[Written by Jeremy Grayson]
As a young child, I didn’t play with many action figures – at least, not from the world of superheroes. Though I obsessed over Superman and Batman from a youthful age, my familiarity with them was limited to comic books and cartoons. I never owned a Superman cape, nor a remote-controlled Batmobile, and my playtime implements were mostly limited to matchbox cars and little plastic farm animals. (The cows crossed the road, forcing the drivers to veer left. It’s more fun than it sounds.)
I only owned one DC Comics-inspired toy during my halcyon days. It was a little purple car with a molded cat’s head on the hood and a tail jutting from the rear bumper. Seated behind the wheel was the notorious Catwoman, dressed in a purple costume and cowl modeled after the one she wore back in the 1950s. When you pushed the Kitty Car, the tail wagged back and forth. Catwoman on the move!
Up until a few days ago, I would have been reluctant to share this story with the world, knowing that it would likely inspire great bouts of shameless mockery. But I feel inspired enough to tell it now. Why? Because I’ve gained a newfound respect for the character, thanks to the new book I’ve just read.
The Many Lives of Catwoman: the Felonious History of a Feline Fatale, written by comics historian Tim Hanley, chronicles the history of the felonious feline from the 1940s to the present day. Covering the development of her comic book incarnation over the decades – from supervillain to supporting character to star of three different ongoing series – as well as her various film and television incarnations, it’s about as thorough as a comics nerd could ask for.
It’s also starkly affecting, given the hidden complexities of its title character. Few women in comics have gone through as many interpretations as Catwoman, not merely in costume or capabilities, but in identity. She’s a hero; she’s a villain; she’s a love interest; she’s a loner; she’s got weird cat powers and is played by Halle Berry in a godawful movie. No individual interpretation is necessarily the “right” one (although I hope most of us can agree that the last one is quite wrong), and it’s become increasingly difficult for writers to nail down her character.
Catwoman also represents perhaps the ultimate conflict of women in comic books: feminism versus objectification. Sometimes her cunning and independence can feel like a symbol of strength; other times, she can come off as male fantasy. Plenty of female comic book characters walk this line, but Catwoman, with her signature skintight costume and whip (not to mention the deep sexual chemistry she shares with one of DC’s most prominent heroes), has fallen into the trap more than most.
Hanley understands the complications present in the character, and charts her progress with an attention to detail rarely afforded to any hero, male or female. As with his previous books, Wonder Woman Unbound and Investigating Lois Lane, he shines light on a DC woman whose history bears more scrutiny than it gets. Improved this time is the scope of the book in relation to the character – Wonder Woman’s publication history is perhaps too expansive to be contained in a single book, while most of Lois’ escapades are still inextricably tied to Superman. But Catwoman strikes just the right balance of history and relevance to fill the book’s 200-odd pages.
With the ever-expanding, ever-rebooting nature of comic books, it’s unlikely there will ever be a “definitive” Catwoman. (Although if forced to pick, I would probably choose the ambiguous thief characterized in Batman: The Animated Series, expertly voiced by Adrienne Barbeau.) But that may not be a bad thing. While her constant reinventions have led to a variety of hits and misses, the best interpretations have turned her one of the most intriguing women in the DC universe.
(I wonder how much that Kitty Car would make on eBay…)