THE BAT SIGNAL: Nocenti Talks "Prison Life," Joker's Daughter & "Catwoman"

Tue, May 14th, 2013 at 9:58am PDT | Updated: May 14th, 2013 at 12:49pm

Comic Books
Josie Campbell, Staff Writer
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DC Comics' "Catwoman" has faced Arkham, her own Justice League of America teammates and the Joker. But under the hands of writer Ann Nocenti the sometime hero/often criminal Selina Kyle will be facing yet another of Batman's famous rogues -- the Penguin.

Written by Nocenti with art by Rafa Sandoval, the story begins in "Catwoman" #20 and continues in the upcoming "Catwoman Annual" #1 drawn by Christian Duce and again written by Nocenti. Speaking with THE BAT SIGNAL from the real Gotham, the New York-based writer shed light on her approach to the Penguin, handling Selina's "Justice League of America" appearances and translating Nocenti's experience working on an inmate publication into penning the comic thief!

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CBR News: The last issue of "Catwoman" was the gatefold issue where she got thrown into Arkham by her "Justice League of America" teammates. How do you go about balancing how much stuff from the "JLA" book affects what's happening in Selina's solo title, and vice versa?

Ann Nocenti visits THE BAT SIGNAL to discuss her three-part Penguin story running through "Catwoman" #20, the Annual and #21
#20 cover by Rafa Sandoval

Ann Nocenti: In general they're two separate universes, because otherwise it'd be very hard to coordinate. But other than thinking about it conceptually -- she is this thief in her own world who sometimes gets called on missions -- the way I think about it is you're a fireman. You're living your life and you have one persona and a whole group of friends -- and suddenly there's a building you have to go put out that's on fire! To me the JLA is like that; it's when she's being her most civic, if you want to call it that. She has a completely different persona when she's not on the job, just like any cop or any fireman or National Guard, anybody who is suddenly called into action by a group that has a mission that is beyond your own personal one. I also think that it remains to be seen why she's doing this because she's not usually heroic. She sees something in it for herself. The only real connection is conceptual and I had to wrap my head around her doing something that is basically out of her character.

You have the "Catwoman Annual" coming up and it looks like that's connected to the regular series storyline after Arkham. What can you say about the story, and how is Penguin involved?

The whole three issues are "Catwoman" #20, which goes into the Penguin; that goes into the "Annual" and finishes in "Catwoman #21." So it's a trilogy. Issue #20 kind of seeds the conflict with the Penguin. For me, the challenge with this was I wanted to write three separate stories that all come together as one story but you can still read any one of the three and feel it was complete. I took "Catwoman" #20 and just started to seed the story and hint that she's going to come up against the Penguin, but in the "Annual" I tell the real story of what happens, and then the repercussions go into #21. But you can basically read any of them separate. That, to me, is always the challenge. I never want a new reader to pick up a comic book and say, "What the hell is going on?" Maybe a little more, "Hmm, what's going on?" to bring them in, but they have to get a complete story. So that was my plan. I don't know if it worked! [Laughs]

In the book to date we've already seen Joker versus Catwoman and now we have Penguin versus Catwoman. Who is your version of this New 52 villain? Did you try to make any changes to Penguin?

No, I'm not doing anything new with him, I like him just the way he is. What I did was I took a really good miniseries called "Pain and Prejudice" [by Gregg Hurwitz] which I thought was a terrific bible for the Penguin because it went all the way back and shows you what happened to his brother, what happened to his father, his relationship to his mother and the neurosis she gave him for using an umbrella all the time! You can see all his pathos very clearly in that, which I thought was a really terrific series. I also have a love of how the Penguin's a tinkerer. He likes to tinker with things, especially in the movies! The whole tradition of the Penguin having these outlandish weapons, much like the Joker and these other characters in the Batman universe have outlandish weapons, they have this compulsion to sign their crime, a little bit like the cliché about the serial killer when the cop says, "Oh yeah, that's his signature. He always does this or that." The Penguin can't help but use weapons that are familiar to him. So I play with the big, outsized Penguin who loves his weaponized toys and merge him with, not a new Penguin, but the side of the Penguin we've seen where he's more street, being a crime boss in Gotham. He's smart and he's sophisticated; he's a very intelligent guy, but the original things that happened to him keep dragging him down. Then on the other side he's got this big, fat ego, so he always wants to kind of find crime! [Laughs]

