Catwoman: Her Sister's Keeper
Writer: Mindy Newell
Illustrator: JJ Brich
Inks: Michale Bair
Colorist: Adrienne Roy
Letterer: Agustin Mas
That pretty much covers the themes of Her Sister's Keeper, but in many ways it just scratches the surface. HSK deals with victimization and male dominance over Selina Kyle, who escapes her life as a prostitute in the East End of Gotham at the cost of her own soul. We see her evolve from a shy, unassuming girl beaten down by her hard life on the street into a predator of the night. This book is entirely free of the trappings of the "super-hero genre": it's a tale of urban violence and desperation, not capes and tights. If Year One was a dark retelling of Batman's origins, Her Sister's Keeper explores Selina Kyle's formative journey as a nightmare scenario comprising all of the worst elements of underpriviledged society at the end of the 20th century.
Catwoman is interesting for a lot of reasons. Batman's rouges gallery is full of colorful characters who exist as one-dimensional targets on a moving field. The Joker distinguishes himself through madness, not nuance. Two-Face is full of subtleties and potential for character study but is often underused. Only Catwoman, it seems, is able to abide in a gray area between love interest and villain. Those shades of gray are explored in Her Sister's Keeper, which argues that Catwoman did not earn her place among Batman's rogues as a consequence of madness or industrial mutliation (she was never scarred by a chemical or mentally unbalanced). Her costumed identity is one of practical convience (she's a cat-burglar, hence the tail and whiskers) rather than an outward expression of her mental state. And, of course, her sexuality and romantic appeal for Batman makes her the dark Lois Lane of the Batman comics, a twin soul for the dark title character.
Mindy Newell, a rare female writer in the 1980s comic book industry, creates a story that is even more cynical towards humanity than Frank Miller's work. Selina's tale begins in an alleyway behind an East End church: she's been raped, beaten and left for dead by her pimp Stan. Soon she finds herself in a hospital room at Gotham General where she recieves a visit from GCPD officer George Flannery. Selina is forced to endure the well-meaning if insensitive suggestions of Det. Flannery, who tells her, "...they found five dollars lying next to you. You're pissing blood. I'd say you got gypped." I'd love to hear Jim Gordon say something similiar to Batman in Year One, but then is a story about the female psyche's journey through Gotham.
If Batman's world is ruled through violence and loss, Selina's is comprised soley of pain and the burning need for revenge. In each of their first years in costume, Batman and Catwoman go up against the sort of people who hurt them the most during their childhoods. For Selina, it's pimps and dirty cops: for Batman, it's mobsters and high-ranking policians. If Batman's world is found among dark city skylines, Catwoman's is in the alleyways. Her social and economic position as a 16 year-old prostitute on the streets of the meanest city in the DCU is unquestionably more difficult than Bruce Wayne's place as one of the priviledged aristocracy, and it isn't hard to sympathize with the victimized young woman in the first part of Newell's story. As much sympathy as Batman's origin story has generated over the past sixty years, having been exposed to Selina's story, I can't help but wonder how well Batman would have fared had he shared her history.
The social and political implications of Selina's story are important to issues of gender, given that Catwoman's identity has been linked with feminism and sexual liberation since the 1940s. If Batman was formed in a moment of brutal violence, Catwoman was born from sexual slavery. What that implies about gender roles is intriguing: the worst thing that can happen to a boy is witnessing the murder of his parents, and the worst thing that can happen to a girl is sexual exploitation.
