Batman: the history of Catwoman

Feature James Peaty 26 Jun 2012 - 06:59

With the release of The Dark Knight Rises just around the corner, James looks back over the history of Catwoman...

When it comes to naming Batman’s most famous villain the undisputed winner would be the Joker. However, running the Clown Prince of Crime a close second – and scratching out such perennial trouble-makers as The Penguin, The Riddler and Two-Face – would be the sultry, seductive and decidedly dangerous Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman.

A virtual fixture in Gotham City since her debut in the Spring of 1940, Catwoman’s storied career has seen her fulfill a number of roles within the caped crusader’s world, but always with the same effect: Catwoman is trouble, but the kind of trouble that Batman needs.

Cooked up by Batman co-creators Bill Finger and Bob Kane as a mixture of 40s screen stars Hedy Lamarr and Jean Harlow, Catwoman’s initial incarnation was far less elaborate than the version we would eventually come to know. 

Known simply as The Cat in her maiden outing, this early version of the character – as was the norm in the Golden Age of comics – was given no backstory, no real motivation and didn’t even warrant a civilian name. 

Unsurprisingly, this state of affairs didn’t last long, and by the time of her third appearance (in Batman issue three, 1940) this simple cat-burglar/femme-fatale was already wearing a furry cat mask and committing crimes with an increasing theatricality.

It may have been early days, but already that soon-to-be-common Catwoman trait of flirting between reform and recidivism was on the radar as she and the Dark Knight traded blows on a regular basis.

 However, by the start of the 1950s Catwoman had actively turned over a new leaf, and she was regularly seen aiding Batman and Robin in their fight against crime. But life on the right side of the tracks came to end in 1954 when Catwoman – in her final comic book appearance for more than a decade – once again turned to the dark side. 

It was 1966 before Catwoman would again feature in the pages of DC Comics – thanks to the success of the then phenomenally successful TV show – but despite this return to prominence, there was a sense of the character treading water. 

Despite some interesting retconning of the Golden Age Catwoman during the 1970s – which postulated that Selina Kyle not only reformed in the 1950s, but also married and had a daughter with Bruce Wayne – it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that anything truly new was done with the character. 

Beginning with Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s seminal Batman: Year One, Selina Kyle was reimagined through this new noir-inflected lens and given both renewed life and a greater reason to be.

This version of Selina was a prostitute who lived and worked in Gotham’s seedy East End. Already a dab hand at martial arts, the young Selina was inspired by Batman’s appearance in Gotham to become a Robin Hood style cat burglar, stalking the rooftops of this corrupt and fetid version of Gotham City.

Though only a small part of Year One, Selina’s strand in that tale was expanded upon in Catwoman: My Sister’s Keeper, a 1989 mini-series by writer Mindy Newell and artist JJ Birch, which both elaborated on her backstory and added her religiously inclined sister, Maggie, into the mix. 

Playing with the idea that Selina was orphaned at an early age, it was implied that she’d spent her early years in juvenile hall, which is where she learned both her street smarts and gained her grifters attitude to life.  

Elements of this noirish take on Selina’s backstory were also further explored and exploited by writer Jeph Loeb and artist Tim Sale in their two hugely influential maxi-series, Batman: The Long Halloween and Batman: Dark Victory as well its spin-off mini, Catwoman: When In Rome. 

Capitalising on the character’s leading role in 1992’s Batman Returns, Catwoman was finally rewarded with her own ongoing series in 1993. With a rotating cast of writers and the striking ‘bad girl’ art of Jim Balent, the book was something of a mixed bag creatively, but a solid sales success, which accented the more fantastical aspects of the character.

However, eventually sales did wane and the book was cancelled in 2001 after reaching a more than respectable 94 issues. But Catwoman’s disappearance was short-lived, as she was soon featured in a series of back-up strips within the pages of Detective Comics. 

This serial – Trail Of The Catwoman – from up-and-coming writer Ed Brubaker and artist Darwyn Cooke, was in fact a precursor to a new ongoing series by the same creative team which was due to debut at the end of 2001.

 In this new title, Selina would be removed from the wilder superhero shenanigans of recent years and instead recast as the defender of the poor and dispossessed in Gotham’s poverty stricken East End. 

Building on Miller’s hard-edged Year One, but adding a pulpier ‘Mrs Peel’ twist, many have argued that this is as close to a definitive incarnation of Catwoman that we’ve seen in the characters 70 plus year publication history.

While that’s a bold claim to make, Brubaker’s work is without doubt one of the strongest and most consistent takes on the character and has clearly been a strong influence on the upcoming big-screen incarnation of Catwoman in Christopher Nolan’s final Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises.

Unfortunately, since Brubaker’s departure from the title in 2004, the character has been in something of a holding pattern, with the current trend for constant line-wide crossovers and reboots stymying any possibility of consistent character development.

However, these trends tend to be cyclical, and history suggests that before too long Catwoman will once again be renewed and refreshed by new creators in a form that both honours her past, while simultaneously revitalizing her future.

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Yeah, I've always liked the character, Brubaker's run was superb. He took a a slightly tired out cheesecake character and made her into a strong, practically costumed, complicated young woman.
Unfortunately, Judd Winnick is currently undoing all of that good work in the new 52. These days, Selina's biggest problem is not falling out of her outfit every few pages...

Nothing to add really to the piece, but I wanted to say how much I appreciate these little histories. For non-comicbook-geeks they've been great!

Yeah Catwoman is a great character. DC and Marvel have trouble, at times, when is comes to producing great female characters that can stand toe to toe with their male counterparts. Catwoman is someone who, in the right hands, can be great. I'm looking forward to Nolan's take.

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