When you think of Catwoman, the first thing that probably comes to mind is a skin tight, sexy outfit and some titillating positions rendered by the artist. How else could you write a series with an attractive female protagonist? It's not like you could turn Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman, into a three-dimensional character and explore her character without gratuitous breast shots, right? C'mon, all fanboys need some T and A, right?
Well, that's what some would have thought of the series until Ed Brubaker took the reins of the series in 2001 and re-launched it, with an all-new feel and a higher standard of writing. Now DC Comics' "Catwoman" is something it's never been, garnering critical acclaim, bringing in new fans every month and allowing Brubaker to have a whole lot of fun.
"Mostly, 'Catwoman' is a character-driven crime noir comic, something like 'Daredevil' often is, but with the main characters not being so easy to pin down, motivation-wise," Brubaker explained to CBR News. "Especially Selina Kyle. She's all about the line between right and wrong, and about people over the rules. Selina has surrounded herself with some friends this time out- Holly, who we first met in 'Batman: Year One,' now all grown up and secretly being Catwoman's eyes on the street. Slam Bradley, a tough private eye with a kind heart who'll do anything for people he cares about. And also, Leslie Thompkins, a friend of Batman's, who is a doctor who volunteers in low-income neighborhoods. The current storyline, which is approaching its climax, is called 'Relentless' and it's mainly about bad things happening to good people. Since Catwoman decided to change her ways a bit, and be sort of a Robin Hood for the people no one cares about, she took down some corrupt cops and stole a lot of money from some high rollers, using it to bankroll some good things for the people in her neighborhood. This story is about the cause and effect of doing things like that. It's about payback. So far, it's been a rough time for our gang."
This dramatic shift in tone from the first volume of "Catwoman" doesn't have a specific inspiration, admits Brubaker, but he is able to name a few of the things that helped contribute to the shift in focus for one of DC's most recognizable characters. "I don't know, really. A lot of stuff. My initial ideas for the new direction when I got the job were inspired by Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder books, about an ex-cop who becomes a P.I., but ends up helping people who could never go to the cops about things. I liked the way he showed that just because someone is a criminal, they can still be human. Mick Balou was doing that long before Tony Soprano was.
"Anyway, once we got rolling on the book, the characters just sort of started dictating their own directions to me. But still, my desire has always been to make it a fun and gripping crime comic, with enough burglary and mayhem to keep it feeling like a Catwoman comic."
With Catwoman being such a recognizable character, some would argue that the series should be accessible to readers of all ages who might walk into the comic store and want to read about Batman's female foil. But Brubaker's series has been pegged by many as a "mature" comic, dealing with adult themes such a drug use and a particularly nasty torture scene (for a superhero comic at least) in issue #15, but the writer feels he's just appealing to his target audience. "Some of it is more mature than a lot of comics, I suppose, and there was some small controversy recently about the torture scene in #15, but I think on the whole it's a book that aims at anyone from older teens to people in their late 30s or so. And focusing more on the characters and their complicated relationships is probably a more mature tack to take, but I just like that kind of comic, stuff with more depth of character that brings you back. As far as the all-ages responsibility, that's a tough one. I don't think the way to get kids reading comics again is to be in denial about who is actually buying these things right now, so I guess the answer is no. If we were suddenly going very aggressively after a younger audience, then I might simplify things a bit and make the action more like manga and the drama more over the top, but that's just not the case. But, you know, I give away copies locally to some high school kids and they all totally dig it and think it's like the 'Alias' TV show or something, so it can't be that mature.
"But still, there doesn't seem to be a lot of point in writing all these kid-friendly comics that are only purchased by guys in their 30s. And even beyond that, kids are smarter and more sophisticated than we think. They loved that Batman cartoon that Bruce Timm did, and I never for a second think those cartoons aren't aimed at adults when I watch them. I think people who read comics don't give kids enough credit sometimes. That said, I still wouldn't give 'Catwoman' to an 8 year old most months, because I think they might find it too boring, on the whole. Too much talking and not enough fighting."
The dialogue-heavy and character-centric approach that Brubaker consciously takes on "Catwoman" is part of what makes it a unique superhero series. "Well, it stands on its own within the DCU, the same way that something like 'Starman' did, it features strong female leads in very pro-active roles, and it has a very traditional story-telling sense, jettisoning the whole 'wide-screen' idea and jamming a lot of panels onto each page so that every issue takes some time to actually read. And it's got beautiful art," he explains. "My goal is to make a really kickass crime/adventure comic every month. And to do things people wouldn't expect you to do in a book called 'Catwoman.'"
Since his reintroduction into the DCU spotlight, readers have seen hints that detective Slam Bradley has some romantic interest in Selina Kyle and Brubaker says that's natural… which is all he'll say about this plot line. "Let's face it, if any of us got ten minutes alone in a room with Selina Kyle, we'd be falling in love with her, so it's only natural that Slam would fall under her spell, too," says Brubaker. "How it plays out or not, is something we'll have to wait a little while to see. I think the way things shake down between them will really surprise a lot of our readers, really, because it's not what anyone is expecting, or dreading. At least I hope not."
