Review: Catwoman Vol. 3: Death of the Family trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, November 11, 2013

Ann Nocenti's Catwoman Vol. 3: Death of the Family transforms the series from the gritty crime drama that it was under previous writer Judd Winick to something funnier, more madcap, more akin to Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray's Power Girl, for instance. That's not my preference, but I was among the minority enjoying watching Catwoman bite people's ears off, so I guess now the public's got what it wants.

I was not familiar with Nocenti's work prior to the New 52; the franticness found in her Green Arrow Vol. 2: Triple Threat is reflected here, so perhaps that's Nocenti's style. Again, the tone is not for me, though I do have to acknowledge there's something admirable in the frenetic pace Nocenti keeps up in this book from beginning to end. Art and story at times seem to be chasing each other around the page, struggling to stay together, and there's a lot of energy in this book even if it's not how I like my Catwoman.

[Review contains spoilers]

Nocenti is helped handily here by artist Rafa Sandoval, who draws all six issues of the main story (this ought not be a notable feat, but in today's comics it is). Sandoval has a cartoony style that puts one in mind, again, of Power Girl's Amanda Conner, but with the touch of absurd, grotesque figures that we sometimes see in Doug Mahnke's work. The result is issues that sometimes read as very realistic (as when Catwoman and Batman face off over the fallout from the "Death of the Family" crossover) and sometimes read very zany, as in Catwoman's ARGUS/black diamond caper, all with the same artist.

I'm less interested in Catwoman fighting against demons, as she does here, than I am in her squaring off against mobsters, but at least Sandoval makes it fun to look at. A handful of colorists providing bright, computer-generated colors seal the deal.

The first four pages of Nocenti's "Death of the Family" two-parter give a good sense of the fits and starts from which this book suffers. Nocenti trips out of the gate in suggesting that Catwoman's fence Lola died in an explosion (she was shot in the head by someone trying to get to Catwoman), and then Catwoman is skipping across rooftop chessboards and negotiating giant robots. Sandoval plays with perspective such that the toys attacking Catwoman seem to grow and shrink unaccountably. It's all terribly trippy and that's only partially because it's a Joker story; later, in ARGUS's Black Room, Catwoman's encounters a ghost boxer's disembodied fist and a sentient tattoo.

I did appreciate that Nocenti's story cuts through some of the artifice of "Death of the Family" to establish quite directly that the Joker's quarrel with Catwoman is specifically over Batman's affections -- and they do mean "affections." That Nocenti's Catwoman thinks to herself that the Joker is "so blind he can't see he just wants to be Batman be-yotch," the sentiment is right on if perhaps not so artfully stated.

I most looked forward to Catwoman's encounter with ARGUS here because I've enjoyed the depiction of Steve Trevor and his spy organization in the Justice League titles (also, Eclipso!). Unfortunately, the story is more farce than caper, with Catwoman battling the aforementioned demons and monsters. Nocenti tries to go funny with Catwoman's interactions with nerdy scientist Darwin, but what emerges is simply silly, not funny. That Eclipso possesses Catwoman is perhaps to be expected, but Nocenti handles it with an awkward narrator switch to Dawin's point of view that's wobbly in how it seems to turn on and off at random.

The black diamond story is essentially another crossover foisted on Nocenti's fledgling run, and I appreciated at least that Nocenti tries to tie the story into Catwoman's overall characters, turning Catwoman's trials with the diamond into a larger existential crisis about what Catwoman steals and why. There's another stumble in the close, however. Catwoman's new source for jobs is one Trip Winters, who arrives so suddenly and becomes Catwoman's love interest so smoothly that the audience is sure something else is afoot. And that something else appears to be that Winters is Batman, as per one of the final panels of the fourth chapter (Catwoman #16) where Winters, in silhouette, has a cape and bat ears. The story moves away from it almost immediately, depicting Winters handing over the black diamond to Eclipso, but the earlier scene is another of those bizarre moments that makes it tough for the reader to find their footing here.

