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A lackluster Catwoman run comes to a disjointed conclusion

Also reviewed: Cigarette Girl, Dream Tube, and Goldie Vance

(Image: Catwoman #52)
(Image: Catwoman #52)

With the loss of Darwyn Cooke last week, it’s no small comfort to pick up a copy of Catwoman and see a version of his costume design on the cover. Cooke’s work persists, and for good reason: With her cat/whip belt and the goggles, this version of the character is iconic, instantly recognizable, and just practical enough to be believable, without losing any of Selina’s grace or sex appeal.

With Catwoman #52 (DC), writer Frank Tieri moves readers deeper into the mystery of the White Mask and the False Face group that Selina has been tracking. With the advent of DC’s Rebirth at the end of May—many books starting over with #1s—it seems that this is the last issue of Catwoman for a while. The story has stumbled a bit—no surprise with Tieri trying to follow Genevieve Valentine’s intimate and deeply interesting take on Selina Kyle as mob boss. Given just six issues to write a story, Tieri gave Selina a new sidekick in the young computer genius Tesla, and turned to her past.

Unfortunately, the effort falls almost entirely flat. Tesla feels like an imperfect facsimile of Harper Row, who has her own relationship with Selina and has always been similar enough to Tim Drake to be an uncomfortably imperfect facsimile herself. The plotline around Selina’s not-quite-dead ex-boyfriend is interesting only in how much farther it pulls her into Gotham’s criminal underbelly. Particularly right after Valentine (an A.V. Club contributor) worked so hard to portray Selina’s bisexuality in a powerful, respectful way, focusing on her ex-boyfriend is dull and unnecessarily centers a book starring a woman and her female friend around a man.

The book hasn’t been helped by strangely stiff art from Inaki Miranda, who only contributes three pages to #52. Miranda’s got a decent handle on action sequences and his panel construction is always interesting, but there’s something about the way he draws faces and necks that feels Tim Burton Batsuit rigid, like everyone’s got a fused spine. Tesla in particular looks like he’s trying to copy Jamie McKelvie, and not to good effect. Pop Mhan and Giuseppe Cafaro fill in for the rest of the issue, with Mhan tackling some flashbacks while Cafaro finishes out the sequence that Miranda began. Mhan’s got a gritty, sketchy style that’s accented by a duller color palette, while Cafaro’s kinetic, fluid pages are well suited to the deep pinks and neons. Interestingly, Cafaro is one of the few artists to draw Black Mask as actually wearing a mask, showing his flesh around the eyeholes of the black skull instead of implying it’s his own head. It appears that the three colorists on this issue—Eva De La Cruz, Beth Sotelo, and John Starr—each worked with one penciler’s pages, which makes the book more coherent than it could have been.

This is not the way Selina Kyle was meant to end her story—reminiscing over a guy readers won’t remember in a few months, with disjointed art and the weakest of Joshua Middleton’s recent covers. It feels rushed and distant, a far cry from the emotionally claustrophobic and gripping time where she served as the head of Calabrese family. She deserves to go out with a hiss, instead of this annoyed meow. [Caitlin Rosberg]

Collecting a number of short stories published between 1972 and 1974, Masahiko Matsumoto’s Cigarette Girl (Top Shelf Productions) is a deep dive into a subset of manga that has only recently become available in English. Komaga, which translates to “panel pictures,” is distinct from the gekiga (dramatic pictures) that would come to dominate alternative manga, and both are vastly different from the more mainstream manga (whimsical pictures) that readers have no doubt encountered. Here, Matsumoto tells obtuse stories, short tales of urban living in 1970s Japan, illustrated in a staid, demure style. Panel transitions are more static, and they serve to emphasize space rather than movement, drama, or action. Matsumoto’s characters, constrained by their personal failings and the mores of the day, cannot express themselves, and Matsumoto reflexively punctuates these stories with silences, ellipses, abrupt endings.

Each of these stories is stand-alone, though there is the exceptional “Happy-Chan” serial, which occupies roughly 100 pages. Some star desperate young men who humbly prostrate themselves before the objects of their desire, and some of them feature a door-to-door condom saleswoman just looking to understand her fellow humans. They are diverse in subject, but not subject matter, and bound by common themes. Matsumoto, perhaps unintentionally, reflects this coherence in the way he draws figures, repeating the same faces and bodies again and again—as if his characters were actors in a troupe he kept reusing. As a result, Cigarette Girl is neatly unified into a coherent whole, and it eschews the scattershot arrangement of most anthologies. It reads, instead, like a suite of short stories—a purposeful collection constituted by inter-textuality, by passages that call out to one another from across space and time.

As such, the book is engrossing and deeply moving. Matsumoto’s figure-work is difficult to take seriously at first; he draws lips pursed and distended like Morty Smith’s, and his figures are short limbed, recalling both Shigeru Mizuki and Crayon Shin-chan. Matsumoto largely abstracts faces, and they come to resemble humorous caricatures. His rendering of cityscapes creates a different tone, though, and his fat raindrops scratch and streak their way across wonderfully complex urban compositions. One against the other, something feels out of place. The physical space seems so grim and downtrodden but the space’s inhabitants are so charmingly comical. This dissonance seems bizarre at first, but it serves as visual feedback—a kind of piercing shriek that at first intrigues and then engrosses. It draws you in to the indifferent diegesis of Cigarette Girl and lends the narratives within a sort-of callousness. An uncanny mix of repellent amateurishness and attractive maturity and depth, Matsumoto’s aesthetic and narrative style simultaneously push and pull on the reader, forcing you to confront the universal themes of alienation, ennui, and emotional distance. [Shea Hennum]

Rebekka Dunlap’s debut book of comics is called Dream Tube (Youth In Decline), and rarely has a book been so aptly titled. Anyone expecting a convenient linear narrative should look elsewhere. This collection of short pieces is loosely constructed around the idea of illustrating dreams—whether or not they are Dunlap’s dreams, or merely dream-like stories, is unclear. But it isn’t necessary to know the difference to enjoy the book. Either way, Dunlap is a fiercely talented cartoonist whose talents are well suited to abstract narrative.

