Reader’s Guide to the New DC Universe

The DC Relaunch Week Three: The Sexuality of Superheroes

This week, DC launched twelve new series, and I’m practically at a loss for words. Not because this week, overall, was considerably better or worse than the previous two weeks, but because the comics this week show a troubling schizophrenia on the part of the DC editorial team. This is the week that saw Wonder Woman #1 and Catwoman #1 debut. New series featuring the two most prominent DC female characters. One of them is magnificent, the other is abominable.

If you’ve been reading my DC Guide this summer, you know which one I expected to be good, and I was absolutely right, or, if I was wrong, then it was because the finished first issue was even better than I expected. Wonder Woman is clearly the best comic of the September relaunch, certainly the best so far, and it doesn’t look like anything next week will likely be of that level of quality.

Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang bring back the mythical roots of the Wonder Woman franchise, and, as promised, they do it in the vein of a “horror” story. There’s a genuine sense of peril in this first issue, as young Zola tries to fend off an interloper. There’s a centaur attack. A magic key. Terrible bloodshed. And a portrayal of Wonder Woman as a beautifully tough heroine. She is a warrior, but a brutally graceful one. And though Chiang seems incapable of drawing anything less than gorgeous women, the character doesn’t feel objectified. It’s a comic that I would gladly let my daughter read, even with all of the explicit violence in the comic, because it shows the nobility of heroism. And it sets the stage for a story much larger than what we see in the first twenty pages.

The reason this week is so difficult to write about isn’t because Wonder Woman is such a good first issue (though it is). It’s because Catwoman is so bad and the way it’s bad is so frustratingly illustrative of one of the major problems of the direct market comic book industry that the conversation will inevitably veer off into the direction of sexual politics and objectification and sexism and pandering. And while that conversation is necessary, and I’ll get to it soon enough, it pushes aside most other DC comics of the week, and makes them seem insignificant by comparison because they don’t play a part in the dialogue about sexuality in mainstream comics. Or, maybe even worse, it forces that lens onto the rest of the comics, even if they are mostly innocently going about their business of alien exoskeleton technology or lamentations about the good old days at the circus.

So before we get to the problem points, let’s do a quick rundown of the good and the not-so-good of the Week Three DC relaunch wave. Though Wonder Woman is the clear winner of the week, Batman #1 was a close second. Scott Snyder’s script set up a mystery and presented a more jaunty take on the caped crusader than we’ve seen in recent years, and the biggest surprise of all was the strength of Greg Capullo’s art. I significantly underestimated what he would bring to this series. It’s not going to be the case where we have to tolerate his art just to get a good Snyder story. Not at all. Capullo brings personality to the characters and his Batman has a thick, bouncy quality that’s perfect for swinging from rooftops and yet menacing enough to look impressive in the shadowy alleyways. Capullo is better than just tolerable. He’s an excellent addition to the DC stable.

After that, Birds of Prey and Blue Beetle were the next best DC titles of the week, with Duane Swierczynski writing a clean, effective introduction to the new status quo for the Birds, and giving them an explosive finale to issue one. Tony Bedard’s new Blue Beetle provides a new origin for Jaime Reyes, but the rest of the first issue will feel familiar to readers of the previous Beetle series. It’s the same old Jaime and his family, even if they look a little different under Ig Guara’s pencils and Pete Pantazis’s coloring is too overbearing. But Birds of Prey and Blue Beetle are fine first issues. Clear relaunches, easy for new readers to jump on board.

Captain Atom was better than expected, with Freddie Williams II bringing a completely new art style to the book. Where he used to use clean lines and rounded forms, Williams II brings an inky blackness to this comic, providing far more interesting textures on every page than we’ve ever seen from him. This is a nice-looking comic, and though the story errs on the ponderous side, it’s a huge improvement from J. T. Krul’s other DC relaunch book, the bland and lifeless Green Arrow from Week One.

Click to enlargePlenty of other issues this week were completely readable, though I wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend any of them. Nightwing is action-packed and filled with circus references. DC Universe Presents: Deadman is somber and attempts to make some kind of statement about identity and it’s another comic filled with circus references. Supergirl looks pretty good, but the story moves too slowly. Green Lantern Corps is alternatively hammy and shocking, and that’s not a pleasant tonal mix. Legion of Super-Heroes may have some potential, but it’s hard to tell beneath all the characters even I don’t care much about and the coloring that looks even too garish for a Wildstorm video game spin-off comic.

