Catwoman 1 – Writer: Judd Winick, Artist: Guillem March
Red Hood and the Outlaws 1 – Writer: Scott Lobdell, Artist: Kenneth Rocafort
There’s a lot of discussion lately about two comics that came out last week, Catwoman 1 and Red Hood and the Outlaws 1. These books were the first in the relaunched DC world to really show sex and sexual relationships between characters, and both the content of the books themselves and the reader response has been fascinating. Although I won’t be able to respond to the other commentary at this point, I do want to share a few of my own thoughts about these comics. As usual, standard disclaimers apply – there will be spoilers, and my opinions are just that, my opinions, not set in stone, but still worthy of basic respect (as are your own).
It definitely makes sense to me for there to be sex in Batman comics. When people spend their time running around in life and death situations, and when they work and/or fight with each other consistently over time, sex is gonna happen. (If I’m wrong on that one please don’t correct me, let me believe in this fantasy world for a little while longer.)
So if we’re assuming that sex will occur, the question becomes ‘What elements need to be in place for this to be okay?’ I’d say the first is consent, of course, and after that we have things like, does this fit with the character’s personality, does it make sense at this time in the story, what does this mean for the characters and their relationships, and also more meta considerations like, what does this mean for how people (specifically, women) are represented in comics? I’m not going to be able to answer all those questions for both these books today, but I wanted to give you a sense of what kinds of things I’m thinking about.
Catwoman 1 introduces us to Selina Kyle as she gathers her most cherished possessions (cats and costume) and escapes her apartment just before some pissed off bad guys blow it up. With a friend’s help Selina finds a job and a place to stay for the next few days, but the new plan doesn’t last long in the face of a blast from the past – an abuser from Selina’s history appears and she takes the opportunity to beat him to a pulp, presumably as revenge for what he did to a friend of hers (or maybe her mother?).
We can learn a few interesting things from the story so far. First, they show Selina as being unafraid and able to handle herself very well in hand-to-hand combat with a larger opponent – this would normally mean she’s being represented as a strong and self-sustaining character, but it’s made problematic by the fact that she’s jeopardizing her safety and the job at hand for the emotional satisfaction of revenge.
Second, I was very interested by the way Selina is represented in the opening pages. We see parts of her face and body, both dressed and undressed, but it’s not until the third page that we see a full body image, and even then she’s not fully clothed – this makes it so much easier to dis-associate what we’re seeing and taking pleasure in from the character’s essential humanity. Visually segmenting the body in this way, especially by not showing Selina’s eyes, serves to help fetishize it, giving the viewer power to look without that gaze being returned, and breaking the body up into bite-sized parts, more easy to consume. Through the rest of the book Selina is drawn in mostly full-body or three-quarter shots, but as an introduction to the character it’s fascinating that we start with the segmented body, and with the emphasis on her breasts (which basically represent the site of union with the mythical mother figure, and thus the source of all joy to the voyeuristic viewer) (thank you, my education is now worthwhile).
An interesting contrast is that in Red Hood we see many full-body shots of Starfire. That said, her costume is extremely revealing, consisting mostly of straps that appear to be metallic and which seem to have no relationship to gravity or each other. I actually have far more problems with how Starfire was written than with Catwoman, and in terms of representation it seemed that Starfire is consistently presented for display in a way that Catwoman simply wasn’t.
Starfire is shown swimming in the ocean, and the book makes the voyeuristic aspect of the scene explicit when they show a child taking her photo (without permission) and posting it online – later on this leads to her being identified as an unauthorized alien. She’s being punished for being seen, as though by simply existing she’s inviting attention and comment regarding her body. Why? Why is the main purpose of Starfire to be looked at? She’s a superhero, a powerful alien creature, and yet all she does here is receive the male gaze (of the child who photographs her, the superheros she works and has sex with, and of the target market). I’m disappointed that instead of learning about her personality or fighting style (both of which we get with Red Hood and Arsenal) all we see of Starfire is the desire for unfriendly, un-emotional sex. Even when Arsenal asks if she’s working with Red Hood, the answer’s all about sex, not her abilities or personality. What a huge change from her character in past incarnations, when sex was the physical representation of a strong love and connection between people (not that there always has to be a commitment, but why can’t she even remember who she’s been with? Why deny her the ability to make a deep connection with another person that grows over time?)
Goodness, this is getting long. Let’s get to the actual sex, then, shall we? First and foremost, Bats and Cats. In the closing section of Catwoman 1, Batman arrives at the penthouse where Selina’s staying; as he asks what she’s gotten herself into she kisses him.
At first Batman turns her down, saying “No, we’re not doing this again,” but Selina’s internal monologue tells us “Usually it’s because I want him. Tonight I think it’s because I need him. Every time… he protests. Then… gives in.” I hate to say it, but this bothered me because if it were the other way around and Batman was saying this about Catwoman, I would be obligated to object. Granted, some non/con and powerplay is always fun in fanfiction, but if comics are supposed to represent actual real-life decisions (comics are to fanfic what reality is to fantasy?), I have to say it’s best to err on the side of getting consent before the sex starts. On the other hand, we could also argue that as Batman he has power and privilege that few others ever could, and as such it’s almost essential for true consent to be possible that Batman is not the initiator, and that he holds back until it’s beyond clear that the sex is desired.
Finally, in the last page of Catwoman 1 there are some elements of role reversal that really intrigue me – Catwoman’s on top (OK, that’s no surprise) but it’s her face we see, and she’s the one who remains fully clothed and covered. Batman’s suit is hiked up exposing his body, and Batman’s face is obscured, thus rendering him more available to take on the fantasy appearance of the reader. This could be a coincidence, or just the artist’s idea of what these two characters would find the most pleasurable and expedient in the circumstances, but it can also function as a point of entry (pun intended) for the viewer – with Batman’s face hidden it could be anyone under the cowl, the reader included.
Starfire’s lack of memory also really troubles me. Arsenal asks her if she remembers the people she worked with on the Teen Titans (I think?!), and I couldn’t believe that she didn’t even remember Dick – they were engaged, made it as far as the altar; if she doesn’t remember humans enough for us to make an impression on her, why would she have almost married one? Clearly this is a very different take on the character. Although there is of course the capacity to enjoy oneself in the moment, without memory or anticipation clouding the present, I still find it implausible that someone who “doesn’t see humans as more than sights and smells” (what does that even mean? what is life other than sensory input, processed and translated into patterns by our brains?) would want to work, fight, and have sex with us. It feels like as a character she’s being held back from developing emotional relationships in favour of being available to a variety of partners without having to worry about emotional attachments. I am absolutely not saying that all sex has to be within a committed relationship, or that Starfire (when will we get to know her by more than a code name?) shouldn’t have sex with whoever she wants, whenever she wants. I’m just asking why she couldn’t be a character who loves everyone she screws, instead of no-one.
I feel like I’ve come across as very negative, probably because I’ve only focused on the things that I find problematic in these comics. But as much as I want to see sex in Batman comics, in the end what I’m left with most is a sense of disappointment. Catwoman and Starfire are amazing characters, who have so much potential to be powerful, controversial, inspirational, and yes, sexy. There is definitely a place for sex in comicbooks, but I don’t think these writers (and thus DC in general) have gotten it right yet. On the plus side, the voyeur inside me is definitely looking forward to their further attempts.