Saturday, April 28, 2012
YEAR 1956: BATWOMAN
Though the "Kathy Kane" version of Batwoman doesn't get many props these days, she did accomplish one thing that even Catwoman couldn't: injecting a continuing feminine presence into the Batman adventures in both DETECTIVE COMICS and the regular BATMAN book.
Prior to Batwoman, the crimefighting world of Batman and Robin was one in which women didn't have much of a role. That may sound like I'm subscribing to the old canard that Batman's gay again, but that's not quite my point. The Batman stories tended to follow the rule that women didn't have much of a place in the rough-and-tumble world of crime, and most of the mundane crimefighter-comics of the time followed roughly the same paradigm, aside from Will Eisner's SPIRIT and Jack Cole's PLASTIC MAN.
Catwoman was the one exception to this-- but she was the exception that proved the rule. For over fifteen years, Catwoman was the only notable female villain in the stories. I scanned the Fleischer BATMAN ENCYLOPEDIA and found no others beyond a minor gun-moll or two. The only other memorable villainess, a lady crime-boss named "the Sparrow," appeared in a 1948 story in the syndicated comic strip. As it happens, 1948 was the same year Batman got his own version of Lois Lane, Vicky Vale, in the comic books.
As the cover to DETECTIVE COMICS #233 shows, the Batwoman is initially presented as a threat to the Dynamic Duo's mantle as Gotham City's top crimefighters. The story's creators and editors may have been somewhat uncertain about such a character's reception, since at story's end Batman ferrets out Batwoman's secret identity and persuades her to retire from the dangerous business of crimefighting. Nevertheless, she was back in action within less than a year, and continued to appear irregularly in the two Bat-books and in the WORLD'S FINEST Superman-Batman title. She and Batman formed a loose "will-they/won't they" romantic relationship despite his continued attempts to get her to quit being a superhero. In 1961, possibly due to positive reader response, the creators brought Kathy's niece into the action as Bat-Girl, so that Batwoman and Bat-Girl provided an effective mirror-image of the starring heroes, as well providing regular romantic interest for both males.
One rather odd characteristic of Batwoman was that she called attention to her femininity by modeling her crimefighting weapons on feminine accoutrements-- trapping thugs in giant "hair-nets," using "charm-bracelets" as handcuffs, and so on. There's not much question in my mind that the creators did this in a rather jokey spirit. Nevertheless, Batwoman wasn't dependent on her oddball weapons as were some "feminine-version" heroines of the period, and was often presented as being above-average in terms of hand-to-hand combat.
Batwoman and Bat-Girl both faded from official DC continuity in 1964, when Julius Schwarz sought to impose a new editorial approach on the Bat-books, which would lead to a new "Batgirl" some years later (see 1967, when I get to it). In DETECTIVE COMICS #485 (1979), Denny O'Neil uses her as "cannon fodder" (his word), killing her off to make Batman get extra-mad at her murderers. Bat-Girl made a comeback of sorts in the Bob Rozakis TEEN TITANS, but the most remarkable thing about her seems to be that despite the many minor characters knocked off during DC's "Crisis on Infinite Earths," she somehow survived in the backwaters of continuity and continues in a new version today, just as Kathy Kane's legacy begat a new Batwoman in 2006.