The Many Lives of Catwoman

Dodano: 4 September 2017

[Total: 26]

I was delighted when I was asked to write a book review of The Many Lives of Catwoman: The Felonious History of a Feline Fatale by Tim Hanley. It is all the more important to have a woman reviewer in a men-dominated superhero world, and even the book about a feline heroine was written by a man notwithstanding his experience of writing about female figures from the DC Universe.

Hanley, as a comic book historian, is the author of the publication about the most famous super-heroine (Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous Heroine [2014]) and of the most famous “ordinary” girl (Investigating Lois Lane: The Turbulent History of the Daily Planet’s Ace Reporter [2016]).

Nevertheless, I read the comic with some fears, as writing about Catwoman in 2017 must involve great courage. Numerous fan pages are a real repository of knowledge, whereas encyclopedic pages, elaborate and full of details about the subsequent incarnations of Catwoman, present her new-old adventures, alternative biographies, which are above all constantly updated. Therefore, can the book written by such a meticulous researcher as Hanley surprise you?

The cover tempts you with an extremely attractive description, according to which the purpose of The Many Lives of Catwoman is to “discover numerous incarnations of this icon of culture,” and which “offers a new look at the superhero species as well as shows the extraordinary resilience that has made Catwoman a fan favorite for decades”. Hanley explains how it is possible despite the fact that she was occasionally absent from the screen or comic pages for years.

Regardless of the fact whether or not they indirectly comment on social norms, comic heroes usually operate in clear-cut frameworks: superheroes are good and villains need to be reformed or eliminated. The frameworks were strictly followed especially in the Golden Age of comic books. Catwoman is an extremely interesting character because she is difficult to be categorized. Once Bill Finger and Bob Kane created her in 1940, they wanted her to be a counterweight to such villains as Joker; they wanted someone who would also be a criminal, but did not try to kill Batman at the same time; quite on the contrary – she would have a romantic relationship with him. Catwoman once was a thief, once a guardian of law and order, once had both the roles simultaneously. Since feminine characters in comics have been limited to damsels in distress, Catwoman used her charm to manipulate Batman and avoid justice. At the same time, her uniqueness has always been a curse. Hence, on the one hand, she was frequently excluded from the superhero world and absent for long periods; whereas, on the other hand, she was presented as a sexual object as a consequence of being created mainly by men.

Hanley presents over 75 years of Catwoman’s career in all media in 12 chapters: from her debut in comics, through television, film, animation to computer games. He starts with the deconstruction of the well-known myth that Kane was the only creator of Batman. He uses harsh language to note that Finger was the author of the majority of significant elements of the universe legend (the name of Gotham City, to mention just one example), and Kane was only a cartoonist. Then he goes on to his next lies, which were directly linked to Catwoman such as her similarity to Jean Harlow and Hedy Lamarr. Next, he provides a detailed description of the comic episode in which she made her debut in the spring of 1940.

In the next chapter, he elaborates on the complex morality of Catwoman and her equally complicated relationship with Batman, which becomes even more romantic after the war; and he also outlines a new incarnation: she is no longer a mere thief, but a super criminal and she also gets a Kitty Car! Then, after Seduction of Innocent by Frederick Wertham having been published in 1954, she disappears from the comic for 12 years and returns only as a television character played by Julie Newmar, Lee Mertiwether, and finally by Eartha Kitt, the first black Catwoman.

Hanley discusses all subsequent “lives” of Catwoman: he continues the story of the heroine in the comic, starting from Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend, through Huntress’s mother to a former prostitute, in Frank Miller’s typical sexist version. After that, DC Comics had no idea what to do with her, hence Catwoman’s long absence again. She was only restored by Batman’s Return. Hanley points out that Catwoman wears more or less clothes depending on whether the authors of Catwoman’s adventures were finally women (Mindy Newell, Jo Duffy, Deborah Pomerantz, Joan Weis), or they were still men. She appears and disappears in animations, computer games, each time differently presented and treated. The problem with such a wonderful, dubious character as Catwoman lies in the fact that the patriarchal industry still patronizes and objectifies her, and often does not know what to do with her, hence her long exiles.

My first thought after reading The Many Lives of Catwoman was that this book should not be called “The Many Lives of Catwoman”, but simply “Many Catwomen”. I have the impression that the only thing that connects all the incarnations is the name, and not always, as it turns out! Once she was called Selina, once Selena, and sometimes Catgirl. Initially, she was a girl with amnesia, then a wife, then a prostitute, to finally become a wealthy animal activist. Her sexual orientation also occasionally changes, e.g. in Catwoman # 39, Selina turns out to be bisexual. Hanley skillfully brings together the individual lives, which subsequent writers blithely fabricated without paying heed to the past. I have the impression that the only thing that is consistent in this character is its total inconsistency.

