Fast paced action, super tight plotting, empathetic yet seedy characters, vibrant colors, dynamic art, and tense intrigue: not only is “Selina’s Big Score” probably the best Catwoman story of all time, it also ranks among the all-time coolest heist/crime stories. Written and illustrated by animator-turned-cartoonist Darwyn Cooke (who’s flair for movement and penchant for efficient staging and direction help propel this story forward), with coloring work by Matt Hollingsworth, this book was released in 2002 from DC Comics as an original graphic novel. Seeing it as an opportunity to “fill in the gaps” and provide Selina Kyle with the “motivation for altruistic deeds” from the monthly series Cooke approached this story as a prequel to her adventures in her ongoing title, written at the time by Ed Brubaker, with art by Cooke and Mike Allred. Cooke concocted this narrative of Selina returning to Gotham after faking her death and undertaking this complicated robbery from the mob, and the results are stupendous.
Warning before we go any further: this piece may contain mild spoilers.
This book basically explodes out on page one. Cooke starts off with a failed heist job out in Morocco, with Selina stealing this golden chalice and trying to escape authorities. We get a taste of tiny panels Cooke utilizes, especially in the more kinetic scenes. We get a taste of Selina Kyle’s voice — confident, sassy, teasing, yet sort of defeated. Immediately, we know that this book is going to move and with these opening pages, Cooke warns the reader that if they don’t get with the program, they’re going to be left behind.
Part of the reason I think this book works so well is that it’s obvious Cooke is having the time of his life with it. His enthusiasm for the story radiates off every page and his dynamic, retro lines and confident staging keep the narrative constantly engaging.
“Selina’s Big Score” is a heist story and Cooke wisely doesn’t try to expand his scope further than that. Even though this book takes place all over the globe, there’s this feeling that it’s much more localized, more focused. He embraces the conventions of the genre — from the assembling of the team, to the hatching of the plan, to the second act twist, and the eventual execution of the job — and uses them more as a launching point to explore characters actions and interactions as well as to set up some fun action set pieces. “Selina’s Big Score” is highly entertaining, but it’s never vapid; it’s not empty or soulless or devoid of expression (which happens so often in superhero comics), and that helps make this all the more memorable.
I think, though, to truly appreciate how well this book works, at how Cooke leads you through the story, we should at take a look at one particular scene. I’ve chosen the rocket car test, which is five pages long, and closes out the second act of the story. Take a look:
At this point in the story, Selina has already assembled her team — Jeff, Stark, Chantel, and Swifty — and put a plan into place: now, they’re working out the logistics of the thing. This scene exists plot-wise so Cooke can introduce the rocket car concept and the parachute escape. Narratively, it perfectly shows how in control Selina Kyle is of any situation. Too often in the Catwoman stories I’ve encountered, Selina Kyle is portrayed as such a sex kitten that her expert planning and genius approach to her career are left unsung. Because this sequence is told through Stark’s voice, Cooke is able to maintain Selina’s sexy allure while simultaneously portraying just how much everyone has underestimated her abilities.
So much of this book is about trust (another classic heist story theme). Cooke conjures up most of the interpersonal tension between Stark and Selina by having Stark constantly question whether or not to trust her. Years previously, before she had faked her death and disappeared, the two of them had collaborated on another job, which ended with Selina vanishing and Stark left to the fists of some angry goons. Even though she’s returned and seemingly trying to start up a new life, Stark can’t figure out her angle in all this. He’s convinced she has some further angle in all this. He wants to trust her, because she’s so charming and convincing, but knows he’s getting caught up in something beyond his grasp. It’s one of the main elements that makes Selina such an interesting character to watch: the way she plays everyone, the way she moves through Gotham with confidence bordering on arrogance. You want to trust her, even though you know she’s going to burn you.Continued below
For her part, Selina subtly undermines pretty much everything Stark says. As the most seasoned of the crew, he’s the one people immediately look to for the first plan of attack, even though his methods are probably more barbaric. “I don’t like it,” Stark says of the plan. Selina replies, “Of course not. It doesn’t involve shooting everybody.” If anything, Selina lets Stark thinks he’s gotten the authority of this operation, but that’s only because she’s manipulating everything right in front of them.
See. Trust issues.
Selina and Stark provide the most emotional drama of the book, and it carries through all the way to the end.
