Catwoman Vol. 4: Gotham Underground is just as madcap as the previous volumes. At best, the wild and winding story displays the heights of Nocenti's creativity, but at worst, the book is riddled with mistakes and non-sequiturs as if a byproduct of its over-exuberance.
Catwoman Vol. 4 is a long trade -- seven regular issues, an annual, and a Villains' Month issue -- and as I've said before, if a book can't be good, sometimes it's sufficient that there's a lot of it. Nocenti's tale of an above-ground Gotham gang conflict that leads to a war between fantastical subterranean tribes down below goes on long enough to gain some interesting complexity; it's the kind of thing, I'll say again, one might enjoy on a long airplane ride, self-contained and involving, even as the dialogue and characterization never rise above the most basic levels.
The biggest difficulty is that in its final, fantasy setting, Gotham Underground is only a Catwoman story under the broadest definitions of the character. Nocenti has some crime drama here, but it's weaved in and out with magic, sci-fi, and absurdism that, for me, doesn't fit the character very well. I picked up this volume with reservations, mainly for the introduction of one of the seemingly most popular Villains' Month villains, the Joker's Daughter, but I'm left again clearly sensing I'll be happier with this title when Nocenti's run ends and the next team, with more realistic crime stories, takes over.
[Review contains spoilers]
Gotham Underground progresses nicely, especially for a nine-issue trade, in that it feels like one whole story and not two or three stories collected together (as Catwoman Vol. 3: Death of the Family did). But the real meat of the book is surely the last four issues, #22-24 and #26, in which Catwoman enters Gotham's titular underground. What she discovers there are three tribes -- the people of Charneltown, lead by Dr. Phosphorus; the survivalist Warthogs; and the women of the Nethers, lead by the Joker's Daughter -- in various stages of conflict with one another. Charneltown and the Warthogs might make peace, and this impels the Nethers to attack; the Warthogs' prince spurns the Charneltown princess, and then it seems Charneltown and the Nethers will make war on the Warthogs.
To Nocenti's credit, she fleshes out the three tribes fairly well (even if they all remain, ultimately, somewhat basic caricatures), and in their back-and-forth dealings, there's something almost political here (though a far cry from Greg Rucka's Lazarus, for instance). Artist Rafa Sandoval depicts it all well in animated, bold figures. But it's rather hard to stomach this version of Dr. Phosphorus, a fearsome figure in Starman and elsewhere, now presented in a swords and sorcery setting spouting villainous lines like Ming the Merciless, but at the same time, I did rather like Nocenti's Joker's Daughter as a Lysistrata figure, an interesting departure from her pre-Flashpoint incarnations.
Having now read the Batman: The Dark Knight #23.4: Joker's Daughter Villains' Month issue collected here, I'm left to assume that what buying frenzy there was for this issue came from residual Death of the Family/"next appearance of Joker's mutilated face" excitement, and not from the issue itself. It is a fine villain profile, certainly gruesome in some places, and convinces me of the Joker's Daughter's madness if not, specifically, her worthiness as a descendent of the Joker. However, as again a story set essentially in a swords and sorcery setting, I can't imagine the actual product was what those hoarding copies of Joker's Daughter were hoping to find.
This tale of hidden underground civilizations would be the perfect backdrop for DC's New 52 Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld, for instance, but Catwoman feels largely out of place here. There is not much for the character to do besides go on "quests" between the three tribes, get in fights, and generally act as a bridge for the other characters to drive the story. Nearly nothing draws on Catwoman's character itself or her identities as a thief, an orphan, a Bat-rogue, etc. Additionally, Nocenti stretches suspension of belief too far in suggesting an entire civilization flourishes under Gotham City and Batman has no inkling, whether distracted by the death of Damian Wayne (as one throwaway line suggests) or not. That Batman wouldn't get involved, in another part of the book, when the Penguin rains missiles down on Gotham's "Badlands" neighborhood is similarly problematic.
The first half of Underground was more my speed in that occurs above ground and deals with the Penguin taking revenge on Catwoman for horning in on his territory; in a vague distillation of the Ed Brubaker Catwoman stories, Catwoman must protect the Badlands from the Penguin's attacks. The pages are marred again by absurdism -- Catwoman fighting a demon with clumsy and confused references to the previous volume; the Penguin's over-the-top missile-bearing drones -- but Nocenti achieves a little bit of emotion in the relationship between Catwoman and the gang leader Rat-Tail. I also appreciated that Nocenti keeps us current with Catwoman's supporting cast both from her own and Judd Winick's runs -- Detective Alvarez, Gwen Altamont (with reference to the "Spark" storyline), and Trip Winter; even when the story swings wide, it never seems to forget where it came from.
But Catwoman Vol. 4: Gotham Underground is unfortunately clumsy at times -- when narration boxes and dialogue use the same words one right after another; when the characters randomly start calling each other "girlfriend" for a few pages; how Catwoman suddenly and inexplicably knows the Joker's Daughter's real name; art problems including Catwoman freeing her hand from a straightjacket and then having it re-bound in the next panel -- and this makes what might otherwise seem a spirited tale come off slapdash. This is not the Catwoman I want, and my guess is I'm not alone. The new Genevieve Valentine run that begins a trade hence seems obviously Gotham/Fish Mooney-inspired (editorially, if not from Valentine herself), and my hope is that this restores it to must-read status. This was a top title, once.
[Includes original covers, issue #19 "WTF" gatefold cover, Joker's Daughter sketch by Brett Booth]
Later this week, Injustice: Gods Among Us: Year Two, Vol. 1. See you then!