There are many villains in the annals of comic book history, and Batman, the Dark Knight, has one of the most enduring rogues’ galleries of all. But one of his antagonists stands out among the crowd, not just for her cunning and athletic ability, but for her on-again, off-again love affair with the man who has consistently stood in the way of her criminal ambitions.
Catwoman, also known as the Feline Fatale, has posed a unique challenge for Batman ever since she first appeared on the scene in 1940. The final film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, "The Dark Knight Rises," hits theaters July 20, and with it comes Catwoman, as portrayed by Anne Hathaway, to bedevil the Caped Crusader once again. With that in mind, we’re going to take a look back at Catwoman’s history in comics and her varied incarnations that have developed over more than 70 years of stories.
The woman who appeared in 1940’s Batman #1 bore very little resemblance to the Catwoman of today, and not just because she was a master of disguise. Initially known only as “The Cat,” she was a thief without any special costume or gimmicks, but with a reputation that preceded her. Her scheme to steal a priceless diamond necklace was only exposed through the clever detective work of Batman and his partner, Robin, but the attraction between the Bat and the Cat was immediate, and Batman “accidentally” allowed her to escape, much to Robin’s disgust.
Batman’s instincts about her would be proven justified in their next encounter in Batman #2, as she aided the Dynamic Duo against a far deadlier foe: the Joker. By Batman #3, she adopted a costumed look with a full face mask that made her appear to be a woman with the head of cat, but it wasn’t until 1946’s Batman #35 that she changed to what comics fans regard as her iconic look: a half-mask cowl with cat ears, purple dress, and green cape. She’s made a variety of other fashion choices since then (some more successful than others) but has frequently tended to return to some variation of that classic look.
In or out of costume, Catwoman’s true identity remained a mystery, as she continued to employ a variety of aliases, until her origin was finally revealed in 1950’s Batman #62. She was Selina Kyle, an airline stewardess who was injured in a plane crash, and afflicted with a strange form of amnesia that led her to a life of crime. Upon sustaining a second head injury in action as Catwoman, her amnesia was cured, and she assisted Batman and Robin in taking down the criminal gang she had been working with. Still, the temptations of a life of crime proved too much for Selina, and she eventually went back to her old tricks, while retaining a fondness for Batman as demonstrated by her hesitation to do him any real harm, even when granted multiple opportunities.
After 1954, Catwoman disappeared from Batman’s life due to the introduction of the Comics Code Authority, a regulatory body which set strict limitations on the portrayal of women in comics, as well as the depiction of criminal behavior, making it difficult to portray Catwoman without fear of offending the censors. Ironically, it would be the popularity of Catwoman in another medium, specifically Julie Newmar’s portrayal of Catwoman in the "Batman" TV series, that would finally provide the impetus to bring Catwoman back to the comics in 1966.
This gap in Catwoman’s history coincided with the transition from what is commonly known as the Golden Age of Comics (the 1940s through the early ‘50s) to the Silver Age (the late ‘50s through the early ‘70s), and for DC that transition meant the introduction of the concept of parallel Earths. Earth-1 was where the modern adventures of DC’s heroes and villains took place, while Earth-2 featured the characters as they had debuted in the 1940s. Thus the Catwoman who had been seen in prior adventures was now essentially a separate character, although she was seen in a few more stories set on Earth-2, most notably having married Batman and raised a daughter with him: Helena Wayne, who would debut as The Huntress in 1977’s DC Super-Stars #17, and dedicate herself to avenging her mother’s death at the hands of criminals.
The famous Crisis On Infinite Earths storyline in 1985 did away with the concept of Earth-2, and established one Earth with one set of DC characters (the Huntress would be integrated into this world under a new identity, given that her Earth-2 parents no longer existed). In the wake of Crisis, many of DC’s major heroes were revamped, with comics legend Frank Miller helming the Batman relaunch in Batman: Year One. Along with a new origin for Batman, many of his villains acquired new backstories as well. For Catwoman, this meant she was no longer an amnesiac stewardess; Miller provided her with the grittier background of a hardscrabble prostitute who turned to a life of crime as a means of escaping her dire situation and empowering herself.
1993 saw Catwoman get her first ongoing series, courtesy of writer Mary Jo Duffy and artist Jim Balent. Consistent with the era, this series was known for Catwoman’s highly provocative look in a form-fitting purple bodysuit, tail, and cat-o-nine tails whip. When her series was relaunched in 2001 by writer Ed Brubaker and artist Darwyn Cooke, this look was toned down in favor of a black body suit that displayed a more realistic physique, a visual that matches up with Michelle Pfeiffer’s costume in "Batman Returns," and has been kept mostly intact, with a few changes, for Anne Hathaway’s turn.
As of 2011’s New 52 revamp of the DC Universe, Catwoman has returned to her classic, complex relationship with Batman. He knows she works on both sides of the law, and yet cannot fully commit to taking her down. Yet with so many diverse portrayals of a character with so much history, "The Dark Knight Rises" is sure to have surprises in store even for comics-savvy audiences who assume they have Catwoman figured out. The one aspect consistent across Catwoman’s history is that no one, not even Batman himself, can ever truly be sure what to expect from her.
Which incarnation of Catwoman do you like best? Let us know what you think in the comment section or on Twitter!