The author accurately describes how individual authors changed not only Catwoman’s biography, her personality, appearance, but also the way of drawing, e.g. Jim Balent always drew her almost naked, even when she was at home, he draw her mostly in underwear or having a shower.

Hanley also shows absurd and paradoxes in the heroine’s incarnations or in her surroundings, which are sometimes difficult to comprehend. For instance, Holly Robinson from Miller’s comic Batman. Year One suddenly returned in Ed Brubaker’s work although he had been dead for over a decade.

The great advantage of this book is that Catwoman’s and other characters’ “many lives” refer not only to the DC Universe but to Marvel one as well. So it is not only the story of Catwoman, but also the story of the comic and the comic industry as such, including the lives of individual cartoonists, because the author explains the phenomena associated with the characters always in a wide cultural context.

While discussing Catwoman’s twelve-year absence caused by a wretched book entitled Seduction of Innocent, Hanley points out to the reader how dangerous was that book to the entire comic industry. The psychiatrist’s insinuations concerning an allegedly close relationship between Batman and Robin and the “homosexual and anti-feminine” atmosphere in the comic, and “if a girl looks good, she is undoubtedly a villain”, led to the only viable solution, which was the deletion of Catwoman from the comic.

Superheroes have always reflected the cultural climate and political moods, so Catwoman’s story can also be viewed as a story of feminism: the manner in which the individual “Catwomen” are depicted reflects the treatment of women in American society in a given period. Hanley notes that one of the first reactions to the growing women’s liberation movement was the introduction of Batgirl, an educated and skilled heroine, completely independent of every male character.

Catwoman’s story is also a story of a superhero character seen from the point of view of a female criminal, which is in line with the author’s intentions. Did this work? Not exactly. It is clearly noticeable that Hanley’s book was written by a man, the best example of which is the long passages devoted to the description of the shape of the heroines’ breast (similar objections have been put forward by male reviewers!).

However, The Many Lives of Catwoman can be surely regarded as an attempt to present this character in the context of popular culture: she was extremely popular at times, but sometimes sunk into oblivion for years. Because of its colloquial, unscientific, and sometimes very playful language (“in fact, of course, he was not dead. He’s Batman for God’s sake”), the book is read fast and pleasantly as it were a fascinating biography expanded by all the events, characters and authors who have shaped the character. If one expects an in-depth analysis, one may become disappointed. Hanley neither does research, nor comments, but solely discusses the facts. What he takes into account is the historical background and the general status of American comic books. This book is rather a good starting point for further research. For me, as a scientist, the lack of footnotes is a disadvantage although I realize that this nonchalance is an advantage for most readers. Nevertheless, I am annoyed by such statements as “some critics” without giving any names, or “Catwoman was mentioned once or twice in The Justice League“. However, in my opinion, the author of a book about a super heroine could have checked how many times her name appears in a particular movie, all the more that Hanley usually likes precision, numbers, charts and statistics.

It is not a strictly popular science book, it is sometimes rather a collection of descriptions of individual episodes, excessively detailed at times, which can be an asset, though. Hanley provides detailed plot summaries, sometimes quotes parts of dialogues, painstakingly describes changes in Catwoman’s anatomy so that she can read about, without even knowing movies or comic books.

Fans may be weary of these endless descriptions, but people who have seen Catwoman only once or twice due to Burton’s or Nolan’s films will be grateful for illuminating the subject. On the other hand, fans will definitely appreciate that 220 pages contain Catwoman’s all lives plus a wide context (because there is probably no area that Hanley has not discussed), and plenty of trivia such as the comical Halle Berry’s speech delivered during the reception of a Golden Raspberry.

The author of the above review is Kamila Tuszyńska , Ph.D. , a narratologist, comic theorist, media expert, lecturer. She is the author of book “Narration in the Graphic Novel [Narratology of Graphic Novels: an Introduction]”, PWN. She is also a member of international associations of comic book researchers: the European International Bande Dessinée Society and Nordic Network for Comics Research and the American Comics Studies Society; a member of international associations of narrative research scholars: the European Narratology Network and the American International Society for the Study of Narrative; and a reviewer of “Zeszyty Komiksowe [“Comic Book Reviews”].

We would like to thank the publisher Chicago Review Press  for providing us with a copy of the book for this review.

Title: “The Many Lives of Catwoman: The Felonious History of a Feline Fatale”

Author: Tim Hanley

Publisher: Chicago Review Press

Published in: 1st of July 2017

Volume: 304 p.

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