The latest storyline, "Relentless," has also brought back some familiar faces into Selina's life as well bringing her into contact with some deadly villains like the Black Mask. The process of choosing villains for "Catwoman" is one where Brubaker doesn't ever want to force villains into the story- he wants it to feel natural. "All of that comes sort of organically as the book progresses. Characters just seem logical to use. With the East End, you always have to look at it as: What do they want from this place? It's a rundown, crime-ridden area, so typically, gang-lords would want to control it. She wants to give the neighborhood back to the people who live there, a lot of whom live in fear. Which is why the cops are as good a foil to her as the Black Mask is, because both of them are harming people she cares about, on different levels.
"Really, Selina is very good at going up against people who think they can't be touched. That just pisses her off to no end."
Each story arc has also seemed to shift between being a dark story and a more positive story, and while Brubaker says that hasn't been intentional, the trend will continue. "To some degree, I guess. The next storyline, from issues 17-19, is all about the aftermath of the current storyline, really. It's about surviving terrible things, and how guilty you can feel, and what you do to go on anyway. It's pretty rough stuff, emotionally, it's an almost all character arc, really. And after that, starting with #20, it lightens up a lot, so I guess that seems like a plan, though it just sort of happened that way."
While working on "Catwoman," Brubaker's been able to work with a bevy of talented artists and he explains that he's learned a lot from each experience, enjoying his time with each creator. "Well, starting with Darwyn Cooke was amazing. I honestly think he's one of the most talented cartoonists working right now. Whether he knows it or not, I learned a lot from his story-telling and experience in animation, and though I don't always follow it, I often hear his suggestions in my head when I'm plotting out a script. And beyond that, his character designs and the redesign on Catwoman's costume he did were simply amazing. He took a few ideas and turned them into something really striking. I'm so glad to have that first trade drawn by him.
"Brad Rader did some great work on the book, too, taking on the unenviable task of replacing Darwyn and finding his own voice at the same time. Brad really brought a sense of structure and care to each page he drew, continuing the storyboard-like layout structure that we'd established earlier, so it wasn't a jarring change to a lot of people. And he added a layer of reality to the book, I think, with his more detailed backgrounds.
"Now I've got Cameron Stewart, who had better get an Eisner nomination for Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition, at the very least, because I can't think of a brighter debut in comics in recent history. Cameron studied under Darwyn for a time, and you can see that influence, but he also brings in a lot of other stuff, some manga feel to his action scenes, some Romita Sr. to his women (and you can't beat John Romita Sr. for women) some Toth and Frank Robbins, and his inking gets better every issue. Cameron likes the lots of panels on the page approach, too, and you can see how comfortable he is with it in the book. And now he's starting on the covers, too, with issue 20, and he's knocking them out of the park.
"Also, I've got a 3-issue arc coming up, starting in issue 17, with Javier Pulido handling the art. Javier is someone I've wanted to work with for years now, and in fact, he was one of the first names I mentioned as a possible artist for the book way back when we were just getting started. Javier is a great cartoonist who is all about the story-telling, and he's slightly reinventing himself for this story, taking all his old style and adding in an almost Krigstein-like quality to it. It's very iconic and cool. Working with him was really different, too, because I wrote the script more like a screenplay, letting him break down the panels himself. I usually do that with the action sequences in my comics, for the most part, but I've only done it for a whole story with Jason Lutes, when we did the Fall. So, that was fun, to see his layouts of scenes that I hadn't broken down so tightly, panel-wise. Also, Javier and I did a lot more experimenting within this arc than most people are used to seeing in a mainstream comic, and he was a perfect partner for pushing those kinds of boundaries, too.
"Oh, and it should really be pointed out how much we all owe to our godlike colorist, Matt Hollingsworth. Matt saves our asses month in and month out. He's so good you don't even notice how good he is half the time."
Beyond the great creators he's been allowed to work with, Brubaker says he's having fun on "Catwoman" for one simple reason- the characters. "I just love the cast of characters, really. I love to see what they'll do next. I've heard writers say that before, but I've never experienced it like I do on this book, where I don't always know what they're going to say or do in certain situations until I'm writing it. Plus, it's really fun to see the pages come in every month, to see them jumping around on the page."
It's also been fun seeing fans respond to the new "Catwoman" series, says Brubaker, and it's a joy to get readers from the new fans the series is creating each month. "Overall, the response has been great. People are loving the roller-coaster ride right now, and most seem to really appreciate the well-rounded cast and the crime-related focus, instead of the T and A that it replaced. Sales, of course, haven't been what I'd hoped they would be and that does get me down sometimes, because if you read the reviews, most people seem to think this is the DCU's best monthly book, consistently. It gets nothing but raves, but it seems to just fly under a lot of people's radar. Though, you know, every week I hear from someone else who just got turned onto it through some other work of mine and is hunting all the back issues down, amazed that a book called 'Catwoman' could be what this book is."
The next few story arcs of "Catwoman" promise to be a treat for DCU fans, with more interactions in the rest of the DCU as well as the trademark Brubaker crime noir feel. "I've been blessed with a book that is allowed to stand on its own, really. But yeah, I've got this road trip story coming up in 20-24, and there'll be a lot of guest stars in that arc, sort of a road trip with Selina around the DCU. Expect to see some old friends, some old enemies, and some new faces, too. That's been a blast to write, so far, because they're really having fun for a change.
"You'll also see Wildcat, ninjas, robbery gone wrong, how to survive a night in Keystone city, and Slam Bradley and Batman together again. How's that for teasing?"
In the end, Brubaker laughs and provides readers with the number one reason to read "Catwoman":
"Because girls will sleep with them if they do. Girls love Catwoman."