Just once glance at the sultry, stunning cover gracing the first issue of "Catwoman: When in Rome" is all you need to see to be sure writer Jeph Loeb's latest mini-series for DC Comics isn't your usual Catwoman tale. Already unfolding as a classic Loeb mystery, the six-issue adventure promises to be filled with glamour, style and wit - adjectives that really weren't among the ones chosen to describe the much-reviled "Catwoman" film earlier this year.
"When in Rome" teams Loeb with frequent artistic collaborator Tim Sale and marks their return to the early days of Catwoman's career - and therefore the early days of Gotham City's favorite Dark Knight Detective. This is ground Loeb and Sale first visited in their now-classic "Batman: The Long Halloween" and later revisited in "Batman: Dark Victory."
Just as both of those titles centered on Batman's battle with the criminal empire led by Carmine "The Roman" Falcone and his twisted family, "When in Rome" also has the legend of the Falcones at its core. But instead of simply being another sequel, "When in Rome" actually occurs between the fifth and 12th issues of "Dark Victory" while Selina Kyle (a.k.a. Catwoman) is scouring Italy for information about the late crime boss' roots. Of course, with Loeb aboard, "When in Rome" isn't going to be a boring exercise in comic-book genealogy. From the get-go, Selina is mixed up with the Riddler, Italian gangsters and - from the look of things - someone with access to the Joker's deadly poisons.
"Dan DiDio [Vice President - Executive Editor, DC Universe] asked if we'd be interested in tackling Catwoman again and the story came together very quickly," Loeb says. "We both have an enormous crush on Selina and how she handles herself. We've been trying to find a noir story where it's not about who wins but who loses the least, and this material lent itself to that."
Loeb had no qualms about revisiting this period in DC history. There are always stories to tell about these characters, he says - it's just a matter of finding the good ones.
"DC has been very good about leaving that period alone with those characters," he says. "What I like about this time period is that it is so rich with possibilities. As a writer I get to lay in the foundations of things to happen years later, and the characters aren't so defined yet."
The Batman and Catwoman Loeb depicts in "When in Rome" and the other "Long Halloween"-era stories are very different from the versions he's written about in "Batman: Hush," "Superman/Batman" and other modern-era titles. They're unsure of themselves, not nearly as polished and, frankly, rather fallible.
"Both Batman and Catwoman, present day, have been doing this job for years. They aren't making the mistakes. They're at the top of their game. They've fought just about everybody at least once," Loeb says. "But when you go back to (the) start you can see the journey."
The first issue of "When in Rome" hit comics shops in September, the same month DC released "The Challengers of the Unknown Must Die," a trade paperback collecting the very first Loeb/Sale collaboration from way back in 1991. The eight-issue project was Loeb's comics-writing debut, and he was surprisingly eager to see it back in print.
"I was the only one - and I mean the only one - who wanted this stuff reprinted," Loeb says. "I think Tim was embarrassed by a good deal of it and DC knew it would sell not-so-well. After all, it wasn't a barnburner to start with. But I think there is something interesting - some might even say challenging - about looking at one's first work. Personally, I think it holds up very well. There's some stuff that's extremely dated, but as a whole, as a story, there's something there."
Completists who already have the original Loeb/Sale "Challengers" comics still might want to snatch up the TPB because it features a never-before-seen 12-page epilogue. Loeb says he and Sale actually completed the work years ago for a "Justice League International" annual, but when that title was canceled, so was their story.
"Eventually DC sent the pages back," Loeb recalls. "Tim found them about three years ago when he was moving from Seattle to southern California and sent them to me. It then became my quest to get them published. They were the only pages that we'd ever done that hadn't been published. It makes me very happy to see it all collected."
As for the present, Loeb and Sale still have plans beyond "Catwoman: When in Rome." They teamed up again for the new DC series "Solo," in which different writers work with one artist to tell multiple stories. Sale is the artist for the first issue, and Loeb pens one of the stories.
"Tim and I did a short story that takes place during 'Superman For All Seasons,'" Loeb explains, referring to their wildly popular 1998 mini-series. "He rendered it in that style and it's colored beautifully. It's about Clark taking Lana to the prom, which is one of the photos (seen) in the hardback collection."