Reading Comprehension Retry: Catwoman When in Rome

After indulging my curiosity and being reminded of the deep veins of ugly thought running through the Catwoman fandom and how often people use Catwoman: When in Rome to justify it, I am here to let everyone know that – Catwoman is not white. Catwoman is not Italian. And Catwoman is most definitely not your racist, classist fantasy girl. She is, however, a very cool character and one who does have some pretty concrete answers to the questions people ask about her, even with the strangeness that is comics continuity and the storytelling and art of the 1990s.

Now, since I invoked it in the title and opening paragraph I should start by discussing Catwoman: When in Rome (published as a miniseries in 2006). It’s a story that I happen to particularly enjoy (largely for the art), so much so that I own (second-hand) a trade paperback of it, but it’s also one I have a problem with since people seem unable to grasp what it is actually about. Or, at least, the people who cite When in Rome (and sometimes also The Long Halloween and Dark Victory) as the only comics indication of Catwoman’s ethnicity or as definitive proof that Catwoman is Italian and/or sufficiently “white” by their standards.

She's still totally 100% white though guys [sarcasm].

Catwoman When in Rome #1, page 14, by Jeph Loeb (writer) and Tim Sale (artist).

This is a problem because not only does the story not do what these fans claim it does, but there are gross implications in preferring the lie, and it is a lie, Catwoman is taunted with and that sets off the events of When in Rome to her actual history and background. The Roman, also known as Carmine Falcone, is a dangerous, cruel mob boss and one of Catwoman’s very first nemeses. He is not a good or a safe person and, by the end of the story, it is proven that Catwoman being his daughter was a cruel, compelling lie used for other people’s own ends in order to manipulate Catwoman and put her in danger. She isn’t his daughter and, I would argue, the lie is compelling not because she really wants it to be true and wants to be a Falcone but because the idea of being the child of someone so hated and hateful is fascinating in a horrible can’t look away/can’t stop thinking about it way and because, perhaps, it would also at least mean her father wasn’t really her father. Not that trading one cruel, abusive man for another is any improvement, so I really think it is mostly horrified fascination and cruel taunting about a different family and the possibility of information about, and interaction with, them that motivates Catwoman’s actions.

Also, she really wanted to get away from Batman and Gotham for a while. So there's that. Catwoman When in Rome #1, page 15, by Jeph Loeb (writer) and Tim Sale (artist).

Also, she really wanted to get away from Batman and Gotham for a while. So there’s that. Catwoman When in Rome #1, page 15, by Jeph Loeb (writer) and Tim Sale (artist).

However, at least some people really want the lie to be true and not even in the charitable sense of replacing a racist, alcoholic, abusive father with an absentee, dangerous mob boss that I mentioned above. They want it to be true because they would rather Catwoman secretly be the child of extremely dangerous, criminal people (and people who, at best, have no desire to interact with her and at worst want her dead for going against them) and thereby have certain elements and levels of whiteness and high class-ness to her than be the child of a caring Latina mother and an abusive, alcoholic white father and from a poor/working-class area and family. To be clear, a mixed-race working class Catwoman is apparently so horrible that people would rather her father be one of her hated, dangerous enemies and an extremely criminal person so that she can have a secret glamorous, moneyed family origin and be white or white “enough.”

I probably could have skipped the credits on this page, since it gives them in the image itself.

Catwoman When in Rome #1, page 1, by Jeph Loeb (writer) and Tim Sale (artist).

Catwoman giving us excellent background info while having what turns out to be a very character revealing (and villain heavy) dream.

Catwoman When in Rome #1, page 5, by Jeph Loeb (writer) and Tim Sale (artist).

I truly hope it’s clear to people why that is a problem, although the number of people I’ve seen promoting exactly that type of thinking and prioritizing it does not give me hope in that regard. However, there are likely also a number of people who simply have not had access to sufficient and accurate information, especially given how many people promote false (and racist, and classist, and whorephobic) information and how much of Catwoman’s comic history has never been collected in trade format.

Catwoman being shocked by all of the racist comments about her on the internet. Actually, she was dreaming again and thought Batman followed her to Rome. Catwoman When in Rome #1, page 13, by Jeph Loeb (writer) and Tim Sale (artist).

Catwoman being shocked by all of the racist comments about her on the internet. Actually, she was dreaming again and thought Batman followed her to Rome. Catwoman When in Rome #1, page 13, by Jeph Loeb (writer) and Tim Sale (artist).

So, for them, here are some answers and evidence, along with some visuals just because (I like them, and also because I got tired of people saying the only comics visual of a non-white Catwoman was in Batman: Year One):

Try telling me this gorgeous lady is white, just try.

The cover for Catwoman Volume 2, Issue #1, published 2002. Also used as the cover for some of the trade paperbacks.

Catwoman of the post-Crisis (major event in the 1980s that reset the DC Comics universe), pre-New 52 (2011 reboot of the DC Comics line) universe is Latina. Specifically, her mother Maria is Cuban and her father Brian is white.

This is probably the safest retelling of Catwoman's history I've seen. Serious trigger warnings for racism and abuse otherwise.

Catwoman #89, page 10, by Bronwyn Carlton (writer) and Staz Johnson and Craig Rousseau (artists). Published 2001.

Seriously, though. This issue is so meta about people's reactions to Catwoman.

Now why does what they’re saying sound familiar? Hmm. Harley pitching Catwoman’s real life story as a tv idea in Catwoman #89, page 11, by Bronwyn Carlton (writer) and Staz Johnson and Craig Rousseau (artists). Published 2001.

