Thursday, August 17, 2006

To the Cat Cycle!

Cats Are Evil Week, #4

Let's talk about Catwoman.

One of the essential difficulties in writing comics is the conflict between static characters and the need for a sense of ongoing dynamic development. Or, as a normal person might say, you have to have the feeling that the character and plot are advancing without the characters or the circumstance changing much.

This "static/dynamic" conflict is, in my opinion, the essential quality of American superhero comic books. Not the combination of the verbal and visual (something comic books share with movies and television); not the inability to control the rate at which the reader perceives the action in the story (something comic books share with pictureless fiction); not the stylization and use of literacy convention (something comic books share with other niche genres, such as sci-fi, mystery, and opera); not the fact that the storyline is an ongoing, unfolding series of events rather than a single tale with beginning, middle, and end (something comic books share with soap opera and other running dramas).

Comic books (like their "cousin", the comic strip) have the unique challenge of multidecade storytelling with characters that don't have to change with time and whose iconic consistency is part of their appeal. Comic strips have found their own solutions: multigenerational evolution (e.g., Gasoline Alley and For Better or For Worse) or otherversal timelessness (e.g. Peanuts and Beetle Bailey).

Comic books have develop two unique techinques of their own:

  • Epochal Reboot, and
  • Persona Cycles

Epochal Reboot? Well, if you've been reading DC for longer than, oh, 6 weeks, then you probably get that one already.

Persona Cycles? Also pretty easy if you think about it a little. Characters that have been around a long time get intepreted in different ways over time, slowly evolving the acceptable parameters of the character. Then the character develops a sort rhythm, a kind of cycling through the various edgepoints of his safe zone.

That's a little abstract, so here's a small example. Batman cycles between a loner vigilante and being the paterfamilias of a tight band of colorful crimefighters. At any point in his career, you can "develop" his character going from one of these extreme toward the other. In fact, if you've been following Batman for the last 10 years or so, you can see that's exactly what has been happening. Yet, Batman still always remains recognizably ... Batman.

A lot of fans get hung up on this phenomenon. "No! Batman is only the version of Batman I first became a fan of!" To which Doctor Scipio says, "take a pill, step back, and grow up."

Hey, I'm a fanboy; I don't like it any more than you do when a character I like cycles into a version of himself/herself I don't care for. But I understand why, and remind myself that the character's ability to do that is what allows it to survive, what keeps it vital for on-going generations. That's a better fate than the obscurity to which one-note characters are doomed because they lack mechanisms for adapting through the years, attracting new adherents, and cementing the loyality of old ones.

Many veteran comic book characters have such Persona Cycles. Robin cycles between "Laughing Young Daredevil" and "Brooding Batman Jr.". The Joker cycles between "deformed killer/mastermind" and "demented crime-clown". I'm sure you can think of many more examples; feel free.

But what was the real subject of this post? Oh, yeah ...


Catwoman's persona cycle wheels from "amoral and independent criminal mastermind" through "Batman's alluring but unavailably criminal love interest" to "female Batman with sass" and on back.

If you've been reading her title, you know that she's been in "female Batman with sass" mode for quite some time, recently adding motherhood to the softening of her image. It's time for her to come back: what I would call "the real Catwoman" (or, at least, the "original Catwoman").

You may think that's impossible, given that she's now got an infant. I don't.

We know that Catwoman is going to pressure Zatanna into mindwiping Film Freak and Angle Man so they no longer know her identity.

But I expect her to ask Zatanna to mindwipe HER as well. To protect her baby. As long as the baby is with her, it is in danger. I believe that Catwoman will give up her baby to protect it and have her own mind wiped so that no one -- not even she -- can connect the two.

And Catwoman will have gone full "persona cycle" once again.


Steven said...

I agree that it's been too long since Catwoman was an out and out Bat-villain (since at least the start of Balent's series, maybe longer).

But I don't think mind-wiping is the answer, because I think a villain with a baby could be more interesting. To show that being a good mother and being a good person aren't necessarily synonymous.

Like you said, having a daughter is already motivating her to take more morally ambigious acts (like mind wiping the Film Freak and Angle Man). Maybe it will inspire her further to think less about the welfare of the East End and more selfishly about just the welfare of her daughter.

The most interesting thing done with Lex Luthor in the last 10 years (I think) was the birth of his daughter, Lena. What does a supervillain do once they have the heir they desire? In Lex's case, it was trade her in for more power. (Aside: I know he got Lena back in Our Worlds at War, but what happened to her after that?)

