BOOK WORLD: Tim Hanley traces how the comic book “feline fatale” Catwoman was purrfected over the decades.
Tim Hanley’s book deftly explores what’s made the comic book character tick
In early June, in the pages of Batman #24, after more than 75 years of fractious, febrile, onagain-off-again romantic fumbling, the Caped Crusader finally asked Catwoman to marry him.
If that nuptial news sent even the faintest zing through your heartstrings, then you belong to the cohort of prospective readers of Tim Hanley’s authoritative and agreeably chatty new book, “The Many Lives of Catwoman.”
The production of volumes that set out to chart a given comic book character’s evolving role in popular culture has expanded from a cottage industry into a bustling-provincial-village industry. (I’ve written a couple of my own, on Superman and Batman.) Hanley has written one on Lois Lane and another on Wonder Woman, which will be of interest to anyone curious to learn how thoroughly Gal Gadot’s inspiring big-screen version has grown beyond the character’s kinky, bondage-besotted roots.
Writing such books in the age of the Internet proves both a blessing and a curse. The Web provides ready access to a gleaming digital surfeit of primary sources — no more trolling through moldering comics caches in dank basements and stifling storage units. But the Internet’s sheer ubiquity must also give any decent comics historian pause. Dollars to doughnuts that Hanley, like me, has woken from a sound sleep, gripped with the sweaty fear that he’s just writing a 75,000-word Wikipedia entry.
Happily, he hasn’t. Oh, there’s plenty of picayune detail and assiduous sourcing, but that’s all in service to Hanley’s cogent argument that Catwoman works best when her chroniclers understand that she must transcend genre constraints.
For instance, the traditional noir femme fatale, who provides the polynucleotide backbone of Catwoman’s narrative DNA, usually ends up in prison or dead. Yet from her earliest adventures, Catwoman has nimbly avoided either fate. Just about every Catwoman tale ends with her eluding capture and disappearing into the night.
Likewise, Hanley points out, she chafes against the conventions of superhero storytelling. She is no damsel in distress, no moony-eyed Bat-groupie: Her sexuality is something she controls, not vice versa. She never pines after Batman; she flirts with him on her own terms.
And in the black-and-white world of costumed villainy and heroism, she has always carved out a space for herself in evershifting shades of gray. Her allegiances remain fluid. More an outlaw than a true villain, she keeps her own council.
Or at least, Hanley maintains, she should.
But comics — and the movies, television shows and video games she’s found herself in over the years — are made by people who hold competing visions of what makes a given character tick. Hanley delineates how portrayals of Catwoman have vacillated wildly over the years: For her every appearance as a cool, independent rogue who’s Batman’s equal, she’s clocked plenty of field time as a kitten-with-a-whip sex object in bondage gear.
The task Hanley has set for himself is to measure her notable appearances in popular culture against his Platonic ideal Catwoman — and to call out the portrayals he deems wanting. The chief pleasure of the book is Hanley’s blunt, matter-of-fact exasperation with those instances that have missed the mark. Of one artist’s infamously lascivious tenure on a Catwoman title, for example, Hanley sniffs, “His own fetishes and underexamined male perspective muddies the end product.” His take on Michelle Pfeiffer’s interpretation in “Batman Returns” (1992) is thoughtfully nuanced, while Halle Berry’s cringeworthy “Catwoman” (2004) stands exposed as the cinematic litter box it is.
A byproduct of reading Hanley’s well-argued book is the level of insight it provides on pseudoevents like June’s Bat-Proposal. After finishing it, you’ll know exactly what her answer should be: Catwoman is far too fierce and fabulous to saddle herself to anyone, let alone a square doofus like Batman.
But she should keep the ring anyway. Glen Weldon is the author, most recently, of “The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture.”
Eartha Kitt, top left, one of the women who played Catwoman in the 1960s series “Batman.” In “Gotham,” Camren Bicondova, right, is a young Selina Kyle, who will become Catwoman.
THE MANY LIVES OF CATWOMAN The Felonious History of a Feline Fatale By Tim Hanley Chicago Review. 291 pp. Paperback, $18.99