Brian’s Comic Book Grab Bag:

Catwoman Volume 2 #20

This Christmas my brother gave me a booster pack of random, non-sequential issues from a variety of popular comic book titles that syndicated in the late eighties to mid nineties. The nineties was a time of groundbreaking work in the comic community that gave birth to the age of modern comics. Sometimes, not so much. These are snapshots of the industry at its best and worst. This is Brian’s Comic Book Grab Bag.

Catwoman Volume 2 #20
“More Edge, More Heart”
Writer – Chick Dixon
Penciler – Jim Balent
Inker – Bob Smith
Letterer – Albert DeGuzman

Were I an archeologist uncovering the ruins of a lost civilization in the far, distant future, I would have a lot to speculate about regarding the end of the 20th century, holding a Catwoman #20 in my hands. In an industry dominated by male superheroes, the token women caped vigilantes represent the ongoing struggles of mainstream comics to adapt realistic icons of femininity. If the comics industry is dominated by men, then what can the reader extrapolate from the leavings of the creative think tanks at Marvel, DC, and Image comics? Fetishized violence and sexuality permeate the comics of the nineties, leaving future archeologists to wonder where our hearts and minds had been. Catwoman #20 (volume 2) aptly represents the dilemma of modern comics with subtle irony, which opens with Catwoman’s cautionary, introspective monologue: “Movie people are always saying that their industry is almost a hundred years old. So why is it still in puberty?” I could position the same question to writer Chuck Dixon about the comic book industry.

Like all textual critics, we must look at the comic book as a whole, especially when they are almost as old as we are. I was born in ’88 (yeah, feel old fellas), so my memories of the nineties are scant; therefore I find reading comics from his era in the trade paperback format absolutely fascinating. Each issue captures a moment in time. A well placed ad for a movie or product informs us what was trending and popular at the time of the issue’s printing. It also informs us how people conceived of themselves in an era before the internet. Society operated in many ways as it always had since the forties. In a few years advertizing would never be the same, and we still are feeling the repercussions of that. Comics sales profit more from digital releases than ever before. This isn’t necessarily a fact, but common sense. Printing has always been a high overhead industry. Paper, shipping, and selling “at cost” to distributors is extraordinarily expensive. With the advent of the internet, DC and Marvel can directly vend their wares to their readership via tablet or digital copy, at no extra cost. While this compromises what a comic is philosophically, which is all the more apparent with “motion comics” and the extinguishing of tactile aesthetics like page turning, the future of comics is promising and the maturation Dixon seems to call for is finally on the rise. What is funny, then, is that I am holding a comic that is nearly 20 years old, and the antiquated tropes are still just as amusing.

The first two pages of the issue present the most compromising of juxtapositions. Catwoman, mind you, is a CCA approved property. Therefore, it must be appropriate for readers of all ages. Indeed, this is what is revealed on the left hand page. An 11 year old boy named Michael O’Heir (great comic book name) poses reading his favorite comic, “The Death of Superman,” as winner of the French Toast model sweepstakes. His bio includes his dreams and fantasies in the snapshot of idyllic youth. He wants to become “a commander at NASA,” with a wish to “meet an alien from another galaxy.” Essentially he wants to be Hal Jordan, and why not? How kick-ass would it be to be Hal Jordan? Nevertheless, this is the readership representation of comics, 9-12 year olds. These children lost in fantasy cling to comics to give clarity to their present world, one burgeoning with opportunity at the fall of the Soviet regime—so much so that it has begun to hemorrhage with war and dystopic sectarian conflicts. Michael’s “Greatest Villain” reads, “Mr. Schmidt, my math teacher.” Math! The avatar of cohesion and brute physicality! Keep in mind that the comic hasn’t even started yet.

