Review of “Catwoman: Soulstealer” by Sarah J. Maas

Catwoman is part of the “DC Icons Series” featuring [non-graphic] novels centered around the teenage versions of Wonder Woman, Batman, Superman, and Catwoman. This is my second one (I previously read and reviewed Wonder Woman), and I have enjoyed both of them in spite of not currently being a fan of comic books.

In the comics world, Catwoman, whose real name is Selina Kyle, was originally portrayed as a supervillain and adversary of Batman. Gradually she morphed into Batman’s partner.

In this book, Batman is not Catwoman’s love interest; he is an older guy already and not really in the picture. Instead, Catwoman establishes a relationship with Batwing. Batwing, a.k.a. Lucius Fox, is a young African-American crime-fighting associate of Batman’s.

Selina is beautiful, sensuous, smart, and calculating. Her criminal tendencies are checked by several factors: (1) her “heart of gold” – she does everything in service of taking care of her little sister Maggie, who has severe cystic fibrosis; (2) she knows how harmful poverty is to those caught in its net and so takes a “Robin Hood” approach to stealing, restricting her victims to the rich; and finally, (3) she doesn’t want to disappoint Batwing, who is a Good Guy.

As Maas constructs Catwoman’s origin story, she is not, as in the comics series, a former stewardess who had lost her memory after a plane crash, and then needed to steal jewels in order to survive. [Well, she could have tried a job, but whatever.] Maas’s Selina, 17 when we first meet her, began her life of robbery to get funds to take care of Maggie (their druggie mother abandoned them), but that didn’t come close to covering medical costs. [Cue up Issue Number One: outrageous medical costs, especially for the poor!] Selina then turned to participating in fights set up by a mob boss who made a profit over the bets. Selina, thanks to her past in gymnastics, excelled in agility, flexibility, and speed.

As the story begins, Selina is still undefeated, but gets arrested by dirty cops. Once in police custody, she is recruited by the League of Assassins, a group of fictional villains appearing in the DC Comic books who are enemies of Batman and who somehow have an “in” with the local bad cops. Selina then leaves Gotham City for an extensive training program with the League. Two years later, she returns to Gotham City disguised as blonde socialite Holly Vanderhees, intending to help “take the city back” from the rich and corrupt.

DC Comics Art by Adam Hughes

The first thing Selina/Holly does is catch the eye of her neighbor – none other than Luke Fox – on the penthouse level of her swanky high-rise building. Luke, like Selina, has brains and looks, but he comes from a family with money (yet cares about the downtrodden: strong yet tender!) He also has PTSD from his Marine days [Issue Number Two!], a condition which acts like Clark Kent’s glasses – i.e., if Superman ever put them on, wouldn’t everyone know he was also Clark? Similarly, Luke can’t control his panic attacks either as Luke or Batwing. Hmmm, what a coincidence!

Maas inserts elements of other hot-button topics: Poison Ivy, a lesbian, teams up with Selina, and Maas treats the barriers Ivy faces quite sensitively. Ivy is also into protecting the environment and thereby saving the planet, so we can check off that concern as well. The two become a trio when Harley Quinn, another DC Comics character, joins their group. Harley is infatuated with The Joker, who is reputed to be evil incarnate, but Harley will do anything for him. That particular issue (of abused and battered women who can’t let go) is elided over.

Poison Ivy, Catwoman and Harley Quinn on a refrigerator magnet (LOL)

The three women pull off some heists, outwit Batwing, and generally create havoc in Gotham City. And remember Selina’s desire to help her sister Maggie? It’s all related.

As the story winds up, we know it is just the beginning for these characters, who will go on to have numerous gests, trysts, and other adventures in the DC Comics Universe.

Discussion: In spite of any sarcasm in the above plot summary, I enjoyed this book, as I generally enjoy books by Sarah J. Maas. There were two jarring notes for me in this book however.

One was that Batwing was almost laughably incompetent. Sarah J. Maas likes strong women, but Batwing is so inept compared to Selina it’s a wonder he could experience any success at his avocation were it not for his Kevlar vest and retractable wings he designed himself. Yes, he was a Marine, a boxer, and trains with Bruce Wayne – Batman himself! – but all that is nothing compared to what Selina can do. No wonder Gotham City was still a hotbed of crime with Batwing on patrol!

Batwing as depicted by DC Comics

Second was the issue of the “diversity” of the book. Luke, rich and privileged, is African-American, but pretty much acts the same as all his rich white friends. He talks about past crushes on women who are white, and is smitten with the blonde Selina (she died her black hair to “become” socialite Holly). There is nary a black woman in sight in the story aside from Luke’s mother. This seemed like the biggest injustice in the superhero League of Justice. The fact is, we do not live in a “post-racial” world, and black women are always, in this country at any rate, at the bottom of the [white-male-promulgated] social-attractiveness hierarchy.

Black women are more likely than any other group to be discounted, discredited, and stereotyped: dually victimized by race and gender. And here they are, marginalized once again. Having one of the most powerful (and “ripped”) black men in Gotham City evince no interest whatsoever in black women is off-putting and a tragic missed opportunity to counter the constant images in our society that define beauty as white faces (or at least caucasian features) and straight blonde hair.

I think that the author is trying to be well-meaning and inclusive, but for white women to have good intentions is not often adequate. I hope authors and publishers can “take the risk” of having black women at the center of stories and of showing how heroic they can be, without being only tragically heroic or playing second fiddle to the hot white girl.

As LeBron James said on Instagram about role models, “My daughter is watching!”

Evaluation: I haven’t been into comic book characters for many years, but this series of books for young adults is quite appealing. The featured superheroes are all aware that they are at the cusp of their futures, and want desperately to make their marks and realize their dreams. I didn’t find Catwoman to be quite as sympathetic of a character as Wonder Woman, but I enjoyed the book. The pacing is well managed and the plot has lots of interesting complications.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House, 2018

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About rhapsodyinbooks

We're into reading, politics, and intellectual exchanges.
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3 Responses to Review of “Catwoman: Soulstealer” by Sarah J. Maas

  1. BermudaOnion says:

    I kind of scoffed when I saw the title but you’ve made me reconsider this book.

  2. Beth F says:

    I’m not a huge superhero (etc.) fan, but I usually like Maas. Diversity … when will authors get this right?

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