Trail of the Catwoman

“CATWOMAN IS DEAD! Or at least that’s what she wants you to think.”

Catwoman_Vol1_coverSo says the back cover of this rather robust first volume of the (review spoiler alert) fantastic Ed Brubaker & Darwyn Cooke recounting of the life of Selina “Catwoman” Kyle. Angry mutterings about JLA #4 and fridging notwithstanding, kicking things off with Kyle’s ostensible death affords an interesting excuse for a seeming reboot of her life. Word on the street is that Selina was killed by the masked vigilante Catwoman, who died in the process of escaping — and for now it may be in Kyle’s best interests if that stays the word on the street. A lot of people wanted her dead, and they’ll be none too pleased to discover she’s a little less dead than they thought.

Shaking things up a bit from the usual trade format, Catwoman: Trail of the Catwoman includes a full graphic novel (Selina’s Big Score) and a few backup stories from Detective Comics in addition to the first nine issues of the eponymous series (which cover two major arcs and a one-shot between them). As good as the series is, the graphic novel is probably the highlight because of the opportunities for narrative experimentation which no ongoing could offer. Each “book” has a different POV narrator, from Kyle herself to her old partner-cum-lover with a sordid past named Stark to the hard-boiled P.I. who’s in over his head, Slam Bradley. We are thus given overlapping and alternative angles to the same events, fleshing out the mystery surrounding Kyle’s “death” and activities since then one layer at a time.

Of course, Catwoman isn’t just jaded social commentary and grim street corners. Catwoman is a funny, clever girl, and she lives for danger. In between the gut-wrenching moments of darkness we get some truly shining banter and action sequences, not least of which being a train heist and speedboat getaway. Cooke’s characters are visually vibrant and Brubaker fills their mouths with believable, memorable dialogue, treading the line between cliché pulp and comic book exaggeration like a pro. Gotham feels real, perhaps realer than I’ve ever felt it in any Batman book, and uncomfortable as that tends to be, it also makes the book’s world — and thus its characters — uncannily familiar. If a typical good comic makes you feel like you’ve been transported from the real world into the comic’s, Catwoman makes you feel like the comic’s world has intruded on the real.

Brubaker is a slow-burn kind of writer, whose work is clearly styled after the pulp and noir genres, and it works brilliantly for the seedy underground and moral greys which Catwoman occupies. She’s the thief with the heart of gold, after all, and like any femme fatale she has a tendency to get the men in her life hurt…or worse. If other writers play up Selina’s sexuality, Brubaker and Cooke let it simmer beneath the surface maintaining the same tantalizing air of mystery for the readers that the men (and women) around her often find themselves drowning in.

Cooke’s artwork is cartoony enough that this book can probably get away with a teen rating, but it’s worth noting that this is pulp fiction to the core. Prostitution, drug deals, mob hits, and general brutality are par for the course. At times Cooke’s style is jarringly at odds with its substance, and the effect is unnerving rather than shocking for the reader, much in the way a Hitchcock thriller’s lack of gratuity gets under your skin more effectively than an Eli Roth bloodbath.

Among Gotham fans, Brubaker and Cooke’s Catwoman run has achieved almost legendary status, and deservedly so. Other interpretations on the character and her world pale tremendously in comparison, and you get a sense while reading that this was what Selina Kyle was supposed to be all along. With the second volume releasing in just over two weeks, now is the perfect time to pick up the first. If you like noir, mystery, or just great writing, you should absolutely pick up Trail of the Catwoman.