Books

'The Many Lives of Catwoman' Captures the Many Influences of This Multifaceted Superhero

Author and comic book historian Tim Hanley explores the far more than nine lives of DC’s Catwoman in this thoroughly in-depth biography/cultural contextualization.


The Many Lives of Catwoman: The Felonious History of a Feline Fatale

Publisher: Chicago Review Press
Price: $18.99
Author: Tim Hanley
Length: 293 pages
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2017-07
Affiliate
Amazon

Super heroes have long served as a reflection of the cultural and political climates from which they arise. Whether an indirect commentary on social norms or not so subtle morality plays, the comic book's protagonists generally operate in clearly defined black and white terms -- the good guys are always just that, while the bad guys are seen as needing to be either morally reformed or eliminated altogether. Especially during the medium's Golden Age, these lines were strictly adhered to, leaving little room for moral ambiguity.

That is until DC unveiled the iconoclastic Catwoman in the early '40s. In his new, in-depth analysis of the character and her constant evolution, writer Tim Hanley (Wonder Woman Unbound and Investigating Lois Lane) explores The Many Lives of Catwoman as she finds herself constantly being reborn and redefined to fit the era in which she is being presented.

As Hanley points out, unlike other female comic book characters, Catwoman was, in the beginning, neither a damsel in distress nor femme fatale destined to get what was coming to her -- the two primary roles for female characters within the pages of the male-centric comic book industry. Instead, she operated in a decidedly grey area in which neither her motives nor allegiances were ever truly well-defined. Rather than working strictly for good or evil, Catwoman possessed a moral fluidity that allowed her to act based on a perceived outcome that would best serve her own needs and wants. It’s an extremely progressive take on a character in a world in which the lines are otherwise always clearly defined and strictly adhered to.

Making things more problematic (or interesting, as the case may be), Bill Finger and Bob Kane (the latter the real creative force behind the Batman series, the former the one who claimed all the fame and riches) elected to put Catwoman in the unlikely position of love interest for Batman. As such, Batman's mettle would time and again be tested in an unlikely way: love in the face of evil. But rather than it simply being a one-sided concern used by Catwoman to undermine Batman, it was instead a mutual affection that saw both going out of their respective ways to ensure the other's continued survival. This again despite being, in a traditional sense, good versus evil.

Yet this helped add a more humanistic element to the stories, refraining from seeing the world merely in black and white and instead allowing for situational variables and emotional responses more indicative of realistic human behavior. Because of her origin in moral ambiguity, Catwoman is perhaps the most realistic of all comic book villains in that she's not always exclusively bad while also never being truly good. Sure, she plans heists and other nefarious deeds, but she also harbors an unspoken love of and respect for Batman. It's a feeling that proves mutual -- not to mention long-lasting -- making her one of the most beloved arch nemeses in the DC universe.

Add to this her drastic deviation from societal norms for women at the time (at least initially), and you've got an extremely interesting and progressive antagonist capable of changing allegiances not simply due to a one-sided desire to do either good or ill, but rather one who is capable of making a decision rooted in emotion. This lack of predictability in Catwoman and what she brought out in Batman was at the very heart of their tempestuous interactions. At least until Dr. Frederic Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent in 1954.

Often seen as the driving factor behind the near death of the comic book industry, Wertham's book put forth the idea that comic book stories and their accompanying imagery were causing a great deal of mental harm to young minds ill-equipped to deal with that which they were being subjected to. This led to the infamous Comics Code of the mid-'50s, a creative suppressant that did more than undermine the horror and murder comic books it initially set out to crush. Because of Wertham's analyses of the homoerotic undertones between Batman and Robin and the seductive moral ambiguity of the first incarnation of Selina Kyle as Catwoman, DC quickly became more hesitant in its willingness to push the envelope, instead falling back on clearly defined roles and the proper punishment for evildoers (not to mention the requisite praise for the good guys). This creative suppression very nearly spelled the end for Catwoman who, before she disappeared for more than a decade, was both finally incarcerated and imprisoned as well as socially reformed, settling into a far less objectionable and culturally acceptable role expected of women in the '50s.

It wasn't until the Batman television series and the arrival of Julie Newmar's (and later Eartha Kitt’s inimitable take) sensual portrayal of Catwoman that the character again saw a spike in popularity and a brief return to the pages of DC comic books. Unlike before -- and counter to Newmar's portrayal -- Catwoman was made an avatar for the writers' commentary on the feminist movement, leading to her portrayal as a man-hating, leather-clad villain. Rather than explore the character arc narrative "whys" of these types of decisions, Hanley provides a cultural contextualization for each iteration; from her early years through to the campy portrayals on the Batman television series to the highly sexualized look of recent years, her constantly changing look and feel is an almost direct reaction to and representation of the male perception of women.

Hanley's approach throughout is one of retelling the significant plot points of each iteration, offering brief biographies of the creators, actresses, and innovators who helped shape the character's perception. He more often than not refrains from any sort of personal critical or cultural analysis, instead simply stating the facts of both the books and the times, contextualizing each iteration based on the winds of change sweeping through the culture in general and the perception of women in particular. As such, The Many Lives of Catwoman more often than not reads like a standard biography, albeit one featuring a fictional character with far more than the usual nine lives. It’s an interesting look at the character’s constant evolution and rebirth to fit either the times or the writers giving her life.

Throughout the majority of her existence, Catwoman was drawn and written by men. This comes through in her visual aesthetic –--her outfits becoming skimpier and more form-fitting in direct correlation with the public tolerance for skin and sex. It wasn’t until the '90s that Catwoman began being written by women -- Mindy Newell being the very first, followed by Jo Duffy, Deborah Pomerantz, Joan Weis and others. There was then a subtle, but otherwise noticeable, change in the writers’ approach to the character. While she remained true to her morally ambiguous roots, she was no longer an objectified sexpot, instead working on behalf of a number of different animal rights organizations. Much of this portrayal, as Hanley points out, was the result of Michelle Pfeiffer’s breakthrough performance as Catwoman in Batman Returns. This, coupled with her stronger character in Batman: The Animated Series led to a sort of character renaissance during which her emotional and psychological depth were explored far more than the skin underneath the form-fitting costume.

Her brief empowerment in the '90s occurred concurrently with the rise of female punks and the riot grrl movement, showing her again to be, whether intentional or not, a reflection of the popular culture in which she exists. By the end of the decade, however, she was back in the hands of male artists and writers, looking for all the world as though traced directly from the now omnipresent internet pornography. Here she has largely remained, save for a short character reboot in the early-‘00s that saw her donning far more practical attire for the types of capers she would subsequently embark upon. Subjected to innumerable reboots and rebrands, Catwoman has been the single more consistently inconsistent character in terms of her look, backstory and overall aesthetic.

Hanley’s well-researched and thoroughly documented work pays testament to each and every phase of her multifaceted existence. Informative without being overly-preachy (he does, however, spend a somewhat inordinate amount of time on the depiction of breasts within the world of Catwoman and other female comic book characters), The Many Lives of Catwoman: The Felonious History of a Feline Fatale will be of interest to fans of the character in all her myriad guises. Comic book fan or not, The Many Lives of Catwoman offers an interesting look at society’s perception of women over the decades through a fictional avatar used by writers and artists to work through their own issues, misogynistic or otherwise.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

Next Page

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

Keep reading... Show less

Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image