The Cultural Gutter

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"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." -- Oscar Wilde

Catwoman: Silicon-Injected

Carol Borden
Posted August 16, 2006

Who are Catwoman's cannons aimed at?In 2001, Catwoman was everything I ever wanted in a comic. I admit I was a sucker for her new look. A woman’s stompy black boots are her pride and Catwoman’s boots were stompy, black and flat after years of thigh high Pretty Woman stilettos. Not to mention that zippers with rings, black leather, kitty ears and experimental night vision goggles are just cool, way cooler than purple latex. The art by Darwyn Cooke, Cameron Stewart and Mike Allred was loose, expressive and playful. Ed Brubaker’s writing was hardboiled, but took after Raymond Chandler’s fragile and battered humanism rather than Dashiell Hammett’s breezy amorality.

As in Chandler, Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman) discovers that getting ahead as a hero is often just being able to walk away and call it even and that a second chance is its own reward. A lot of beat up Robert Mitchum look-alikes teach her about regret, loss and the necessity of doing the right thing—from offering a petty thief the second chance his father never had to giving a diner waitress $100,000 for years of tolerating the “Midwest Mob.” I am a total sucker for all that—nice art, good writing, noir, the vulnerability in standing up for what’s right. It was too good to last.

While I was busy enjoying the writing (old guys filled with regret, lesbian punklings in love) and the art (so fun and expressive), I should have paid more attention to the letters column because, in the end, I am not the demographic DC wants. Fans complained that the art was cartoony and when Darwyn Cooke and Cameron Stewart moved on, Catwoman’s costume underwent another redesign. The new costume wasn’t a purple bodysuit but hearkened back to Frank Miller’s “realistic” re-imagining of Selina Kyle as a dominatrix. The next thing I knew Brubaker was still writing, but Catwoman had a new pair of boots—low pointy heel, but ankle-breaking just the same—and a larger pair of breasts, which have been steadily expanding since.

Goggles are just cooler.Writing and art are carefully balanced in comics and I honestly couldn’t say which weighs more heavily in my decision to pass over a comic or not. At least I couldn’t until Catwoman. I might have felt it in some way before, as I cringed through copies of X-Men, but now I know that the deal breaker for me is breasts. Superhero boobs pretty much represent everything I find painful and alienating in comics. Teen heroes and sidekicks have breasts the size of real adult women. Full grown superheroes have breasts that are impossibly huge, impossibly perky and impossible to subvert no matter how artists try. They endure as buffed, waxed and gleaming as a vintage Sunbird and, along with every superhero’s musculature, as carefully highlighted in white cg airbrush fuzz as conversion van fantasy art. Yes, the hot art in comics right now looks a little automotive to me. If only they used larger metal flake and more chrome on their rides.

Fans complained that the art was cartoony and unrealistic. I think what they meant was that rendered in a more obviously abstracted way, wearing a more practical (in the same sense that Batman’s costume is practical) outfit, Catwoman wasn’t special private time material anymore. The lesbianism Catwoman’s usual fans want isn’t cute girls in love, it’s a little more Reform School Girls. And the outfits they want Catwoman to wear aren’t for crimefighting, or even catburglery. Batman’s life in leather might be a subtext, but Catwoman’s life in latex isn’t. Her old costume features her breasts in a way that rendering her nude cannot: shiny, sleek and frequently nipple-less. Somehow, the absence of nipples makes Catwoman appear more naked than naked.

Before Brubaker’s run, the writing was frequently all about putting Catwoman into certain places, positions and purple latex. It reminds me of porn narratives. I’m not denigrating porn here. It’s just that porn narratives are not character or story driven. They are goal-oriented. They provide short hand reasons for why things happen in the story: Protagonists meet because he’s a pizza delivery guy or she’s stealing a statue of Bast.

