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Kittens With a Whip

CINESCAPE chronicles the ten lives of Catwoman

By Arnold T. Blumberg     December 01, 2001


The earliest version of Catwoman, as she appeared throughout the Golden Age.
© DC Comics
We all know the old saying about a cat having nine lives, but what about Catwomen? Well, with Ed Brubaker and Co. launching an all-new incarnation of the feline felon for DC Comics (the first issue is out this week), this particular cat has now exceeded her allotment of lives, at least according to our reckoning. Fortunately for her, there appears to be no limit to her life or popularity. Fans have always been partial to her particular form of seductive sinfulness and have embraced her with every new interpretation of her character (although not as much as presumably they would like to, but let's not get too vulgar). Since her debut in the very first issue of Batman way back in 1940, Selina Kyle AKA the Catwoman has transformed with the times through comics, television, and film, confounding the Dark Knight detective and playing havoc with the moral resolve of our hero. On the occasion of her latest "rebirth," we offer our own unique purr-spective on the Catwomen of the past. Watch those claws!

The new Catwoman sans mask...

o The Cat (1940) She wasn't named yet, nor was she costumed in any colorful outfit, but the woman who would be Selina appeared in Batman #1 as a nameless cat burglar who so enthralled Batman that he let her escape the law. This was a rarity in superhero comics, particularly at a time when heroes had no qualms about meting out some pretty permanent justice. Unfortunately for Batman's troubled love life, his world had just gotten a bit more complicated. The Catwoman would return...

o Golden Age/Earth 2 Catwoman (1940s-1970s) Most older comic book fans remember Selina Kyle in this incarnation, with her whip and distinctive purple garb. In this guise she embarked on a decades-long career of feline-themed crime, all the while confusing the Dark Knight by making him feel things he'd never felt in his utility belt before. She even demonstrated a desire to improve herself on more than one occasion. Her sporadic good deeds suggested a better side to this catsuited criminal, or perhaps love was indeed conquering all. In an imaginary alternate timeline (isn't all of this imaginary?), this incarnation eventually married Bruce Wayne and died in 1977.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman in BATMAN RETURNS

o Television Catwoman (1966) Simply purr-fect. That's the only way to describe Julie Newmar's delightfully kinky interpretation of the character for the camp classic BATMAN TV series. With her lush voice, swaying curves and wry sense of humor, this was the Catwoman most fans fell in love with, and the one that all future incarnations had to live up to or compete with as they staked their claim on the mantle of the Cat. The Newmar Catwoman was a highlight of the era, but she wasn't the only one to don the ears and bedevil Adam West's paunchy purveyor of justice...

o TV Film Catwoman (1966) Owing to logistical concerns, Newmar was unable to recreate her role for the quickly produced feature film version of the BATMAN TV series, leaving the door open for yet another version of the Cat to emerge, this time essayed by former Miss America Lee Ann Meriwether. While she lacked the pure sex appeal of Newmar, Meriwether did get to explore the character a bit more, even romancing Bruce as "Miss Kitka," a Russian journalist. In the end, when her real identity is revealed, Batman must repress his feelings of loss and betrayal and do his duty as a duly designated representative of Gotham law enforcement. What a guy.

Purrrrrrrr... Julie Newmar as Catwoman in the '60s BATMAN TV show.

o TV Catwoman II (1967) They should've chained Newmar to the stage (which presents an interesting picture, but never mind). When Season 3 of BATMAN rolled around, the quintessential Cat was nowhere to be seen, and in her place was Eartha Kitt. She tried her best but couldn't possibly replace Julie's purr-fect portrayal. Kitt may not have been the best TV Catwoman, but she did have a good voice for the part, and some fans rather purr-versely consider her superior to Newmar. For shame! Forty lashes with a cat-o-nine-tails.

Adrienne Barbeau voices the darker animated incarnation of the Catwoman.

o Year One Catwoman (1987) Frank Miller spearheaded a rethinking of the character when he presented his now classic "Year One" story arc in the pages of the BATMAN comic book. A prostitute looking for vengeance, this incarnation of Selina Kyle had quite a sordid past, and possessed a bitterness never before seen in the character. At a time when the superhero genre was skewing toward those "grim and gritty" tales, this Catwoman embraced the darkness and laid the groundwork for several interpretations to come, including one that would almost erase the image of Julie Newmar in that sprayed-on suit...

o Black Leather Catwoman (1992) What fanboy could resist the attraction of seeing A-list Hollywood actress Michelle Pfeiffer swathed in black leather and preening like a contented kitten in Tim Burton's feature film, BATMAN RETURNS? That sound you heard was the sudden surge in pulse rates across the country as Pfeiffer's Selina slinked onto the silver screen and enthralled a nation of comic book readers. This Selina was sort of a zombie, resurrected after an apparent death and not quite playing with a full deck, but she retained her romantic fascination with the Bat and his daytime alter ego. She pays the price for her criminal activity...or does she? This version of the character may rear her pointy-eared head again when Ashley Judd dons the skintight suit for a spin-off feature soon to be produced. Some fans have already camped out at their local theaters.

...and the new Catwoman with mask and goggles in place!

o Catwoman Redux (1990s) Following the success of the second Burton Batman feature film, DC poured its efforts into revitalizing Catwoman in the comics. Artist Jim Balent provided his own distinctive take on the character, with a purple-suited, pneumatically enhanced Princess of Plunder taking to the streets and often doing her bit for the good side. She even ran into the ultimate Bad Girl, Vampirella, in a memorable crossover. Well, Balent's artwork was memorable anyway.

o Cartoon Catwoman (1990s) As voiced by Adrienne Barbeau, this grey-suited seductress owes a lot to Catwomen of the past. Part animal rights activist, part cat burglar, and part-time heroine, the animated Catwoman was later redesigned with a more sinister all-black suit and a slightly different disposition.

Jim Balent enhanced Catwoman's ample curves in the '90s.

o New and Improved Catwoman (2001) The Cat comes back in her latest life courtesy of Ed Brubaker, Darwyn Cooke and Mike Allred. Adopting the popular animated (or "storyboard") artistic style but deriving its major themes from the "Year One" incarnation of Catwoman, Brubaker's new series will establish a Cat for the 21st century. Selina will sport a new version of her trademark togs, at times jettisoning the ubiquitous headpiece entirely. While the series promises to offer a new look at an old character, this is only the most recent variation on a theme that began with Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and the other originators of the Batman mythos over sixty years ago.

No matter what her appearance, Catwoman is a male fantasy made manifest, with a complex personality hidden behind the comic book clichés. A cunning villainess with a peculiar sense of decency that occasionally clashes with her desire for loot, Catwoman eschews grand schemes of world domination or mass murder for simple escapades designed to net her a profit. Her malleable personality leads her to adopt a heroic role whenever the environment turns particularly ugly, but left to her own devices she will usually revert to her felonious feline persona. She's one of the few foes that Batman finds as irresistible as he does irritating, and it's that sexual tension that has fueled their relationship for six decades. No matter what costume she's wearing or what side of the law she happens to occupy at the time, fans can't help but find Selina Kyle purr-fectly provocative.

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