After Stan's beating, Selina returns to the East End where her pimp convinces her to donn a dominatrix costume and service customers who pay for her "special talents". She also hooks up with Ted Grant (aka Wildcat of the Justice Society) for lessons in fighting and survival. Holly Gardiner, glimpsed so briefly in Year One and later transformed into a major character with the wonderful Catwoman relaunch, underlines the brutality and violence of Selina's life before she became Catwoman. Selina is protective of Holly, a thirteen-year-old prostitute, and they seem to have a close friendship before Selina becomes more deeply entangled in Batman's world. She also encounters a "real man" for the first time in her life as Selina watches Bruce Wayne (in disguise, of course) take on Stan in a knife fight. Her first glimpse of Batman is equally formative: inspired by watching the newly-active crimefighter in the showdown with the GCPD so brilliantly showcased in Batman: Year One, Selina alters her S&M costume into the Catwoman suit and begins to steal from anyone with something worth taking.
It is at this point that Her Sister's Keeper devolves from penetrating social critique and insightful analysis of gender roles to a noir melodrama. Selina begins to lash out against her pimp, disfiguring Stan in a rash moment of violence much like her wounding of Carmine and Sofia Falcone in The Long Halloween and Dark Victory. Stan vows revenge, of course, and when he discovers that Selina's estranged sister Maggie is serving as a nun at the Chapel of the Immaculate Virgin, he kidnapps Maggie. This puts the Batman on Stan's trail as well as Catwoman, and the two come into conflict. It's interesting in the way Newell plays on themes of innocence: at one point during his search for the missing nun, Batman investigates the room where Stan was holding Maggie and the panel narration claims, "The room still quivers with their combined fears. Another piece of his tattered faith in his fellow man unravels and falls away". Selina Kyle never had such illusions.
The majority of Batman stories are male psychodramas about a flawed man striving to protect others at great cost to himself. Her Sister's Keeper is the female version, about a woman so victimized by society that she vows to protect herself by lashing out at others. Neither choice is presented as an acceptable way to deal with the world: we are constantly reminded in the Batman universe that nothing will ever make Bruce Wayne a whole and complete human being, and Catwoman's story seems to be one of constant attonment for sins that were not originally hers. Both characters are a rare breed of comic-book heroes; they are products of urban violence rather than exotic accidents or mysterious alien origins.
Humanity at its worst is showcased in Year One and Her Sister's Keeper, and the unsettling conclusion one must arrive at is that, in this world, no one is completely innocent or guilty but simply a product of their own sad history.
The art in HSK is heavily based on David Mazzucchelli's work in Year One: because this story reinacts several pannels from the earlier Miller story, the artistic style is a continuation of Mazzucchelli's dark, grainy renderings of Gotham City and the East End's sleezy red light district. Compared to other books produced at the same time (everything from the early-to-mid 1990s), HSK, like Y1, emerges as an unblinking tale of crime and violence. Only Mindy Newell truly recaptures the same gritty desperation created by Frank Miller in The Dark Knight Returns; other writers such as Dennis O'Neil try but fail in their attempts to create characters so psychologically wounded that they must wear masks to hide their pain.
This origin story for Selina Kyle was revised later in 1992 during Zero Hour; Maggie disappeared entirely, Holly was killed off and the fate of Selina's parents was altered. The character's origins were "lightened" somewhat, making Selina's role in prostitution less overt (she was only posing as a prostitute and did not actually have sex with her clients) and she recieves her physical training at a Gotham dojo rather than from Ted Grant. The motivations behind these changes are a mystery; rather than a realistic portrait of a battered woman asserting herself, the semi-retconned Catwoman origin made her more commercially palpibable but removed a good deal of realism from the character. The result of the retconned origin was to create a more "comic book" Catwoman, rather than a realistic one.
At any rate, HSK remains a remarkable achievement, more because it was written at a time when the "dark" version of Batman was in its post-Crisis infancy. Stories from the early '90s come off as either pale immitations of Miller's work or overly dramatic and souless. HSK is neither. It is a far more poignant character study of a human being in crisis than Miller's Year One. While a failure in terms of plot (the kidnapping and subsequent mental unraveling of Selina is less than convincing), HSK illustrates exactly why Selina became Catwoman and what it cost her. It would be another 13 years before Batman's similar decision was treated half so well, in Joe Casey's Tenses.