I don’t know the whole story, and even if I did it wouldn’t make any sense, any more than any of the character biographies you read for any comic book character in Wikipedia, but especially the ones who have been around for decades. Too many writers, too many editors, too many takes: it doesn’t take long for a history to become irretrievably screwed up.
If I’m remembering correctly, my first exposure of substance to Catwoman came in 1968, in Batman 197, an issue in which, after years and years of the long split skirt and the boots, Selina Kyle re-dressed herself in a skin-tight glittery costume that echoed Julie Newmar’s outfit in the Batman TV series, except for being bright green – and what more cat-like colour could you think of?
I imagine that I’d seen Catwoman before, in reprints of her from the dispiriting Fifties, when Batman had a literally square jaw and Catwoman’s wasn’t all that soft and delicate. And I didn’t even buy this comic for the Feline Felon but because it featured Batgirl. It was a typical late-Sixties Gardner Fox/Julius Schwartz script, in which Catwoman’s crimes were all based on obscure words that began with the letters C-A-T, and in which she was out to humiliate Batgirl in front of Batman in order to demonstrate to the Caped Crusader how much better a bride our Miss Kyle would make.
The Sixties. You had to be there. It helped to be twelve and uncritical.
Times change, and comics characters with them. In the mid Nineties, I read a couple of years’ worth of the first Catwoman title, the one drawn by Jim Balent, which probably tells you all you need to know about my motivations. I read some of the second series in the run up to Infinite Crisis and on for a few issues into the ‘One Year Later’ era. I’ve read odd bits and pieces but nothing consistently. From out-and-out supervillain, to anti-heroine, to someone straddling the line between both sides.
But I’ve most consistently enjoyed the portrayal of Selina Kyle, and of her twin relationships with Batman and Bruce Wayne, as they appeared in Tom King’s Batman series that spun out of the DC Rebirth event. Indeed, it was a review of Annual 2 to that story, and its associated regular issue, that tempted me into buying both books and loving them for the way they were such fun, and for how utterly convincing I thought King depicted the pair as being in love: deeply, passionately, and filled with a bedrock understanding of each other. Or should I say, with her bedrock understanding of him?
Because, let’s face it, Batman may be one of the only two minds in the DC Universe smarter than Mr Terrific, but he hasn’t got half the idea of who he is that Selina Kyle has of Bruce Wayne, and whilst he may be smarter on the subject of Catwoman, in terms of levels of emotional intelligence, she’s still got the boy beaten.
A portrayal of Batman in which Catwoman is not merely his equal but, in many aspects, better than him? Let me read more of this!
But one further, though relevant, digression, to ask myself who is this Catwoman who plays such cat-and-mouse games with Batman? For the lady has, like so many others, gone through multiple pasts. She was created by Bob Kane as a jewel thief, in 1940. Ten years later she gets a knock on the head, restoring her memory of her past as an Air Hostess who discovered a criminal side to herself after a knock on the head. Selina reformed and even helped Batman out a couple of times before being driven back to crime by taunts from crooks about Batman taming her. This revival was brief as only a few months later she was dropped from the series, in the light of the Comics Code Authority’s stupid restrictions on how women could be portrayed!
Catwoman wasn’t seen again until 1966, and even then first in Lois Lane. In 1983, but meanwhile, on Earth-2, their Selina Kyle, still reformed, unconsciously lets slip that the amnesia story was a lie, that it had been a convenient excuse to escape a life she hated, felt trapped in, and which left her unable to find love, and children. It was a neat, poignant story that took the unusual step of treating the two characters as human beings, both desperately lonely because of the lives that had been forced upon them, and the outcome was marriage, of course.
I mention this sidebar idea because of Earth-2’s ability to show different aspects to characters, and for its relevance to the modern era. But the real changes followed Crisis on Infinite Earths. Firstly, Frank Miller (who else?) rewrote Selina as a professional dominatrix – Catwoman in a Cathouse, geddit, geddit? – introducing a piece of griminess, rather than grim’n’grittiness that thankfully didn’t last too many years; you don’t have to degrade every-bloody-thing, Miller, you sicko.
This stark piece of bullshit was soon ameliorated, by a female writer I’m pleased to say, though Catwoman’s history was then made boringly complicated to try to keep things nasty, but not necessarily sexually nasty (Americans…). Then the Nineties saw Catwoman drifting towards antiheroine status as a jewel thief who sort did all sort of right things along the way. And the post-Balent series had her acting simultaneously as a thief and a protector of Gotham’s grubby and down-market East End, until it was revealed that she’s been magically brainwashed by Zatanna to turn good…
There were all manner of stories, including one in which Batman reveals his true identity to her, as well as declaring his love for her. The New 52 just made things worse, as it did for everything, and the next reboot was DC Rebirth in which Selina’s parents died early, she spent years in an orphanage and demands to be executed for causing 237 deaths when her old orphanage burns down, if I’ve understood Wikipedia properly. Now is the time to turn to Tom King’s series, and Read On…
(But is it any wonder I want to reject a history like that?)
