As much as I enjoyed Convergence, Catwoman #41 feels like coming home from an extended vacation. It’s been two whole months since the last issue teased Selina’s return to costume, but finally getting here at last feels like falling back into my own bed after living out of a suitcase. When last we saw Selina the Calabrese crime family she sits at the head of went to war with Black Mask’s coalition, pushing her back into being Catwoman for the first time since Genevieve Valentine’s run began. The current issue picks up with Selina trying to seek a synthesis between her role within Calabrese family and her identity as Catwoman by using them in tandem to undermine Black Mask’s control over his coalition.
This issue in particular puts a spotlight on just how much Valentine has to offer, bringing a truly unmatched blend of crime writing savvy, history, and fashion together into a heady cocktail. For the uninitiated, Valentine is a passionate fashion blogger whose live-tweeting of the Met Gala alone almost made up for the Convergence sized hole between issues. While this passion has surfaced throughout the length of her run, including the specific pieces that Eiko used to stitch together her haute couture homebrew Catwoman costume, it comes into particular focus this issue. Valentine puts Selina in an Alexander McQueen Pre-Fall 2013 piece that’s every bit as regal as she ought to be while attending the opera, but also serves the purpose of being able to conceal her Catwoman costume so that she can sneak out on a sabotage mission without arousing suspicion. Jamie McKelvie has done some fun costume work, particularly his Jeremy Scott for Adidas Originals inflected Miss America design, as have Kris Anka and Cameron Stewart on their functional streetwear inspired re-designs for Spider-Woman and Batgirl respectively, but Valentine’s usage of carefully selected couture for Eiko and Selina exists on a level of its own. In a comics landscape that’s mostly catching up to the idea of putting it’s heroes in music video fresh kicks, it’s a very welcome treat to have a comic that brings the red carpet realness.
The unabashed femininity of the title that surfaces in things like the eye for fashion and the bone aching, teeth grindingly genuine intimacy between Selina and Eiko are absolutely key to why I’m ready to take a deep breath and say that Valentine’s run is overtaking Brubacker’s as the best Catwoman there’s ever been. Here’s the thing about women writing comics. Not every woman is going to be better at writing a female character than every man. If that were true, Jodi Picoult’s Wonder Woman run would have melted the pages it was printed on. Either that or Greg Rucka’s career would be a landfill’s worth of garbage. It’s more like there’s an upper limit to what any man can achieve, and guys like Brubacker, Rucka, and Justin Gray deserve a lot of respect for butting up against that ceiling as much as they do. That’s why Harley Quinn and Starfire are just so fucking good. Jimmy Palmiotti, either alone or with Justin Gray, has written some damn fine female lead comics, but as soon as Amanda Conner stepped into a writing role his work has reached a whole new level that would be impossible without her. The same could be said of Angela: Asguard’s Assassin’s reigning intergender tag team champions Kieron Gillen and Marguerite Bennett. When it comes to Catwoman, Genevieve Valentine stands very evenly matched with Ed Brubacker. The tale of the tape between these two is going to show a pretty narrow margin between them. Brubacker’s run is an absolute gem and one of the greatest, most impactful street level superhero comics ever written.
That’s not in question any more than Muhammad Ali’s achievements are any time someone wants to hypothesize a match up between him and Mike Tyson. Irregardless, Valentine gains the edge when it comes to the smaller things. Between Brubacker and Valentine, the difference between their ability to write great crime stories, understand the interconnectedness of the police and organized crime, and their ability to evoke a genuine Gotham City has become so slim as to be functionally meaningless. As much as I adore that Brubacker brought Holly Robinson back to life and crafted phenomenal, moving stories for her that respected both her queerness and struggles with addiction, I could never feel hers and Selina’s relationship with anything approaching the same intensity that I get from Selina and Eiko.
This issue is also, largely for the reasons listed above, a huge, incredible payoff for Batman #40 and #41. Selina faltering on the stairs as she struggles to grasp Bruce’s death is breathtaking and gets even more punishing when you realize that she didn’t get this moment last time Bruce died (which is such an odd thing to say, but that’s comics for you). Then she reaches her room and just collapses into Eiko’s arms on the balcony and the floodgates are open. Pure silence. No captions. No voice bubbles. Just trust in David Messina to carry the heaviest weight of the run so far on his first issue. But it doesn’t end there. What really lit me up about this issue and what it has to say about the brand new GCPD integrated Batman is how Black Mask looks at it. He sees the blimp hovering over the city with Jim Gordon planted somewhere on it’s underbelly and he doesn’t see a threat. He sees an airstrike he can call down, and he isn’t wrong.
