps unfair to judge Judd Winick’s Catwoman (and everyone else’s) by how they fare in comparison to Ed Brubaker’s, but the bottom line is that Brubaker did it right. On its own, or maybe compared to some 1990s Catwoman stories, Winick’s story might get more credit: Catwoman Selina Kyle witnesses the mysterious Dollhouse kidnapping prostitutes and begins stalking Dollhouse herself, while at the same time beginning a relationship with her new parter-in-crime Spark.

Though it’s interesting, in the New 52 “starting from scratch” vein, to see Winick depict the awakenings of altruism in Selina, versus Brubaker’s “basically good” version, in the main we’ve seen this all before — Dollhouse is kidnapping prostitutes just like the villain in Brubaker’s Dark End of the Street. Also, while Winick writes a believable relationship between Selina and Spark (and actually made me like the one-note Spark by the end), it’s too obvious from the beginning that Spark is meant to somehow betray Catwoman (a la Brubaker’s Relentless), such that Spark’s ultimate turn lacks any suspense at all.

Where Winick finally scores is at the very end, when Catwoman’s friend and fence Gwen Altamont kills Spark, on a tip from the Penguin that Spark is working with the corrupt Gotham police. He is, but Winick leaves it nicely ambiguous whether Spark would have betrayed Selina or not, so we don’t know if Gwen has saved Selina or damned her. Here — unfairly again — Winick is getting into the meat of what made Brubaker’s Catwoman work: a group of characters who love each other so much that at times they do absolutely horrible things to one another out of that love.

Spark’s death is the moment where Winick stops telling the story by rote — villain appears, character must stop villain, character must manage questionable sidekick — and takes it in an unexpected direction. Hopefully writer Ann Nocenti will pick up some of this and use it in her Catwoman stories going forward.

The side result, however, is a Catwoman story that may be more palatable to the average reader. Batman appears mainly at the end (saving Catwoman when I might prefer to see Catwoman save herself) and there’s none of the sex that The Game contained; neither is there any of The Game’s truly gory violence. Some may have felt The Game was “too much,” but in contrast, Dollhouse seems toothless; I’d prefer a story that shocks and even appalls me in a purposeful manner than one that generally fails to surprise from one page to the next.

Adriana Melo draws the majority of Dollhouse; her style is cartoony, evocative but still too far away from Guillem March, who draws some issues here and still seems “the standard” for the New 52 Catwoman. With inker Julio Ferreira, there’s appealing shades of Tom Grummett in Melo’s work, but with Mariah Benes, Melo’s figures are too cartoony, too overstated, further lessening the seriousness with which the story can be taken.

Melo also almost always has Selina’s costume open (whether Melo’s choice or editorial’s), and the colorists always add texture and shadow to Selina’s cleavage, to create a kind of “look at me” effect. Winick tries to tell a good story, but the atmosphere created by the art is exploitative, such that overall again Dollhouse comes off as a less consequential story than it could have under different artists.

Winick gets points for tying Dollhouse into Tony Daniel's Detective Comics: Faces of Death and also for referencing another long-time DC villain who hasn’t yet appeared in the New 52, though whether the next writer to use that villain will know about this is questionable since that other villain usually appears in a different “family” of titles. At the same time, whereas this Catwoman has already fought her share of male villains, the end-of-the-book reveal that Dollhouse is a woman felt like a poor surprise to me, as if (like in Batgirl: Knightfall) if Catwoman is going to trade punches with an enemy, she “must” be a woman and not a man. And neither March nor Melo could quite make it clear to me whether Dollhouse’s dolls were meant to be still or moving, such that the final sequence in which Dollhouse’s house catches fire was confusing as far as who was doing what where.

Judd Winick’s Catwoman: The Game remains a book I think is worthy of study, for better or worse. His Catwoman: Dollhouse is a worthy sequel only at the end, and at that point it’s too late. I can’t help but feel the censors won, and this is what we got, unfortunately; maybe Ann Nocenti can bring some edge back to the book next time.

[Includes original covers, Guillem March cover designs and sketches]

Coming up Thursday, the Collected Editions review of Scott Snyder’s Batman Vol. 2: City of Owls. Don’t miss it!
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  1. Can I read this book before reading Batman, Vol. 2?
    I started reading it, but then found out it has a Court of Owls tie-in, so I stopped. I really don't want to spoil anything for myself from Snyder's story!

  2. There's not much that spoils Night of the Owls in Catwoman: Dollhouse -- certainly not major plot spoilers like there are in the back-up stories from the Batman issues that are reprinted in the Night of the Owls collection. In fact, I think you're OK to read most every Night of the Owls tie-in -- except maybe the one from Batman: The Dark Knight by Judd Winick, and then those aforementioned Batman backups -- and it won't spoil anything major.

    The question is, what do you consider a spoiler? Do you know the basic plot of the Night of the Owls crossover in terms of the tie-ins (what generally happens in the tie-ins and how do they tie to the main Night of the Owls plot)? If so (and really that isn't much of a spoiler), then you're fine to read the Catwoman book. But if you're going in really blind, know nothing, and want it all to unfold in pristine story order, then yes, read Batman Vol. 2: City of Owls (in comics shops tomorrow) first.

    If you need me to tell you more, just let me know.

  3. That's fine, thanks. I've tried to avoid knowing anything about the Night of Owls crossover, as much as that is possible reading the common news sites.

    So I guess I'll read Batman, Vol. 2 first. Waiting time is almost over anyway and I still have I, Vampire, Vol. 2! :)