Though it’s nearer the middle than the beginning, let me start with that Annual, and its associated two-parter. The Annual is an immediate delight, which hasn’t lost any of its power to amuse and satisfy since. It contains two stories, one from the beginning of Batman and Catwoman’s relationship and one from the end. The first is a comedy, a sweet comedy. It’s all about flirtation by burglary, as Catwoman endlessly demonstrates her ability to defeat every kind of security Bruce Wayne instals in Wayne Manor. She bypasses alarms, then triggers them when she chooses, leading to chases in which she outwits the Bat, disappearing without trace and leaving a souvenir, in the form of a small mouse. King drops in a brilliant line from Alfred, irritated enough to request, in pained tones, that she at least leaves cages and some money to feed them.
It’s a first demonstration, or at least it was for me, that King was going to be writing Catwoman as, in her own way, superior to Batman. He can’t keep her out, of his Mansion, his Batcave and his life. Subconsciously, he doesn’t want to. Selina, in her way, is slightly more detached, more capable of conducting her life without the Bat: she has been independent all her life and has no intention of surrendering that self-possession. But she loves him as much as he loves her. They are, in that sense, made for each other, despite their very different natures and pursuits, and the game she plays with him is far deeper than its superficial playfulness.
The other story was of the end. Of Bruce Wayne and Selena Kyle, an old married couple, about to be parted forever. Bruce Wayne has contracted cancer. His family gathers around him. He dies, in bed, the opposite of unloved and unmourned. And she remains, the holder of the Wayne fortune, composed to the last, having come to terms with what is going to happen. Left with her daughter Helena, she shares her feelings about how she had never wanted to be tied down, how her independence had been the only key thing to her, had not wanted children, but it turned out that Helena had stolen from her: had stolen her heart.
This combination of sweet and sour, of joyousness and the ultimate, inescapable sadness, was a perfect combination. When taken in conjunction with the contemporary issue 38, I was hooked.
That issue guest-starred Superman, and Lois Lane. It had the minimum of action, deliberately token. It was about Bruce Wayne introducing his fiancée to his best friend and his wife. It was about the uncertainty on Clark Kent’s part and the instant confidence on that of Lois Lane, about Selena’s concerns about how she would be taken, as Batman’s bride and supervillain simultaneously, against Lois’s immediate acceptance of Catwoman as a new girlfriend.
This was enough to trigger me into buying the bi-weekly from that point forward, one visit to the comics shop a month, two instalments to read on the bus home, and to the embrace of the Deluxe Editions to catch up the earlier part of the story.
I suspect that if I had bought in at any other point, at any of the bits that are Batman the Crime Fighter, the broken boy out to hold the world together, I would not have been seduced into the story. That’s what mattered to me, that King captured a very ordinary, very deep and involving love, such as that I had enjoyed myself, between two very far from ordinary people, and the best stages in the story are those that are about Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle just being a couple, together.
Going back to the beginning, seeing the psychological profile of Batman build up, from the introduction of two short-lived superheroes into Gotham, naming themselves for the city, to the convolutions that led Batman into confronting Bane, yet again, requiring to lead a ‘Suicide Squad’ mission that included a Catwoman on Death Row for 237 murders that she claims to have committed but which Batman is determined to clear her of: these are the building blocks of the overall story, and the foundation of two of the three separate strands that constitute King’s story.
It’s all about breaking the Batman, and it’s about how he comes back from being temporarily broken, because Batman always wins. There’s Bane, out to break him by taking his City away from him, there’s Dr Thomas Wayne, the Batman of a different reality, in which the little boy Bruce was the one shot in an alley, out to break Batman by being a bigger, stronger Batman than him, forcing little Bruce to turn into a human who can be just that: human and untortured.
And there is Selina Kyle, who fears to break him by that ultimate corruption, happiness, who understands Bruce Wayne better than he understands himself, and who builds the Batman back up, and without whom…
Catwoman’s essential to this story. Without her role, without her refusal to accept Batman’s reality as the ultra-grim, deadly-dull thing it is, her playfulness born directly from her love for the Bat, this would be no more worth reading than any of the interminable quagmire of Batman stories generated every minute. She refuses to take it seriously, and she makes it what it is, an exploration of just how deep into people love can go.
