Review: Batman/Catwoman hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

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Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Tom King’s Batman/Catwoman – epilogue to his sweeping post-modern Batman run and a magnum opus in its own right — might have just been called “Catwoman” (short of the title’s potential double meaning). It is really Catwoman’s story, hardly Batman’s at all — perhaps deservedly, to the extent that King’s Batman kept or ejected Selina Kyle as the narrative needed. Among the annals of great Catwoman stories, it is a diligent study of that greatest of conundrums, the feline villain that Batman, despite being an apex crimefighter and deliverer of all things justice, loves. Not to mention the push and pull on a female antihero in a decidedly male superhero world.

Batman/Catwoman is also impressively ambitious, nothing new from King, in its relating three stories — near past, near present, and far future — intertwined. The book offers no quarter for the reader, routinely changing timelines not between pages, but in the midst of pages. Panel A does not follow linearly to panel B, a delicious flouting of one of comics' cardinal rules. And beyond that, beyond homages to Batman history galore, this is above all a paean to that work of art all the more precious these days, Batman: The Animated Series.

[Review contains spoilers]

At it’s most difficult, Batman/Catwoman presents a Selina Kyle torn between loving, handsome, rich, and most of all good Batman, and the vile, twisted, sadistic, homicidal Joker.1 It’s troublesome, and good fiction, because it’s such an easy choice that most wouldn’t struggle with; even when the Joker abuses their weird friendship, purposefully complicating Selina’s relationship with Batman, she still returns to him.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

It is a conundrum that makes raw, as King is wont to do, the contradictions inherent in the strange case of Batman and Catwoman. She is a thief, and in their most basic interactions, he is charged with preventing theft; this should inescapably put a wedge between them.

But Batman is, clearly against his better judgment, romantically drawn to Catwoman (seemingly, King would argue, above all others); the world’s greatest detective, who can hold his breath underwater for a near inhuman span and who apparently walks around with a lockpick perpetually embedded in his skin, is yet unable to control his want for a woman he should call enemy.

On Catwoman’s side, King makes it not so simple as that Selina feels compelled to steal; in fact, her thievery plays only a small role in the story, and moreso a couple of times we see her turning down a chance at theft. Rather, what complicates Selina here is this relationship with the Joker, that there is something she gets from him that she can’t find elsewhere, that his cruel antics are not sufficient to make her separate herself from him. No mere Robin Hood thief here — King suggests, has been suggesting even since his Hannibal Lecter-esque introduction of Catwoman way back in Batman Vol. 2: I Am Suicide, that among the crazed of Batman’s rogues, the Jokers and the Zsaszes and the rest, that Selina Kyle is just as mad as they come.

Perhaps madder, even. Because what it is that finally sours Selina on the Joker is her perception (surely another controversial, arguable claim by this book) that he’s actually sane, that his actions are driven not by “the pain,” as Selina puts it, but rather a conscious choice to do evil. And she should know, because she sees in Batman the very same thing, though he chooses good. As an elderly Selina relates to Harley Quinn, Bruce was “a man who hid his heroism behind the psychosis of loss, because he couldn’t ever admit to the arrogant idea … that he was a good person.” It is not necessarily Batman’s do-gooder nature that drives Selina away from him, it is that, despite his parents' murder, he grew up in a “castle” (as Selina charges daughter Helena later) and she grew up in a “rat @%#@$ dumpster” — that what compels him is not the same as her uncontrollable compulsions.

This dovetails with an ongoing idea from King’s Batman run (as was explicated by a thoughtful reader in the comments on my review of Batman Vol. 2: I Am Suicide2), that Batman considers he and Catwoman’s first meeting to have been on a boat, in their nascent personas; Selina argues they met on the street, before costumes and trickery came into play. Though the specific debate is never broached in Batman/Catwoman proper (unless I’m overlooking it), it is clearly the lens here through which Selina operates; as she notes toward the end of the book, on a Christmas where nothing seems worth celebrating, that “without costumes and gadgets and whips,” Selina sees she and Bruce as just “two wounded animals … who, in the midst of the hurt, managed to crawl to each other.”

Hers is a holistic view, recognizing some similarity in loss and their respective responses to it (even, as the included Batman/Catwoman Special suggests, since childhood). To that end, the question of how “villain” Catwoman can love “hero” Batman, at least, is moot, because it’s debatable whether Selina even sees good and evil. And lest we deign to think Selina loving, marrying, and bearing the child of Batman suggests some turn in the end toward Batman’s definition of heroism, we need look no further than Selina murdering the Joker as soon as Bruce’s body is cold.