The final "main" two-part story in the book is another where it's tough to tell just how to receive it. At the outset it's another un-funny heist tale with Catwoman against a morbidly obese rival thief rendered in ridiculous detail by Sandoval. The story breaks for Nocenti's Catwoman Young Romance story, which basically establishes Batman as a cold bully; in the second part, Batman pursues Catwoman after the heist, and again Batman comes off as first a jerk, and then even abusive as he pounds Catwoman's motorcycle helmet to smithereens. This is problematic stuff, and it's only saved by a sudden left-turn revelation by Nocenti, hinted at nowhere else in the book nor even in the collected issue's cover, that Batman's mad-on is due to the death of his son Robin Damian Wayne over in Batman, Inc. Vol. 2. To Nocenti's credit, what comes next is a reasonably touching scene of Catwoman commiserating with Batman, but it's a strange journey to get there. Arguably this is a "crossover," too, making Nocenti's book three-for-three in having to deal with storylines started by other creators.

The third Catwoman volume ends with the Zero Month origin issue. This book is, at least, consistent in its storytelling; the origin is another flippy-floppy story that delves in and out of Catwoman Selina Kyle's childhood, at points showing the end of an event and then doubling-back later to show the beginning. The story culminates with a couple of notable points; first, that Nocenti shows Selina thrown off a building by her corrupt boss, something that unexpectedly seems to take its cues from the Catwoman origin in Tim Burton's Batman Returns, of all places, complete with the cats waiting for Selina at the bottom.

Second, Nocenti suggests that Selina Kyle is not actually Selina Kyle, but instead took on the name at some point for reasons she can't remember. This is not only an issue of theoretical identity -- who is Selina Kyle, and who is Catwoman if she's not Selina -- but there also appears to be some physical fallout, as Selina is struck by fits of violence she can't control, as if she might have some mental damage. This is potentially interesting, but the weird time-jumping lead-in to the story hurts the overall affect; also at times Nocenti and guest artist Adriana Melo aren't quite together, as when Catwoman shown strangling a security guard while at the same time the dialogue has her apologizing to him.

Ann Nocenti's Catwoman Vol. 3: Death of the Family is a spirited trade, running full steam on Nocenti's imagination and Rafa Sandoval's wacky art. The tone it achieves, however, is basically that of an adventure story for all-ages readership, with just bits here and there that lean it more "mature." It is not a mature book, however, a step in the wrong direction away from Judd Winick's Catwoman and certainly a far cry from Ed Brubaker's. Personally I'd as soon DC stop the madness, quit trying to make a Catwoman book work, and just feature the character as part of the recurring cast of the Batman book.

[Includes original covers and variant cover, Rafa Sandoval sketchbook]

Later this week, my look at the print collection of the Injustice digital series.
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  1. Ann Nocenti can be an acquired taste; she's at her best when she can go completely nuts. Like that time in her "Daredevil" run when Matt Murdock beat Ultron to death with a stick during "Acts of Vengeance". Or the time Daredevil fought a possessed vacuum cleaner during "Inferno".

  2. I don't know anything about Nocenti, but people seem to HATE her. I saw a few pages of the Joker's Daughter issue from Villains Month (a Comixology preview, I believe) and the writing was pretty awful. The only thing I recall is a really terribly written, forced internal monologue.

  3. Her daredevil was great. Haven't had a taste of her recent work yet. - steve

  4. Selina Kyle is my favorite comic book character, bar none. I have every single issue of her series and all her mini series, such as the 1989 "Her Sister's Keeper" & "When in Rome". Also, unlike others, I was enjoying Judd Winick and I thought his take on Selina was ten times better than what Will Pfeiffer had done. Ann Nocenti has forced me to drop this title, due to her terrible dialogue, idiotic scenarios (Penguin in a helicopter with an umbrella for the rotors!) and generally dumbing down of this iconic character. DC cannot fire her soon enough.