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CATWOMAN OF EAST END (review)—”She wakes after dark”

Writers: Ram V, Ed Brubaker et al.

Artists: Fernando Blanco, Darwyn Cooke et al.

DC Comics: Omnibus edition published August 2022

RAM V RAPT ME up in Catwoman #25 from 2020, where I followed him to a place I had not thought to visit before. In this issue, writer Ram V starts a year-long run, evidently to give original writer/artist Joëlle Jones a break after doing most of the heavy lifting since this series of Catwoman launched in 2018. This is the current title, still running, with other writers and artists.

By now, Selina Kyle the Catwoman is a ponderous celebrity, with many lives, but for me she was new, and I gazed around in wonder. Issue #25 tells three stories to situate her Ram V-styled persona: first, she collaborates with arch-criminal The Penguin in a heist with furious action, then double-crosses him; followed by a quiet “Return to Alleytown” alone, beginning a year on home turf that is supposed to be a break from seeing Batman, too; and finally, a piece from her vagrant cat’s point of view; all charming, with art by Fernando Blanco and Juan Ferreyra.

The Ram V set carried me along a while, until later issues got fixed on a single nemesis, interwoven with corporate character insertions and crossover timelines, and multiple ad pages, so the segments blurred, and characters whom I wanted to like, chewed like cardboard. Sometimes it sounded like Ram V was writing a whimsical essay about the Catwoman, saying a personal hello and goodbye to a character that belongs to someone else, or to nobody really, making the story a meta-story of his encounter with her, existential-like.

The art shows similar meta-splashes, arriving as much for the encounter as anything. Artwork and alternate covers in this Catwoman set are among the coolest, attracting artists perhaps by the hip company, especially the Catwoman herself who so eagerly poses.

Searching other of the Catwoman’s many lairs, I found her modern debut, sure enough, in Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One (1986), when Selina Kyle first puts on the cat costume and leaps out her apartment window to venture over the rooftops. In many star-pumping versions since, the Catwoman, like other springy characters, is fun to watch, but many kept me at a distance: feeling too glitzy, too sexualized, too ugly, too banal.

The version that held my attention, the third Catwoman series started in 2002, features writer Ed Brubaker, and artists Darwyn Cooke and Mike Allred. Small, crude panels, like old newsprint tell the story, yet oddly, held me fast. I couldn’t get away.

A Brubaker drama is like a stage set with characters forefront. The art is typically simple plywood painted with a broad-brush, and a few props. His corrupt cop secret crime kingpin story holds attention for the first thirty-seven of the eighty-three issues in this Catwoman series. Selina Kyle redesigns her outlook. She takes up residence in Alleytown, chooses to do good, and makes a new costume from military surplus.

In the first few issues with Darwin Cooke, a cartoonish lilt made the scenes more expressive, but even presented in the plainest style later, the story keeps moving. It made a curious sensation when the artwork picks up abruptly in the last few issues, glistening under the pens of Paul Gulacy and Jimmy Palmiotti. I wondered if better art actually made it better, or if the simple thrumming chord in the background was just enough.

In 2011, online reviewer Scott Mendelson wrote of this set: “As I’ve stated many times before, Brubaker’s 37-issue run on Catwoman remains some of the best stuff DC Comics published over the last decade.”

Collecting all these issues piecemeal from the past suddenly became easier with the appearance of the omnibus CATWOMAN OF EAST END (2022). The thousand-page book includes the whole Brubaker run on Catwoman, plus outtakes from the same period by Darwyn Cooke, and episodes with a variety of artists, among whom I was glad to find Eric Shanower and Paul Pope. Some are even funny. I expect some nights now, we’ll prowl.