Oh, Jim Balent - what life must have been like for you before you found your true calling!!!!
It's been a while, so have a glance at the ground rules to these posts if you've forgotten them. Today we have Catwoman #26 ("The Secret of the Universe Part Two: Rats") by Alan Grant, Jim Balent, Bob Smith, Buzz Setzer, and Albert de Guzman. DC published this, and it has a cover date of November of 1995. Yes, it's the height of the '90s!
One thing you can say for Alan Grant - as a comic book writer, he understands that every comic might be someone's first, so he's usually pretty good about getting readers up to speed, and this book is no exception. He doesn't give us any information on Batman, because he's, you know, BATMAN!!!!!, but even though Catwoman is the star of the book, he gives us a bit of background on her, which is nice. This isn't a terribly good comic, although it's not bad - I imagine if you enjoy the 1990s Catwoman series or Balent's art, it will be an innocuous addition to your run - but it's also not something that will make you swear off comics forever. In this, Grant does a decent job.
This issue is a fairly standard caper linked to a more standard superhero plot, as Catwoman is on one case and Batman on the other, the two intersecting at the very end. Catwoman has been hired to steal back the cape and cowl of Thomas Blake, "alias Cat-Man," who swiped it from a "south sea cat-cult." Don't question it, just go with it! Blake has captured one of the islanders who tried to get the costume, and he plans to frame him for his own crimes by dressing him in Cat-Man clothing, killing him, and leaving parts of his body with some of the loot.
Meanwhile, Blake will disappear with his booty and live as a free man. Catwoman, of course, decides to crash his monologuing, because that's what she does!
Batman, meanwhile, is looking for someone called the "Ratcatcher." In a thought balloon, he tells us that the Ratcatcher is planning to poison Gotham City's water supply. We switch to the Ratcatcher, who's dressed like an exterminator and is surrounded by rats - apparently he has some way to control them. He goes on about an experiment that was performed using rats, and then tells his minions that humans have no more right to the world than rats do, and as they are horrible things anyway, it's time to wipe them out. Hence the poison. And so he's off!
Catwoman busts into the house where Blake is holding his hostage, and they fight for a few pages. Balent's Catwoman is impressively endowed (nothing like a certain Witch of the Black Rose, but still), but she's still able to move rather well. She maneuevers Blake into a position where she can snatch his mask and cape and then makes a run for it. Before we see what happens to her, we switch back to Ratcatcher, who's deep in the sewers talking about his plague.
Grant makes sure we know his name - Otis Flannegan - before the scene switches, although he does it in a goofy way - Ratcatcher refers to himself in the third person, supervillain style - "Then I, Otis Flannegan, will lead ratkind to its rightful destiny!" That's okay, though - it's comics!
Catwoman jumps in Blake's sports car and takes off, hoping that the "lucky" cape and cowl - which is why the cat cult wants it back - will help her out. Initially it seems like it does, but then Batman smashes into her as he's driving toward the pumping station where Ratcatcher is, and as he thinks Blake's driving, he goes into hot pursuit! Catwoman smashes the car and leaps clear, scampering into the same pipe into which Ratcatcher ran. She drops right into the middle of all the infected rats, and Batman drops in after her. The comic ends with them surrounded by rats with Ratcatcher ready to give the order to attack. Oh dear!
Grant keeps everything zipping along - it's a bit of a weird issue, with Ratcatcher's plan obviously the big one while the Blake subplot seems completely arbitrary. Grant mitigates this a bit with the entire "luck" theme he has going on - Catwoman thinks she has good luck but then Batman hits her, so it seems as Grant was simply moving her into a position where she could help Batman with the Ratcatcher's scheme, and such is the luck of the draw. The lucky costume part of the book is goofy, certainly, but it's not the worst thing in the world. Balent's art is easy to follow and dynamic, even if in some panels his Catwoman looks like she was Photoshopped into the panel - which is probably not the case in 1995. It's obvious that the book had fans because of Balent drawing a woman in a skin-tight catsuit, and there's nothing wrong with that, I guess.
Balent even gives some of the rats personality, which is a nice touch.
A first-time reader would have no reason to hate this comic, and Grant wisely steers us toward Shadow of the Bat, where this story arc concludes - if you dig the story, you have to buy another comic to find out what happens, and if you like Balent, you'll come back to Catwoman with the next issue! It's a tried-and-true technique, and I don't have any problem with Grant doing it here - usually the only problems I have with this kind of cross-promotion is when the two titles have nothing to do with each other, and as Batman and Catwoman are linked rather intimately, it's fine to do it here. Perhaps a first-time reader would feel a bit annoyed that they had to go to a different comic, but there's nothing really wrong with it.
In the letters pages, we get a couple of interesting comments. One is about the new on-line forum for Catwoman (and I assume other DC titles at the time), where you can see people's thoughts about the issue almost immediately!!!!! That's pretty damned cool, if you ask me - I wonder if it ever took off. The second is that DC raised the prices on their books recently, but also began using better paper (well, slicker - it's up to you if you like it more or not). Remember when companies actually gave reasons for price increases? Good times.
So that's Catwoman #26. Didn't Balent draw like every single issue of this 90+-issue run? Something like that? That's fairly impressive. Anyway, this is a pretty good comic if you're a first-time reader - it gives us well-defined characters, a zippy story (or two) and a cliffhanger. Not bad at all!