Wednesday, February 8, 2012
YEAR 1940: THE CATWOMAN
Given that someone else already thought of doing the "nine lives" schtick with the nine (or more) costumes of the character's existence thus far, I'll attempt something more original: nine symbolically significant aspects of Catwoman's career.
(1) IN HER VERY FIRST ADVENTURE, INTREPID CRIMEFIGHTER BATMAN LETS "THE CAT" GET OUT OF "THE BAG"
Whereas the ordinary thugs and grifters of Batman's world were generally exposed as cowards and losers, the costumed criminals never suffered a lot of sanctimonious preachments. Possibly this was because the audience knew that they were not naturalistic, and so could take vicarious pleasure in their acts of robbery and murder. Catwoman (a.k.a. "The Cat") was probably the most liberating of these figures once the writers made it a cardinal rule that she always avoided taking human life during her robberies; thus her thefts became more like a game with no consequences for anyone but the insurance companies. Of course Batman's motive for releasing this "shady lady" back in BATMAN #1 have more to do with wanting to "bump into her again sometime." Not that there's anything wrong with that.
(2) CATWOMAN'S AMONG THE FIRST, IF NOT THE FIRST BAT-FOE, TO WEAR A REAL COSTUME
To be sure, the first costume the demi-villainess sported, back in BATMAN #1-- a big cat-mask over her head, while the rest of her wears either a gown or a foofy caped outfit-- is an awful costume. But most of Batman's foes-- Joker, Penguin-- simply wore slightly outre versions of regular clothes. Later, once Catwoman donned her classic purple-and-green togs, she also began biting Batman's style in other ways, using "cats" as fetishistically as he used "bats." If Batman had a Batarang, she had a cat-o-nine-tails; if he had a Batmobile, she had a Kitty-Car, etc. During BATMAN YEAR ONE Frank Miller posited that the early Batman's example inspired the Princess of Plunder to follow that example on behalf of crime, which was, all things considered, one of Miller's better insights into the Bat-cast.
(3) THE NAME "SELINA KYLE"
The name "Selina" is patently a derivation from the name of the Greek goddess of the moon. There's no textual indication in the early adventures that the writers went out of the way to emphasize any "lunar" aspect of her nature or her adventures, so the symbolic meaning of the character's given name may merely be happy coincidence. In any case it fits, in that "cat" and "moon" tend to symbolize mysterioso qualities. A Catwoman named "Sunny Kyle" just wouldn't have been the same.
(4) THE CLAWS
The above scene, with Catwoman clawing the hell out of a nine-year-old boy sidekick's shoulder, appears nowhere in the actual story. By the 1940s the idea of women defending themselves by clawing at men with their long nails was a routine trope, but the cat-gimmick does make it seem less a last-ditch defense and more like an assertion of essentially feminine power.
(5) THE CAT-O-NINE-TAILS
Yes, whip it, whip it good-- ah, Catwoman and her whip. Its presence inspired scenes like the DETECTIVE COMICS scene above: since it resembles nothing in the actual Catwoman story within, clearly it inspired some artist to new heights of, shall we say, "inspiration." The presence of the whip also excited the wrath of Frederic Wertham. Catwoman may not be the only costumed villain named in SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT, but she's the only villain from Batman's rogues gallery who's honored as being a corrupter of innocent youths.
(6) THE CAT DIDN'T COME BACK (UNTIL 12 YEARS LATER)
Between 1954, when "The Jungle Cat-Queen" appeared in DETECTIVE #211, and 1966, when the Catwoman appeared in (of all things) a LOIS LANE story, the Catwoman was effectively exiled from DC Comics. To be sure, no DC employee has ever spoken of a freeze-out. But given that Batman's editor Jack Schiff kept bringing back vintage Batman foes like Joker and Penguin during that period, I believe DC was skittish about the character thanks to the bad publicity they got from Dr. Wertham over her. In 1963 DC evidently thought the cat-gimmick too good to waste, so writer Bill Finger created a feline-themed villain, the Cat-Man, who explicitly thought he could be a better cat-villain than Catwoman simply because he was a man. In addition, this Cat-Man even tried to convince Batman's female ally Batwoman to become a new "Catwoman," but she only went through with the whole megillah to twist the villain's tail, so to speak.
(7) PRINCESS OF BUZZKILL
Michael Fleischer was somewhat over-Freudian when he declared, in the BATMAN ENCYCLOPEDIA, that Catwoman was to Batman an image of his departed (and therefore "bad") mother. However, early adventures do evince a sense that Robin's often threatened by Batman's feelings for the cat-crook, but not for the puerile reasons Frederic Wertham cited. Rather, Robin's got a perfect life from a nine-year-old's perspective-- a good older guardian who lets him stay up late and fight criminals. Catwoman is definitely a "bad mother" to him in that her erotic presence threatens to steal the Caped Crusader away from the manly art of crimefighting.
The one aspect of Batman that Catwoman didn't imitate for her first 20 years was that she couldn't fight; at best she occasionally managed to catch the hero off guard with some roughhouse maneuver. Apart from her skill with the whip she wasn't seen as a physical threat. To be sure, though costumed heroines were often mistresses of judo and boxing, villainesses of the 1940s and 1950s rarely showed such traits, and Catwoman *was* the only memorable female villain of the Batman comic books until the middle 1960s, when Poison Ivy debuted. However, once Catwoman's skills were mysteriously upgraded in the early 1970s, most of the other larcenous ladies followed suit in one way or another. Still, it's a shame that Catwoman was relegated to being a "weak sister" during most of Batman's Silver Age, when heroines like Batwoman and the original Bat-Girl were shown tossing their enemies hither and yon.
(9) JULIE NEWMAR