Batman is one of the most popular and iconic superheroes of all time, and while the version of the character we see today is usually portrayed as a gravelly-voiced loner, he’s a loner with a whole bunch of people in his life. Gotham City and Batman’s personal community have spawned a huge number of characters who are vivid and interesting, and have taken on lives of their own beyond the Batman titles. Not only do his sidekicks have a habit of growing up and developing their superhero identities as they age, but so do the villains, cops and random strangers who cross his path.
It’s like he’s walking around in one big dark violent dimly lit soap opera.
One of the side benefit of the rich and detailed Batverse is that a large number of interesting female characters have arisen in Gotham City. Like Wonder Woman herself, these women are not always written awesomely, and are not always drawn awesomely, and sometimes they’re not even allowed to be fully dressed in public, and yet somehow they ALL manage to be awesome.
Even the ones created purely for the animated series.
There are indeed so many that I could write about nothing but women of Gotham City for a month or more. Which I won’t do. At least, not this month. But because of all the mask and name swapping that goes on in this city, and the way that so many of their stories and identities are intrinsically wrapped up in each other, I wanted to tackle a particular group all at once, in one glorious Batweek. So this week I’ll be looking at Batwoman, Catwoman, Robin, Huntress and Batgirl. Which actually adds up to about 75 separate people, so it’s enough to be going on with.
Here we go!
The original Batwoman, or rather, Bat-woman, was devised in 1956, quite literally to prove that Batman and Robin weren’t gay for each other. Kathy Kane was set up as if she was going to be an actual rival and romantic challenge for Batman, but the full weight of 1950’s style femininity and a certain powerful Comics Code meant that she spent more time worrying about whether Batman liked her, and which handbag (I’m sorry, utility purse) would look prettiest with her motorbike. Batman bullied Kathy into ceasing her superhero antics by following her home and telling her that if he could figure out her secret identity, anyone could.
Kathy went quietly away, but rallied later, proving herself worthy enough to hang out with the boys on occasion. She even acquired her own girl sidekick, Bat-Girl, AKA her cousin Betty Kane. When the two of them teamed up with Batman and Robin, it looked a lot like a double date, which was basically the effect that the creators had been going for. But along with Bat-Mite and the Bat-Hound, Bat-Woman and Bat-Girl were written out in 1964 in an attempt to make the lifestyle of the Dark Knight seem less like an amusing sitcom.
It’s pretty rare for a character to completely disappear in the DC universe, but Bat-Woman managed it. The much trendier and more massively popular Batgirl (Barbara Gordon) joined Batman and Robin in the 60’s, and was for decades the only woman to wear a bat symbol (though in one story she did meet her predecessor). When Crisis of Infinite Earths rebooted DC continuity in 1985, Kathy Kane was declared to never have existed. Harsh!
20 years later, another DC Reboot, Infinite Crisis, apparently reinstated Kathy (sometimes referred to as Katy) Kane as both the Batwoman, and a romantic interest in Batman’s past, but only in quite fleeting references and flashbacks. All of this was a red herring in any case, because immediately after Infinite Crisis, the maxi-series 52 introduced a new Batwoman, probably one of the most iconic and successful new characters to be launched in the DC universe in the last decade.
Her name was Kate Kane, and she really didn’t fancy Batman.
BATWOMAN #2 – Kate Kane
The design for this new Batwoman was striking – the use of black, red and white was used to give her an iconic and almost violent look, and while she was every bit as conventionally super-glamorous as every other comic book heroine, there was something about her that made her seem less like an object of desire, and more like someone who was doing her damn job.
Kate Kane was introduced in 52 as a fully formed character who had been working as a vigilante for some time – her origin and motivations were revealed later through flashbacks in Detective Comics. Her arrival was marked by a huge amount of media attention, even making the television news, largely because of the announcement that she was a lesbian. While not the first gay superhero, she quickly became one of the most recognisable gay superheroes, thanks to the bat on her chest and the pop culture coverage.
Despite the violence in Kate’s past, there’s nothing irrational about her decision to serve – indeed, her history shows she was heading towards a career in the military before her sexuality (and her refusal to lie about it) caused her to be kicked out of school.
Along with Renee Montoya, a former lover and member of the Gotham PD (who later became a superhero herself, taking on the identity of the Question), Kate was one of the central characters of the 52 series, a weekly title that chronicled in “real time” a year in which Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were all missing in action from the DC Universe.
Batwoman proved to be far more than a newsworthy gimmick, and her character resonated with readers. After 52 she was set up as the lead character in the famous Batcentric title Detective Comics (as in, where the name DC comes from) for a story arc written by Greg Rucka and published in trade paperback as “Batwoman: Elegy.” She was the only female character of Gotham City not to be massively rebooted (or indeed rebooted out of existence) in the recent New 52 shake-up at DC Comics.
However, the various Batman-related animated series, which normally do such a good job of representing women from the comics, have not done their best work when it comes to Batwoman. Instead of portraying a slightly less blood-and-guts version of Kate Kane’s character, they have chosen to give her different secret identities, presumably so as not to deal with the lesbian aspect.
Kate is a dark, fiercely independent character, and it’s notable that her entire supporting cast in the new series, including her sidekick, love interest and main nemesis, are all women. While she wears the bat with pride and is deeply entrenched in Gotham City as a setting, she also feels far more independent from Batman and his ongoing storylines as do any of the other spin-off characters from his various series.
This Batwoman also has a young cousin, Bette Kane, based on the original Bat-Girl. Bette had actually been restored to the DC Universe as “Flamebird” some years earlier, featuring in some Teen Titans and Young Justice comics, and it’s nice that she was reunited with her cousin, even if the Batwoman series has continued the irritating character arc for Bette that she’s one of those superheroes who doesn’t have what it takes (really, we could do without one of those storylines for the next forty years, if that’s okay with everyone else) There was recent outcry for a disappointing storyline in which Flamebird was badly beaten and left for dead in order that Kate should feel bad about herself, and much discussion as to whether it counts as “Women in Refrigerators” or not. But Bette is still alive, at least!
Batwoman is the closest we have ever come to having a female equivalent of Batman – like Bruce Wayne, Kate Kane is an independently wealthy socialite with intense martial arts training and no actual superpowers. She is a vigilante because of a painful family tragedy, and she keeps a sharp boundary between her life as Kate and her life as Batwoman – indeed, the amazing art that characterises her series shows a markedly different style on the page depending on which character she is inhabiting. She does represent diversity, though, through her Jewish heritage as well as her sexuality, and it’s nice that the team behind the creation of her character felt that these were important aspects to add to the Batfamily.
A hard-hitting, contemporary hero for the 21st Century, Batwoman’s ongoing series was recently announced as the bestselling of the first wave of New 52 trade paperbacks, an amazing achievement for a comics title featuring a female protagonist. This is an encouraging success story in an industry that doesn’t always do right by its female characters, and I thoroughly recommend the series!