There’s more than mere banter between people who have a near-absolute confidence in each other in the constant to-and-fro over where Bat and Cat first met. He insists it was on a boat, she on the street. There’s a meta-textual competition here: Bob Kane’s Bruce and Selina first met on a boat, Frank Miller’s in the street. Two competing versions of reality are facing each other down: I’m prejudiced but despite the lady possessing the greater clarity and sanity, I see Batman’s version as championing a cleaner, healthier lineage: love is not possible in the Miller version of the world.
The part of the series I entered into was the lead-up to the ‘Wedding Issue’, in Batman 50. Yet, unlike Superman and Lois, twenty years before, it was all set-up and no bouquet. Selina was being worked on, to play her part in the breaking of Batman. By the Joker, on the one hand, and her friend Holly Robinson on the other, Catwoman was being led to a particular view of Batman, of Bruce Wayne, one slanted to her fears about how they – crimefighter and thief – can have a life, subject to her need for independence, without control. And one slanted to how much she knows him, knows that he is at heart that scared boy whose world was killed in an alley, the scared boy who made himself into Batman, and who cannot be Batman, the effective Batman, if you take pain away from him.
Bruce Wayne cannot be both happy, and Batman.
None of that changes in the back half of the story. King doesn’t turn things around and come up with some magical reversal that allows Wayne to be both in love and the Batman he has to be if DC’s roster of publications doesn’t instantly shrink by a third. To that extent, his ending in issue 85 is flim-flam, hustling us via action out of asking the awkward question. Selina comes back into Bruce’s life when he is broken, comprehensively broken, by Bane and by Thomas Wayne, and she repairs him, by love, by commitment to him, by partnering him. Batman’s future is to never be alone again. Selina Kyle, wife in all but marriage licence, sees to that.
King’s series was originally to run for 100 issues. Then it was adjusted to 105 issues to take account of Doomsday Clock and Heroes in Crisis crossovers. Then it was abruptly shortened to 85 issues and the final phase, the this-will-change-Batman-for-a-generation bit was separated into the current, ever-so-slow motion Batman/Catwoman Black Label maxi-series, of which nine issues have at this time of writing been published, at ever-increasing intervals, just like everything.
Like King’s other projects, Heroes in Crisis, Strange Adventures and the one I refused on principle to read, Rorscharch, Batman/Catwoman is doing much to undermine my respect for those parts of his Batman that left Catwoman out. Once again it’s tediously nonlinear in its chronology, set in past, present and future. I’m trying not to be too judgemental until it’s all available, but I’m getting increasingly uninterested in reading the remaining three issues. What’s more, it’s held me up so long on my intended stepping away from current comics that Astro City is on the 2022 horizon to drag me back in.
The thing is, once again, logistics. Had this story appeared as Batman 86-105 I would have warmed to it far more. There would have been an instant continuity, and I confidently believe that what we would have read would have been fresher, more absorbing. Severed from its parent story, by more than just time, it has become dessicated, stale by overthought. At least, that’s what I’m getting from it.
Again, as I write, Tom King is setting out to psycho-analyse and destroy another DC character, this time Christopher Chance, the Human Target. The story will be told in non-linear chronology. How dull.
But let’s go back to the lovers of Batman 1-85, who are the basis for all these thoughts. By now, after too much exposure to Batman, I am more interested in Catwoman, but more than him over the last thirty-odd years, she’s been reinvented, usually ineptly, too many times, and there’s only a minority of her solo adventures that were well-handled or entertaining. The problem is that, when handled right, she works beautifully with Batman, but that can never be allowed to develop into a permanent situation, because she restricts Batman’s freedom in too many respects. Firstly, romantically, then professionally, because she is too much of an equal with him in a way that none of the rest of the Bat-Family can be, not even Batwoman, the only other non-protege, and lastly in terms of her greater emotional intelligence. That’s before taking into account the character’s individual commercial viability, which would be taken off the board by making her Batman’s permanent partner.
I don’t really have an ending for this essay, which is appropriate, because DC don’t have an ending for Batman. An ending is the last thing that’s allowed, or should I say it’s the first thing that’s not allowed. World without End. Batman wins again. In this world, this Batman could not win without the woman who is the other and better half of him. Eventually, Superman not only admitted his identity to ‘snoopy’ Lois Lane, but changed his entire existence, entirely for the best. Superman need never be alone again.
DC had the opportunity to do that for Batman, but cannot, because to do so would not not be seen as reinvention and revivication, but an ending. And an ending, no matter how right, is the one anathema in comics.