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

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY GLEN WELDON book­world@wash­post.com

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.”

KITT: ASSOCIATED PRESS; BICONDOVA: JUSTIN STEPHENS/FOX

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

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