Monday, April 4, 2011

'Catwoman: The Cat File' is a great heist tale

Catwoman: The Cat File (DC Comics, 1996)
Writer: Chuck Dixon
Artists: Jim Balent and Bob Smith
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

After being apprehended by the Gotham City Police, Catwoman is forced into becoming an operative for a covert government agency that wants her to steal various national treasures and art objects they hope to use for political leverage. The Queen of Cat Burglars is determined to find a way to free herself from their control, but things get really complicated when a European prince whose royal crown she virtually stole off his head decides to exchange her bonds of international espionage for those of holy matrimony.

“The Cat File” reprints stories from issues 15-19 of  the second Catwoman solo series, the beginning of what I consider the an unmatched period of greatness in the character’s publishing history -- one which dates almost as far back as Batman himself. (She first crossed paths with the Caped Crusader in "Batman" #1 in 1940.)

In “The Cat Files,” we’re treated to Catwoman working elaborate heists while trying the scheme her way out from under power of the mysterious Gallant and his far-reaching spy network. In true heist adventure fashion, things often go from bad to worse. By the time Catwoman is standing in front of the altar of marriage, anyone who appreciates a good heist adventure will be eagerly anticipating the mayhem that occurs when virtually every gun-toting character that has appeared previously in the story descends upon the ceremony. And that’s before the helicopter gunships arrive on the scene.

Side-stepping but not invalidating the misbegotten “hooker turned cat-burglar” back-story created by Frank Miller in “Batman: Year Zero”, writers Chuck Dixon and Doug Moench, under the editorial guidance of Denny O’Neil, reconnected the character with her roots as an international adventuress and super-thief, and put her through her paces in a string of fun-filled (and occasionally dark) heist stories and caper tales. The artwork was primarily by Jim Balent, and, while he even early on was drawing his women back-trouble-inducing large breasts, he hadn’t devolved into the fetish-driven grotesqueness that would come later. The art is breezy and energetic and a perfect vehicle for Dixon and Moench’s action-packed tales. Balent also manages to capture the balance between suspense and humor that elevates these stories to the level of great caper tales; only Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder novels is a better example of this kind of adventure fiction.

For a look at a minor DC Comics character in her glory days, a great action/adventure story revolving around a series of heists and international intrique, and for a reminder that there was a time as recent as the 1990s when comic books were fun and worthwhile reading, "The Catfile" is one-stop shopping.