So on one side, it’s me (hi!), all excited about Catwoman in her ‘kickers, finally noir like I always wanted. On the other side, there are many, many more male fans with particular needs they expect Catwoman will fulfill. I think on both sides we look at comic breasts in the same way, take them as the same signs, and draw different conclusions. Every time I see the huge, buffed and sanded, silicon-injected, all-weather rated breasts of superheroines, I see all the desire and expectation and hope that fans can put into them and all the impossibility of those breasts in the world (or maybe even their terrifying reality). I see a reminder that Catwoman is intended for another audience. But even though it seemed there’s no way to compromise between my cool antihero and their safe fetish pin-up, something broke through. For 25 issues, I got mine.

~~~

This month’s Guest Star writer is Carol Borden. Born to two international catburglers, Carol Borden turned her back on her heritage to take up a life of art. Sometimes, late at night, she regrets her decision.

Comments

10 Responses to “Catwoman: Silicon-Injected”

  1. Android
    August 18th, 2006 @ 3:41 am

    For what is worth, I’m male and I also find superheroine breasts a deal-breaker. Then again, with the exception of a few obvious classics, I find the whole superhero genre pretty immature.
    PS: also, hi James S.! I once exchanged a few nerdy mails with you. Years ago. I doubt you remember me. Glad to see you’re still fighting the good battle! :-)

  2. James Schellenberg
    August 18th, 2006 @ 11:16 pm

    Hey Carol,
    Great article! I’m curious to track down those 25 issues you mention, since they seem about 100 times more interesting than the rest of the Catwoman run. Cannons indeed.
    But does this reflect on all comics? I dunno, since – for example – I don’t want all those crappy sci-fi movies and tie-ins to turn people off from my precious science fiction books but it’s probably going to happen anyway. I think it’s easy to forget just how crappy the majority of everything is anyway – and that’s not meant as depressing as it sounds. It just means it’s a challenge to find the good stuff, and that’s why I love articles like this one. It’s also a challenge to writers (and illustrators, in the case of comics) to put out better stuff in the first place. Thoughts?
    (Hey Android, yup, sure I remember. Thanks for thinking of it as the good fight! :)

  3. Carol Borden
    August 21st, 2006 @ 8:38 pm

    hey james–
    thanks for the comment. luckily, those issues are collected all together in four trade paperbacks. and i realize now that they were actually 24 issues and the cover of #25 was what made me lose it.
    i’m not able to speak to all comics. scary breast art has made me avoid comics i knew intellectually were well-written. i agree with you that most everything is crappy and that assaults on disrespectable media and genres often ignore the amount of crappy literary fiction or art cinema in the world. i do worry about how this creates an audience that evaluates material based solely on its conventions or genre and whether they are conceivably “realistic.”
    well, what i really worry about is how this creates a default aesthetic for evaluating quality across all media. and one that’s no fun at all.
    and you’re right, the challenge can make artists and writers come up with amazing things i could never have thought of before.
    thanks again,
    carol

  4. James Schellenberg
    August 22nd, 2006 @ 1:02 pm

    Thanks Carol, I’ll see if I can track down those trade paperbacks.
    Evaluating quality… never an easy topic! For myself, I find it hard to come up with some kind of general criteria, especially since I like to be surprised by new things.(like Catwoman).

  5. weed
    August 23rd, 2006 @ 5:18 pm

    Dear Carol,
    I really appreciate your article. As many a comic-readin’ girl, I experience the bubble-breast phenomenon as ridiculous and alienating. Catwoman’s recent reversion broke my heart, too.
    It’s also incredibly frustrating because it seems that so much of the adolescent (chonological or otherwise) audience just doesn’t want to understand why huge, sloshing breasts might bother anyone, “No one can really fly in the real world, so why do you care that no woman’s spine could support her own weight?”
    Does that man’s ability to fly affect your view of other men? Do other people expect you to fly? Do you masturbate to that guy flying?
    Roman Dirge, writer of Lenore, said a while back that soon there will just be super-heroines who fight crime by hitting people with their giant boobs and comics will do away with the need for other talents entirely. I almost wish they’d just get it over with so I can stop being disappointed. Yet, you are right. The fluke that the recent Catwoman represents is proof that, every once in a while, comics do allow for the fun, alternative versions of gender that we all theorize they are capable of.
