This review contains spoilers for Catwoman: Soulstealer and Batman #50.
Catwoman has had an eventful summer.
At this point, if you haven’t read Batman #50, you’ve probably already seen the news: DC’s eagerly-anticipated wedding event is the wedding that wasn’t. In the comics universe, Selina Kyle and Bruce Wayne have spent fifty issues figuring out their relationship, only for them to both come to opposing realizations: Bruce realizes that it might indeed be possible for him to be happy by giving love a chance. Selina realizes the world needs a suffering Batman more than she needs to be with her true love. It’s heart-wrenching, and it’s beautifully done in an over-sized issue that features art of the pair from over the many years they’ve been on again, off again.
But, as much as the story culminates in a sensible conclusion for the run, it shies away from what might have been an even more exciting exploration in comics: What would a Batman/Catwoman marriage look like? What would it be like for Bruce Wayne to be happy? Is Selina right that it would ruin Batman, or has she made a sacrifice in vain?
Like Marvel’s ultimate retcon (in which Spider-Man rewrote revealing his secret identity), the failed wedding of Batman and Catwoman may open new doors for an even more suffering, angrier Batman… but is it really that far from a return to the status quo? Or is it a gambit to make sure that the solo Catwoman book has a successful run?
Luckily for Selina Kyle, she has an entirely different opportunity for reinvention in Catwoman: Soulstealer by Sarah J. Maas. Part of the new DC ICONS novel line, which puts some of their primary protagonists at the center of YA/New Adult (college-aged protagonists, rather than teens) novels, Catwoman: Soulstealer introduces a Selina Kyle birthed by Gotham City’s East End and honed into a weapon by the League of Assassins, who returns to Gotham City on a mission that, while hinted at, is never made clear until the book’s climax. It’s a roller coaster filled with heist action, girl power team-ups, and the notable absence of Bruce Wayne. Luke Fox, also known as Batwing, plays against this incarnation of Catwoman instead.
The Catwoman: Soulstealer story opens on Selina and her sister, abandoned by their addict-criminal mother. Because Selina’s sister has cystic fibrosis and her medical bills are high, Selina has joined the gang the Leopards and has been fighting in crime-boss Falcone’s illegal boxing ring to get more money. It isn’t a sustainable strategy and, soon, Selina is arrested for crossing one too many lines—and offered a way out by Talia al Ghul, who takes her to train to become a ghul, an assassin who will take down the world order.
Selina chooses her moment to return to Gotham, under the identity of Holly Vanderhees (a possible reference to comic-Selina’s best friend Holly Robinson), when Batman is out of town, leaving only his younger vigilante mentee to defend the city. At first, Selina’s motive looks simple: sow chaos, play Robin Hood (stealing from the rich and funneling some of those goods to worthy causes), and bring Gotham City to its knees.
But when the first fellow ghul from the League of Assassins appears to bring her down, the idea that everything is not as it seems starts to take root. And, like one of Poison Ivy’s attack vines, that root shows some dangerous consequences.
Some of the most fun in the novel comes from the interactions between Selina and Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn, with whom she teams up in her quest to put Gotham City’s underworld under her thumb. Ivy is as brilliant as Selina, and her expertise with chemicals and poisons makes her an excellent ally (and her unrequited love for Harley Quinn, with whom she hooks up but receives no further romantic promises, is a lovely driving point for the narrative and counterpoint to Selina’s own loves).
Harley, still pining after her ex, the Joker, is a loose cannon, but one full of manic joy, who refuses to take anything seriously. The Joker, currently locked in Arkham, is absent for most of the book, allowing the Cat and her friends to play as freely as they want. From the outside, everything may seem like a game to both both socialite Holly and purring burglar Catwoman, but Selina’s point-of-view narration shows that things are always serious to the person underneath both personas.
Equally serious are the sections from the point-of-view of Batwing. Luke Fox, as a marine, couldn’t save his friends from the IED that left him horribly scarred. On returning home, the young African American man suffers from PTSD, and part of how he deals with those episodes is by becoming a vigilante. Maas takes on a lot with this character, but while she may only hit the tip of the iceberg on issues of being African American in the modern United States, what she does reference gives a sense of her Gotham belonging to the larger modern world.
At one point in the narrative, Luke remembers being pulled over and harassed by corrupt members of the GCPD for driving while black; when they check his driver’s license and realize he’s a member of the extremely wealthy and well-respected Fox family, they back off. Luke recognizes both his class privilege and the problems of race in moments like this one throughout the book, in ways that show Maas consciously wrangling with properly portraying a character outside her own lived experience.
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Maas’s departure from the Selina/Bruce relationship, especially with the tempestuous issues of the Batman comics run, is a refreshing change of cannon. The novel’s Selina, with her impoverished childhood, genius IQ, and trained social graces, needs a strong romantic foil who can take a back seat and let her manage her own narrative. Luke never falters in his honor and his insistence on doing what is right, but, because of his military experience, his heritage, and his access to Bruce Wayne, he knows that systems aren’t always good vs. evil. The attraction between Catwoman—a villain who also prizes loyalty and sticking up for the voiceless—and Batwing is well paced and plotted believably, and their ultimate end is a satisfying one.
It’s unfortunate the DC ICONS books don’t look set up for sequels, because Catwoman: Soulstealer could easily be the launching point for new adventures, even after Batman and larger world players returned to the scene. In the meantime, Catwoman #2 is set to hit stands in early September, and comics-Selina may indeed be getting a whole new start without Batman as her foil.
Catwoman: Soulstealer is now available to buy via Amazon or your local bookstore.