There’s no days off for Selina this issue as The Penguin, Jim Gordon, and Black Mask all make their moves against her. She’s settled into how to be Catwoman and Selina Kyle as separate identities for the first time in her life, but it comes at a moment when everything around her is in it’s greatest state of upheaval from the plots against her to the entry of Jim Gordon, Spoiler, and the amnesiac Bruce Wayne into her world.
The communication between Bat titles continues to bear fruit this issue as Genevieve Valentine gets to take a spin with not just Jim as Batman, but Bruce’s new life volunteering in the community at the Lucius Fox Center. Just as Batgirl got the first chance to really explore Jim’s emotions around becoming Batman, Valentine gets the first shot at showing how he fits into the world of Gotham’s major crime families. In the overall landscape of Gotham, the major organized crime factions like the Calabreses, Falcones, Black Mask’s syndicate, and Penguin’s Forster Lane people are the only major institution that hasn’t been utterly dismantled or critically weakened since Zero Year, which becomes abundantly clear as Jim enters that world as a bumbling interloper.
Jim’s bulldozer approach has proved to be fairly effective in approaching small scale crime in Batman as he attempts to root out Mr. Bloom and the Narrows based gangs he’s empowering, but finds himself quickly lost in the byzantine power structure of the docks and it’s surroundings. Going after Selina, especially as Catwoman, directly is probably the worst decision Jim could make in disturbing that particular ecosystem, but Jim is no longer a detective or a commissioner, he’s a bullet in a gun waiting to be fired. The system that Powers has set up for Jim has intentionally robbed him of the ability to do any kind of actual detective work, which is meant to be handled by Harvey Bullock’s Batman squad, which has left him chafing both in Batman and Batgirl when he left the suit to steal a brief conversation with Babs. The mentions of him preceding this encounter suggest that Black Mask is looking for a way to misappropriate him, but there’s powerful potential here for Selina to forge a new understanding with Jim if he can recognize the potential. Which he likely will not.
Now that Jim himself has appeared, the blimp that’s been lurking in the background feels more real than ever before. It’ll be interesting to see as this run ages how elements like the blimp or the robot suit are going to be remembered in satellite series like Catwoman and Batgirl. Reading through classic runs can be dissonant or confusing at times when you run into story arcs interrupted by events or crossovers. It’s particularly odd when series that had such life and power of their own like the Ostrander-Yale Suicide Squad or Grant Morrison’s Animal Man get interrupted by tie ins to long forgotten crossovers like Invasion! because they aren’t known as being major interconnected titles. We read them now as being standalone works that challenged conventional superhero fare. When I got to talk to Genevieve Valentine on Graphic Policy Radio this week, she told us about how as a kid she stopped reading comics in the 1990s because she ran out of money.
The X-Men books in particular had become too cumbersome to follow because getting any kind of a clear reading experience required you to buy several different titles to track the plot of whatever the latest crossover was. It was a cynical money grab central to Marvel’s business plan at the time to raise both prices and output to maximize the amount of money they could draw out of the most fervent true believers. The dangers of aggressively pursuing the speculator market had been clearly spelled out by 1993 -including a speech given by Neil Gaiman that year- but Marvel plowed ahead with that strategy right up until the company’s 1996 bankruptcy that merged it with ToyBiz. Or, as The Beat’s Xavier Lancel observed in remarking on X-Men ‘92’s incredible sales performance:
I’m more than baffled by this. 1992 was probably one of the worst period for X-Men: Chris Claremont was out, the team was divided into gold and blue teams, there was never ending crossovers, ugly art design with pouches, jackets, guns and claws everywhere….and people are nostalgic for that?!
The boom and bust of the mid 1990s is an event that has had an incredible influence on shaping the newest generation of young comics creators, who had the experience of being children pushed out of the market because of both the economic consequences of the speculator boom and the content moving away from being accessible to them. I was eight years old in 1992, and my engagement with comics and superheroes were mutually exclusive. The comics that were available, accessible, and interesting to me were licensed titles like TMNT or The Real Ghostbusters. Superheroes were what I watched on TV every Saturday morning. Far more of my friends from my own age to almost a decade my junior pin their engagement with Gotham on Batman: The Animated Series than to any comics they may have read. To wit, the success of X-Men ‘92 likely has far more to do with nostalgia for the cartoon series that used those designs than the actual comics did.
It’s a critical piece of history to consider not only in observing that new talents like Babs Tarr evince more influence from animation, particularly anime series like Sailor Moon than the canon of superhero comics she now works in, but when considering that blimp hovering in the background of Catwoman. Valentine loves the blimp, she encourages David Messina to slip it in whenever he can, which has lead to there being more blimps than cats in Catwoman. But that enthusiasm for the blimp and the cross title continuity that it represents still carries with it the specter of how many incredible stories have been harmed, derailed, or were lifted out of reach by poorly managed crossovers that prized short term sales over long term readability.
The entire Batman line since the seismic events of Bruce and the Joker’s “deaths” in Batman #40 appears to be shaping up to be a case study in how to tie a shared world together without repeating the sins of the past. DC is very keen to capitalize on the status quo shift, introducing Jim Gordon as the new Batman, to bring new readers to the title by sending him on a world tour through related books like Batgirl, Catwoman, and Superman/Batman, but they aren’t branded or written as part of a singular narrative that readers have to buy each issue of in order to understand the whole. Instead, it’s playing out far more like an exquisite corpse or the jeans in the Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants. Each of the creative teams get to borrow Jim to explore how his presence affects their titles and put their stamps on him, which has already greatly enriched the character. While I did pick up #40 out of curiosity, it was Jim’s appearances in Batgirl and now Catwoman that made me feel like I really needed to stick with Batman because it was boosting my enjoyment of the former two.