One of the primary weaknesses of knitting Batman directly into the structure of the GCPD is that it makes him vulnerable to the corruption within the department. Jim Gordon himself may be sequestered from the public, the media, and even the rest of the force in a way that prevents him from being corruptible, but that doesn’t prevent a player like Black Mask from being able to influence the way he’s deployed. Sinois seems to think that he could have made use of Gordon to wipe out the Calabreses at the height of their conflict, which may be as wishful as Penguin labels it, but not entirely without merit. While Snyder and Capullo have been focused on portraying Gotham in the grip of a public health crisis in the lead in to the Endgame storyline, Valentine has been building up her own vision of how organized crime has been able to profit from that crisis to deeply entrench itself in the city. Valentine’s Gotham is effectively a cartel city on roughly the same scale as Ciudad Juarez. The warring factions don’t just fight each other and beat back the cops, they’ve infiltrated the city’s institutions to the point that they’re able to wield the police against each other as a proxy much like contemporary Mexican cartels manipulate police, the military, and even the DEA or the truly bizarre instances of Russian crime syndicates’ moves against each other resulting in shootouts between police and the Ministry of the Interior in the 1990s. Valentine’s Gotham is a city at war and Jim Gordon has unwittingly allowed himself to become a weapon of mass destruction.
Catwoman #41 also marks the debut of David Messina on art duties, and while I’m loathe to let go of Garry Brown’s unique sensibilities, Messina wastes no time in asserting why a change was due. Insofar as Valentine’s run has always been informed by her impeccable taste in fashion, it wasn’t until Messina took over the book that it’s influence could fully be felt. Brown’s scratchy, abstract style was wholly inadequate in conveying the full presence and power of Selina wearing something like the McQueen she opens the issue with. While Messina delivers a far more conventional approach than his predecessor, his loose inks and the continued presence of series colorist Lee Loughridge keep the change from being jarring. One of the key ingredients to Brubacker’s run was that he was able to maintain a level of stylistic continuity between his artistic collaborators that tends to be incredibly rare for extended runs, so it’s with a great sigh of relief that Messina retains just enough of the feel of Brown’s art to maintain a similar tone.
With that said, Messina is a phenomenal talent. He immediately offers a beautiful rendering of Selina’s McQueen cape and follows it up with an exquisitely detailed rendering of the opera hall. While Messina strays far closer to house style than Brown did, he draws Selina with a powerful figure that does justice to her beauty without selling her out as a sex object, and really comes nowhere close to that particular danger zone. One of Messina’s strongest points is his inking, especially in the dark patches that he leaves just enough negative space in to give a sense of motion and energy to his brush strokes, much like Brian Stelfreeze’s recent work on Day Men. While it took a post of Stelfreeze’s inks prior to colouring to illuminate that particular quality of them, Lee Loughridge is judicious in determining where to let that tension sit and where to fill the strokes in with a pure black. Most noticeably, he leaves the gaps in Messina’s inks on Antonia Calabrese’s figure and fills Selina in an inky blackness, giving Antonia a sense of tension and chaos that contrasts nicely with Selina’s smooth exterior. It’s an ironic touch that plays up the difference between what the characters are projecting and what they’re feeling.
Loughridge certainly feels at home on this title, but rather than become complacent he begins to subtly add complexity to his colours beyond deciding where to intervene in Messina’s inks. Loughridge begins by adding a new hue of cool blue to the page in which Selina collapses into Eiko’s arms (I’m never going to get tired of typing that or lowkey shipping them) that softens the tension between the cool blues and warm gradients from yellow to orange that have come to define their interactions, then peppers later pages with soft hues of new colours to enrichen the palette. With the beginning of its second arc, Valentine’s run is maturing and Loughridge appears to be adapting accordingly.
Finally, this issue also marks the debut of cover artist Kevin Wada, who takes over from Jae Lee. If you know me well, you know that I’m more critical of Wada than most, but this cover marks both significant growth and a departure from the elements of his work that I don’t believe work in service to comics. There’s a warmth, fluidity, and character to his work here that I can only say I’ve witnessed in one or two of his She-Hulk covers. Given Valentine’s particular gift for fashion and Wada’s rise to prominence by marrying popular superheroes to fashion industry style illustration, their collaboration seems inevitable in hindsight, but it could not have come at a better time for Wada relative to his growth beyond very specifically posed and dressed figures. Of particular note is the wash that forms the background of the cover. While it’s a striking contrast from the negative space that Jae Lee used to create stark, stunning images, Wada prefers to match the dominant colours that Lee Loughridge uses on the interiors, creating a unity between the cover and the interiors that until now has not existed on the title.
Catwoman, I suppose I’m grudgingly able to admit, is not a title for everyone, but if there’s a Gotham for everyone as DC is currently insisting, then this is truly where I feel most at home (until Black Canary #1 ships, but such is the duality of humankind). If you too find yourself drawn to something a couple shades darker, sexier, and more sumptuous than what Gotham Academy or Batgirl offers there’s a place by the fireplace saved for you.
Written by Genevieve Valentine
Drawn by David Messina with colours by Lee Loughridge
Cover by Kevin Wada
Images Courtesy of DC Comics