Catwoman #23 marks the arrival of the Sean Gordon Murphy-verse into primary DC canon, and the start is fairly rocky. The writer’s output in his “Murphy-verse” has thus far been focused on White Knight stories, which all began with an interesting premise and quickly declined in quality and cogency as the story continued. Though the original miniseries could have offered something new and unique to the Batman mythos, it missed the mark and was too unstable to act as a foundation for something larger.
Though Murphy himself didn’t write Catwoman #23, his fingerprints are all over it. The dialogue attempts to be snappy but feels dated in places, and there’s an attempt at a clever reference to Murphy’s White Knight work that falls flat. Part of the problem with the dialogue—and the book more broadly—is how it creates a vibe that wants to be retro but ends up being regressive. Catwoman is in her Batman: The Animated Series costume, which is classic and instantly recognizable, but the shift away from Joelle Jones’ fashion-forward design feels like a real loss, especially because the rest of her outfits in this issue are bland.
Opposite Selina is Snowflame, a long-forgotten villain who’s been updated to a walking Miami Vice museum, down to his sports car, drug use, and the armed guards enforcing his control of a remote island that is otherwise populated by people of color. Selina has travelled to this fictional Isla Nevada for an auction of priceless artifacts and information that appears to be attended by several of Gotham’s most recognizable villains. The setting is so stale and transparently racist, you half-expect Bane to show up and violently eject Snowflame and his nefarious guests from Isla Nevada. (Similarities to Bane’s home, Santa Prisca, are obvious, and it’s disappointing to get all that apparent set-up with no payoff.) Given these glaring issues, it’s not at all surprising to see an older woman, native to Isla Nevada, set Selina up for a white savior moment that hasn’t yet arrived.
Artist Cian Tormey does a great job with what he’s given, especially on Selina’s expressions and physicality. He gives her moments of sass and good humor, as well as complete rage and frustration. There are some very questionable costume designs, particularly Selina’s gown, but the real struggle for Tormey is that his work has to carry Blake Northcott’s inexperienced comic writing as well as the expectation of Murphy’s legacy. All of the other books Murphy has worked on at DC in the recent past include both his writing and art; Catwoman has neither, and Tormey’s skill isn’t enough to overcome that expectation. Northcott thinks her work is far more clever than it is, aiming for satire and hitting clumsy parody instead. The setup is an outdated Bond trope, with all of the characters literally wearing clothes at least 30 years old. The people of color are just props in the background of the drama unfolding in their own home. And the only truly modern character is a woman dismissed by Selina as sleazy for weaponizing social media—a moment which falls particularly flat, as though Northcott’s trying to lampoon Paris Hilton from 2005.
Tormey—and Selina Kyle—both deserve far better than this book. Particularly given the stand-out successes of so many of DC’s middle grade and YA books about female characters, it’s a huge disappointment to see just how awkward and regressive this book is. Readers who endured Frank Tieri’s short run on Catwoman after Genevieve Valentine’s fresh and beautiful take on the character back in 2015 will find this change all too familiar. [Full disclosure: Valentine is a former A.V. Club contributor.] Thankfully, Ram V is stepping in with issue #25, offering hope to fans that this new normal will be brief.