It’s a subtler cross promotion strategy that has been instrumental in driving DC’s recent successes. The response to Midnighter’s presence in Grayson allowed to spin out of it into his own title, which had similar results when Black Canary used Batgirl to transition her out of Birds of Prey and into her spectacular new title. Even Valentine’s current Catwoman run came by way of Batman Eternal, which has been a phenomenal incubator for new characters and ideas. The rigid walls between creators and editorial groups that existed in years past have tumbled down. “I can call Brenden Fletcher and ask if Black Canary played a show in Burnside recently enough for Stephanie to be wearing their shirt,” Valentine told us Monday evening, but it goes far beyond that. The Batgirl Annual functioned as a kind of sampler that brought together Grayson, Batgirl, Catwoman, and Gotham Academy in a fun and accessible package. This is a new breed of shared universe that relies on little more than good storytelling to hook readers into opening their wallets just a little bit wider every month.
Part of this shift has to do with the fact that trade sales have become a critical marker for success and byzantine crossovers are murderous to the readability of a single series. It’s clear even without talking to the creators directly that even if the importance of getting comics into bookstores and Amazon has been a major influence in killing money grabbing crossovers, it’s lead to the possibility of a more collaborative atmosphere that gives readers a looser and more rewarding approach to narratives in shared spaces. You can read Batgirl or Catwoman on their own, which has become an increasingly silly choice unless driven by necessity. Batgirl has been joined at the hip by Gotham Academy, Grayson, and Black Canary in tone and accessibility, and between Batgirl Annual #3 and Jim Gordon’s current world tour, Catwoman and Batman are doing their best to join that conga line. I came back to DC on the sole strength of Cameron Stewart and Babs Tarr’s presence on Batgirl and now find myself reading all six of those titles voraciously. It’s an effective strategy.
One of the most interesting products of the new status quo established in Batman #43 is that the Lucius Fox community center is becoming a central location in Gotham, tying together Batman, Catwoman, and We Are Robin. Selina finds herself there this issue after tangling with Jim, seeing Bruce for the first time since learning of his death. Valentine and Messina capture the new look and demeanor established by Snyder and Capullo perfectly, making the interactions between Selina and Bruce seamless with Batman #43’s interactions between Jim and Bruce. Selina echoes my thoughts perfectly when she leaves, thinking to herself that Bruce has gotten a lot more interesting since his death.
An even more interesting and pressing question about the interaction between titles than Bruce or Jim’s appearances is Killer Croc’s emergence in the closing moments of the issue. After Eiko walked into the ambush Black Mask set for Selina and took a bullet for her efforts, she finds herself dragged into a culvert by Croc. Messina’s take on him drifts closer to his appearance in the forthcoming Suicide Squad movie, but the last time Croc was seen, it was in the pages of Gotham Academy where he was a mostly benevolent presence, having used secret tunnels under the city to move from the destroyed Arkham Asylum to Gotham Academy where he watched over Olive Silverlock for her mother, who he’d been institutionalized with at Arkham. While it seems unlikely that Croc will outright eat or kill Eiko, my fingers are crossed that she’s found herself under the care of a version of him more in line with his recent Gotham Academy appearances. Again, it pays to be reading these titles simultaneously.
David Messina appears to be truly making himself at home this issue as the new regular artist picking up from Garry Brown, as he truly takes ownership of Selina and her supporting cast with visions of them that are truly his own while still evoking the major characteristics of what Brown established before him. Of particular note is the care and detail he puts into The Penguin who got the same relative level of detail from Brown. Messina also makes this a memorable issue for how he differentiates the body language and movements of the characters, specifically Selina and Eiko as Catwoman and Stephanie Brown as Spoiler. He doesn’t evoke Steph’s loopy, energetic frame of mind quite as purely as David Lafuente did in the recent Batgirl Annual, but one of the most fun sequences of the comic has Eiko and Step leaping between rooftops with Steph affecting a characteristically over the top flip while Eiko executes a far more disciplined jump.
Lee Loughridge continues to provide the necessary visual continuity to bridge the gap between Brown and Messina, but also produces his most ambitious effort on the title so far. After the previous issue was dominated by a purple that came from a synthesis of the cool blues and warm reds that had previously been the focus of his work, this issue expands to present several different palettes to track the different factions and interactions across the issue. While Loughridge returns to the clashing blues and reds for the confrontations between Eiko and Black Mask as well as Selina and Antonia as well as the sickly yellows that have come to dominate The Penguin’s appearances, he also introduces a soft green for Eiko’s early scenes and a sepia tone for Selina’s interactions with Ward. These colours don’t dominate quite as much of the page as they have in previous issues as Loughridge integrates a wider range of secondary colours into his work, such as a shade that’s probably best described as dried blood into Penguin’s scenes. Loughridge hasn’t abandoned the sharp contrasts of his early work on the series, but it continues to evolve on this arc, moving into brand new territory.
Overall, Catwoman #43 marks the end of the series being a boutique title that exists in a space of it’s own to becoming intimately tied into the wider structure of the Gotham books in a big way while remaining true to what made it such a unique book to begin with.
Written by Genevieve Valentine
Drawn by David Messina with colours by Lee Loughridge
Cover by Kevin Wada
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