Similarly, how would Selina prioritize her life around Helena? To what lengths would she go to protect her child, to provide for her child, to make sure her child had the best of everything? Education's expensive, and she's got to pay the bills somehow. (Unless of course Bruce IS the baby-daddy, in which case she could just sue for alimony).

Anonymous said...


I never thought "Catwoman-as-single-mom" could work, but Steven's ideas intrigue me.

I'd definitely buy those comics.

Haute Corbeille said...

As soon as I heard they were giving her a baby, I hoped that it would send her back to burglary. What I'd like to see is Batman offering financial support, Catwoman refusing it, and instead stealing from corrupt wealthy people, busting up diamond smugglers and then keeping the diamonds, that sort of thing. The problem is I don't know how much sense that would make...

Anonymous said...

^^^ Speaking for myself, seeing as it screams "Catwoman" to me, it makes a fair bit of sense...

Anonymous said...

I see this sort of persona cycle as a weakness rather than a strength of comics. To me, it shows a lack of editorial direction, of a real understanding of who these characters are.

Batman: The Animated Series was written by a few people who understood the characters, working from a writers bible that defined their personality and the direction they wanted to take with them. B: TAS was good.

I don't know how DC does their writing, but I'm pretty sure they don't do it like this. Every six months Batman gets a new writer that changes everything and re-writes every character the way he sees them. When, frankly, we don't care what he thinks about them, we care about them. (Like you noted in your "Don't let me write Aquaman" post.) Because of this we sit through people who make the Riddler an inept fool and rape Oliver Queen and write Batman as a pyschopath, even though that may be antithetical to their established personality. This new take, then, becomes their established personality. At least for the next six months.

To solve this problem, if I ran DC, I'd do a company-wide, reboot and actually divide it into a multi-verse. With the Earth-One Batman being a gritty loner vigilante, and the Earth-Two Batman being the paterfamilias of a tight band of colorful crimefighters, and so on. This way you can have different takes on a character (and the DCU as a whole) without completely violating or nigh-hopelessly muddying continuity.

I can't imagine why no-one who actually works at DC has thought of this. Seeming everyone else has. Even Marvel's doing it, to a degree, with Ultimate Marvel.

Marionette said...

The original Catwoman? You mean the amnesiac air hostess who eventually settled down to open a pet store?

Scipio said...

Uh, no, Marionette; as I assume you already realize, that is what the original Catwoman persona-cycled into, in the first iteration of her 'bad girl to good girl'.

I mean, of course, not the original character but the original characterization.

But I'm sure you actually know what I mean.

inkdestroyedmybrush said...

Funny, I've been thinking a bout this a lot recently and was thinking for put up a post at my comic blog, but you summed up everything rather well to tell you truth. I guess that we have to live with teh reboots or simply ignore that they exist and turn off the little continuity controls in our heads. They've been trying to re-invent james Bond for years now, and still haven't done it well.

At a certain point, I rather they move on to another universe and split things off, or I'll just stop buying for a while. Seems almost easier to me, unless you still need that once a week shot in the arm. Certain characters, to me, have simply ceased to do anything new for a very long time. A nicer, gentler Wolverine? Hell, i wasn't even sure that =the one in the original miller mini-series was the one from the X-men.

I do think that the later catwomans were more interesting than the one from Batman #1 who was just there to steal some jewels.

nice thoughts on this. i'll bookmark ya.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and Scipio, if all points on a "persona cycle" are equally valid interpretations, how come you say that the "multiple personality killer" Two-Face is wrong and the "Two-Face as solution to Harvey Dent's problem" is right? From the view presented in this post, both would be right. They aren't.

Just because a writer writes a character a certain way doesn't nessecarily make that certain way correct.

Anonymous said...

Scipio, as interesting as your Catwoman piece was, this little tidbit made my day:

A lot of fans get hung up on this phenomenon. "No! Batman is only the version of Batman I first became a fan of!" To which Doctor Scipio says, "take a pill, step back, and grow up."

It's so refreshing to hear other comics fans feel this way. I swear, if either of the Superboy fan factions start whining one more time, heads will roll like Pantha's.

Scipio said...

"if all points on a "persona cycle" are equally valid interpretations, "

Oh, I never said that!

Besides, not every bit of mischaracterization forms part of an evolving persona-cycle.

Sometimes a mischaracterization is just a mischaracterization.

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