Something Old, Something New:
Catwoman #59 & Blade #1
By Michael David Sims
27 September 2006 — Each Wednesday I aim to review two recently released comic books: one from a series I've been reading for a while, and one from a series I'm picking up for the first time (or the first time in a long time). Something old and something new, just as the title implies. At the end of each review I will then note whether or not I'm going to continue reading the series. However, as you will see over time, dear readers, the options go beyond a simple yes and no.
Leading up to One Year Later, Selina Kyle was a conflicted character. Having learned Zatanna and several other members of the Justice League used magic to alter her mind (hence the switch from career criminal to protector of the East End), Selina no longer knew herself — everything she thought she knew was wrong. Worse yet, she didn't make the choice; so-called superheroes imposed their will on her. So, then, what else was a lie: her feelings for Bruce, her sense of justice, loyalty to her friends? If you can't trust yourself... well, you know the rest.
Rocked by this revelation and shaken by Black Mask's intent to kill her friends, Kyle shot Mask dead.
One year later, everything's changed: Selina has a child and new name, she's left the East End behind and handed the mantle of Catwoman over to Holly Robinson, the police are after Catwoman for murdering Black Mask and a new villain has reared his pale head. Couple that with the drama of not knowing who Helena's father is, the ongoing investigation into the murder of Black Mask, Selina's continued resentment towards Zatanna and you have the reasons why Catwoman was a strong book for a while there.
But then it took a turn for the worse.
Film Freak lacks motivation, and is nothing more than a goth film kid. His shtick is to recreate classic cinematic moments, but with deadly results. As a gimmick this could work — that is, if Freak referenced cult classics and hidden gems. To homage Steamboat Bill, Jr., The Public Enemy and King Kong is elementary. To homage Freaks, Harold and Maude, The Warriors and Death Race 2000 shows a broader knowledge of the cinema and bestows an expertise on the character. (Image if The Riddler asked Batman to ponder one of his famous clues, but there was no deep meaning behind it — it was just a riddle.) To call a character "Film Freak" and not have him gush over overlooked pictures is a crime.
As is the handling of Holly Robinson.
Selina's days as Catwoman are over, what with a baby at home. This is Holly's book now, but DC doesn't seem to realize this. (If Holly is the new Catwoman, why have we seen so little of her? Furthermore, why does she appear to be so weak. Selina has always been an impulsively stubborn character. As such, a great foil for the cold, calculating and equally stubborn Batman.) Occasional appearances by Selina or having her play a background / mentor role to Holly's Catwoman would be perfect (think the elderly Bruce Wayne in Batman Beyond). By keeping her in the spotlight, it invokes doubt in Holly's abilities, tramples her potential and causes fans to see her as a pretender to the throne. If the plan is to push Kyle out of the spotlight, not only is DC doing a piss-poor job of it, the switch should have been initiated with issue 53 — the first One Year Later issue. What's more, trading time between Selina and Holly (what little time she receives) could work — much like Film Freak's gimmick could work — but a balance is lacking.
One of Catwoman's post-OYL hooks was the big question: who knocked Selina up? The choices were two: Bruce Wayne and no one else. Thing is, Bruce wasn't anywhere near her during the missing year, making it impossible for him to have slipped Selina his li'l Batman. That left no one. Though logic dictates the opposite. Without spoiling the "who" of the question posed above, let's just say the dry, forced dialog (seen in flashback) between Selina and Helena's father was painful. Utterly, utterly painful: "We're attracted to each other. We're getting ready to 'team up.' And in a couple of days, we could both be dead. I think it's time for us to act like adults... Now shut up and kiss me." What a witty double-entendre: team up, indeed. Sigh. Thankfully most of the dialog throughout the series isn't this forced, issue 59, however, is littered with eye-stabbing chatter: "Gordon? That's Gotham proper, this is the East End. There's a big difference." This kind of faux tough guy dialog, delivered by Detective Lenahan, would have Mickey Spillane rolling in his grave... if, you know, the dead could read.
