Catwoman Volume 1: Trail of the Catwoman is one of the most masterful collection of comic books I have ever read. Truly great storytelling, some of the best art I’ve laid eyes on, it all comes together in this large volume in a singular way that blows the reader away. Ed Brubaker, Darwyn Cooke, Cameron Stewart, Mike Allred, Brad Nader, Rick Burchett and several more have combined their talents on a single volume of comics that is almost untouchable. And while Cooke definitely steals the show, I think he gets the award for best story and art, nobody throughout this book is less than great. It really is astonishing. All told, you get “Selina’s Big Score”, the graphic novel by Darwyn Cooke, the first nine issues of Brubaker’s Catwoman run, and some back up stories that connect the two books into a more cohesive collection. It’s a truly impressive number of pages for the price.
The first story, Selina’s Big Score, is clearly inspired by the Parker series of crime novels, which Cooke would go on to adapt into a short series of amazing graphic novels (seriously, check them out) but firmly and confidently set in the DC Universe. Catwoman has left Gotham and the US under vague circumstances (she was the major of NYC somehow?) and after a failed heist in the Middle East, she is forced back to Gotham where is comes across a highly lucrative job that restore her finances in one fell swoop. She quickly realizes that she need the help of her old lover and mentor, Stark, who helped her gain the skills and mindset she needed to take control of her life. Only, she betrayed him so there is some real tension between the two throughout the story. Stark is an undeniably cool and intimidating character; the story never calls for it, but it would have been interesting to see an interaction between him and Batman. Most of the story is spent collecting the team, getting ready, and various characters being moody out in the rain before the heist actually goes down in spectacular fashion on a train line outside of Gotham. In terms of structure, it plays out very similarly to a heist movie like Ocean’s 11, only with more death and violence. We also meet Slam Bradley, a Gotham based PI who is on the hunt for Selina.
I can only say it so many times, but the art in this story is impeccable. Cooke might be the single most talented and enthralling comic book artist I have ever seen. His pages run thick with atmosphere, detail and a wonderful sense of place. Gotham has never looked more like Gotham than when he draws it. But even real places, like Miami and Las Vegas, look more like themselves than they do even in real life. It’s like Cooke sees a place, real or imaginary, for what it really, some sort of cartooned Platonic ideal of the place, and then translates that image in his head onto the page perfectly. It is truly mesmerizing in a way unlike any other artist I have ever seen, in or outside comic books. And while he is clearly in love with the style and look of a bygone era, his art still manages to look timeless and perfectly at home no matter when you might be reading this story.
“Slam Bradley: Trail of the Catwoman” is what I would guess were backups to the main story and tells the story of Slam being hired by the major of Gotham to find Selina, who may or may not be dead (Spoiler, she is not). With Brubaker writing and with Darwyn Cooke AND Cameron Stewart on the art, it’s more comic book perfection. Slam is a character I am not familiar with at all, but I immediately liked him quite a bit. In many ways he is just another noir tinged PI, but Brubaker infuses him with a great sense of humanity and world weariness that he stands out from that crowd.
“Anodyne”, “Trickle Down Theory” and “Disguises” are stories about Selina reembracing her Catwoman persona; she gets a new costume, the one with boots, no tail and big goggles and a new purpose in being a more proactive anti-hero. While she will always be a thief, she is now just as interesting in protecting her friends and family from the dangers of Gotham. No offense to anybody involved, but the art is not as good as it was earlier in the book and considering earlier in the book was Darwyn Cooke, Brad Rader, Cameron Stewart and Rick Burchett should feel no shame in that statement. And actually, they are all really, really good. Rader in particular has a really interesting style that sits somewhere in between Cooke and Paul Pope that I really liked a lot. He has a good eye for using quasi speed lines and fade outs that convey motion really well. It really is a very striking art style. I don’t know where he is these days, but I would love to read more of his stuff (Google leads me to believe he works in animation nowadays). I am no comic historian but this book feels like it’s laying down the groundwork for the character as most people know her today; goggles, black body suit, slightly more heroic attitude are hallmarks of the Catwoman that I know and am much more familiar with.
Ed Brubaker does not need me to sing his praises, though that is what I’m about to do. He reaches back to Catwoman’s origins in Year One and, I imagine, elsewhere, to reconnect her to her past in a way that makes sense for the character to move forward into a new era. Her rough childhood and years as sex worker in one fo the worst parts of the worst city in the DC Universe forged her into a strong woman who, while she will protect those she cares about, still looks at the world with a cynical eye that somebody like Batman could never manage. And that side-eyed look at everything leads to some interesting and unique decisions that she makes that I found myself disagreeing with, but never really holding it against her. She’s not out to save the world, or to even save Gotham; she just wants to protect that which is hers and Brubaker reinforces that stance throughout the book, especially towards the end where she could help put away a good number of corrupt cops but doesn’t. For her, it doesn’t matter. There will just be more bad cops tomorrow. And really, it’s not like she is wrong.
I have rarely, if ever read a comic book that I would so quickly recommend to basically anybody I meet. Do you like comics at all? Can you read? If so, read this book. It will grab you and spin you a yarn with such unparalleled skill and style you won’t want to put it down till you are done. Selina’s Big Score would be enough, but you get a total evolution and growth of the character by Ed Brubaker that is compelling and deeply satisfying.