Author Tim Hanley is back with another discombobulated history of an iconic comic book heroine (previous books examined the messy backgrounds of Wonder Woman and Lois Lane). This time he takes aim at Catwoman, arguably the most iconic character of them all.
For more than 75 years, Catwoman has been a mercurial presence in the DC universe. She’s survived numerous incarnations as a burglar, a romantic interest, a murderer, a vigilante, a dominatrix, a mob boss, and more. In comics, movies, and cartoons she’s always been cunning, fierce, and a perpetual outsider. “In the black-and-white world of superheroes,” writes Hanley, “she exists in shades of gray.”
From the very beginning she was a clever thief, almost impossible to pin down. Debuting in the pages of Batman #1 (1940), she quickly established herself as a perennial headache for the Caped Crusader. “We knew we needed a female nemesis to give the strip sex appeal,” wrote Bob Kane in his 1990 autobiography, Batman and Me. “Bill (Finger) and I decided to create a female version of Batman, except that she was a villainess and Batman was a hero.”
Unfortunately, a guy named Dr. Fredric Wertham came along in the ’50s to declaw Catwoman. Because of Wertham’s pointed attacks on Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman, DC Comics voluntarily sanitized its books. Catwoman didn’t survive the newly formed Comics Code of Authority and disappeared without a trace for 12 years, from 1954 to 1966. Writes Hanley: “Catwoman’s absence was so glaring in this era that it had to be intentional, and her connection to Seduction of the Innocent is the only obvious explanation.”
Catwoman bounced back in a big way when she appeared semi-regularly on the kitschy and beloved Batman TV show (1966 to 1968). When she popped up in Batman Returns and Batman: The Animated Series (both 1992), she became an iconic figure that transcended comic books. These days, she has a broader fan base than the vast majority of female heroes.
Despite Catwoman’s eventual rise to iconic superstardom, she never truly found her groove in comics. DC’s interpretation of the character was haphazard (at best). But that’s the problem with being out of circulation for more than a decade, says Hanley. “She had no established characterization. She was just a generic villain with a fondness for cat-related crimes.”
Over the years there have been some great Catwoman comics (kudos to Ed Brubaker and Genevieve Valentine), but there have also been some head-scratching editorial missteps along the way. For example, a Catwoman series in the ’90s became infamous for its va-voom artwork. And who could forget the disastrous “New 52” reboot where Catwoman and Batman came together in a kinky sexual clutch? The axiom that sex sells didn’t prove true for Catwoman.
In conclusion, says Hanley, Catwoman’s faced the best and worst that the superhero industry has to offer. She’s been a marquee star and blatantly objectified – sometimes at the same time. As an independent provocateur, she’s embraced both villainy and heroism. And her up-and-down history showcases a compelling alternate viewpoint in the world of superheroes.
[The Many Lives of Catwoman: The Felonious History of a Feline Fatale / By Tim Hanley / First Printing: July 2017 / ISBN: 9781613738450]