And then there are my feelings about superhero parents: bad, bad, bad idea. You cannot convince me that dressing up in costume and endangering your life (and, therefore, your child's future) is good parenting. You cannot! Doing so makes even the most sympathetic character appear to be a self-centered, glory-seeking, adrenaline junkie. Even if that weren't so, it limits the kind of stories authors can write. Adventures in or around the East End, never mind globetrotting escapades, are red-inked. Selina can no longer travel outside of her home without calling a babysitter first. Oh, what fun! Next in... Catwoman: Selina hires a babysitter, but will she arrive before The Joker turns everyone in Siberia into clown-cles? Wow! I can read the compelling dialog now: "Hi, Black Canary? It's me — Selina. I hate to... Everything's fine. Well, not really. Can you watch Helena tonight — maybe for a few days? Batman's taking me to Siberia to... no, we're not like that anymore. The Joker is up to something, and Bruce needs my help. Yeah? You sure? I don't want to be a bother, but, you know, The Joker! Great! I owe you!"
I'll be honest with you: at first I enjoyed the idea of Selina having a child. As noted above, I honestly thought Holly was going to be the star of the book henceforth, with Selina serving as her mentor, so the preceding paragraph would have been a non-issue. (Hell, in that case it actually opens up the number of stories which can be told. Imagine Selina, via comlink, coaching Holly through a precarious situation. All of a sudden, Helena commands attention and Kyle has to let Robinson get herself through whatever mess she's in. Holly could wind up injured or arrested or abducted because of it, resulting in her resenting Selina. That's just one of many possibilities.) As it stands, with Selina eating up most of the pages and slipping into the leather from time to time, the inclusion of Helena was a terrible idea.
Catwoman can be a strong book. Ed Brubaker's three-year run as writer proves that. But for now — because DC can't decide between Selina and Holly, and due to a lack of a dynamic rogues gallery as well as a clear focus — I sadly have to drop it.
Normally I'm not a proponent of altering comic book characters to resemble their movie and / or TV counterparts; for the most part I feel the moviegoing masses should have to accept comic book characters as they've always been portrayed (in look, tone, origin, etc.) when they, the audience, make the jump from the cinema to the comic shop. But Blade is the exception.
His comic books have never sold well. It's a sad fact. The character debuted in 1973 and has starred in several self titled comics, none continuing beyond 10 issues. In fact, counting the first issue of this brand new series, roughly 30 issues of Blade have been published over 33 years. That's not a winning record.
On the other hand, the three Blade feature films have grossed in excess of $440 million, and Blade: The Series is a critical success. Therefore, when launching a new Blade comic book — released one week after the first season finale — it's appropriate to retool him in order to appeal to the masses. They, after all, are the ones who made him so popular. (Before the first movie, the character had a cult following. At best. Now he has a worldwide fanbase.)
All that said, one has to decide if Blade should resemble Wesley Snipes or Kirk Jones. What's more important: reaching the moviegoers who will immediately recognize Snipes, or using his current (RE: bald, younger) look to capitalize on the television show? The answer is obvious, though one I don't like: Snipes, because, frankly, who knows how long the show will be around, and Marvel doesn't want to hitch their comic to a potential bomb. (In my view, however, Jones is the current look. He's Blade right now, and, therefore, the in-comic Blade should resemble him. And, hell, if the show fails, Blade can always grow his hair back in. Also to consider is that the show can crossover into comic book sales, and the comic book can crossover into TV ratings. Besides DVD sales, no more money is to be made from the films, so appeasing an audience which might not see the comic could potentially hinder sales.)
Obviously Marvel chose to render Blade in Snipes' image, otherwise the above parenthetical would have gone unwritten. In truth, this isn't a bad move — as long as the book is illustrated to appeal to the widest audience. Meaning slick, popping-off-the-page, frenetic action. Jim Cheung, Humberto Ramos, Carlo Pagulayan or Olivier Coipel would have been perfect. If they wanted a grittier book, Lewis Larosa, Lee Weeks or Leinil Francis Yu are the clear choices.
Instead Marvel hired Howard Chaykin, an able artist but not one who can illustrate the high-action this book demands. Action sequences are often carried by confusing transitions and are cluttered by too many sound effects: in the opening pages we find Blade battling a vampire Spider-Man (more on this later) in a school, whom he shoots twice — once in each knee. However, the background is filled with no less than 48 BANG sound effects. Does his handgun hold that much ammo, or did his two shots echo in rapid-fire succession due to the gymnasium's acoustics? Later, three small panels are cluttered with a total of 18 CHOOOOOM!s. Maybe this is writer Guggenheim's fault for scripting so many sound effects, maybe it's the letterer's for following said script, maybe it's the editor's for not cutting them down. Whoever's to blame needs to be told just how annoying and distracting it is.