Dream Tube appears to be a quick read, but doesn’t reveal its secrets on just one exposure. Dunlap is a diverse illustrator whose work veers from a heavily manga influenced style, as in the surreal “Brooklyn Witch Tweets,” to a slightly more sedate style in the Frank Santoro-meets-Jonny Negron mashup of “Colony.” “Brooklyn Witch Tweets” doesn’t appear on first glance to make any kind of sense outside the confines of heady dream logic. There’s a witch who appears to be traveling through the dreams of many different people—or through her own dreams? It’s hard to tell. It doesn’t really matter. Every couple pages a new theme or character or idea is introduced. A giant eyeball watches porn featuring naughty witches placing a contact lens over another giant eyeball. A woman is swarmed by tiny fornicating fairies who apply her makeup and shape her eyebrows. Someone’s making out in a bathroom stall. One strange idea flows naturally into the next, disparate moments connected by nothing more than the ingenuity of Dunlap’s skill.

“Cities And Spaces And” is slightly more sedate, presenting the dream as a story told between lovers. This dream has rules—the kind of rules familiar to anyone who has ever dreamed. Dreamers accept the premises of their dreams unthinkingly: “The first rule of the dream is that we live in the city,” a woman says. “The second? We are under attack. And the third is that we do not know each other.” From there the dream passes into a sequence of vague and inconclusive images, of war, disaster, and anxiety. Even though she doesn’t know her lover in the dream, they are introduced and travel for a time through the shifting landscape, falling into the wetness of an eyeball (again with the eyeballs!) and then wringing vitreous humor out of her wet dress. Then they find themselves in a mysterious city… and she wakes.

The final story, “Colony,” occupies the second half of the book. Although it is dream-like in many ways, it also represents the closest thing Dream Tube has to a story in the conventional sense. Shifting from fantasy to science fiction, the dreamer in this story is a planetary surveyor in a far-future society constructed along rigid caste hierarchies. Something happens out in space that threatens the world’s stability. The reader isn’t sure quite what is going on. The landscape shifts as the characters enter cosmic terrain populated only by their own fears. Dunlap’s style shifts to match the anxiety of her characters. What could have been purely abstract in the hands of a lesser cartoonist rather assumes the shape of a fully-fledged story missing only a few key details necessary to cohere into something solid—in other words, a dream. [Tim O’Neil]

Summer’s not quite here yet, but the spirit of the season can be felt on every page of Goldie Vance (Boom! Box), the warm, breezy new miniseries by writer Hope Larson, artist Brittney Williams, and colorist Sarah Stern. Goldie is a spunky teen detective in the tradition of Nancy Drew, specializing in cases at the Crossed Palms Resort in St. Pascal, Florida, where she also works as a valet. The very first page of the story establishes a bright, inviting atmosphere with a splash of the beachside resort, paired with text that states, “Join us where it’s summer every day and watch your troubles melt like snow in the sea.” It immediately creates a strong sense of place, and the immersive environment is one of the book’s biggest selling points.

Larson has crafted a compelling mystery for Goldie to solve involving one of the resort’s new residents, who goes missing shortly after asking the resort’s resident detective, Walt Tooey, to recover a priceless necklace that has been stolen. The first issue of Goldie Vance stays primarily inside and around the resort, acclimating readers to the setting where Goldie and her friends spend the majority of their time. Williams puts considerable effort into making Crossed Palms a vacation destination bustling with energy, and the common areas are full of guests and employees going about their day. That energy carries over to the rest of St. Pascal as Goldie’s investigation takes her away from the resort in the second issue, and that gradual expansion of the setting helps ease readers into the story.

The creative team begins by defining the main location, and once that foundation has been laid, they expand outward to reveal more of Goldie’s world. And what a wonderful world it is. Goldie Vance is set in a fictionalized version of the early ’60s (much of the fiction comes from the book’s post-racial climate), and the period influence results in some exquisite design work from Williams, who has a clear passion for the clothing, architecture, and interior design of the time. The period also dictates Stern’s color palette, which is dominated by soft pastels that keep the mood light as the stakes of Goldie’s investigation intensify.

Williams has been doing delightful work on Marvel’s Patsy Walker, A.K.A. Hellcat! ongoing, but Goldie Vance shows what she can do when she’s building a world from scratch, and that extra personal investment in the property elevates her artwork. Her style is very cute, and the Disney and manga influences give her characters a wide range of animated expressions that quickly define their personalities. Goldie is a charming lead character with a background that makes her stick out from most other comics’ protagonists—she’s biracial, has divorced parents, and appears to have a crush on a woman working at the local record store—and this creative team is devoted to diverse representation across the entire cast, which primarily consists of people of color. There’s a lot to admire in Goldie Vance, and hopefully she’ll get a chance to continue her detective work after this initial miniseries concludes. [Oliver Sava]