Beer & Batman #15: Catwoman Gone Wild

This is Beer & Batman, a weekly feature here at Gutterball Special, in which I pair beer with a Batman story. I aim to work my way through the Batman canon in a loosely chronological manner (albeit disregarding most retcons and reboots, and probably indulging the occasional out-of-continuity detour), from Year One to Endgame, and beyond (and maybe even Beyond).

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Catwoman: When In Rome, written by Jeph Loeb, art by Tim Sale with colours by Dave Stewart and letters by Richard Starkings. Paired with Beau’s All-Natural Brewing + Microbrasserie Le Trou Du Diable’s Fous Alliés Mango Saison.

Comics are a highly collaborative medium. Sure, a few comics are executed from script to finished art by a single person, but most depend upon an alchemy between their writer and artist (and inker, should that person be separate from the penciller, and colourist, and in small but noticeable ways upon the letterer). Some comics surely get a bit of an assembly line treatment, but on the ones that stand out, it can be nigh indiscernible where one storyteller’s contributions end and the next one’s begin. One such dynamic duo is Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale; Jeph Loeb has written comics which Tim Sale didn’t draw, and Tim Sale has drawn comics which Jeph Loeb didn’t write, but neither quite amount to dynamism of their works together. (I’ve already espoused the greatness of The Long Halloween and Dark Victory on this blog.)

Brewing beer might be less overtly collaborative, but in my experience as a homebrewer, and having visited a great many craft breweries, I am pleasantly surprised by the degree of openness and collaboration in the brewing community. More experienced brewers are happy to mentor new brewers, sharing space and equipment. Breweries position themselves less as competitors, and more as community. Sometimes, this does yield direct collaborations between breweries, as evidenced by the Fous Alliés Mango Saison by Beau’s All-Natural Brewing Company in Vankleek Hill, ON, and Microbrasserie Le Trou Du Diable in Shawinigan, QC. Again, it’s hard to figure out who contributed what to the beer; it has the crispness of Beau’s signature Lug-Tread lagered ale, but with fruitier, spicier notes.

It’s a refreshing beer, light and easy to drink, a good pairing with a narrative as light on its feet and fun as Catwoman: When In Rome. But all this talk of collaboration is apropos of more than just the book’s creative team: the book unto itself examines a character’s relationships and collaborations with others. Ostensibly, the story is about Selina Kyle trying to find her own family, following a lead to Italy, with this book serving as an addendum to her plot thread through The Long Halloween and Dark Victory, resolving her interest in Carmine Falcone. Thus, it almost stands to reason that, despite her title billing, Catwoman is viewed almost exclusively in relationship to the other characters around her. Almost.

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When in Rome, stage a heist. (Art by Tim Sale, from Catwoman: When In Rome.)

See, I really want to like When In Rome. It’s a fun, noir-ish book, and Tim Sale’s art here is some of his best (probably surpassed only by his work in Superman For All Seasons). The art has a little more texture and nuance than The Long Halloween and Dark Victory, boosted by his use of ink washes to provide some shading, and elevated further by Dave Stewart’s extraordinary colours. Jeph Loeb’s writing, though less expansive and less sophisticated than his previous Batman books, delivers a tight noir narrative and a characterization of Catwoman with plenty of sass and smarts. I am sure that Loeb and Sale, after the heavy stuff of their two previous Batman collaborations, were very pointedly keeping this one light, and it’s a tone that, while a little at odds with the book’s close association with Dark Victory, is a good fit for the character. But I wonder if their light and breezy approach let a few of the book’s problems slip through without a much-needed second thought.

Because, boy, does this book have a few problems. Though a book fronted by an iconic female character, the story barely passes the Bechdel test (and, given that Carmine Falcone is a topic integral to the conversation between Selina and Louisa Falcone, it arguably doesn’t actually pass) and can never seem to elevate Selina above a sex object. Though definitely a smart and capable character, this doesn’t keep Loeb from repeatedly writing Selina into situations that allow Sale to draw her in little to no clothes (this happens no fewer than five times throughout the story). Selina is shown as preoccupied with thoughts of Batman, and is incapable of having a relationship with either of the two principal male characters (The Riddler and Sicilian hitman Christopher Castillo) that isn’t defined by her sexuality. None of this serves the story in any meaningful way, but just caters it to the male gaze to such an extent that it waters down any assertions of her own agency throughout. Really, these are such systemic gender representation issues throughout entertainment of any medium that I feel like Loeb and Sale very well could have made these dubious storytelling choices without even noticing.

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For a book called “Catwoman,” the story is much more interested in Selina Kyle out of her costume. (Art by Tim Sale, from Catwoman: When In Rome)

But I feel they must’ve noticed, at least a little, because while Loeb and Sale play up her sexuality, they almost pointedly ignore her Year One origins as a prostitute. Ordinarily, I am content to ignore that most Frank Miller-ish aspect of her origin, but in a story that reveals Selina as an abandoned daughter of Carmine Falcone, the gap between her birth and abandonment as an infant in Italy and her adulthood as a Gotham prostitute seems a gap this narrative is well positioned to fill. But I suppose any acknowledgment of Selina’s prior career would probably draw attention to how distasteful her consistent sexualization in this book is, and Loeb and Sale seem determined to keep this book playful.

Certainly, I won’t fault them for having fun, though I do wish their fun involved less problematic gender representation. Likewise, the Fous Alliés Mango Saison seems a collaboration more in the spirit of fun than for the purpose of elevating the craft. Even the name means “Crazy Allies,” perhaps referring to the partnership between the two breweries, or the pairing of beer with mango – though, I might point out, the mango is only discernible as a flavour because I’m told it is there. With the sheer talent on hand for both, it’s hard not to see  some of the opportunities which Fous Alliés and When In Rome miss. The beer, for example, could push the mango to the forefront, making something bolder and more unique. The book, too, could solve a lot of it’s troubles by being more self-aware, scaling back the sexuality-for-the-sake-of-titillation and instead taking the opportunity to assess to role of Catwoman’s sexuality in a story that is pretty literally about Selina trying to figure out who she is. It wouldn’t take much to take the book from a fun and sexy apocrypha to Dark Victory, and turn it into a fun, smart and sexy followup to Dark Victory.

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An appropriate reaction to systemic sexism in comics. (Art by Tim Sale, from Catwoman: When In Rome)

Thus, neither Fous Alliés Mango Saison nor Catwoman: When In Rome is everything one hoped it might be. But, I should stress, neither are bad – both are well crafted and enjoyable, but, as sometimes happens in collaboration, neither seems entirely to add up to the sum of its parts.

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