Monday, February 22, 2016

Review: Catwoman Vol. 7: Inheritance

Catwoman Vol. 7: Inheritance contains the second half of writer Genevieve Valentine and artists Garry Brown and David Messina's short-lived, new direction for Catwoman (the character) and Catwoman (the comic book), a direction that ultimately only filled two collections: This one, and the preceding Volume 6: Keeper of The Castle. Together, they tell a complete, relatively self-contained, rather solid story about a powerful woman reluctantly wielding even more power than she's used to, and in completely different ways.

It was a direction that was always going to be a temporary one, but I wonder if it had truly run its course, or if the shift to yet another new direction was just another case of editorial panic in the face of less-than-expected sales, a herky-jerky over-correction in the opposite direction of the sort that has characterized most of the New 52 books that aren't Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's one creative team, one direction, almost five-year, best-selling run on Batman. (Valentine was the third ongoing writer on Catwoman, following runs by Judd Winick and Ann Nocenti, and, as per usual, there were rather frequent changes in artists, as fill-in artists would pop in to support the work of Guillem March or Rafa Sandoval.)

In fact, this new direction seemed to be inspired both by its new-ness and it's temporariness. Just before the launch of the Snyder and James Tynion VI co-plotted, 52-issue weekly series Batman Eternal, there was a weird "flash-forward" issue of Batman meant to intrigue readers about how radically Gotham City was going to change during the course of the series, featuring Harper Row (a one-time popular candidate to replace the temporarily late Damian Wayne as the new Robin) as a new character Bluebird and Selina Kyle not as super-thief Catwoman, but as a plain-clothes, real world-style crime boss.

And that was the direction of Valentine's run. During the course of Batman Eternal, readers discovered the true identity of Selina Kyle's father, long-imprisoned, old-school mob boss Rex "The Lion" Calabrese, and, after Carmine Falcone and The Penguin's turf war ended with them both losers, Selina hung up her cat-suit for a business suit to somewhat reluctantly become the new kingpin of crime in Gotham City. Her goal? To minimize the damage the warring crime families did to the city, and try to make them as much a force of good as possible...while still being, you know, organized crime families.

See? That's a pretty unusual direction to go with Catwoman. Valentine's run was tightly, even elaborately plotted, and though there was first-person narration from Selina's point-of-view throughout the book, plot seemed to get greater emphasis than characterization.

In this volume, Selina tries to hang on to control of Gotham's gangs after the loss of one of her cousins and the loss of Batman, whose apparent "death" is addressed about midway through (somewhat clumsily, I'm afraid, and it will likely date this collection to a degree, as it will be tied to the Robo-Bat era of Batman comics). She's facing a major challenge from Roman "Black Mask" Sionis, who has allied himself with The Penguin and The Hasigawa Family, but has allies of her own in Eiko Hasigawa, who has taken up the mantle of Catwoman; The Penguin, who is secret on both sides of the gang war; and, later in the book, Killer Croc.

I hate to call a book like this "realistic," because it does feature a crocodile man and a policeman in a robot battle suit, but it is down to earth in a way that almost dampens the explosively, colorful nature of the characters. The Penguin, for example, is just a well-dressed, fat old man with a big nose, with no lunatic-fascination with birds r umbrellas, not even a casino/nightclub shaped like an iceberg with pools of seals in the lobby. The Black Mask has the black skull face he wore in animated series The Batman and towards the end of the pre-Flashpoint DCU (circa "War Games,") rather than his original mask, and his gang is just a bunch of random, central casting thugs, rather than guys forced to wear masks by their insane boss.

This is a bit of a blessing, and a bit of a curse, I suppose. It allows Valentine to play the crime story straight, and demand a comic lead by Catwoman and filled with various Bat-villains be taken seriously, but it's also dulls the characters and the milieu quite a bit.

Messina's art, expertly colored by Lee Loughridge to reflect the tone of each scene, is a nice balance between DC house-style superheroic art and a more real-world look, but it's never quite as accomplished or as exciting as Kevin Wada's covers, or all the variant covers collected in the back gallery (By Javier Pulido, Ben Caldwell, Des Taylor, Robbi Rodriguez, Darwyn Cooke and Emanuela Lupacchino).

I suspect Valentine had to wrap-up her story up perhaps a little quicker than originally expected (or at least hoped) as some of the sub-plots get less attention at their conclusion and resolution than in their build-up (particularly the rather tossed-off exit Spoiler plot), but everything does get resolved satisfactorily enough. By the time the trade reaches its last few pages, and Selina has passed on her duties as head of The Calabrese Family, eliminated Black Mask, ended her relationship with Eiko and put her Catwoman costume on to ride her motorcycle out of town (With no luggage or cats, apparently), the character, and the book, are more or less back where they were before the beginning of Valentine's run in a way that feels logical (Well, except for Selina's lack of luggage).

Economically, the Catwoman-as-crime boss direction must not have worked for DC, as the next writer was old school superhero writer Frank Tieri, and he kept Selina in her costume as she resumed more superhero-style adventures. That didn't work either, however, as sales to comics shops not only continued to decline at the end of the Valentine/Messina run, they dropped drastically. According to the sales chart analysis offered at The Beat, comic shops ordered an estimated 21,600 issues of the last issue of the Valentine run, and then slashed their orders down to an estimaed 15,000 for the start of the Tieri run.

When DC culls their superhero line and relaunches what's left with new #1s as part of the June "Rebirth" initiative, there won't be a new Catwoman. This volume of the series is therefore set to conclude with May's issues #52. For perspective, the original, 1993-launched volume of the monthly Catwoman comics lasted 94 issues (almost all of which were penciled by Jim Balent), while the 2002-launched second volume lasted 82 issues. I'm sure this won't be the last Catwoman monthly DC tries, as this is only the third time a monthly has been cancelled. She should have six more lives to go.

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