The Dark End of the Street

by Ed Brubaker, Darwyn Cooke,
Cameron Stewart, Mike Allred
(DC Comics, 2002)

This impressive trade collects the Slam Bradley: Trail of the Catwoman story that appeared as a back-up in Detective Comics #759-762, as well as the first four issues of the newly launched Catwoman series.

Catwoman had become an unrecognizable purple-suited sex kitten whose comic book was better used in place of kitty litter. To say that Ed Brubaker breathed new life into her is putting it lightly; under Breaker's noirish direction, the character is both more serious, more humorous, less alone and more willing to work with operatives, of whom she is fiercely protective. This Catwoman is a loner who uses her street-smart friends to pursue the crooks and murderers who live in the scrummy, shadowed bits of Gotham that even the infamous Batman can't always defend. This is the playground of the Selina Kyle of Batman: Year One, by Frank Miller and David Mazuchelli. It's a perfect fit for a character who has so much to bring both to DC and to the Bat-titles.

Brubaker's Catwoman is more interested in helping people than the Catwoman of the former series, which is just as well; the high-society, penthouse-dwelling, enormous-breasted thief had become a caricature of herself and something of a mockery of the older, pre-Crisis, more glamorous thief who used to regularly entrance the Batman. Even that early version has its limitations: the character was a clearly a Jungian anima to Batman's animus, a female version of a male character. She eventually became a purple-suited vixen who seemed to have ice water running in her veins.

The newer Catwoman has both a heart and a character definition strong enough to propel her out of the Batman's shadow. She no longer seems two dimensional but is able to stand on her own quite well. She radiates a cleaner, more fiery sexuality, as if her past as a prostitute gave her a kiln-like glaze instead of a seedy, sleazy glamour; it's about as far away from the sex-bomb fanboy wankfest nonsense as one can get and still operate within the same character outline. Her strength and purpose are as clear and as sharp as a freshly cut diamond. Her cunning is as razor-edged as ever and so, happily, is her sense of humor, which she employs as easily as a tool from a secret stash in her nifty new outfit. She will need all of that to help her solve the murders of several prostitutes in Gotham City.

The first four issues deal with Bradley's attempts to locate the missing cat thief, Selina Kyle. It's suspected that Catwoman may have murdered her. It's easy to see how Slam's puppy-love crush will cause him to end up in Catwoman's corner as a helper. The whole unrequited love thing could easily have degenerated into comedy but Brubaker keeps everything on a tight leash, concentrating the action on dirty Gotham cops and the mysterious Clayface-like murderer lurking in the background in the second half of the book.

The second half begins with a feminist tone, but does not proselytize, as Catwoman defends victimized women from murderers and from cops who look the other way. The stories in each issue are full of rich detail, steering through a number of twists and turns without losing interest and all the while maintaining a tight suspense. The pacing is knife's-edge tight, and the endings of each chapter only serve to pull the reader right into the next. It's nervy, edgy, thrilling and perhaps the best example of noir comic-book writing today.

Everything is tied neatly into one stunning conclusion that wraps up the story with no loose ends and leaves the reader wanting more of this tougher, more intelligent, more savvy-than-sassy heroine. Even Batman, who makes an appearance here, is a great deal nicer, radiating more humanity than we've seen in years as he reestablishes his ties with Catwoman. He seems to be more than willing to share the responsibility of caring for the undefended of Gotham with someone who is more than willing to commit herself to his type of crusade. Selina actually has a quite a bit of zeal where the poor of Gotham are concerned, and it warms her character up beautifully from the self-centered woman from ages ago. It's easier to care about what happens to this still cynical but warmer and more vulnerable woman. Her past has impacted her and determined the course of her life, same as Batman, but it lurks around the edges, never taking over the present. This Catwoman knows she's been dealt a rough hand but you won't see her breaking down over it. Self-pity is not her style. Brubaker has truly gotten to the heart of what makes Selina Kyle the Catwoman by getting to the heart of her as a person.

The artwork has matured along with the character, presenting an almost cinematically drawn story whose action sequences leap right off the page. The all-black leather costume with goggles is more functional and even sexier than the previous T&A outfit that was painfully embarrassing to look at. The fight scenes are believable and choreographed perfectly. This time around the art serves the story with simple, clear lines and dark colors that help set the noirish tone without physically obscuring the action. Previously, it seemed that the art only served to generate sales with formfitting outfits and sexual clichˇ laden-scenes loaded down with clunky dialogue. In Brubaker's world the dialogue serves the story and is highly adaptable to the action it encompasses.

Those looking for a love story between Batman and Catwoman are going to be disappointed. There seems to be very little in the air between them, apart from Catwoman placing her hands on Batman's' chest and launching herself into backward flip from a rooftop. The scene seems to be less about possible attraction between the two than about being a metaphor for the trust they have in one another. Batman is letting her into his tightly controlled space, and she literally uses him as launching point. The atmosphere is more playful than erotic. These are two equals, and Batman's allowing Catwoman to get so close to him has more to with serving as a visual confirmation of his belief than she's in his corner than as a romantic link. It's hardly missed in this tough, complex, well-written detective story, and perhaps that's for the best in a world where the focus is on protecting the innocent. A man and a woman don't necessarily need to be lovers to have an interesting relationship. Friendships have not always been seen as a challenging exploration, compared to the always-expected romance. It's long past time for good stories that can outline complex but nonromantic and supportive relationships between a man and a woman. It's a good thing such stories are well within Brubaker's talents.

This Catwoman is worth the money because she has meaning and purpose beyond herself, without quite sacrificing the self-centeredness that forms the core of her steely backbone. Brubaker has given us a credible heroine with a humanistic bent and a believable methods of achieving that aim: to help the people who have no hope. This series is among the classiest and best that DC has ever put out in its decades-long publishing history and is a must not only for Batman completists but for those who just like to have a good detective novel to read on a dark and stormy night.

- Rambles
written by Mary Harvey
published 7 December 2002

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