Catwoman: Lonely City (2022)
Reprints Catwoman: Lonely City #1-4
Written & Illustrated by Cliff Chiang
In 1986, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns mini-series reconceptualized Batman by telling an out-of-canon story. An aging Bruce Wayne retired from being Batman years earlier, but now Gotham City is falling into a deeper cesspool than ever before. Mutant gangs run rampant, and The Joker has resurfaced. Wayne must become Batman again, this time with Carrie Kelly by his side as Robin. The Dark Knight Returns, while ground-breaking & compelling, is a politically questionable book. Miller has always been reactionary to one degree or another, and TDKR is very much indicative of this mindset to not examine but react with emotion. Miller is a passionate guy, and that fervor has gotten him into much-deserved praise and trouble. He’s apologized, but the man is so entrenched in his mindset that it would be hard to pull him out. But 2022 is not 1986, and the reactionary Death Wish-driven media of that era just doesn’t fly these days (unless you’re a big Daily Wire fan, I suppose). Cliff Chiang is here to tell us another story of a future Gotham, which is far more coherent and sets up a conflict between the criminal and the authority leading us to question if those labels are being accurately applied.
Selina Kyle has been recently released from over a decade in prison. The world she enters is both familiar and markedly worse. “Crime” is under control but only due to a Gestapo modeled after Batman (their helmets have little Bat-ears). We learn early on that Batman died under tragic circumstances, and that horrible night also sent Selina away. Now Harvey Dent is the mayor of Gotham, still bearing his scars but claiming he’s cured the wounds in his mind. His rule of Gotham is unrelenting, requiring all citizens to register and wear G-band identifiers. Selina is without one but is given a warning to sign up quickly. The dystopia in Lonely City isn’t high-tech or flashy. Instead, it bears all the mundane soul-crushing hallmarks of our present condition. A militarized police who have the authority to harass, bully, and murder anyone they deem a “criminal.” The Penguin remarks in one scene early in the story that he’s witnessed the cops engaged in “civil forfeiture,” but he knows stealing when he sees it.
Writer-artist Cliff Chiang presents the reader with bold, colorful, and iconic art – not the sort of thing we typically associate with dystopian literature. But those aesthetics create a fascinating conflict, reminding us this is a hyperreal comic book reality, yet…so familiar, painfully so. The rogues’ gallery that used to plague Gotham has either been tamed or exterminated, so we should feel happy, right? But instead, Selina feels lost and manages to rekindle friendships with Killer Croc and The Riddler. The former has become a tracksuit-wearing barfly that likes to espouse loud (but hollow) machismo to a crowd that laughs at him. The latter is a dad who has given up his criminal ways, trying to be legit but understanding that won’t ever happen for him.
Barbara Gordon is somewhere between the ex-cons and the current iron fist of municipal rule. Once Batgirl, then Oracle, now a candidate for mayor in the hopes of unseating Dent. Barbara doesn’t push back nearly enough for Selina and tries to say the status quo is so much better now. Selina retorts that this “better, safer world” is only the result of fear, as she puts it, “more cops, more guns.” Are Gotham’s citizens safer or more cowed into keeping their heads down lest the baton comes down on their skulls? Barbara trusts in the system because of who her dad was and thinks she can fix it from the inside. Selina isn’t convinced and believes you have to become a “criminal” and break the structures of oppression.
Chiang succeeds in not erasing the perceived silliness of older iterations of these characters but showcasing them as a continuum. People change, and so do masked vigilantes. In flashbacks, we see Catwoman and Batman’s eternal chase, changing costumes through the years to reflect the moods & tones that were present in the comic books we read. Chiang doesn’t play up the camp; he lets the costume designs be present but makes these flashbacks tonally consistent with his overarching narrative. Selina may be wearing the classic Lee Meriwether Batman 66 costume, but she’s talking like a three-dimensional human being.
Just as good as his art is Chiang’s storytelling. He nods to DC lore while never overloading the book with bloated exposition. At one point, Selina is using a form of magic familiar to DC fans, leading to a panel of Zatanna sensing her style is being mimicked somewhere in the world. It’s great little moments like this that won’t pull new readers out of the narrative yet also let longtime fans see how this particular comic book lives & breathes into the future. Those asides are needed when you’re telling a story that cuts as close to the bone as Lonely City. This is still a comic book, after all, a heightened version of the world we wake up in every day.
It feels like Catwoman: Lonely City has flown under the radar in 2022. That’s a shame because it’s a fantastic read and one of the better attempts by modern comics to have social relevance. There’s sadness in this story but also a pretty strong ray of hope in the end. Miller sulked about what he saw as the inevitability of humanity’s decline, merely reflecting his misanthropic perspective. Chiang isn’t going to lie and tell us things are great or won’t worsen in the future. What he does is correctly identify the source of our suffering, not petty crooks or jewel-snatching cat burglars, but a system of oppression that seeks to sap our humanity, our empathy, and our connections with each other. We can win this fight, but it will ask a lot of us. If we don’t fight, we lose everything.