Lettering aside, the art doesn't carry the story well. Transitions and action sequences are weak, that's been said, but what also needs mentioning are the blocky characters; everyone from Blade to the whores have rigid jaw lines, the male characters look like barrels around the waist and some of the poses are uncomfortably awkward. Had this been a more slow-paced, period vampire tale, Chaykin's thick lines, distinct faces and ability to set a 19th century mood would have been perfect — as evidenced by his handling of the flashback sequences. Set in the modern Marvel Universe, Chaykin's art feels out of place.
At this point I guess I should speak about why I purchased this issue. Despite my love for the first Blade film and the recent television series, I'm not a huge fan of the comic book character. Maybe it's his lack of exposure in the non-horror side of the MU. Who knows? What I do know is that Mark Guggenheim's recent work on Wolverine has, thus far, exceeded my expectations. After the excellence of Mark Millar's 13-issue run and Daniel Way's so-so storyline, I wasn't sure where Guggenheim's issues would fall. To be frank, most Wolverine stories are forgettable and blur into one another: someone's murdered, Wolverine hunts the killer down, a fight ensues, killer dies, the death is avenged. Ho-hum. Wolverine succeeds when the author has a keen grip on the character; he's so much deeper than the "Am I a man or animal?" persona he's been saddled with over the years. He's a tortured, honorable soul. His respect is not easily earned. His friendship comes with a brotherly vow to always watch your back. His wrath is unbridled. He's been a father figure to more than one young woman. His roots are clearly Canadian, but his heart is in Japan. He's a samurai. A soldier. Mercenary. Superhero. Lab rat. Wolverine. Logan. James. A skilled writer can craft him into anything imaginable. And despite Guggenheim's hack-n-slash / "I finally get to avenge something" storyline, he has a grasp on the character. Simply put, Wolverine is like the Terminators: he can't be bargained with. He can't be reasoned with. He doesn't feel pity or remorse or fear. And he absolutely will not stop, ever, until his prey is dead.
With those thoughts running through my head, it seemed logical to assume Guggenheim would have a similar grasp on Blade. Unfortunately the vampire hunter has yet to show a hint of personality, and the story is what I fear from Wolverine whenever a new writer comes onboard: one-dimensional, kill whatever's in the way, seen it a million times, tough guy spew.
Spider-Man's inclusion should have been the clue.
The cover and preview art confirmed that Blade would fight a vampire Spider-Man. Not a clone or doppelganger or pretender-turned-blood-sucking-fiend. Nope. Spider-slash-Vampire-Man. At its core that could be a compelling story. Just imagine an issue of Blade ending with a vampire sinking his pearly whites into Peter's soft neck. Cliffhanger! The following issue could be two months late, and I guarantee people would snatch it off the shelves to read the resolution. This book chose the opposite path: it began with Spidey having already been bitten, never bothering to flashback to the pivotal moment. Worse still was Blade's decision not to kill Spider-slash-Vampire-Man. Granted, Marvel would never kill off its bread and butter, but then why include him? If Blade is to be established as a badass, let him kill a hero-turned-vampire. Not Spidey, but maybe Tigra. Better yet, Wolverine. Wolverine's turned, his healing factor won't / can't rid his body of the vampirism, so Blade kills him. When Logan awakes, Blade realizes Wolverine had to die in order to live. Simple as pie.
Don't even get me started on Dracula and his pathetic death. Or the Helicarrier overrun by vampires. Or Deacon Frost's interest in Tara, Blade's mother. Or how Eric, who was already born, received his powers from Frost. (Both his comic book and movie origins suggest Tara was bitten while Eric was in her womb.) Nothing made sense. Yeah, sure, it can be assumed certain elements will be explained down the line, but clues should be revealed every step of the way. Right now there's nothing to compel further reading.
Guggenheim's Wolverine work is very strong and it's a treat to see a television writer keep a monthly book on schedule, but this first issue of Blade was regrettable in every sense of the word. While I might flip through the second at the store, I very much doubt I'll drop another $2.99 on the series.