Tim Hanley on The Many Lives of Catwoman

Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman in Batman Returns (1992)

Tim Hanley (author of Wonder Woman Unbound and Investigating Lois Lane) is back with another superhero spotlight book, The Many Lives of Catwoman. I recently talked to Tim about all things Catwoman, from Michelle Pfeiffer’s iconic performance in Batman Returns to the dubious ’90s era featuring salacious Jim Balent art and the more recent, critically acclaimed run by Ed Brubaker and Darwyn Cooke, and everything in between.

Michael Campochiaro: After books on Wonder Woman and Lois Lane, you’ve chosen Catwoman as the subject of your latest historical/critical analyses. What influenced your decision to shine the spotlight on her?

Tim Hanley: Part of the reason is that I’ve been a huge Catwoman fan since I was a kid. I was six years old when Batman Returns came out, Batman: The Animated Series started soon after, and the old live action Batman show was always on, so as a child I was steeped in great Batman entertainment with some of the best Catwomen ever. As I was contemplating my next book, getting to revisit all of those great versions of Catwoman as well as so many other fascinating incarnations of the character seemed like it could be a blast (and it was!). I was also interested in looking at the gender politics of the superhero industry from a new perspective. Wonder Woman and Lois are very different characters, but they’re both heroines and their evolution follows the broad strokes of the history of women in America generally. Catwoman has been a villain for most of her career, and this made her an outsider with a very unique path over the decades, something completely different from what we got with Wonder Woman and Lois, and that was very cool to explore.

Your chapter on Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman in Batman Returns reminded me of just how outrageously good she was in the role. What made her performance so special? And how was it similar to and yet different than her idol Julie Newmar’s turn in the skintight cat-costume?

Yeah, Michelle Pfeiffer was an absolutely phenomenal Catwoman, and I think that came from the dedication she brought to the role. She’s a great actress, of course, but she also had to train extensively to be able to do a lot of the action and stuntwork. And on short notice as well! Annette Bening was supposed to play Catwoman, but she got pregnant shortly before filming began and dropped out. Pfeiffer was a last minute addition to the cast and had to really throw herself into training to make it work, which she did with aplomb. She also embraced the difficulties of the shoot; the costume was tight and hard to breathe in, and the sets were often freezing cold, but she fought through all of that to give a great performance. It was clear both on screen and behind the scenes that she loved this character and was committed to making her the best she could be.

Her performance certainly resembled a sort of ratcheted up version of Newmar’s Catwoman. Batman Returns was more sexy and violent than the old Batman show ever was, but the core of Newmar’s Catwoman was her flirtatiousness and her physicality, and Pfeiffer captured that in spades. Both characters were written similarly as well, unrepentant villains who liked to toy with Batman and actually did have feelings for him but at the end of the day were far more interested in achieving their own goals than setting them aside for romance.

Can you discuss the disconnection between art and story during the infamous Jim Balent era in the 1990s, and how that impacted Selina moving forward?

The stories in this era were remarkable in two ways. First, they had a very strong depiction of Catwoman as a clever, powerful, and often feminist character, and second, almost half of the issues of the Catwoman series were written by women, a level of female creator participation that was massive for the time. But yes, the art was at odds with these stories. Jim Balent drew an exaggeratedly curvaceous Catwoman with a costume so tight that it looked like it was painted on, and he never missed an opportunity to put her in something skimpier or depict every other female character in the same manner. It was a bizarre pairing of hyper-sexualized art with relatively solid and often progressive storytelling, and Catwoman fans seem to have very conflicting feelings on this era.

It’s impacted the character in interesting ways since. In the short term, it led to a reboot of the series in 2002 that continued the strong storytelling but put an emphasis on presenting Catwoman as stylish and classy rather than objectifying her. The change in art was a direct reaction to her depiction throughout the 1990s. More long term, though, sexualized depictions of Catwoman have come to the fore again recently through properties like the Batman: Arkham video game series and the Catwoman comic book’s 2011 reboot, and I think some of that can be traced back to how Balent presented her.

Jim Balent’s Catwoman, from Catwoman #22 (1995)

At the other end of the spectrum, Ed Brubaker’s run is rightly regarded as having established a modern take on Selina Kyle that respects her and avoids objectification. Can you talk a little about how Brubaker made Selina a more empowered character?

Yeah, Brubaker’s run was the 2002 reboot I just mentioned that consciously took the character in this different direction. Brubaker teamed with artist Darwyn Cooke, who redesigned Catwoman’s outfit to be more practical than racy and drew her in a cartoonish style rather than Balent’s hyper-sexualized realism. In terms of story, Brubaker brought a bit of a noir sensibility to Catwoman, making her the morally ambiguous defender of Gotham City’s East End. She wasn’t a hero, exactly, but she used her skills to keep her turf safe and free of more dangerous criminals. He also surrounded her with several other female characters that were unique and compelling in their own right, and Brubaker’s depiction of Holly and Karon, Catwoman’s assistant and her girlfriend, won him a GLAAD Award in 2004.

Representation matters. In the comics it was once revealed that Selina was Latina, while in films and television she’s been portrayed by actresses of color like Eartha Kitt and Halle Berry. What does this say about the fluidity of the character over the years, and why are these various forms of representation important?

