Comics set in a hypothetical dystopian future Gotham City are absolutely nothing new. The immediately obvious example has to be The Dark Knight Returns, one of the most well known and influential comics of all time. Catwoman: Lonely City #1 isn’t like those other stories. It expertly uses mundanity as a way to contrast its future with the exciting world of Gotham that we know and love. Everything from the characters to the colors and pacing is used to reinforce that idea. By focusing on the negative space and highlighting what isn’t there, it creates a nostalgia for what’s missing. It’s that hook, that desire to bring back the glory days which ironically gives the narrative its driving force and makes it so engaging to read.
Right away you know something is wrong because the story briefly opens in medias res with two cops dressed like Batman shooting at Catwoman. This is such a wild deviation from what you’d expect that you can’t help but want to know more, but the story plays its cards very close to the chest. There is only a slow drip feed of information as both Selina, fresh out of a lengthy prison sentence, and the reader realize everything that has happened over the preceding decade. That being said, it never goes too far so as to feel like it’s artificially keeping information secret. Sometimes stories will have characters bend over backwards to never reveal too much by being obnoxiously cryptic. Usually this will involve reference to “the event” or “the incident.” Here everything feels natural and the characters give more details when it makes sense, while never just listing off exposition to explain everything to the reader.
The way that oppression is laid out in this story is not nearly as overt as you might see in other dystopian fiction. Yes you have the constant presence of police officers and Selina is stopped on the street to show her ID, but it’s all handled in such a blasé manner that it just feels normal. There are no posters of Big Brother lining the walls or over the top constant cyberpunk-esque surveillance. It’s lots of little things that add up but feel like they could plausibly be accepted today. Government seizures of run-down properties and anything that can be put under the umbrella of civil forfeiture, only allowing digital currency that is presumably tightly monitored by the state, and a greater police presence to clamp down on crime are all policies that could be individually justified, but collectively lead to more control over every aspect of society.
This type of oppression through normalcy draws attention to the story elements that one expects from a comic set in Gotham, and how they’re not there. Batman is famous for his rogues gallery filled with showy gimmicks and elaborate, themed master plans. All of that is gone. Gotham is safe and Gotham is controlled, as are the people inside. Even the art shows how much this is true. In place of the usual noir blacks and greys or the neon future pinks and blues you might see elsewhere, most of the issue is filled with simple, warm color palettes. A lot of it takes place in the middle of the day as people go about their lives. The two major exceptions to this are during a flashback to when Catwoman and Batman last saw each other, and when Selina decides to take action and get back to the way her life was before. This sort of visual story telling and use of art to subtly convey ideas without having to explicitly say anything really helps make the book stand out.
This is a much older Gotham, and that’s reflected in the characters as well as the story itself. You can feel that Selina is tired in a very real way. She has difficulty doing all the same impossible acrobatic stunts she used to, but it never falls on “I’m gettin’ too old for this” clichés. In addition to finding out more about the past, a big part of why she decides to launch her big comeback heist is out of a sense of pride. She needs to prove herself not just to the rest of Gotham but to herself. The supporting cast shows how far things have fallen as well. Killer Croc is now a washed-up former crime lord, spending his days drinking and reminiscing about the good ol’ days. There’s a constant longing for how things used to be. When Selina finally decides to do something about it, even the narrative seems to get a jolt to its system, switching from melancholy to suspense and excitement.
Catwoman is the perfect character with which to explore these themes. As someone who is ostensibly seen as a hero but has operated outside of and against the law for most of her career, she cares about what Batman had been fighting for his whole life, but will turn to crime when it suits her. She’s always walked that line in a way that has made it hard to put her squarely on one side or the other (although her character has shifted pretty strongly away from villain and more towards anti-hero over the past 25 years or so.) Now that she views the law as unjust, she is in a position to challenge that authority.
Her stance is contrasted with that of Barbara Gordon, who is now running for mayor. Barbara defends the new status quo, saying that the money invested into government programs did more than his war on crime as Batman ever did. Selina points out that a lot of this good is via “more cops, more guns” which flies in the face of everything Bruce stood for. It’s presented as a legitimate ideological difference that makes sense based on who the characters are. Barbara was the daughter of the police commissioner and believes she can change the system from within if she can be the one at the head of power, like her father did. Selina on the other hand has never trusted authority and would rather actively fight against it, even if it’s dangerous to her or those around her. It’s a poignant scene that touches on what it means to be a vigilante and how that’s changed in the time Catwoman has been gone.
- Character driven stories that can take high concept ideas and make them feel human and fleshed out sounds like your thing
- You enjoy a slow burn that takes its time to set up all the details before building to the payoff
- You want to explore a new take on what a future Gotham would be like with no Batman
Catwoman: Lonely City #1 is one of the best new comics I’ve read in a long while. It creates an atmosphere of nostalgia and manages to zero in on what people like about Batman comics by exploring a scenario with all of those signature elements taken away. The characterization feels natural and three-dimensional, evoking sympathy when you realize the circumstances the characters have been put into. It’s a story of very human struggles set against a backdrop of an exploration of what Gotham is and what it means.
DC Comics provided Batman News with a copy of this comic for the purpose of this review.