Directly opposite of this reader spotlight is the opening spread of the issue: three buxom women, wet, snarling, their DDD cup breasts so large that they have literally torn the fabric that holds them so precariously in position, are charging forward with blazing sub-machine guns pointed at unknown enemies. Isn’t this supposed to be a kid’s comic? The meta-commentary here is so great. Catwoman’s cautionary words return: “Movie people are always saying that their industry is almost a hundred years old. So why is it still in puberty?” Indeed! And it appears to be the case with the comic book industry as well. At this point in comic book publication, the industry has nearly turned 60, so it is a wonder that, in a line inspired by a Catwoman presumably watching the scene unfold in real time on a studio lot, the industry still struggles to represent women fairly. Could this be a satire of Image comics? A subtle prod at all the women with breasts so large that they need superhuman back muscles to heave them around? Perhaps. These film characters are later revealed to be the “Fem Berets,” militant women who have been abused and are now taking the law into their own hands… as they should! What is interesting, however, is how old these conceptions of feminism actually are. They derive from the sexual revolution of the ’60s when, in light of extreme egalitarian movements, women were essentially equated to be equal in every way to men bio-physically, excluding anatomy obviously. Women were encouraged to become men, to take on their attitudes towards sex, business, and social behaviors. It wasn’t of course until the ’80s that sociologists and psychologists alike discovered how wrong they were when formidable research offered that women do have unique psychological characteristics exclusive to themselves. By going against the grain, the early feminists had actually been alienating their unique, empowering gender aspects. So it is funny, then, that we see a comic, nearly 40 years removed from the  sexual revolution unearthing these stereotypes. I think it’s just to give our friend Michael here an erection. (Just saying!)

But are these not faceless women, one of many, completely indistinguishable from the rest? What about Catwoman? What is her role in this pericope?

It’s actually fairly routine. Catwoman is being contracted to steal a nuclear weapon… no. Wait. Sorry, a screenplay, from a Micheal Bay stand-in filming a AAA budget action film on a nondescript remote pacific island. It’s something entirely inconsequential, a narrative device used to place Catwoman, an anti-hero, into compromising, morally ambiguous conundrums to emphasize that she’s got substance, a heart, under her hilariously enormous breasts. There are moments in the issue where Catwoman plays voyeur to Matt Achenbach (the Bay stand-in) abusing a women, one of which Catwoman observes in a six panel spread. (Here, she roots for an actress standing up to Matt.) This panel is implemented to allow the reader to see that Catwoman is a real human being with a personality and emotions. It actually is one of her more expressive panels. Other than this instance, her pursuit to find and acquire the screenplay doesn’t deviate much further from the typical beats. A hurricane threatens the island, as Catwoman struggles to find any hint of a script. She of course saves some child actors in the process, per contractual obligation to her character type. At the  comic’s conclusion she confronts the “Lurker,” a large animatronic beast constructed for the film, hinting at a larger nefarious plot. It then cuts to a Clearsil acne medication ad, as if to stick the knife deeper. Personal hygiene anyone? How else but to acquire hot babes, like Catwoman or the Fem Berets?

Not to be ignored, Catwoman’s posing demands introspection. When looking at her positioning throughout the comic there is an odd caveat being presented to the reader at any given moment. Here we have a comic emphasizing a powerful, apex predator female vigilante, who (mis)represents femininity in comics. Yet, as she appears in the issue, we find that she is continually placed in submissive poses. Her posture looks more at home in a Penthouse spread receiving sexual appendages.  This occurs over several frames. All it would take is photoshop and a bit of an imagination to take an CCA approved comic and turn it into a all-time best selling Catwoman issue. It’s an minor observation, but given that this is supposed to be for kids, which is intended by the commission approval, it either hints at the antiquated, obsolete state of the rating, or profoundly understates the categorical problems at DC publishing.

Needless to say, it’s not a bad comic. It’s not entirely good either. I found it more fascinating than funny, being a young,“whipper-snapper” millennial. This was, and in some cases continues to be, the fanfare of comics. There are grassroots movements like the “Hawkeye Initiative” that continue to lampoon comic convention, but comics seem doomed to perpetuate these myths about women as long as there are gods in tights to be written about. Strong females only exist in indie comics apparently. It is a testament to an industry still dominated by males and their eccentric sexual fetishes.

Rating: 3½ boobs out of 4

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Stuart Warren is the former managing editor and webmaster for Sequart Organization. Stuart earned a BA in English with an emphasis in Early Modern Studies at University of California Santa Barbara. An avid reader and historian, Stuart researches Nordic mythology and paganism and is self-taught in the Norwegian language (Bokmål). He is a novelist and comic book writer. Spirit of Orn, his breakout Science Fantasy epic is now available for purchase via Amazon Kindle and iBooks.

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