    Thanks for elegizing so beautifully something I loved.

  6. Anonymous
    August 4th, 2008 @ 10:08 am

    *roll eyes here*
    Carol, did you even ever bother to read the Balent Catwoman comics? The character was developed incredible, it was a groundbreaking series and those comics were what changed Catwoman from a mere occasional adversary and love interest of Batman into an awesome, Robin Hood type of antihero. She had her own life, her own loved ones, and her own reasons for fighting.
    Balent has a talent for drawing women in a sexy, stylized way. I like it, personally. I can see why it might not be what other people want or like, but if you look past the art and into the story arcs, I think you’ll find that modern Catty owes a lot to Balent’s version. Balent era Catwoman will always be my favourite. Not because of her astounding body proportions, not because of the latex (these things got me to pick up the comic in the first place, I admit – hell, I was in fifth grade…), but because of her attitude and the great insight into her character the series gave. There were over 100 issues of that comic, I daresay they were doing something right other than the aesthetic.

  7. Carol Borden
    August 5th, 2008 @ 12:24 pm

    eye-rolling anonymous–
    yep, i read them. i was pretty excited when the balent catwoman comics came out. i mean, catwoman got her own title! i tried really hard to like them. i tried really hard to look past the art. but, in the end, i put them down for the same reason you picked them up. that’s probably the first moment i realized very clearly what i could and could not look past in comics.
    and, actually,i think the purple latex, the boobs and _the pretty woman_ boots are part of why they got a 100 issue run. so in terms of successfully targeting a demographic, that’s something else they got right. just not for me.

  8. selina
    February 17th, 2009 @ 11:54 am

    hey i agree with what ur saying. its stupid the way the size of her breasts are….oh and my names selina too lol!!! x

  9. Alan Smithee
    March 13th, 2012 @ 9:56 am

    Great article, Carol; we need balanced female voices like this if we want to improve the industry. Your criticism is personal and can’t be written off as “shrill political correctness”. More women should love comics and should have titles they feel comfortable enjoying.

    By far my favorite comic book character is Rogue. When I was a teenager I found her tragic back story very appealing. Marvel is the Rogue universe for me; everyone else is just living in it.

    My favorite era as far as her costume goes is the Marc Silvestri Uncanny X-Men run of the late Regan administration with the crazy New Wave haircut and a huge wardrobe of green tunics that didn’t show off her chest at all. Later, about 1989 or so she would wear a black bodysuit under a green French-cut swimsuit deal and long boots and gloves. This allowed her to express some sexuality but still have nearly all of her body covered which was fitting with her back story. It looked good without being trashy, and her breasts were proportionate with her body. With her inability to touch you can imagine it would be liberating to wear a getup like that. After the X-Men re-launch she got a jaunty yellow and green spandex number and the Marvel creative team seemed to decide that since she was southern she needed fluffy Dolly Parton hair and a boob job. After a spell I kind of checked out since I didn’t like the look and how they were toning down her personality. This is to the detriment of both myself and Marvel since I’ve missed out on some great limited series and a lot of great storytelling from what I can see. I love her new look which I think is a call back to the Silvestri-era with the green cloak with thick white trim and reasonable haircuts. I’ve been meaning to go back and see what I’ve missed.

    What male comic book fans need to realize is that women who read comics want to relate to female superheroes. They are going to imagine themselves in their boots. If the costume looks like trashy fan service a lady isn’t going to pick up the book just like I put down X-Men in the mid-90s and the industry sees a small loss that it should not write off with some hand waving (or male comic readers denigrating as oversensitivity).

    My favorite male superhero was the Robinson Starman. His look came from an era when “hipster” wasn’t yet an epithet and I loved the fact he just tossed on a silly leather jacket and World War II anti-flare goggles and ran with it (again, before steampunk made goggles cliché). It looked so different from DC male spandex moose knuckle outfits and I could see myself wearing that kit so there wasn’t any suspension of disbelief involved.

  10. Carol Borden
    March 15th, 2012 @ 12:46 am

    Thanks for your comment, Mr. Smithee. I, too, was very fond of Rogue for a time.

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