Because Selina seemingly loves unconditionally, it is not at all surprising the anger she feels when Batman makes demands, specifically that she break faith with the Joker (before the time she does so herself). Here King ventures into the sexual inequities born in the creation of this fictional relationship, that manly lawman Batman will jail any evildoer he can gets his hands on — except those who flutter their pretty eyes at him and who might do so again if he lets them go. As Selina says, “I lie, you @#%@ me, then you get mad. I tell the truth, you #%@ me, then you get mad.”3

Batman’s struggle in the book — though his “struggle” is indeed an unfair show of privilege, since he’s the one on the side of the establishment — is to figure how to love Catwoman despite her “eccentricities,” as Alfred puts it. In the end, also unfairly, Batman’s saved from having to decide; once Selina discovers the Joker’s supposed sanity and renounces him, Batman is what remains. And despite being the world’s greatest detective, what Batman doesn’t know seemingly doesn’t hurt him — neither does Selina ever tell him she believes the Joker is sane, nor the extent to which she sees the man behind the Bat-cowl, nor that she fakes the death of Andrea Beaumont here, not to mention that she breaks her promise not to kill the Joker not one second later than she’s able. If a pervading question of the book is whether Selina is going to become a “Batman/Catwoman,” the answer is that she is not.

King sets all of this against a backdrop with its own meaningful dualities. In including Phantasm Andrea Beaumont, King posits the animated Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (don't miss Zach's review!) as being the “canon” backstory for this Black Label slice of the DC Universe — an animated movie, ostensibly childrens' fare, as the inspiration for a mature readers Batman book4. Though, as any fan knows, Phantasm and Batman: The Animated Series in general had far deeper levels than just childrens' fare. In this, we see echoes of King’s Strange Adventures and Rorschach, unto the current Justice League International-centric Human Target and Danger Street (based on DC’s 1970s 1st Issue Special), a story as much an ode to a notable comics property as it is a deconstruction.

Andrea is right for this book because she’s another example of a broken vigilante whom Batman tried to pull to the light perhaps more for reasons of passion than justice; also, in the tale of Andrea keeping an abandoned child for her own, Selina seems to see a spirit kindred in blurring the lines between doing the wrong thing for right reasons and vice versa. Around this, King and company’s knowing nods are great, from the Sewer King to the “Gray Ghost” poster, to the World of the Future Fair and a cameo by Hazel, who apparently also survived the fair’s destruction.

3.5

Rating

I was thinking back to the wedding, how possible it appeared at the time and how very obvious the outcome seems in retrospect. And, as popular belief goes, for DC to cut Tom King’s run at the point it was really going to defy the status quo, and then to release it as Batman/Catwoman, a non-continuity miniseries instead? More of that! Beginnings are easy in comics, I think, but endings are hard, particularly if a writer doesn’t intend to put all the toys back where they found them. Let’s give more books both continuity-safe and also wildly outlandish Black Label endings. Just imagine.

[Includes original and variant cover/designs gallery]


  1. In the back of my head, I hear Mark Hamill’s Joker exclaim, “Those are my best qualities!”  ↩︎

  2. Some, wow, six years ago, before the wedding controversy and Heroes in Crisis and Tom King was a comics-household name.  ↩︎

  3. I am fairly certain this sequence, in Batman/Catwoman #8, is mis-drawn and mis-colored by Liam Sharp, with Catwoman in her present instead of past costume. It made for confusing reading the first time around. I’ve enjoyed Sharp’s work, but for his contributions here, which also included some starkly impossible anatomy, I’d as soon as seen Clay Mann do the whole thing.  ↩︎

  4. Not so mature readers, really, with King replacing obscenities with grawlixes despite that other Black Label titles have printed the words outright — though the book does offer a wonderful, especially filthy rendition of “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”  ↩︎

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7 comments:

  1. Such a terrific review - one of your best and most thoughtful!

    This book gives no shortage of food for thought, and it is much better in trade than it was in single issues. At least for me, I couldn't track the shifting timelines in the barely-monthly release, but it hums along in the trade.

