There were two bits of news that made me more than hopeful the current Catwoman series would start to turn around starting with the whole “Zero Month” thing. First off was Judd Winick bowing out after twelve issues of regressing Selina Kyle to the Jim Balent days of being a vacuous cipher whose sole personality trait was “sex,” despite that not being a trait so much as an act, and being replaced by Ann Nocenti. Second was that DC, following outcry over that cover depicting Catwoman as the demon baby from It’s Alive – at least, that’s what I think that was supposed to be – and decided Gillem March should maybe draw a cover that’s only a little less hideously grotesque and sexist, though still looking very uncomfortable. It gave the impression that, after being portrayed to almost universal acclaim by Anne Hathaway in a huge, blockbuster film, that maybe DC was ready to treat Catwoman as more than the Monica Lewinsky joke of the Batman line.
For sure, there are signs this is the case: while Adriana Melo’s art is the same waxy, Uncanny Valley-horror it was when I last reviewed this title, Selina at least doesn’t spend the entire issue sticking her cleavage in everyone’s face. In fact, a number of panels, particularly ones with top-down angles, seem to have been redrawn so as to cover her up, which makes sense given a key fixture of the issue is Ms. Kyle taking a job as a secretary in Gotham City Hall. Melo still draws her women like they all went through cosmetic surgery to look like Angelina Jolie (all of which makes me wish Fiona Staples or Amanda Conner were drawing this instead), but at least now there’s a focus on actual characterization and action, rather than in-your-face sexuality. Instead, the brunt of the issue has Melo and Nocenti dealing with the kleptomania driving Catwoman: the opening page has her fixated on gem-studded sandals, and other scenes depict the theft of diamonds, pearls, and other glittering objects of status. Nocenti directly connects this obsession to systemic abuse, where Selina and her brother are made to steal for the mistress of their orphanage, who strips them after every heist, the first of many mistreatments by those with more power and influence. Later, a teenage Selina is caught in the middle of a theft; her would-be mark (a man in a business suit and tie) beats and berates her, saying “Get a job you freeloading parasite,” as if he’s giving her valuable life advice, before contradictorally saying “A little nothing like you will never own pearls.” It’s a three-panel page, neatly encapsulating upper class condescension and contempt towards the poor and downtrodden. In this sense, Selina taking on the Catwoman persona becomes a way of escaping the class war, reflecting themes in The Dark Knight Rises and Batman Returns (Nocenti nods to the origin used in that movie in another scene of Selina being pushed from a rooftop), as well as restoring the characterization established and explored by Ed Brubaker, Darwyn Cooke, Will Pfeifer, et al, in the previous series.
That’s not to say this is a good comic, because it’s far from that. Nocenti’s flashback-heavy structure loses itself in the shuffle, unaided by markers like “a few years ago…” “one year prior,” and “long ago,” that jumble the timeline rather than clarify it. This gets even more muddled when it abruptly jumps to the present day, where Melo draws Catwoman beating some guys while posing very awkwardly. This may have to do with the creative team having to make a workable narrative out of the bundle of twigs and duct tape Winick and DC editors have cobbled together for the New 52 in general, and Catwoman in particular, but this attempt at non-linear storytelling only gives us brief glimmers of understanding. It beats the stuffing out of the previous issues of this series and dross like Phantom Stranger’s lame attempt to give its character Biblical meaning, but doesn’t hold a candle to how Chew or Scalped utilize flashbacks to flesh out their characters. Whether Nocenti and Melo can build on the strengths they do bring to the table to save Catwoman remains to be seen.