Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

11 September 2010

Catwoman, v. 1: The Dark End of the Street

Collects: Catwoman (v. 3) #1-4, backups from Detective Comics #759-62 (2001-2)

Released: August 2002 (DC)

Format: 136 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9781563899089

What is this?: Catwoman returns from the dead to rediscover a purpose to her costumed antics — in this case, that’s investigating the murder of prostitutes.

The culprits: Writer Ed Brubaker and artist Darwyn Cooke

Today, writer Ed Brubaker and artist Darwyn Cooke would be seen as a crime comic dream team. Almost a decade ago, that pairing wouldn’t quite seem so auspicious, but readers got a peak at what the pair could do in one of DC’s most crime-centered books, Catwoman.

Catwoman, v. 1: The Dark End of the Street reprints Brubaker and Cooke’s first arc in the revived Catwoman title along with a series of backups the pair had done in Detective Comics. In Dark End, Selina Kyle / Catwoman has returned from hiding after the world thinks her dead. She has a new, sleeker, better costume, she’s in therapy, and she’s ready to figure out who she is.

Catwoman: The Dark End of the Street coverI frequently assign the artist’s work secondary importance to the writer’s, but that’s not the case here: Darwyn Cooke is the book’s main attraction. His art is sleek, beautiful, and never confusing. Dark End has a slightly retro look, one that fits the image the Gotham City has had ever since Batman: The Animated Series — appropriate, since Cooke as an artist for the show. Selina looks like a woman from another time while still maintaining a modern appearance; her new costume — a nearly unbelievable improvement on the purple Jim Balent model — is a retro futuristic design, with stylish modern goggles, a catsuit that is classic while also managing to seem contemporary, and charmingly clunky buckles and zipper pull. He even manages to pull off dark, noir scenes and bright settings with equal ease.

It almost makes me want to go out and buy a copy of his adaptation of Richard Stark’s Parker: The Hunter. Almost.

The plot is thin, as most of the book focuses on Selina’s character. For the most part, Brubaker writes Selina as a standard soul-searching hero spurred into action, although he does give her a few moments of verve and wit that elevate some of the character moments. But there’s not much room for lightheartedness in Dark End; there’s a murder plot, and of course, since it involves Catwoman and was written after Batman: Year One, the victims are prostitutes. I can understand why Brubaker would choose a serial killer targeting prostitutes as part of his plot — it makes sense for the character, the tone, and a Gotham City protected by Batman and corrupt police — but it feels a bit too predictable. Brubaker and Cooke give the murdered girls a bit of personality before they’re shuffled off the stage, so at least they aren’t faceless victims.

As a casual DC reader, I have to wonder, does it matter the villain is just a throwaway despite using a more established villain’s shtick? The murderer looks like a Clayface and acts like a Clayface, but no one — not even Selina or Batman — mentions the name “Clayface.” Is that an attempt to make the storymore reader friendly for those who aren’t immersed in the DC Universe, or does it kinda look shoddy? I can’t decide; I see both points. The more pressing concern is that the villain isn’t all that impressive or interesting.

But the villain and the investigation isn’t what’s important in the story. The whole point of Dark End is to set up Catwoman’s new status quo: dealing with her past, helping those without hope, etc. I’ve had my problems with Captain Retcon in the past, but Brubaker does do a good job of working through the mess that previous creators left them. He touches lightly on what comes before, mainly to let the reader know the setup he’s presenting is new — and from the hints he lays down, what came before was pretty dire.

Brubaker also works hard to show how Catwoman fits into Gotham and the Bat-Family. She’s confiding in Dr. Leslie Thompkins — who now evidently fits psychoanalysis into her little medical clinic — and trying to fit into the rules the Dark Knight has set for her and Gotham. Not having access to Bat Computers or Oracle, Catwoman has to go through intermediaries to get her information. And since Gotham cops are as honest as Batman is lazy, there’s always room for another crimefighter to help the underclass — if Catwoman wants to fight crime and not commit them.

The backup strips at the beginning of the book are a setup for the new Catwoman; Brubaker and Cooke revive Golden Age character Slam Bradley, who is hired to look for the supposedly dead Catwoman. I remember reading strips in the original issues of Detective Comics and being entertained, but in collected form, they don’t work as well. The art and story are compressed to fit into a smaller page count, with each suffering as a result. Slam Bradley’s investigation involves getting beat up and beating up a lot of people in pointless fights until he’s given a resolution he hasn’t discovered; Cooke’s art is frequently compressed into a 3x3 grid, which gives the art a claustrophobic feel. The murky coloring doesn’t help matters either.

I went back and forth on a final evaluation of Dark End. Although I wasn’t impressed by the plot and I didn’t particularly care about what the character of Catwoman had to be rehabilitated from, I couldn’t give a book with such excellent art and a competent plot a dead middle-of-the-road score. So I have to recommend Dark End, but keep in mind the recommendation is mostly for Darwyn Cooke’s art.

Rating: Batman symbol Batman symbol Batman symbol Batman symbol (3.5 of 5)

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