Let's face it – The Dark Knight Rises probably shoehorned Catwoman into the story as sort of a back-door pilot for her own spinoff movie. Sure, what we got of her was pretty cool, but there wasn't nearly enough (nor was there much room for any more). Whatever the reasoning, the truth is that the big Batman movie left you wanting more of Selina Kyle. If new fans come looking, they should not start with the New 52. They should start with Old Ed Bru.
That'd be Ed Brubaker, whose 2001 team-up with the great Darwyn Cooke to redefine and update Catwoman for the modern era ranks as the best the character has ever been written- fully realized and deeply considered. You start with the top of the line, and then try to learn to settle for Judd Winick's current manic and hypersexualized version with a sigh. Perhaps oncoming writer Ann Nocenti will figure it out.
In the meantime, go pick up Catwoman: The Dark End of the Street, the trade paperback which collects Detective Comics #759-762 and Catwoman #1-4. When you read it, you'll better understand just why there was such an outcry against the New 52 Catwoman. Sure, it was partially the classless and blunt cleavage-and-coitus festival, but it was also such a stark, frustrating regression to a reckless youth that's far less interesting than the wiser version of Selina Kyle we'd come to respect.
The series takes place not long after No Man's Land, where Selina Kyle had faked her own death and vanished for a while, but Gotham City's corrupt mayor doesn't quite buy it, and he secretly hires a hard-boiled, pug-nosed detective by the name of Slam Bradley to suss out the truth about her. Right off the bat, the guy's name is Slam Bradley, so you love the guy instantly. Secondly, the character actually predates Superman – he debuted in Detective Comics #1 back in 1937, so he's got the credentials. Plus, Brubaker thrives with noir stories, so we're three for three. Then there's Cooke's style, which can be bright as day, but is also absolutely pitch perfect for this genre, making it a grand slam. A perfect storm of cool.
The first three parts of Bradley's story make for some of the best exposition possible, as he's learning about Kyle's history while the reader is, and in such a way that we also learn that Bradley is a man whose ass cannot be kicked unless he lets you, he's a man who has the balls to say "shove it!" to Batman, a man who's smart enough to deduce that Selina Kyle is Catwoman, and yet he's the kinda hard-luck hero who's sentimental enough to find himself getting far too attached to the subject of his search.
"Sometimes if you try to figure things out too hard, you start to develop empathy," Bradley narrates, while staring at a lovely black and white photo of Selina Kyle over a meal at a diner. "And then you fill in the blank spots of the story yourself, and start to believe your own fiction. That's a dangerous line to cross, because one thing a P.I. should know better than just about anybody is that you can never really know anyone. And yet, there I was, starting to believe I understood this woman the way no one else had."
That's not the best train of thought to be following when your missing person comes calling – which she does at the end of Part 3 of Bradley's story, and from that first page, sitting on his desk with her face silhouetted and the shadow of his window blinds is cast over her body, Darwyn Cooke's Selina Kyle is absolutely magnetic. You just can't take your eyes off of her, which speaks not only to Cooke's talent (and Cooke is credited here and there with Mike Allred and Cameron Stewart alongside him), but to Brubaker's skill at giving the reader an awesome not-so-everyman like Slam, through which we fall for her in the same way he does. We know she's trouble, but we can't help ourselves. It's the sort of visceral hook that we're likely supposed to be feeling with Josephine in Brubaker's original series Fatale, but it's not quite there. It's not really a fair comparison, given how much history Kyle comes with and how peerless Cooke is, but the dark-haired dame Brubaker crafts here has exactly the pull of the heart and the punch to the gut she needs to have. We're hooked on her.
Then, when she treats this meeting with Bradley not as an attempt to browbeat him into giving up the case, but rather as a confessional about being at a crossroads in her life – that's when we get fully invested in the journey she's on. This is a character not known for intropsection, so being here at the point of her deepest self-analysis feels like a rare, special thing. Enough so that Bradley is inspired to drop the pursuit and take a beating from the mayor's thugs to protect her. Enough so that we really want to read more.
That's what we get to do, too, as we now get inside Selina Kyle's head as she tries to figure out what to do with the rest of her life, and what side of the fence she's going to land on. Re-evaluating how she was once the avenger of her fellow working girls before becoming the renowned thief.
"When did you stop helping your sister, your friends, and just start helping yourself?," she wonders to herself. "And when did you climb the social ladder and lose those friends entirely?"
The East End of Gotham City is the worst place in town, and when a serial killer starts praying on prostitutes there, it's not the kind of crime that's going to get much attention. That's where Selina Kyle starts to figure out she belongs. Not in Batman's black and white world, but in the greys. "In between right and wrong."
That's when she tosses out the old purple costume with the tail and gets herself the modern, practical look she's famous for sporting today. That's when she truly graduated from being that hypersexualized caricature that Winick brought back with the New 52 and became the kind of dark, struggling-to-be-better hero we could really get behind. The kind of character we'd really love to have back.
But we won't, not for the forseeable future. So that's why you should forgo the present and jump back in the past, and relive the best of Selina Kyle with Catwoman: The Dark End of the Street as the perfect starting point. Then track down the rest of Brubaker's take on the character. It's a great balance of darkness and heroism, moral ambiguity and just plain coolness – and rest assured, the fun side of Catwoman isn't completely gone, either. Just ask Honest Jay.