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.