A few months ago I started reading Deborah E. Whaley’s recent book, Black Women in Sequence: Re-inking Comics, Graphic Novels, and Anime. In it, Whaley explores how women of African descent are portrayed in various visual media. Besides this focus on representation, she also looks at pioneering Black women comics artists and writers and how they paved the way for greater diversity in multimedia. The book fills a void by providing what is likely the first such analysis in print of its kind. It’s also extremely readable and Whaley’s own love of comics shines through often. You can argue that a non-comics reader might approach the material with a clean slate while a comics reader might bring too much baggage tied to so many years of reading and participating with the medium. In Whaley’s case, her fandom never interferes with her methodologies while analyzing a subject that is clearly personally important to her.
Soon after I started the book, life and a handful of other books got in the way. I finally found some time the other night to finish the chapter on Catwoman (Selina Kyle) and her myriad representations across comics, TV, and films. Catwoman is probably the most recognizable female anti-hero in comics. She often occupies that grey zone between hero and villain, sometimes within the span of the same story. The connective tissue for most of her modern portrayals is that she’s a tough, smart woman who looks out for the marginalized citizens of her city, Gotham. Whaley notes that Selina incorporates elements of punk/Riot grrrl attitude and style into her costumed adventures in modern comics, which further endears to her a generation of fans influenced by that movement. So while she began her comics life in the 1940s as a classic femme fatale who couldn’t help flirting up a storm with Batman while in the act of committing crimes, Selina grew and evolved into a thoroughly modern and independent woman and anti-hero by the 1980s and 1990s.
If you always viewed Catwoman as white, you’d only be partially correct. Black actresses Eartha Kitt and Halle Berry played her in the ’60s Batman TV show and the Catwoman movie (and it should be noted that Berry’s secret identity was not Selina Kyle but instead Patience Phillips, a character created for the film), respectively, and in the comics she’s been said to be of Italian and Latina descent. In other words, Catwoman has had more non-white representations than you might expect and these instances contributed to her appeal with women of color. As a woman of color, Whaley herself experienced this connection with the character through years of reading her comics and also watching Kitt and Berry bring Catwoman to life on screen. The broad exposure of the series helped imprint this representation on many viewers, and while the film is considered an utter failure, it still impacted Whaley and others who saw another non-white Catwoman on screen. Selina’s Latina heritage in the comics further solidified some fans’ connection to her. Representation matters, clearly.
Whaley spent time on a DC message board not only for research for the book, but also because she’s a fan of comics. She asked fellow message boarders for their honest answers to a series of questions about Selina. Their answers were fascinating. When asked what Selina means to them, several people—women and men—expressed rather eloquently how she represents strength, compassion, and intelligence to them. Although she’s usually portrayed as sexy and even sexual, those aren’t her only defining characteristics to these fans, but instead two more of many that make her appealing. I wouldn’t have been surprised if many male readers liked Selina because she often oozes sex appeal, but Whaley’s research shows that plenty of males also feel a connection to Selina because of her personality and perseverance. She’s fought for everything she has in life, and this quality makes her highly relatable to her fans. Interestingly most of the respondents, including those who identified themselves as women of color, told Whaley they didn’t much care what Selina’s racial or ethnic heritage was. Maybe she’s vaguely Mediterranean or half Latina or even something else in the comics. She’s almost beyond ethnicity and instead seems to be whatever her fans want or need her to be. As a white male who’s read an awful lot of comics featuring Catwoman and considers himself a fan of the character, I came away from this chapter with a new appreciation for the her, thanks to Whaley’s research and insights. A large and ethnically diverse group of fans, including Whaley, see themselves or who they aspire to be reflected back at them through Catwoman. That’s a positive thing and one that should be explored and celebrated. Whaley does both very well here.
Whaley’s work on Catwoman helps reinforce just how fluid fictional characters can be, taking on different meanings for different people through various representations across media. Each person will bring his or her own experiences and preconceptions to the table when engaging with these characters. If you asked someone who they see when they think of Catwoman, you’d likely get several different responses. Some might answer Eartha Kitt, others Michelle Pfieffer, others still might name one of her comic book incarnations like Darwyn Cooke’s definitive take on Selina. It’s clear that a major reason why characters like Catwoman—and Batman and Sherlock Holmes and Wonder Woman and James Bond and on and on—have not only endured but thrived for so many decades is because writers and artists provide stories that allow readers to add further meaning through their own lived experiences. If you went into reading Whaley’s essay not realizing that Catwoman has been portrayed as more than simply white and a criminal, then you’d be surprised to learn of the complexities of the character, many of which have taken shape due to readers seeing themselves in her over the years. These characters belong just as much to their fans as they do to their creators. Whaley’s research and analysis show how that feeling of connection helps build a richer tapestry for the characters to inhabit.