Then we get to Red Hood and the Outlaws, one of the few brand-new concepts for the September relaunch, even if it’s really just a collection of three seemingly random superheroes. If Catwoman #1 is going to be Exhibit A in my forthcoming “here’s where everything goes wrong” diatribe (coming before the end of this week’s post!), then Red Hood is surely Exhibit B. It’s not quite as horrifyingly tasteless as Catwoman, but maybe that’s because I can see an element of parody behind it, whether intentional or not. In Red Hood and the Outlaws #1, we get to see the rebooted Starfire. The former long-time member of the Teen Titans is now presented as a dim-witted alien sexpot who cannot tell one human male from another. She’s pure male fantasy. A beautiful, hyper-sexualized woman who openly solicits sex without any emotional strings attached. That happens on the page by the way. No subtle innuendo from Scott Lobdell. No dignified visual presentations of the character by Kennth Rocafort.

Yet, I can’t help but read it as a commentary on the implicit sexuality of the character dating back to the Marv Wolfman/George Perez days. In those comics from 25+ years ago, Starfire was a flying, glowing Barbarella with a naïve demeanor. There was no doubt that she was presented, within the story and to the reader, as a sex object, even if it was done in a more innocent manner than we see here. It’s difficult to raise objections to the characterization of Starfire when this is just an exaggerated, more explicit version of who she was before. It’s an interpretation that identifies the elephant in the room and labels it “elephant, in room, pay attention, it’s sexy and dumb.”

It still makes for a sleazy, insipid comic though.

Not as sleazy or insipid as Catwoman #1, a comic which I quite erroneously predicted would be “clean family fun” when I previewed the series this summer based on initial speculation and Judd Winick’s own statements. The cover certainly hints at what’s inside — that’s no metaphorical image on that issue #1 cover, just a skanky-looking Catwoman dripping jewels on her breasts. Keep this in mind: I’ve read plenty of Judd Winick comics, and I have mostly disliked them all, but this first issue might be the most off-putting thing he’s ever written. Like Red Hood, it takes the implicit and makes it explicit, but such a move does not make for a comic that you’d actually want to read.

Unless you shop at a comic book store, where, when asked about this week’s DC books, and I mentioned that Catwoman was like DC’s version of softcore porn, the two male customers in the store immediately rushed over and pulled copies of issue #1 off the shelf and purchased them. No joke. So it’s not as if Judd Winick and artist Guillem March’s take on the character will necessarily prove to be unpopular. It seems that the concept of a softcore Catwoman has its appeal in certain quarters, namely the quarters where comic book readers shop for monthly comic books, secretly hoping that Catwoman and Batman will finally get explicitly sexual, for several pages.

So what exactly is my problem with this comic that begins with a four page sequence depicting Catwoman running from bad guys while trying to get dressed and ends with her undressing Batman with the internal monologue stating, “…it doesn’t take long…and most of the costumes stay on”? Is it that the comic dares to show the sexuality behind the superhero façade? Or the comic panders to the direct market audience so overtly — an audience that has sustained the careers of Billy Tucci and Jim Balent and countless others of the sort? Or that it’s just a poorly executed comic?

Can I choose all three? Is that allowed?

Click to enlarge

Because, yes, it does show the sexuality behind the superhero façade, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. The Catwoman character is predicated on the sexual tension between her and Batman, and while it may be daring to completely invalidate that by actually consummating their relationship in the opening issue, it also turns the character into nothing but a fetishized object. She is not even a character in this first issue, just an embodiment of sexuality and violence. Click to enlarge

And it panders, like crazy. Maybe it aims to be some mature Sex and the City or True Blood version of the DC Universe, but it falls more in the range of, “ooh, we’re being naughty.” It’s not a more sophisticated take on the characters or concepts (and maybe Sex and the City and True Blood aren’t either), it’s just more overt. Not clever, just semi-nude and aggressive about it.

And, finally, it’s just not a good comic book story. Guillem March clearly has style, and his art is the only possible interesting thing about this opening issue, particularly his use of color, but his art is in the service of a story that’s corrupt to the core. It has no substance beyond its titillation. It doesn’t have any particularly interesting storytelling structure, it doesn’t give the characters anything worthwhile to say, and the new supporting cast that’s introduced is as doll-like as the rest of the “people” in the story.

Catwoman #1 is a terrible, soulless comic book.

And it came out from the same company, in the same week, as the equally violent yet well-crafted, elegant, impressive Wonder Woman #1.

“Here’s how it’s done!” shout Azzarello and Chiang.

“Girls are for sex!” reply Winick and March. And Scott Lobdell cheers for joy.


Tim Callahan would like to remind you that you should really check out Wonder Woman #1 and Batman #1, along with the best of previous weeks, like Frankenstein, Animal Man, Swamp Thing, and Batwoman. Erase Catwoman from your mind, if you can.

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