May 28th, 2008
I had no idea….
You really wouldn’t have thought that one of Batman’s most famous rogues would have such a tangled backstory, would you? After sifting through that Nine Lives of Catwoman book, Ed Brubaker’s run, that shitty old Year One rip off miniseries and the most convoluted wikipedia entry I’ve read for any supervillain so far, I found myself absolutely none the wiser when it came to figuring out who the buggering fuck Selina Kyle is (or was) and where she came from. Catwoman’s sported enough spandex all-in-ones to start her own fashion line and has been, variously, a glamorous, uncostumed jewellery thief, a reformed criminal, a rich, kept, but abused housewife, a cat-gadget toting, punning and quipping 60s supervillainess, an unstable murderer, a prostitute, definitely not a prostitute but posing as one, a dominitrix, a street savvy rube and finally, in her present incarnation, a begoggled, leather-clad burglar.
And as for her supporting cast – her sister Maggie, her best friend and *pretend* daughter/little sister/ward Holly, Stan the pimp and her actual daughter, Helena – well, they’ve been run through more iterations than the original infinite earths could muster. Only sixty or so years of DC editorial could fuck it up this bad. No-one’s quite sure, even post-crisis, who the hell Catwoman really is. In short, then, Catwoman is one confused mess of a character, which is bloody ridiculous considering she’s as integral to the batverse as Two-Face and the Penguin. Sure, the latest take will be the one that’s considered cannon, but I think Cat’s many tailed, flailing history makes a mockery of that idea. And anyway, these posts aren’t about endorsing the current status quo, which I know is very strong, they’re about trying to make sense of and, hopefully, revitalise our top supervillains.
They could have made it easier…..
Selina Kyle, in the way that she’s so bloody difficult to pin down and the way that she resists easy categorization, is nothing if not hugely autonomous. Dogs are dependable – they’ll come when you call, they’ll do what they’re told… Basically, they’ll be whatever you want them to be. But cats? No chance. Catwoman ploughs her own furrow and no one take is enough to nail her. She’ll be off out the cat-flap before you can say ‘Catillac’. And this could be a good thing – afterall, if her psychological/historical slipperiness ceases to be an inevitable component of who and what she is, we’ll have lost an essential ingredient that defines her. She should be by turns unstable, solid as a rock, muderous and heroic – not in a giggling, white faced clown kinda way, but there needs to be a ‘I want to stroke your belly but I’m not sure if the fangs will come out’ schtick going on. You’re never sure if its a good idea to get too close. We may egg on her relationship with Batman, but she might give him a claw to the face if he gets too complacent and doesn’t remember exactly who he’s dealing with. For all of her realism, the modern Catwoman is missing some of the mystery and unpredictabilty that makes her such a great character.
And that leads on to the second point. Loads of bat-foes have mystery – what the bejesus is going on the Joker’s mind? who can fathom the puzzles of the Riddler? who is the Black Glove?, etc. – but none of them deal in the same brand of mystery as the Batman, the just-when-you-think-you’ve-got-me-cornered-I-suddenly-vanish-into-thin-air kind. Except for Catwoman. And I think, after perusing recent copies of the book, that this is one of her strengths that isn’t played to nearly as much as it should be. She’s a super thief, for lordy’s sake, and that’s not just about carrying around a swagbag-rucksack on yer back and hanging, suspended, from the ceiling above a priceless work of art in a vaulted showroom that’s riddled with hi-tech, anti-burglery hooha, no sir – its about nicking the bloody thing in such a way that the readers are left as bemused as the museum guards, who, only minutes after the crime’s commited, arrive on their scene scratching their heads, because the piece has gone but there’s no fingerprints, the skylight above appears untouched, and as for the burglar themselves….*?* Catwoman should be the Harry Houdini of crime. No one knows how she gets in and out, and if we do ever get a glimpse of it, we’re only left with more questions than we had before. Like one of those annoying Derren Brown tricks where he sets about explaining the bastard, but only so he can reaaally confound the fuck out of you when he sics the prestige on yer ass. In this regard Selina Kyle is a great batvillain. She meets Brucie baby on his own territory and sometimes, in fact quite often, beats him at his own game. The Penguin and co. don’t hang out on the rooftops and free-climb superscrapers, but Catwoman does. She’s in many respects Batman’s female equivalent. Well, if it wasn’t for a few things.
She’s a burglar, she’s a woman and she’s poor.
I’ve never been too at home with the idea that Catwoman was a sex-worker in the conventional sense. Dominitrix, fine, but an out-and-out ‘I’m was a prostitute with a brutal real-life pimp and everything’, not so much. To start with, it just feels a bit creepy and exploitative (and God knows there’s enough of that shit going around) – a post 80s vision of adult superheroics – but I also find it difficult to believe that a character as dangerous as Catwoman ever let herself get pushed around by anything as lowly as a man. But having said that, perhaps, a la the Joker, there’s nothing wrong with a big question mark hanging over Selina’s past (I mean, there is anyway). How she snatched and grabbed her super-identity might be better left unsolved, like the empty pedastal in the untouched museum. Catwoman is classy and alluring, sure (even though that’s probably just a trap), and she can pose as an it-girl if she chooses, but underneath it all she’s a kid from the streets. Why? Why can’t she be a bored housewife/society gal who turns to crime for kicks? Because these are the character elements that make her such a great foil for Batman.
Because who does she steal from?
