Publisher: DC Comics
Writer: Paul Dini
Pencils: Dustin Nguyen
Inker: Derek Fridolfs
Capsule review: A Batman comic without Batman. Batman has disappeared and Catwoman is hot on his trail, the key word being "hot," since she's cornered her prey somewhere in Vietnam. Heat and humidity notwithstanding, she plays the cool hostess while narrating a lot of flashbacks, leaving about six pages left over for this issue's story.
The cover for this one is a beautifully rendered yet boringly “iconic” Alex Ross painting of Catwoman. Turn to the inside back cover and there’s an ad for the New York Comic Con illustrated by Neal Adams—lots of Green Lanterns leaping, punching, blasting their power rings every which way. Now that’s comic book excitement. Of course, not every cover should be so busy, but the static portrait with a black background is fast becoming my least favorite cover cliche. Yes, the Batman 685 cover is a strong graphic image, slappable on just about any book with Catwoman inside. And yes, Ross makes Catwoman look alluringly mysterious, but what does a giant diamond have to do with the "Last Rites" storyline? It’s creatively lazy, an advertisement for the inevitable art print.
The story inside, by Paul Dini, opens with a Hatari!-style action sequence starring a Vietnamese rhino (heck, I didn't even know there was such a beast) beating the beans out of some poor shlub in a sack. Catwoman is in Southeast Asia and, in Dini’s first person narration, identifies her rhinoscopy (I just made that word up!) victim as one “Thomas Elliot, a.k.a. Hush, the recurring thorn in my paw.” Ooh! A cat-based metaphor. Julie Newmar would be proud. I have no idea who Thomas Elliot, a.k.a. Hush is, but Dini quickly lets us know Catwoman has it in for the guy and that’s all I need to know.
The plot is simple, but shot through with a lot of flashbacks because-- as per all superhero comics these days-- it’s part of some massive storyline involving events taking place in other comics I haven’t read. "Last Rites," I suppose it's called, because that's what the cover copy tells me. And even though I'm not interested in it in the least, I do understand what's going on because most of the dialogue in Batman 685 references things that happened in other comics, which makes this issue seem more like... another commercial for a product not available for sale just yet. When it's collected into the inevitable trade paperback, isn't it going to seem repetitive? In one chapter, one group of characters will do something, and in the next another group will discuss and reiterate what the first group did.
Still, Dini has a way with all that background info and catches even a detached reader up pretty quickly. It just doesn’t leave much room for actual story developments. And haven’t the first person narrative captions run their course yet? Must every comic character carry on this kind of present-tense internal dialogue, as if they’re mentally composing their autobiographies? Makes me long for the days of Denny O’Neill and Marv Wolfman and their marvelously verbose third-person captions. Makes me long for Catwoman to shut the hell up with the inner monologues and just start hitting Thomas Elliot, a.k.a. Hush upside his head.
Dustin Nguyen’s art is jagged in that modern, edgy style and heavy on blacks, as if he couldn't choose whether to be Adam Hughes or Mike Mignola and decided to split the difference; check out Catwoman's Hughesian nose. Nguyen has a nice eye for silhouettes, but seems relatively uninterested in drawing vehicles. There's apparently a boat that looks borrowed from the set of Apocalypse Now in one panel, but it's difficult to tell because two figures almost completely cover it up. How convenient! Soon after, there's an itsy-bitsy helicopter, but it's also silhouetted and thus without detail.
On the plus side, Nguyen's Catwoman is sleek and sexy, especially when she's reclining in her torchlit tent. That latex or leather bodysuit? Not the best wardrobe choice while running around in the Southeast Asian jungles. I hope she brought a lot of anti-perspirant, and maybe some baby powder.
I wonder if, when Nguyen first dreamed of being a comic book penciller, he ever imagined he’d draw a guy in a sack being pummeled by a rhinoceros. Nguyen is an efficient match for Dini, but I wish they were telling a more self-contained story with a neat little plot. I do have to tell you the ending is completely illogical, especially given many of the villainous tropes in the superhero genre. I can’t tell you what it is or why it’s so stupid without giving away too much of the story. Let’s just say Nightwing and Robin must be delusionally optimistic, incredibly stupid or have some sort of brain-damage that prevents them from forming memories to even dare dream this idea would work.
Look how much I had to pay for this comic:
At the current exchange rate (as of March 11, 2009), that's $10USD! Ten bucks for a comic book! I could've gotten it for about six dollars at Blister in Harajuku, but then I'd have to add on the cost of the shinkansen ticket and possibly a night in a business hotel. But I doubt I would've bought it there; Blister has other choices, and I rarely buy mainstream super-monthlies anyway. This purchase was more or less an experiment. While I genuinely admire Paul Dini's work (even when he's hamstrung by having to participate in another one of those dumb superhero mega-storylines), I mainly wanted to see what it felt like to buy two of the only Western comic books available in Hamamatsu.
Answer? It feels slightly like getting ripped off, but that's not to fault either Dini or Nguyen.