Nocenti is basing her take on Penguin on the New 52 version set up by Gregg Hurwitz in the "Penguin: Pain and Prejudice" miniseries
Annual cover by Emanuela Lupacchino

And he's complicated in that he is sophisticated, with his upper class look, but then he has his toys and his umbrella and in the movies he's basically putting bombs on penguins, which is very unsophisticated!

That's exactly it; I wanted to play with both of those things. I'm not doing anything new other than saying, "Let's see all the sides that we love about the Penguin," even the movies with penguin-bomb Penguin! It's so politically incorrect, I didn't really play with that! [Laughs] But it's a balance. You see him tinkering, coming up with new Penguin-esque weapons, but at the same time he's trying to be this sophisticated, elegant guy who can mix with society and play with the big boys.

After the three-part story what type of villain is Selina going to tangle with next? Will we see more established villains or more street-level criminals in her future?

She's got a big super villian coming up but I guess I would say that it's similar to the Penguin in that I see her as a Gotham street girl. To me I love reading straight-crime stuff, which is what I'm bringing in with Detective Carlos Alvarez who was created by the writer previous to me. I like the fact that he has an obsession with her, but that obsession might mean he lets her operate freely within certain boundaries, and I gave him a partner who is very, very hard on crime. You've got that team, and I'm using Lt. Bullock and Mayor Hadley. My editors have been really great with this, I've been like, "I need a morgue! I need a forensics guy! I need a corrupt guy!" [Laughs] I want to keep building on what's there as it's pointless to create new cops when you have established ones in place with all that tradition behind them. So I'm bringing in a lot more of the Gotham PD.

What I love about Gotham is that it's futuristic, but it's also archaic. You can have certain futuristic elements to Gotham; certainly the Penguin's weaponry is absolutely futuristic. But at the same time it's always got a turn-of-the-century feel to it. I love that, I love that I'm not doing "CSI," that they're not walking through the databank of three million fingerprints. You can still be slippery in Gotham, you can still whiz through forensic evidence in Gotham and not get slammed, it kind of is both an older time and our time.

Earlier in your career you worked for "Prison Life Magazine" and your teaching film programs have put you in touch with at-risk youth. Has any of that influenced the way you write Selina, or has any of that experienced trickled into your plots?

Oh yeah, I know a lot of stories! [Laughs] I also knew a woman who was in the DEA for twenty-five years, I know way too much about the drug war! "Prison Life" was a great magazine because it was all by the prisoners, so it was their fiction, their short stories, their drawings, we had an in-house lawyer, an in-house cook -- everything was from their perspective. The wall around the prison is very effective. No one really knows what goes on in there. This was a way of breaking the wall down because so many people have family inside the prison, so they could read "Prison Life" and get a sense of what it was like for loved ones. In the course of working on that magazine I learned all kinds of criminal tricks! [Laughs] I think for the most part you lead your life, and when this stuff comes out when you're writing a story it's more of a feeling than a specific thing: I know what it's like to be in prison.

Christian Duce is the artist on the "Catwoman Annual" -- had you known his work before this? What does he bring to the table for the Penguin story?

The Joker's Daughter and Dr. Phosphorus wait for Catwoman in August's issue #23

[Editor] Rachel [Gluckstern] comes up with all the artists, she found Rafa Sandoval for "Catwoman" who I just love working with. She found Christian and he's fantastic! The pages are really disturbing and powerful, he's doing the most amazing job. A lot of it takes place in the Badlands, which is the projects of Gotham, where I've established some things within the regular series. It all takes place there so you're really getting the sense of spooky, scary streets to walk down, people eking out life however they can. It's stunning; I don't know what he's done before but he's fantastic, I'd work with him anytime.

