On Catwoman’s New Direction

Catwoman #26
DC Comics – Ed Brubaker (w); Paul Gulacy (p); Jimmy Palmiotti (i)

Kinda torn here, to be perfectly honest. The thing that initially caught my eye about Brubaker’s Catwoman (because it debuted in the days prior to my obsessive devotion to books with his name on them) was the art by Darwyn Cooke, a highly underrated artist whose style bears more than passing resemblance to that of the Batman animated series of the ’90s. Cooke left after the conclusion of the first story arc, but the artists who filled his shoes were either masters of emulation or intentionally chosen for their similar approach to the visuals, because the “cartoony” look of Catwoman endured.

So then DC announces that after two years of animated-style art, Paul Gulacy (he of the “realistic” school of comics artistry) is coming on board to take over as the regular penciller. And I fully expected to hate it, because editorial decisions were stripping one of my favorite titles of its hallmark visual flair.

But I just can’t hate it, man.

Selina is back in Gotham City’s East End again, after an extended road trip with her sidekick Holly. Taking a more proactive stance on the threat of organized (and, for that matter, unorganized) crime in her borough, Catwoman establishes herself as a kingpin of sorts, regulating what crimes would-be lawbreakers can commit in the East End and where they can commit them. Meanwhile, the Penguin, reigning traditional crime lord for the area’s cartel, brings in outside help for dealing with his Catwoman problem: namely, Zeiss, last seen in Brubaker’s run on Batman, a villain whose photographic memory allows him to analyze and defeat the fighting style of any opponent whose technique he can watch. To that end, Zeiss arranges for the kidnapping and ransom of the granddaughter of a local businessman (whose business is under the protection of the Catwoman). With Slam Bradley in tow, Selina sets out to break the hostage standoff, unaware that she’s being observed the whole time.

So here’s the deal:

Gulacy’s art is nothing short of mediocre, in my opinion. He has this tendency to draw enormous (and I mean enormous) eyes on every character in the book, as well as exaggerate certain facial features, such as the Penguin’s nose, for no apparent reason (that is to say, when other aspects of the character in question are drawn with a reasonable amount of realism). Equally irritating is the fact that he’s seen fit to simply throw out the pre-existing character designs. Holly and Karon don’t look quite the same under Gulacy’s pens and something about Selina is a bit off (though I’m probably just being nitpicky there). Slam, however, is the most irksome of the bunch, as the previously stocky, battle-hardened two-fisted detective is now drawn to look like either Robert Mitchum or Dean Martin, flip-flopping at random throughout the issue. I kid you not, take a look at the cover for a perfect example.

At the same time though, Gulacy’s work isn’t so bad that it completely throws a wet blanket over a solid script, but that’s more of a testament to Mr. Brubaker’s chops as a writer than anything else. The art tells the story in a relatively clear and easy-to-follow manner and that’s the best that can be said for it. Gulacy is not going to knock anyone’s socks off with his performance here (except, apparently and inexplicably, for Newsarama correspondent Mike SanGiacomo), but he’s not going to drag a good book into the toilet either.

I think the biggest problem with handing the regular art duties over to Gulacy is that Brubaker now has to shoulder the entire creative load himself. Previously, if an issue’s script was weaker than usual, it wasn’t so noticeable because one could always count on the art to impress. And that’s just not going to happen anymore. Gulacy’s art will suffice when Brubaker brings his A-game (which, I think, he usually does), but anything less and the entire book is going to suffer drastically.

To put it another way, until now, Brubaker has been blessed by being paired with art teams on all three of his books (Catwoman, Sleeper, and Gotham Central) that were perfectly suited to the task at hand. Now he only has that on two.

But I digress.

Luckily, this month, I think the script is solid. If the current plotline in Catwoman sounds similar to the one Brian Bendis is doing over on Daredevil (or rather, will be, once David Mack gets himself and that sequential abortion of a story he’s been churning out for five months out of the fucking way), that’s no coincidence. It’s pretty much the same premise, as near as I can tell. The difference, I think, lies in the fact that the protagonist here is one much more suited to it than in Daredevil. I mean, which sounds easier to swallow: a former prostitute / jewel thief becomes a local gang lord? Or that a lawyer takes over the criminal reins? On second thought, it’s a dead heat…

At any rate, it’s a sort of return to the status quo for Catwoman and I think it’s an appropriate time to do so. When the book was launched two years ago, it was done with Selina wanting to serve as the guardian angel of the East End. Since then, however, that purpose has been sort of lost, as a year-long arc was devoted to the return of Selina’s sister, that self-same sister’s torture at the hands of and rescue from the Black Mask, and the road trip that followed as a therapeutic journey for Holly and Selina. And those were fine stories, don’t get me wrong: it’s just nice to see things getting back onto their original track, as I don’t think Catwoman guarding the East End was played out by any means.

So, at the end of the day, Catwoman is still a damned fine superhero book, one that sets itself apart from the rest of the pack of corporate icons not only by the gender of its protagonist, but by the strength of its supporting cast and markedly noir-ish feel. And that’s still worth supporting, even if the book is now one distinguishing characteristic the lighter.


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