After reading this issue so many times now, it’s the process of deletion that gets to me, time and again. Is Batman simply the worst boyfriend ever? In this issue writer Judd Winick wraps on a long, slow storyarc he has been building since issue one—the relationship between Batman and Catwoman. It’s hard not to recall the necessity of the intimacy we encountered by the end of the first issue, “…And Most of the Costumes Stay On…”. It was enough of a system-shock to see Batman and Catwoman in foreplay. The idea that their feelings for each other might not meet the test of romantic love, but might actually meet the test of physical passion seemed not only pitch-perfect, but far beyond the scope of a mainstream, superhero comicbook. Issue one was groundbreaking.
By issue three, Batman made a second guest appearance, this time to dissuade Catwoman’s Selina Kyle (physically restrain, if so needed) from committing murder. The scene was as raw, as emotionally powerful and as riveting as anything. And it’s now, with Issue Six’s “Welcome to the Hard Way”, that Selina must contend not only with corrupt Gotham City Police Department detectives, not only with the Batman himself, but with what Batman has done, possibly out of a sense of care for Selina.
The issue follows a fairly conventional Catwoman-style plot. One of the great joys of Judd’s writing of this series has been the unexpected ease with which he’s managed to solve the problem of how you tell the story of a jewel-thief with no discernible superpowers who is nevertheless one of Gotham’s foremost Underworld supervillains. What exactly is the story of Catwoman? What could it be? Judd has made great strides in resisting the easy option of shifting the focus of New 52 Catwoman to the realm of character drama. None of the six issues thus far (and this bodes well for the next six issues, and for the six issues after that, and for the six after that…) have descended into being character-driven.
Sure there has been solid characterization throughout. But each issue’s narrative arc has always wound through sufficient plot to not get caught in a 90s-style “talkie”. There’s been a process of discovering Selina’s identity, her struggles, her art, her “powers”, her emotional core. Yet another pitfall that Judd has avoided as writer, and another kind of pitfall that at first might not have seemed a pitfall, is turning Catwoman into a heist-book. Despite the glamourous sheen of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s series, there are intelligent ways to do non-comedic versions of the heist-genre. In lesser hands, Catwoman could have become the vehicle for exactly this kind of reinvention of the heist-genre.
Instead, Judd has directed readers down the narrative path of Catwoman’s perpetual flirtation with, and skin-of-her-teeth escape from danger. Whatever we learn about her character, and however her heists are pulled off, they all stem from the traditional superhero story structure. And although this trend goes barely noticed through these six issues past, this has been a quiet revolution in Catwoman storytelling. In fact, Catwoman is so good, it’s hard to think of a better Catwoman story than the one that has been evolved over the past few months. Ed Brubaker’s “On the Trail of Catwoman” certainly comes to mind (a backup story from the Greg Rucka era of Detective Comics), but this was more a Slam Bradley story, and it relied heavily on the highly stylized artwork of Darwyn Cooke. Judd Winick’s Catwoman is as much of a surprise as David Lynch’s A Straight Story after his wrapping Twin Peaks, as much of a surprise as David Cronenberg’s Spider, right after eXistenZ.
But the one problem has always been the Batman. In a broader, ideological sense, will Catwoman ever really be free of him? Writer Scott Lobdell has struggled with the same issue in both of his New 52 books, in Red Hood & the Outlaws where he charts the course of Red Hood Jason Todd in an attempt to work himself free of the trap of the Batman, and in Teen Titans where Tim Drake’s Red Robin struggles with the same. But Catwoman? Catwoman elevates the struggle almost to Shakespearean levels. There’s something disconcertingly familiar about the tone of the book, something very Julius Caesar about Catwoman’s struggle.
Batman’s simply having deleted Catwoman from any kind of law enforcement database might give her the kind of freedom to pursue her illegal activities, but it also forces her into the shadowland of being an undocumented person within the US. What choice does she now have, but to retreat deeper into her thiefly pursuits? Catwoman’s escape from corrupt GCPD detectives who would leave her at the mercy of a gun-for-hire supervillain while inside a precinct-house, and her subsequent confrontation with Batman, her lover, makes this issue remarkable.
It is the high-frequency emotional drama that elevates this single issue in the final analysis. Although nowhere near as dark as Jim Thompson’s A Killer Inside my Mind, “Welcome to the Hard Way” is every bit as psychologically deep. In constructing as fine a drama as this for the parting of ways between lovers, for the end of a love affair, the soundtrack here isn’t the quirky, kooky of Paul Simon on a track like “50 Ways to Leave your Lover”, but the earnest, recalcitrant sense of loss that is evoked by Bruce Springsteen on a track like “Blood Brothers”. Beyond any sense of romantic love, Catwoman deals with the ways in which the world diminishes our capacities to form bonds that will undertake greater things. This is a theme readily available in “Blood Brothers”.
But the real question here, the question that unflinchingly runs to the heart of Judd’s time on Catwoman is whether or not a man can write a woman. Are we trapped in ersatz, second-wave feminism that demands feminism is only a gender-specific option? You’ll have to decide that for yourself. For my part however, Judd Winick has earned himself a fan.