Currently prowling around on stiletto (actual knife) heels on the big screen in The Dark Knight Rises, Catwoman is probably second only to Wonder Woman when it comes to female characters from superhero comics who have an iconic, recognisable status outside the world of comics readers. As with Wonder Woman, this is helped along quite considerably by a 1960’s TV show, a series of sexy outfits, and a whole bunch of nostalgia, though Catwoman also has the benefit of several appearances in big budget films over the last twenty years.
Catwoman has been played on screen by many different actresses, including Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt, Michelle Pfieffer, Halle Berry and Anne Hathaway. But while the television and Hollywood versions of Catwoman are often almost entirely different from each other, you can also see some pretty dramatic differences in the way she, her story and her costume are presented in the comics.
Catwoman, AKA Selena Kyle, first appeared in Batman comics in 1940, as a glamorous cat burglar who led Batman a merry dance. Her femme fatale status was helped along by a design based on images of Jean Harlow and Hedy Lamarr, though it has to be admitted that her first crimefighting costume, involving an actual furry cat mask, was less than seductive. She soon made up for that, committing her crimes in a designer purple evening dress and cape, and sighing breathily at Batman whenever he looked like getting tough with her. Wielding a whip, this classy bad girl intrigued Batman, and he would at times deliberately let her escape.
There was a storyline about how Catwoman was really an air stewardess who had only turned to crime after a blow to the head, but this was quickly covered over and ignored. Sometimes a girl’s just gotta steal diamonds, you know?
Disappearing in the mid-50’s for a decade or so because she really didn’t fit the new Comic Code’s rules for the behaviour of female characters, Selina Kyle returned again in the mid-60’s, continuing to flirt and romance Batman as well as coming up with sinister criminal schemes. She also made appearances in Lois Lane: Superman’s Girlfriend, as did many other female characters.
In a publishing world where female superheroes are often created as feminised versions of a popular male character, it’s worth noting that Catwoman has a male counterpart, Catman, who was created in response to her character in the 1960’s. He was treated like a bit of a joke for many years, but was recreated quite brilliantly by Gail Simone who wrote him into in her Secret Six title a few years ago.
In the 1970’s the idea that Selina Kyle was not only Batman’s love interest but his perfect match was cemented by the development of Earth 2, an alternate world in which Batman and Superman were actually the age they should be based on their original appearances in comics. In Earth 2, Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle had married in the 1950’s after she gave up crime for good – they now had an adult daughter, Helena Wayne, who only discovered her mother’s past after she was blackmailed by former colleagues into returning as Catwoman one last time. Selina was killed thanks to Batman hitting one of her blackmailers at the wrong moment, and once the truth came out, Helena took up the slack from her retired father and created her own superhero identity, the Huntress.
The glamorous, classy femme fatale version of Catwoman was substantially revised in the 1980’s with the release of Frank Miller’s Year One, a hardboiled take on Batman’s origin story. Selina was now portrayed as a prostitute who turned to burglary (first out of need, later out of a Robin Hood sensibility) and was inspired to be ‘the Cat’ after seeing ‘the Bat’ in action.
This version of Catwoman has been largely carried forward into the present day, with occasional twists and turns. While her new origin at least includes some strong female characters, especially her young sidekick and friend Holly Robinson, and her crazy nun sister Maggie, it seems as if many writers have been in some kind of competition as to how dark, seedy and traumatised they can make Selina’s backstory, which has at various times also included parental abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction, orphanages, violence and the Mob.
Catwoman was particularly prominent in the 90’s after Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance in the big screen movie Batman Returns, and she featured in the various Batman animated series as well as appearing in many comics and her own series, sporting many different costumes. She also became a semi-regular member of the Birds of Prey team book alongside a new version of the Huntress (no longer her daughter).
For a large part of the 2000’s, Catwoman was written by Ed Brubaker, who combined pulp style detective stories with this more “street” version of Selina Kyle, notably in her ongoing Catwoman series, which sets her up mostly as a vigilante trying to go “straight” but often throws in a bit of cat burglary for old time’s sake. Her costume also changed quite notably at this time with a catsuit & goggles combination that has been reflected across other media and is generally regarded now as her iconic look. While having her own series removes Selina somewhat from the Batverse, the on again, off again nature of her romance with Bruce Wayne had continued to be an occasionally important element of her character (and of his).
During the Infinite Crisis time jump (followed up in One Year Later), Selina had a baby named Helena, and it was regularly hinted that Bruce might be the father, though a storyline revolved around the other most likely father of her child. Holly Robinson briefly took on the role of Catwoman during Selina’s early motherhood, but Selina ended up choosing to give Helena up for adoption to keep her safe, and took back her goggles afterwards.
