Thursday, June 1, 2017

Review: 'The Many Lives of Catwoman: The Felonious History of a Feline Fatale'


With the exception of The Joker, Catwoman has to be the most popular super villain in superdom—more infamous than Lex Luthor, the Green Goblin, Dr. Doom, or Batman’s other top nemeses, The Penguin and The Riddler, neither of whom has received his own comic series. And even The Joker has never been the title character of his very own feature film— though I’m pretty sure Catwoman isn’t too proud of that ammonia-scented stink bomb starring Halle Berry.

Nevertheless, Selina Kyle has had a decidedly rocky history. Despite debuting as an atypically in-control and unpunished woman at a time when virtuous female characters tended to reflect the extremely limited concepts of femininity common in the forties and femme fatales always received their comeuppance, Catwoman eventually succumbed to the nasty whims of her mostly male creators. She might be declawed in plot lines that wed her to bland Bruce Wayne or tortured luridly. Even when more progressive minded writers gave Catwoman something to do, childish artists depicted her as a sex object to be ogled. And on the number of occasions when she became too much of a handful, she was erased altogether. In fact, after she had the distinction of being Gotham’s only villain to get a mention in Frederic Wertham’s comics-industry-rocking excoriation Seduction of the Innocent in 1954, Catwoman was isolated in the kennel for twelve years until Julie Newmar repopularized her on TV.

Needless to say, the fact that Catwoman is a woman is intrinsically tied to her difficult history, which Tim Hanley relates in his new book The Many Lives of Catwoman: The Felonious History of a Feline Fatale. The author studies how his topic was treated in comics, television, film, and video games, noting the positive depictions (her initial appearances in the comics and later ones in The Long Halloween and Catwoman: When in Rome, her treatment on Bill Dozier’s sixties TV series and today’s Gotham, as well as Tim Burton’s Batman Returns) and the less positive ones that objectified and patronized her. The take away from this book is that Catwoman was a great female character full of potential, but the small minds in the patriarchal comics industry rarely knew what to do with her.

Hanley supports his thesis with an intense look at Catwoman’s many appearances (and absences). This can get a tad tedious since he spends a lot of time summarizing comics arcs, and while his constant quoting of the awful dialogue in Batman Returns doesn’t undermine his argument that the film offers a positive, feminist depiction of Catwoman, it does fog up a discussion of the film’s most positive attribute by continuously reminding us of its shittiest one.

The Many Lives of Catwoman still manages to be an excellent study as a whole, achieving a skillful balance of history and analysis. Hanley integrates his cultural findings with neat details about the Catwoman film Burton and Michelle Pfeiffer intended to make, the original casting choice for her first TV incarnation (not Julie Newmar), and the woman who quite possibly inspired her in the first place (not Jean Harlow or Hedy Lamarr as Bob Kane would have you believe). The Many Lives of Catwoman definitively captures Catwoman’s history, compellingly explains how she has bucked and reflected society’s treatment of women, and relates it all with attentiveness and humor. Hanley
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