Well, I guess at least they didn't make her into a kid from an old money family with a ballerina mom (referencing a specific, popular expanded AU that's high on the classism and whorephobia). Harley's pitch and Selina's story being altered in Catwoman #89, page 12, by Bronwyn Carlton (writer) and Staz Johnson and Craig Rousseau (artists). Published 2001.

Well, I guess at least they didn’t make her into a kid from an old money family with a ballerina mom (referencing a specific, popular expanded AU that’s high on the classism and whorephobia). Harley’s pitch and Selina’s story being altered in Catwoman #89, page 12, by Bronwyn Carlton (writer) and Staz Johnson and Craig Rousseau (artists). Published 2001.

This was not always the case, but not in a she was white and then they suddenly made her not-white sense (or in a they made her not-white but only for a few stories sense either – trying to hit all the false arguments I’ve seen online). The comics actually got more specific about Catwoman’s identity as a woman of colour (WOC), not less specific. She’s been an ambiguous WOC since at least Batman: Year One (originally published in 1987 in a serial format), where the script for the comic specified her as “exotic,” which is troublesome but clear language in terms of her not being white (evidence found here, in a good discussion of this very issue, which also gives mention to her being explicitly Black in the unused movie script for Batman: Year One), and the text got very explicit about her family history near the end of her first solo series in the 1990s/very early 2000s (see Catwoman #81, published in 2000, for the story in more detail than Harley’s account in #89 above, although serious warning for both length and racism and abuse – click here for a very kind Tumblr’s post where she uploaded and linked to the entire story, which takes up most of the issue).

In between then, and also afterwards, there is plenty of art that presents Catwoman as Latina, Black, or an ambiguous but clearly not white mix.

Catwoman will never tell how she gets mid-back length natural hair all tucked up into a hat like that.

Catwoman Annual #4 (1997), final page. By Devin Grayson (writer) and Javier Saltares and John Stanisci (artists).

Catwoman Volume 2, Issue #2 cover. I don't think this is a colouring problem ...

Catwoman Volume 2, Issue #2 cover. I don’t think this is a colouring problem …

Catwoman Volume 2, Issue #3 cover.This seems pretty consistent to me ...

Catwoman Volume 2, Issue #3 cover.This seems pretty consistent to me …

Spoiler: [name] is the serial killer.

She inexplicably looks like she’s stomping grapes (good way to avoid a spoiler but keep the energy of the issue, though), but still not a colouring problem. Catwoman Volume 2, Issue #4 cover.

Apparently Catwoman likes pink lipstick now.

The art style and colouring went a bit of a different direction, but she’s still not white. Catwoman Volume 2, Issue #5 cover.

Seriously. If you try saying she isn't, you'll fall into a Sarlacc Pit. Spontaneous Star Wars will get you.

Still not white even though she’s paler than she sometimes appears. Canon Latina folks. Page 16 of Catwoman Volume 2, Issue #5, by Ed Brubaker (writer) and Brad Rader and Cameron Stewart (artists). Published 2002.

I can give some leniency to people due to the unavailability of her first solo series (1990s/early 2000s) in trade format, but, at the same time, many people seem to want to read or claim Catwoman as white despite her never being explicitly identified as white (and being explicitly identified as mixed race in the comics) simply because they view white as default and Catwoman is not carrying around a sign at all times stating that she is not white. You do not get to do this and you especially do not get to do this when I don’t see the same behaviour happening around Bane, another half-Cuban Latin@ in the same continuity, which makes me suspect an inability to love a character you say you love if her sexiness, ultimate survivor nature, humour, and generally awesome empowered nature come in a package that isn’t white. Not cool, people, not cool.

Harley has strong feelings about people wanting to change Catwoman to make her more palatable. Catwoman #89, pages 19-20, by Bronwyn Carlton (writer) and Staz Johnson and Craig Rousseau (artists). Published 2001.

Harley has strong feelings about people wanting to change Catwoman to make her more palatable. Catwoman #89, pages 19-20, by Bronwyn Carlton (writer) and Staz Johnson and Craig Rousseau (artists). Published 2001.

Note: I was heavily tempted to put in more pages from Catwoman Annual #4 but this is already quite long and involved so you’ll have to find the fun pulp-y story and excellent looking Catwoman for yourselves. Also, in case anyone tries to complain about not enough evidence or not enough pieces of different art – stop, think, and then don’t say it. Thank you. Also, you can check out the comprehensive Catwoman origin compiled here, which has excellent methodology, visuals, references, and citations, and also check out this discussion by a Latina fan about the racialized elements in Catwoman’s backstory.

Note #2: Everyday Whorephobia, an excellent communal sex work twitter account, hosted a discussion on race, racism, and sex work over the weekend and Storify-ed Sunday’s discussion. I think issues discussed in it are really relevant here (as well as when I get around to posting specifically about Catwoman’s history as a sex worker and fandom reactions to it) and it is really important reading regardless, so click through the link to read it here.

Bonus image!

Holly remembering her time in the East end with Selina. Catwoman Volume 2, Issue #6, page 13, by Ed Brubaker (writer) and Brad Rader and Cameron Stewart (artists). Published 2002.

All images belong to their respective copyrights and are used for review purposes.

2 thoughts on “Reading Comprehension Retry: Catwoman When in Rome

  1. Pingback: So You Want to Read Sexworker Catwoman | Capes and Whips: Where Justice is Blindfolded

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