As well as Birds of Prey, Catwoman has appeared with several teams such as the Outsiders and the Gotham City Sirens, though she tends to end up in teams with similarly lawless characters – Birds of Prey was really her only time hanging out excessively with the goody goody set. She is particularly associated with two other Batman villainesses, Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn, but her individuality often leads her to take her own path and besides, the two of them can be really annoying. The current ‘outside continuity’ Ame-Comi series shows Catwoman as the voice of cynical reason in a team of super villains led by Duella Dent, changing sides to help Batgirl.
Catwoman also has her own title in the New 52, which continues the idea of Selina as a streetwise vigilante type in a catsuit and goggles, who knows how to frock up in heels and a fake wig when necessary. However, this is shown to be a younger version of her character from earlier in her career, something which is difficult to reconcile in the hit-and-miss reboot, as Batman himself has kept most of his continuity and history, and has not been noticeably youthened.
The New 52 Catwoman raised controversy from its first issue, which used a great deal of voyeuristic “T & A” art to prove how sexy she was, and showed her relationship with Batman as a crude, just-for-sex arrangement rather than the more complex emotional history shown in the past. Personally I got cranky that Lola, the awesome female supporting character who really did help show Selina as a person instead of just a vehicle for boobs-in-catsuit was horribly killed off a few issues in. More recently, cover art for the upcoming Catwoman #0 was lampooned across the internet for defying physics in its gratuitous display of her body. The title has come to represent some of DC Comics’ most problematic attitude towards women in comics, to the point of becoming a running joke. Considering the long history and iconic nature of Catwoman as a character, that’s pretty sad.
Julie Newmar made Catwoman an iconic and memorable character in the Batman TV Show of 1966, the same year that Catwoman returned to comics after a decade out of the spotlight. The influence of this high camp adventure series may be waning as the years pass, as it isn’t widely available on DVD for a new generation to experience, but Newmar and her black catsuit still has a strong nostalgia hold over viewers of the original series. This Catwoman was portrayed as a costumed antagonist to Batman, but her alter ego was never named.
Another old school version of Catwoman appeared in the short-lived live action Birds of Prey TV series in 2002, which featured the Earth 2 version of Helena Wayne as a protagonist, and thus depicted Catwoman as her mother in the opening credits and occasional flashbacks.
In Batman: The Animated Series in the 1990’s, Catwoman was likewise depicted as an “old school” catburglar who liked shiny things, wearing a grey and black catsuit (with actual cat ears and claws) on the job, and revealing long blonde hair out of costume, almost certainly in response to Michelle Pfeiffer’s iconic Hollywood take on the role. The various animated series that followed on from this later revised her character to have the dark hair familiar from comics. Batman: The Brave and the Bold of very recent years has put Selina into a costume based on her classic 1950’s ensemble (which also made a comeback in the 80’s), a purple dress with green cloak and purple mask.
The Tim Burton directed, Michelle Pfeiffer version of Catwoman in Batman Returns, was based on almost nothing from any the original comics. A nervous and frumpy secretary who is treated by a doormat by her boss, this Selina is pushed out of a window when she discovers the evil schemes of said boss. She is then licked by cats, who bring her back to life. YES REALLY.
After constructing an admittedly fabulous catsuit from a whole lot of PVC on her home sewing machine, this revived woman takes on the identity of a Catwoman and hurls herself around Gotham City, making up for her previous repression with an angry yet stylish feminist rampage. While getting her revenge on her murderer is something of a priority, Selina is distracted from her Catwoman antics by Batman, who fascinates her, and she begins a romantic relationship with him as a new glamorous version of herself. Because being licked by cats really helps your poise and flirtation skills.
Catwoman does avenge her own “death” at the end, and is shot several times, but her superstition about cats having nine lives is proved correct. The whole story makes little to no sense, but it’s hard to argue with Pfeiffer’s electric performance. For many years it was suggested that she return in her own movie, but in fact when Catwoman made it to screens in 2004 it was… something else.
The character portrayed by Halle Berry in the 2004 movie Catwoman is even less reminiscent of any previous version of the character. Except for the bit where a woman is horribly murdered (in this case by sewage) and licked by cats who bring her back to life with special cat powers. Yes, again.
No, I don’t recommend anyone use ‘licked by cats’ as a valid method of body revival.
Egyptian mythology is used as an excuse for this story. It’s nice to know there is SOME kind of excuse. But apart from a couple of brief but entertaining scenes in which Berry unconsciously takes on the personality of a cat and clambers around on a couch, the entire movie is a waste of everyone’s time. Did I mention the plot is about a cosmetics company? That’s to keep the ladies happy. The gentlemen, of course, are supposed to watch entirely because of the atrocious pornoriffic costume designed for Berry. Instead, everyone chose to stay away in droves, and good for them.
I can’t comment on the Anne Hathaway version of Catwoman in the new film Batman Rising, as I haven’t seen it yet, but everything I have heard suggests that various elements from the comics and origins of the character have actually been at least consulted in the creation of this character, and that Catwoman fans both old and new school should find something to enjoy about the script as well as Hathaway’s performance. I choose to believe this is true. Anything less would be deeply, deeply depressing.