    It's the story of so many love/hate triangles - B/C/J, B/C/P, B/P/J - but it really is almost never a Batman story. He's the unchanging and intractable figure of justice, conflicted only within himself. The one piece of this book that's missing is Alfred, so crucial in the moment when Bruce became Batman in "Mask of the Phantasm." One wonders what Alfred would have made of this moment in Bruce's life.

    I also wonder about the shift between Clay Mann and Liam Sharp. There's not really a discernible story reason (other than maybe a little more Joker in those chapters), and Sharp is playing somewhere between Bill Sienkiewicz and Dave McKean in his chapters. Of course, the practical reason for the art shift trumps any creative factors, but I can't help imagining a version of this book where Mann redraws the missing pages, similar to Chris Burnham getting his crack at the rest of "Batman Inc." (No disrespect to Sharp -- and then again, maybe it's appropriate that this book have a push/pull between three creators.)

    I will always, however, be curious why the books was collected with all the ancillary material in the back - for instance, Bruce Wayne's death was published first but collected /after/ the 12 main issues. When I got my hands on the hardcover, I brute-forced that reading order for myself, but I think the book sings even more if you read the Phosphorus story first, then the deathbed goodbyes, then the series proper.

    PS - I appreciate the plugs! If the stars aligned and made me the resident DCAU guy, I'm happy to wear the mantle.

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    1. "I also wonder about the shift between Clay Mann and Liam Sharp. There's not really a discernible story reason (other than maybe a little more Joker in those chapters), and Sharp is playing somewhere between Bill Sienkiewicz and Dave McKean in his chapters. "

      If I remember right, King and DC had originally wanted rotating artists on the maxi-series; there was (justifiable) concern about Clay Mann being able to make deadlines after what had happened with delays on Heroes in Crisis.

      But after seeing Mann's initial artwork and reception, they rolled the dice and hoped he could make it. Obviously, he tried and vindicated those original concerns -- hence Sharp coming in to relieve the workload.

      And I agree this reads better in trade. I loved King's run, but man trying to read and understand this monthly drove me batty and up the walls.

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    2. >> Sharp is playing somewhere between Bill Sienkiewicz and Dave McKean in his chapters

      Golly that was unusual. It wasn't just the extreme shift from Mann to Sharp, but Sharp is doing jazz solos on the page (especially as pertains to the Joker's face) in a book that was already confusing to begin with. I might've liked it elsewhere, but it was a step too far for me here.

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    3. @Zachary King:

      "I will always, however, be curious why the books was collected with all the ancillary material in the back - for instance, Bruce Wayne's death was published first but collected /after/ the 12 main issues. When I got my hands on the hardcover, I brute-forced that reading order for myself, but I think the book sings even more if you read the Phosphorus story first, then the deathbed goodbyes, then the series proper."

      I think it's important to consider the context of the book and the format it was released. The hardcover is clearly meant to sit side-by-side with the other hardcover Deluxe releases of the Tom King "Batman" Rebirth series. Those collections already include the "Death of Bruce" storyline (I believe from one of the Annuals) - so readers of this book will already be expected to have experienced that story. In that context, I think relegating that to the back (as a related extra, and a reminder of what had come) rather than front-loading it was the right move.

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    4. If they'd have put it in the front and dubbed it "Previously on ...," I would have stood up and cheered.

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  2. I think the temptation - most often, more right than wrong - is to critique this as a Tom King book, and as such a review of the artwork is more ancillary. Certainly as a "literary reader," more interested in the words and plot than the images, I appreciate that form of analysis.

    But in this case, I think sidelining a commentary on the artwork - in a footnote - is the wrong move. The fact of the matter is that the switch in artists, midway through, is a huge problem with the book. Not only is it problematic for following the story itself, it also functions to further distance the book and set it apart from the main King "Batman" run, for which this was meant to be an epilogue.

    Swapping artists made sense in the "Knightmares" arc, given the nature of that storyline. But generally, the artist within a story arc of the main run was kept consistent to that arc - the same should have been true here. DC has never been afraid to delay the release of issues in an ongoing miniseries, sometimes to the point of absurdity. I'm sure it always leaves them with a feeling of egg on their face, but it's not as if this book hadn't already been plagued with delays. Would more have really been an issue?

    It would have been better to prioritize getting it done right, rather than getting it done less slowly. That it wasn't is something that forever mars the ending for me.

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    1. Agree 100%. And I take your point about "sidelining" the commentary on the artwork, but at 1,600 words already, I figured any more and you'd start to mutiny!

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