Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman adorned my high school locker, but it wasn’t until recently that I’ve made any real attempt to get to know this character. I’ve always liked Selina Kyle, but I didn’t know why, beyond having an affinity for feline-esque, rule-defying women. Yet she sits among my trifecta of female anti-heroes, alongside Aeon Flux and Modesty Blaise.
When DC’s New 52 offered me the opportunity to get to know Selina Kyle from the rebooted beginning, I seized it–only to get caught up in the subsequent controversy over Catwoman’s brazen relationship with Batman. Gratuitous splash page aside, I wasn’t offended by the current status of their sex life. Instead, I was more curious about this angry, violent–extremely violent–and reckless woman that writer Judd Winick and artist Guillem March gave us. I wanted to understand where this violence was coming from and why Batman was both unable to resist her and unable to stop her. But no matter what aspect of Catwoman #1 the controversy focused on, what struck me most was the complaint that this was not the “lady” both fans and Bruce Wayne had fallen for in her previous incarnations.
Anne Hathaway’s recent portrayal of Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises certainly embraces the “lady thief” that Bob Kane and Bill Finger brought to life in Batman #1 in 1940. Modeled after the sensual Hollywood leading lady, Jean Harlow, Bob Kane wanted to bring sex appeal and a bit of spicy romance to Batman’s life. They envisioned a feline as the antithesis of the bat and came up with “The Cat,” the classy cat burglar with a penchant for shiny things and an eye on the upper class. Batman couldn’t help but be attracted to her even though she broke the rules. Still, Selina Kyle had a moral code. Murder was not on her list of villainy, and more importantly, she had an almost reluctant sense of altruism that has led her to become Batman’s trusted ally as often as his enemy.
Since the New 52 Catwoman controversy, I’ve been slowly working my way through some of the older Catwoman stories in order to try and get to know the Lady Selina Kyle fans speak of. My reading has included Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee’s Batman: Hush, where Batman and Catwoman finally take their flirtatious dance to the next level. While I was happy to see them together, the pairing felt forced and superficial in what I felt was a poorly written story over all.
Paul Dini and artist Derek Fridolfs continue the story with Batman: Heart of Hush, which takes place some time after the couple have parted, though they still share a bond that the villain, Hush, exploits. Outside of the main storyline, these two books vaguely touch on the relationship between Batman and Catwoman, while stories like Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Catwoman: When in Rome give us more of Selina’s decadence as she hunts for answers about her past and tries to escape her daydreams about Batman.
Most recently, I read Ed Brubaker and Cameron Stewart’s Catwoman Volume 2: No Easy Way Down, which was recommended to me as the definitive Catwoman story.
“She’s a creature of instinct and planning, of rigid desire and unpredictable contingencies, shifting between them the way the rest of us breathe.” Catwoman Volume 2: No Easy Way Down
It is a character based noir story, that gives us a lot of details about Selina’s past. Her origins have changed over the years, depending on the era and who is writing her, but the consensus seems to involve a tough life on the streets, fighting to survive by whatever means necessary. No Easy Way Down takes Catwoman back to Alleytown, the home of Gotham’s underprivileged and forgotten. But Brubaker makes it clear that Selina does not forget her roots or her friends as she performs some Robin Hood-like feats to take care of them. Even Bruce recognizes the good she does and turns a blind eye to the source of some of her funding.
The New 52 Selina Kyle bears some vague resemblance to her former self. There is the harsh upbringing on the streets, an eye for valuable treasures, and an occasionally self-indulgent lifestyle, but this Selina Kyle is missing the altruism, the careful planning, the loyalty to–and responsibility for–her friends. She is most certainly not a sophisticated lady. Unapologetically, she does not try to be. She is little more than a force of destruction that Batman is powerless to stop, either because of his attraction to her, because he knows she needs to work things out on her own, or both. At age 23, the capriciousness of youth is apparently to blame for her utter irresponsibility, and her violent past is supposed to make us sympathetic to her self-annihilation.
Reading this, I hoped that the creative team behind Catwoman Volume 1: The Game was grooming this Selina Kyle into the one previously known and loved. I wanted to believe that this reboot was giving us an earlier Selina with the potential to become the sophisticated woman that Batman loved and respected. I saw, in this new Selina, the opportunity for a lot of personal growth. While her life might initially be about careening from one disaster to another, she remains the strong woman who can and will pick herself up when she hits a wall, and, while she is very independent, she is not so stubborn that she doesn’t know when to ask for help. She doesn’t need Batman to “fix” her, as much as he might believe he can. She is still a person who understands the value of friendship, even if it has taken the loss of her friends to show her the responsibility of such relationships.
I’ve only scratched the surface of the older Catwoman stories, but now that I have read them, my hopes of New 52 Selina’s growth and redemption are fading. Even if the new Selina does eventually become the woman Bob Kane and Bill Finger created so long ago, I’m not sure I want to stick around for the ride. Instead, I have come to empathize with the fans who feel as if they have lost their lady, and wish that we could have her back.