Catwoman has a great history of being depicted as a woman of color, and that’s rare in the superhero industry. It is a staggeringly white genre, owing largely to so many characters being created decades ago, but Catwoman’s been a special case. Because she’s been reinvented and rebooted so many times, different elements have been a part of her character over the years and race has been a key part of this, starting with Eartha Kitt. Casting her as Catwoman in 1967 was a bold move by the producers of Batman, and it’s added a dynamic to the character that has allowed her to bring some much needed representation to the world of superheroes. Everyone deserves to see themselves in comics, movies, and other superhero media, and that’s something the genre isn’t good at. Even Catwoman, who’s been a woman of color on multiple occasions, has been depicted as white for the vast majority of her history. DC’s done so in recent years, in both the comics and Anne Hathway’s turn as Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises, but I’ve got my fingers crossed that we’ll see another woman of color playing Catwoman as the DC cinematic universe continues to expand. The more representation the better, and Catwoman is the ideal character to be part of expanding it.

Catwoman #1 (2002), with Darwyn Cooke’s iconic redesign.

You note in the book how many times Selina was shelved in the comics, sometimes for long periods of time, including a twelve-year stretch from the 1950s through the 1960s. What were some of the reasons for her disappearances in the pages of DC’s comics?

Because Catwoman was a supporting character for the bulk of her history, anytime she became at all inconvenient she ended up shelved. In 1954, Dr. Fredric Wertham argued that there were homoerotic undertones to Batman and Robin in his anti-comics screed Seduction of the Innocent and mentioned Catwoman by name as the sort of vicious, undesirable woman that went after Batman but had “no chance against Dick.” In what can’t be a coincidence, Catwoman then disappeared from DC comic books for the next 12 years. The success of the Batman television show brought her back in the late 1960s, but after the Batmania bubble burst, she was reduced to just a handful of appearances over the next decade. When Frank Miller rebooted Batman in 1986 and turned Catwoman into a dominatrix and prostitute, DC didn’t seem to know what to do with her and Catwoman entered another quiet phase until Batman Returns brought her back. DC’s reaction to any trouble at all with Catwoman has often been to just cut and run.

What are your thoughts on the decades-long imbalance of power between Batman and Catwoman, especially with regards to their secret identities and each character’s agency within the relationship?

Catwoman’s certainly been on the short end of the stick in this regard. Throughout the 1980s, Selina dated both Batman and Bruce Wayne at different points, not knowing they were one and the same, and he regularly used his alter ego to spy on Selina or manipulate her in some way. He knew that Selina was Catwoman from the get go, and so he had this bizarre upper hand throughout the relationship. The same was true in many Batman adaptations; Batman often learns Catwoman’s secret identity much sooner than she learns his. It’s a skewed dynamic that gives all the power to Batman and leaves Catwoman in the dark, and it can make for uncomfortable storytelling. Also, it’s inevitably more fun when Catwoman knows the truth. Having them on the same page is such a compelling dynamic, whether they’re romantically involved or not. Catwoman’s always a handful for Batman, and doubly so when she knows his secret identity and can toy with him that way. It makes for much more enjoyable and much less lopsided stories.

An ad for a short lived solo backup feature, Batman #345 (1982), artist unknown.

Among top-tier comic book characters, Catwoman is fairly unique. She’s remained such an intriguing character over the years because she straddles that line between good and bad, and even at her worst she’s still guided by a sense of decency, it seems. What are your thoughts on her unique position within the world of comics?

It was a very intentional position from the start. When Bill Finger and Bob Kane created Catwoman in 1940, they wanted a counter to violent, disturbed villains like the Joker, someone who was a villain but who wasn’t trying to kill Batman. Across her varied incarnations over the years, the bulk of Catwoman’s depictions have stayed true to this unusual middle ground and it’s made her such an interesting character. The superhero world is often starkly black and white, heroes vs. villains, and Catwoman’s always existed in shades of grey. It’s made her remarkably versatile; few characters have been a member of the Secret Society of Super Villains AND the Justice League of America over the course of their careers. These shades of grey also make Catwoman so much more exciting than other characters because you’re never quite sure what she’s going to do or which side of her is going to come out. It creates a fascinating dynamic, too, because while she’s got a good heart and has lines she won’t cross, her penchant for villainy often leads to mistrust from heroes when she’s operating on the side of good. Catwoman’s a bit of a wild card, and because of this she enlivens every story she’s in.

This is the third in a series of books you’ve written on popular female comic book characters. You’re doing important work here by exploring what makes these particular characters so enduring while looking at their relationships to ideas of representation, agency, and empowerment. Do you have plans for further books focusing on other characters?

Yeah, I’d love to do more! There are so many fascinating female characters in superhero comic books whose histories are largely unexplored and underappreciated, and it would be so much fun to bring them to light. I’ve got some plans for where to go next, but further books will of course depend on the success of my current books. So if you like deep dives into the unique and bizarre histories of female comic book characters, check out the Catwoman book and hopefully there will be more on the way soon!

You can order a copy of The Many Lives of Catwoman here. Also, be sure to visit Tim’s Tumblr, where he regularly shares fun Catwoman-related content.

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Michael Campochiaro works in academic publishing and spends any free time he can find reading and drawing. You can read more of Michael's musings at his blog, Words Seem Out Of Place.

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