Batman/Catwoman: Trail of the Gun
(2004 - 2 issues, prestige format, Mature Readers, DC Comics)
Script: Ann Nocenti. Illustrated by: Ethan Von Sciver.
A prototype gun that fires heat seeking bullets -- and so can never miss -- is somewhere on the streets of Gotham aand the underworld sets out to locate it. Catwoman puts together her own gang, figuring if she finds it first she'll cement her reputation as Queen of Thieves -- particularly when one of her competitors is a legendary thief who's come out of retirement for the job.
First off, labelling this as Batman/Catwoman is a misleading marketing ploy. Yes, Batman appears -- but it's basically a Catwoman story with Batman just cropping up from time to time. Secondly, the (few) reviews I came upon of this were, in a word: scathing. People seemed to hate it, in no small part for its didacticism. One aspect of this story is to tackle the whole gun question itself, and writer Ann Nocenti does go a bit over board with talking head debates about pros and cons of the "right to bear arms", and conversations that can seem a little too quick to run to debates rather than believable dialogue.
Yet -- detractors notwithstanding -- Trail of the Gun is pretty good.
Nocenti is one of those comics writers -- few as they are -- who often seems as though she's trying to be more ambitious than writing just the adventure of the month. So yeah, there's the heavy handed gun debate part, but there's also some character stuff and other themes threaded through. And it's a surprisingly energetic little thriller. The plot isn't all that complex, considering this was almost 100 pages (two 48 page issues), but it maintains a snappy tempo throughout. The narrative technique can be a bit confusing -- starting in the middle, as we get a "shock" opening of Catwoman waking up amid a pile of bullet riddled bodies -- then flashback to how it began. You cann kind of lose track of what's when, particularly when you get to the second issue and you have to remember that part of the story is still a flashback.
The portrayal of Catwoman is particularly effective, though whether it quite meshes with the way she is usually portrayed I can't say for sure. She's a cynical, selfish character, a pettier character -- and, as such, one that seems slightly less heroic, or "cool" and, therefore, more vulnerable and intriguing. Yet, under her amorality, there's a glimmer of a conscience seeking to peek through, creating a character arc. And it makes her encounters with Batman more dynamic. Instead of emphasizing the traditional sexual tension, Nocenti plays up her hedonism against Batman's rock solid morality. In fact, I kind of like how Nocenti portrays Batman, both here and in Cast Shadows -- as a humane, compassionate, figure.
Another appeal of the story is just the milieu -- no super villains (well, save a rock-faced goon who reminds you Batman lives in a slightly surreal reality), no serial killers or "mobsters", per se. This is a kind of real world of grifters and fringe dwelling low-lifes who aren't good, but aren't Joker-style "evil" either -- low lifes who hang out in the same bars and Catwoman knows by first name. There's even a legit gun manufacturer who wants to study the gun himself. It gives the story a refreshing down-to-earthness that can be lacking from Batman's usual battles with over-the-top psycho villains.
I've had mixed feelings about Ethan Von Sciver's art. He's got a meticulous, detailed, realist style ala Brian Bolland but, as can happen with that style (including Bolland) it can seem a bit stiff at times. And his penchant for hyper-detail can make some scenes too cluttered. But, generally, I liked it -- in fact, I liked it more as the story progressed. Partly because of what I said -- there's a bit more reality at work here than in a lot of super hero comics, so it benefits from a realist artist. The story can be gory at times, with a couple of bloody gun battles pushing this into "mature readers" territory. I'd like to say that in a story about guns and gun violence, the graphic brutality is part of the theme. Except, Van Scriver has a history of drawing brutal violence -- sometimes where it's not called for. So I'm more inclined to say it's just Van Scriver's excesses rather than a carefully decided upon intent.
It was also cool seeing John Costanza lettering -- an old hand-letterer still at work in this age of computer-lettering programs!
So, yes, the story can be heavy handed in its moral debates -- but surprisingly less so as it goes, as the plot, and secondary themes come to the fore. Besides, Nocenti delivers some nice bits even in that vein, such as a nicely handled scene of Batman interviewing a young boy. Yes, one could argue that Nocenti favours the anti-gun crowd and puts forward the argument that guns are a substitute for those who feel weak and powerless -- not the image macho gun owners like to project of themselves.
I came upon one message board where a (pro-gun) writer, who hated the mini-series, also took exception to Batman being portrayed as an anti-gun liberal, feeling Nocenti had completely betrayed the character. I'd make the opposite claim, and that given Batman's history and origin, what's more out of character is when writers have Batman be soft on guns.
I'm not a big gun fan, myself, so maybe I'm biased. But, as I said, there's more bubbling beneath the surface than just an anti-gun sermon, and it's this very thematic richness that helps bolster the story. Yes, Nocenti can miss as often as she hits, delivering a clunky or heavy handed scene as often as she delivers a sharp, cleverly written scene, but as a mix of energetic, funky crime-thriller, character study, and socio-political drama, well drawn, Trail of the Gun kept me turning pages -- and that's the point.