As soon as the Penguin story wraps, you have Selina locking claws with the new Dr. Phosphorus and the Joker's daughter -- what's it like introducing new versions of these characters to the New 52, and what can you say about them?

There is a hint at the end of "Catwoman" #19 that there is something lurking underneath Gotham. Catwoman falls into a hub of endless tunnels and spiraling stairs to nowhere. I was thinking of M.C. Escher and Möbius strips. Tunnels so twisty complex it gives you vertigo just to be there. Rafa Sandoval drew this beautifully, with such intrigue and mystery and a few Easter egg hints of whats to come. In my neighborhood in NYC, they're digging deep trenches down to ancient rusted pipes that tangle and twist, and not even the city workers I spoke with seemed to know what it was all for, which lines were still live or dead. Gotham is built on top of its own history. What's down there?

So Catwoman is intrigued by the Hub. She heard a rumor from Black Mask when she was locked up in Arkham Asylum that there are things of value down under.

Catwoman begins exploring the Underground, and meets Dr. Phosphorus. I see him as a man who has burned for too long. He burns for eternity, and his endless pain gives him a sadistic streak that is unquenchable. What I like to do when "re-inventing" an existing character is to first think about them just based on the visual. What kind of feeling do I get from this character as drawn? Phosphorus, to me, looks like he's in agony and wants to share that agony with others. A terrifying character. A burning man.

Joker's Daughter, to me, looked like a funhouse inversion of beauty. But she's smiling. Is that the Joker's false smile, or does she enjoy her strange beauty? I started thinking about girls that have anorexia, of the fashion perfect templates of Twiggy, Kate Moss, where unhealthy skinny is seen as beautiful. The design of Joker's daughter is so sassy, so ornery, you just know that even though you might see her as ugly, she doesn't care a whit how you see her. She likes what she sees in the mirror. She seems to be reveling in a feeling that ugly is beautiful. I think she's got terrific sass. Twisted, yes, but sassy. And just what is that cane for? I decided it had to be for something very, very special.

So, after finding the core attitude of a these villains just by how they look, then I look at the pre-52 stories to find the essential DNA of the characters -- and try to weave together something new, fun, and yet respectful of the past. 

At this point you've worked on "Catwoman" for a little over half a year. Looking back, how do you feel about the comic and character now, and has your approach changed as a result?

I'm one of those people who are never happy -- I'm a very happy person but I'm one of those people who are never happy with my own work! [Laughs] You go through this process where all you can see are the flaws for a while. You have to put them all away and pick them up later to read through. You'll have visions of being like, "Oh man, there's too much story in that one," or, "That theme could have been developed better." For me, I think she [Catwoman] has been around so long that whatever your take on her, there's 60 years of history, there's so many different versions of her, she's had so many personalities. Somebody made her a prostitute for a while! Somebody gave her a baby! All you can do is take your instinct of who Catwoman is and mold your story around that. You're not going to hit on everybody's Catwoman, but the thing to remember with each version -- the idea she's a prostitute or that she's so maternal -- is that however you stretch her, I think a good character will snap back like a rubber band. She won't be hurt by someone exploring her nature. I'm like, "That's your take on Catwoman, that's his take, that's all cool." I'm not doing anything that makes it unable for her to snap back into shape. Since she is in the New 52 she's way younger than the Catwoman who came before even two years ago. You can't play her as sophisticated as she was because she's only like 20 years-old! [Laughs] You do the best you can and you hope the readers stick with you and you hope your enthusiasm comes through in the story.

"Catwoman" #20 is out May 15; "Catwoman Annual" #1 goes on sale May 29.

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