The Many Lives of Catwoman: The Felonious History of a Feline Fatale
The Many Lives of Catwoman: The Felonious History of a Feline Fatale is a comprehensive, readable history of this unique character. From the first chapter, where author Tim Hanley disassembles the myth of Bob Kane’s creation of the character (she was actually developed by Bill Finger, like much of Batman’s early mythology), it’s clear that he won’t be pulling his punches. (He previously wrote Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous Heroine and Investigating Lois Lane: The Turbulent History of the Daily Planet’s Ace Reporter.)
Hanley’s theory is that Catwoman has a unique status in comics. She regularly outsmarted Batman. Because she’s often a villain, she’s an outsider, which allows her to escape the stereotypes placed on so many other female characters in the superhero genre. That also allowed her to be more independent. (And often sexualized, which is the negative flip side of being written and drawn by men.) Her history is so long-running that she’s had a particularly varied past, which keeps her interesting. He calls her adventures “a varied journey of empowerment and exploitation.”
We begin, of course, with her origin, with a necessary digression into Batman’s beginning. Hanley makes a good case for Catwoman’s differences from the start, from her prominence as a lead when other female characters were rarely even given names, speaking roles, or believable motivations to Batman’s clear infatuation with her. Unlike other femme fatales, the serial nature of comics meant that she wasn’t published by death or imprisonment (an observation I found particularly striking).
Post-war, with a pressure to reassert traditional gender roles, the Catwoman/ Batman relationship flipped to make her the romantic seeking attention from her crush. At the same time, she got a Kitty Car, an elaborate hideout, more props, and henchmen, as comics because more exaggerated (and sometimes ridiculous). Then, during the Wertham scare era, she disappeared for over a decade, until the TV show resurrected her.
Hanley thoroughly covers the various actresses and their portrayals over the seasons of the show and the spinoff movie, including how the attraction angle disappeared once Eartha Kitt was cast in the third TV season because of cultural concerns over interracial romance. The book continues with the checkered history of the character in the comics, from girlfriend for Bruce Wayne to the Huntress’ dead mother and Frank Miller’s post-Crisis sordid reinvention of her as an ex-hooker (in keeping with his sexist history of abuse towards women characters).
Additional chapters focus on the Burton Batman movies, a history of the character in animated series, the launch of her solo comic book, the morbid darkness of Ed Brubaker’s reinvention run, Catwoman’s time as a parent, the disastrous Catwoman movie, and the various media she’s appeared in since. By the end, I just wanted to go back to the beginning again, with more positive, entertaining stories than the morass the character has been left in. Hanley’s history made me miss the kind of Catwoman we could have, but his emphasis on the ways the character has been reinvented across her history gave me hope for another one to come sometime in the future.
Because this is an independently written history, images are replaced with story descriptions and dialogue excerpts. That’s an understandable but unfortunate liability in any such comic history. An interested reader will likely want to accompany this with Catwoman: A Celebration of 75 Years or Catwoman: Nine Lives of a Feline Fatale to see a few of the actual comics discussed. (The publisher provided a digital review copy.)