People like Bruce Wayne. She’s up there on the wind-swept ledges for one reason and one reason only: to invade batland and rob rich men. The top of Gotham’s twim towers is Bruce Wayne’s safe space, isn’t it? It’s where he lives, yes? His domain? Wrong. Catwoman’s there too and she’s going to rub his face in it. I’ve got nothing against complexifying and humanizing Ms Kyle, but I still think she should be a criminal. She’s the working class kid made good who gives the finger to the aristocrats, exemplified by her batty arch-enemy. Okay, Wayne might have had a tough go of it, but a million young’uns the world over lose their parents every single day and its only because he’s so stinking rich that he can indulge and nurse that wound forever. Most people just have to get on with it. Poor Bruce, yes, but poor Selina? Definitely yes. Literally yes. ‘At least you get to work out your neuroses in a palace surrounded by stuffed tyranosaurs and batbikes…’, she seems to say. The point is, every time she thumbs her nose at Batman, something inside us should give a little cheer. Batman represents old money, old power and, essentially, patriarchy. He’s stiff and uptight and privileged. Selina Kyle is none of these things. Basically there’s an element of class war to everything she does and all of her best incarnations reflect this. Have a look at Year One again…
This is one of the reasons why DC writing staff and fans have had such an ambivalent relationship with the character. Thieves are bad, yes? Well, maybe not. Maybe its good to see a working class woman take charge and bring it to the big boys duking it out in the clouds. Afterall, they’re such an anally retentive, sexless bunch. Catwoman flaunts their po-faced self-righteousness in front of them, challenging it, mocking it – everything about her is designed to raise an eyebrow to their high and mighty attitude. These guys colonize the sky, like Greek Gods, but Cat’s not afraid to run a bit of home invasion on Mount Olympus. Selina, quite literally, gets away with it, and in the post-feminist nineties and zeroes what does she become but a super(anti)hero in her own right. We all instinctively question the financial and executive hegemony of the mega-rich. We no longer feel the need to desperately defend the rights of the arch-capitalist to his stack of money, and the modern take on Catwoman intuits this. She’s not presented as a straight down the line bad guy anymore because all of us have pinched a packet of chorizo from Tesco. Catwoman does steal from the rich and give to the poor, but the poor is herself. So, yeah, I think she should have a moral code but one that flies out the window when it comes to the world’s biggest diamond.
Take that, little Lord Fauntleroy!
When it comes to her aformentioned supporting cast, I don’t really give a damn. Except for Holly everyone else can take a running jump. That’s not to say there shouldn’t be other people in Catwoman’s life, just that no-one should take precendence over her little pal. Her relationship with Holly serves to underline Selina’s inability to settle, to remain fixed, owned or known by anyone. I like the idea that Holly is the only stable point in her wayward existence. That by bringing out the closeness between them, we effectively illuminate the lack of any real intimacy she shares with anybody else. By making Holly the exception to the rule, Selina emerges as even more independently minded, even more elusive. Holly should be the one corner of her life that Catwoman will defend tooth and nail. She’s the fulcrum and the repository for Selina’s past, all her secrets – her loves, her hates and fears – wrapped up in a tiny bundle of girlish flesh. In short, her defenseless humanity. The part of her that can be touched and loved and hurt. Everything and everyone else she should be able to drop at a moments notice, like a cat who discovers the neighbours supply tastier food than hir would be owners, who wanders out into the night one evening, never to return.
Finally, there’s the supernatural thing: cats and their nine lives. I don’t mean literal superpowers that allow Selina to thwart Thanatos, but, again, did she fall, or didn’t she? The Penguin must have skewered her with his umbrella that time, surely? Well, if you can’t pin her down in life, then you musn’t be too sure about her in death… That would go some way to explain all her different incarnations. She disappears for a while and returns, reinvented, to plague the penthouses of Gotham all over again. Perhaps the Joker isn’t the only DC baddy with a super-persona? Perhaps Catwoman enjoys one too, but an infinitely more benign one. If the Clown Prince of Crime is Batman’s distorted reflection, then possibly Selina Kyle’s different looks are all about tweaking his nose. ‘You’ve got a Batmobile, have you?’, she laughs. ‘Well I’ve got a new Catmobile too, but I stole all the parts!’
The problem with my position on Catwoman is, I think, that this take on the character doesn’t sit well with an ongoing book. How can she retain any real ambiguity if we’re prying into her innermost thoughts every week? This isn’t to say that I dislike the modern cat-book – I absolutely don’t – just that I don’t think she’s the pure form, the essential, platonic cat, that resides somewhere in the back of our minds. She’s just another good revision. I want to make it all fit. Just as Grant has melded the entirety of the bat-continuity together, I’d like to see the nine lives of Catwoman made sense of, split-leg skirts and all. I’m interested in interrogating Catwoman as super-position – the gestalt of all she is and has been. Perhaps each new persona is consciously arrived at, like a form of super-armour, like drag, and the throbbing core of her is deliberately fenced off in an attempt to not only shield itself, but also for fun. She undermines the hard surfaces of the known world viewed from the roof of Wayne Corp – the eternal whisper in Batman’s ear, Patricia Arquette in Lost Highway-style:
‘YOU CAN NEVER HAVE ME?’
Consciously deconstructing and reconstructing herself – in and out, like a good bank job – Catwoman can never be effectively policed.
If Batman’s a self made man, then Catwoman’s very definitely a self made woman and she’s probably more ingenious considering she’s had to work that much harder for all of it. Afterall, she didn’t have the luxury of trust-fund funded moral high ground when she was starting out.
Faster pussycat! Kill! Kill!
P.S. Obviously I’ve completely ignored the fact that Holly’s the new Catwoman. Do I look like I give a shit? Also, there needs to be more Catwoman stories with fuck off great black panthers.