Under the Moon: A Catwoman Tale review

Under the Moon: A Catwoman Tale is the latest release from DC Comics’ DC Ink imprint, aimed at young adult readers.  It is a difficult book.

For one, it is difficult due to the hard, heavy subject matter, which includes domestic abuse, self-harm, and child runaways.  Those subjects are not easy to read, and they certainly can’t be easy to write.

It’s also a difficult book because, at least as a work of art, it doesn’t quite succeed.  The intentions are noble and there are moments of individual greatness, but as a whole, this is a flawed work.

Now, granted, I am not the target audience for this story, in… many ways.  With a target audience of teens, especially those who are “troubled” or feel misunderstood or outcast, it has elements that will no doubt resonate.  But I wasn’t the target audience for Mera: Tidebreaker either, and I still found quite a bit to enjoy there.  The real disconnect here is the treatment of some of the subject matter, along with some truly odd storytelling choices.

The book is divided into three separate acts– “The Dark,” “The Light,” and “Under the Bright White Moon”– with each section containing its own sub-chapters.  As you’d expect, the main character is Selina Kyle, who is cast as a high school student rather than a world-class thief.  She’s a typical teenage girl, with a few close friends and a bit of an attitude to spare.  The only other recognizable character besides Selina is Bruce Wayne, who used to be a close friend until… something drove them apart.  The scene where the two finally reconnect after years of misunderstood distance is one of the best, most honest scenes in the book, using what we know about Bruce Wayne’s tragic loss in a relatively fresh way.

That’s just a small part of the story, though.  Writer Lauren Myracle focuses first and foremost on Selina’s own tragic home life, in a manner that is occasionally moving but often frustrating.  Selina lives with her single mother, who seemingly has a new boyfriend every time Selina sees her, until the monstrous Dernell arrives and never leaves.  Dernell is a true pig of a man, expecting Selina’s mother to answer his every beck and call, while at the same time pelting Selina with verbal and physical abuse.  Myracle is successful in making us sympathize with Selina, though some of her dialogue is jarringly profane.  Not to sound prudish, but there are quite a few hard swears used quite frequently that… well, they don’t necessarily feel out of place, because it is the way some people talk.  It’s just some of the use of the language felt like it was done because they could use it in this story.  I’ll abstain from giving examples, but you’ll know some of the more interesting turns of phrase when you encounter them.

Early on Myracle establishes Selina as a caring figure who looks out for others, whether it’s a friend who is being teased or a stray cat that she encounters.  Those seeds bear more fruit in the stronger second half of the book, though it does help us like her from the start.  She may have a mouth and an attitude, and she may make some incredibly questionable decisions, but Selina still has a heart.

And if you have a heart, it can certainly be broken, which is what happens.  Selina finds a stray cat that she names Cinders and sneaks it into the house, hiding it in a closet and caring for it without her mom or Dernell’s knowledge.  Having such a small, defenseless creature to watch over and protect drastically changes her countenance: her attitude at home and school improves, to the point that she even admits that “even Dernell can’t burst my bubble.”  Her happiness is short-lived, though, as Dernell flies into a fit of rage and causes Cinder’s untimely demise.

This is the last straw with Selina, as she decides to run away from home.  It’s here that the book makes the first odd decision, as Selina encounters a sort of cat spirit that manifests itself in the stars.  It’s illustrated quite beautifully, with Isaac Goodhart linking the stars together to form a feline-esque constellation.

In fact, the whole of the book looks great, as Goodhart’s penciling style is strong and colorist Jeremy Lawson uses a limited color palette similar to Mera: Tidebreaker.  Where that book was effectively blacks and greens with splashes of red, this book uses blues, purples, and grays.  That stylistic choice is interesting, to be certain, but it’s never distracting nor do you get the feeling that it’s lacking in detail.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Deron Bennett’s scripting, too. His font choices are solid, and the scene with the cat spirit is particularly lovely and inspired, with black word balloons as opposed to the traditional white and an interesting font choice for the cat.

Even though it looks nice, the cat spirit scene is quite bizarre and doesn’t fit with the rest of the book.  It’s a borderline supernatural element that isn’t consistent with the story, and other than Selina being christened “Catgirl” it doesn’t have much bearing on anything else.  Is it supernatural in nature, or is it merely a hallucination or figment of her imagination?  It’s not a question that the story answers, and while it doesn’t inherently suffer for it, this scene still sticks out as an oddity.

This does lead to the best stretch of the book, though, where Selina adjusts to life on the streets.  She’s angry, but also sad, wondering why nobody loves her.  She veers close to depression at certain points, and it’s a really affecting read that is difficult in the right ways.  Myracle really gets us to feel for Selina in this stretch, and it’s when she meets up with a group of fellow homeless kids that we think things might go well for her.

It’s also at that point that the book is the most fun, as this group brings Selina on so she can use her skills as a thief in an upcoming heist.  I’m a sucker for a good heist, and it’s a nice breath of fresh air amidst the heaviness of the rest of the book.

It’s when she becomes a sort of mother figure for a young girl that the book becomes the most involving, though.  Briar Rose, as she’s called, refuses to speak after she was witness to an unspeakable tragedy.  Separated from her younger brother, she doesn’t even like to be touched, lest she “grow thorns” and scream.  Selina breaks down her guarded exterior, though, and their scenes together allow for at least one of them to have a somewhat happy ending.

As strong as some of those individual elements are, though, there are other storytelling choices that are just bizarre.  There’s a subplot about a killer called the Growler that doesn’t go anywhere for the longest time, until he’s dispatched almost immediately after his big reveal.  The news reports speculate that it’s a large dog behind the attacks, when in reality it’s… a large dog with a freakish looking owner.  Like the cat spirit veered into the supernatural, this dips into horror and I just don’t think it worked.

What I would have liked to have seen, too, was a little more about Selina’s mother and her own uncertainty about running away.  Her mom is almost brushed away in a few lines of dialogue after Selina leaves home, and there isn’t a sense of danger about her being on the streets.  I’m not saying that I wanted to see her get in trouble, of course.  The fact is, though, kids and teenagers run away from home every day, and not everyone can leverage a swanky women’s lounge at a department store and the backyard shed of a kindly home owner.

Even if I felt the execution was lacking in places, the intentions behind the story are admirable.  The book closes with several pages of phone numbers and resources for things like suicide prevention, stopping domestic violence, mental health awareness, and self-harm prevention.  The websites and phone numbers listed are all for issues that someone somewhere is going through, and could even help save a life.  That alone helps me to at least understand some of the story decisions, even if I was left wanting more.

Overall: Under the Moon: A Catwoman Tale has good intentions with spotty execution.  There are individual aspects of the story that are strong, and had they been fleshed out it may have been more involving.  As it is, this is a bunch of ideas that don’t form a truly cohesive narrative, with different genre elements introduced without getting fully developed.  It has a wonderful visual aesthetic, though, and the core of Selina’s character is strong, which is the most important thing.  The book may not be “for me,” but it is for someone, and with its extensive list of resources for various types of crises and traumatic situations, I hope that it helps that someone.

SCORE: 5.5/10


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