Another reason I chose this scene to look at is because it distills pretty much every technique Cooke uses throughout the book. It starts off with two wide, static shots emphasizing the Utah Desert hills, with tiny figures for Stark and Jeff lounging and drinking beer in the sun like they’re fishing buddies or something. Then suddenly, they’re interrupted by a massive BOOM! as Selina races by in the rocket car.
Matt Hollingsworth makes sure to keep the palette of the desert neutral, practically bland, right up till the moment the rocket car races by, where the page, in turn, explodes with reds and oranges and yellows. Even as the smoke dissipates, Hollingsworth maintains faint shades of color in the billowing clouds to signal how much the scene has shifted.
In fact, take a quick look at what Hollingsworth emphasizes in this sequence. Though Stark’s shirt is blue, it fades into the background because he’s just a player in this operation, but there’s always something on Selina that pops. Her red lipstick, an object she’s holding, there’s always something to make sure your attention is on her. Jeff’s sunglasses sport the same neon purple tint as Selina’s motorcycle on page 47, while Stark’s are blacked out. Jeff is totally caught up in the myth of Selina at this point while Stark does his best to maintain his doubts.
Okay, on page 44, Cooke chronicles the rocket car test runs. He delivers these in short, quick lines that hint at an abstract form of the figure, mostly stepping back to let Hollingsworth’s fiery colors do most of the heavy lifting. These elements combine to make the scene move so quickly you barely understand what you’re looking at. Cooke interrupts the test only once, with a two-shot of Jeff and Stark, to sort of ease back before going full force with the rest of the page. Giving you a quick chance to catch your breath. By the end, when Jeff goes “Oie-yahh! Selina, that was incredible!” you’re right there along with him. More firey gradients stacking up let us know that this party has barely started.
Pages 45 through 47 follows a quick conversation as Stark, Jeff, and Selina talk about the rest of their plot. Her words take precedence on page 46 and she has something close to a monologue. Cooke’s hand-letters are top notch right here, and he expertly balances the text and the images.
Cooke’s compositions aren’t too complicated here. He keeps the talking figure mostly in the center of the frame. We’ve talked about how fast-paced this story is, and there’s a rhythm to it. We’re taking visual information in so quickly it’s almost instinctual. Cooke doesn’t want you looking all over the panel for the most important element.
At the same time, Cooke makes sure that Selina is always in front. Even in that first panel in the garage, she’s the only one facing forward, and our eyes are naturally drawn to her face. When Stark enters the picture, he’s kept behind her, or behind Jeff, who’s totally enraptured by Selina at this point. It’s her face that Cooke makes sure to draw our attention toward, and we know that even with all these men surrounding her, Selina Key is the character dominating the scene. It’s another reminder that although Jeff or Stark, especially, think they might have control of this outfit, they’re all subject to her influence.
You can tell the moment Stark is full swept into her spell, too. It’s in the last panel of the fourth page, after she’s finished outline their escape route. This is the first time in the sequence Cooke has shown Stark’s eyes, and they’re pretty much twinkling. The characters might be talking about a boat, but everyone’s been spellbound by Selina. (This is undermined in the next scene, at the bar, but his eyes are definitely played differently here.) It’s also interesting that Cooke stops drawing Selina’s eyes for the rest of this sequence, instead rendering them as quick brush lines or cartoon dots or hiding them behind sunglasses.Continued below
Cooke ends this sequence with her waving goodbye and driving off on a motorcycle (and there’s that neon purple again), with Stark remarking, “Nobody owns Selina.”
And it’s those sort of dynamics at play for the entire book. So many people thing they can control Selina Kyle, but she refused to allow herself to be subjected to that. She’s constantly manipulating circumstances to be in her benefit. She may be capable of great empathy (and we see this in the final pages of the book), but she’s a chess master by nature. She’s the cause and the catalyst for the majority of the awful things that happen to these characters but it’s just the personality she fits into, despite her best efforts.
Darwyn Cooke frequently turns in strong and consistent work, but “Selina’s Big Score” remains his shining gem. With a tighter plot than “New Frontier” and more empathetic and balanced action than his Parker adaptations, and no anchor to specific characterization like his “Before Watchman” story, “Selina’s Big Score” still towers as his most assured, entertaining, and exciting achievement. This is a book the deserves your attention.