Catwoman reloaded

A new comic scrapbook shows why the feline in the shiny black bodysuit has the power to undo even the most rock-jawed superstuds.

Topics: Sex, Love and Sex,

Catwoman reloaded

The first time I laid eyes on Catwoman wasn’t in a comic book but on the ’60s TV series “Batman.” At age 4, I had no idea that the show was meant to be camp (or what camp was — apart from a place I had no desire to go). I started watching at the behest of my cousin Judy, who was my age and as taken with it as I would become.

I still vividly remember the two of us sitting in my living room in front of my grandparents’ massive old console television set. And I’ll never forget the first thing I saw: Julie Newmar as Catwoman, walking up to a jewelry store window in the dead of night, cutting a perfect circle in the glass with one of her sharpened claws (who knew you could cut glass?), and reaching in to remove a glittering diamond necklace.

I don’t think it was Catwoman I was smitten with as much as her larcenous behavior. I knew she was supposed to be a “bad guy” but just being able to take what you wanted looked fun. Later, I can’t remember whether it was in a different episode, Catwoman dangles over the edge of a yawning cavern, one hand clutching a stash of stolen goods, the other holding onto Batman who is begging her to drop the loot and pull herself to safety. Refusing to take the wimpy way out, she lets go of Batman and plunges to the end of one of her nine lives.

Even at 4, as much as I bought into the whole good-guy superhero thing, as much as I adored Batman (and he is, in some ways, still my favorite fictional character), I loved the insane gutsy selfishness of Catwoman hurling herself over a cliff. A few years later, Jim Morrison would proclaim, “We want the world and we want it now!” Catwoman gave me my own childish version of that unreasonable demand, without all the Lizard King bushwah that accompanied Morrison’s prancing and posing. Cats can make a snack out of lizards any day.

The eternal sex appeal of Catwoman has something to do with the form-fitting costumes, with the booming breasts she was given in the “Catwoman” comic book of the ’90s, with the fantasies girls as well as guys may harbor of Julie Newmar or Michelle Pfeiffer (who, to my mind, owns the role the way that the recently departed Wendy Hiller owned Eliza Dolittle). But it has everything to do with one of the sexiest attributes there is: self-confidence. And also, strange as it may sound when talking about a slinkily dressed jewel thief, with purity.

The great femme fatales are, in their absolute dedication to duplicitousness, some of the purest creations ever to make their regal way through pop culture. Sharon Stone in “Basic Instinct” is always given as the great contemporary example. And as much as I love that performance, the deadpan camp of Stone’s portrayal can seem forced next to Jane Greer in the great ’40s noir “Out of the Past” (the director, Jacques Tourneur, must have recognized her purity: Throughout the movie, Greer is dressed almost exclusively in white) or Rebecca Romijn-Stamos in Brian De Palma’s “Femme Fatale.”

Those performances, Romijn-Stamos’ especially, take on the inherent misogyny out of which springs the whole notion of the femme fatale — the idea of woman as seductress/destroyer — and they turn on that misogyny with a vengeance. They play on the secret fantasies we bring to movies and comic books, the chance to indulge our larcenous and vengeful impulses by identifying with the villains. And they play on the eagerness of movies and pop culture as a whole to indulge our love of style. Greer and Romijn-Stamos make their unwavering dedication to their own desires — sexual as well as material — and their ineffable cool sophistication seem like the highest form of amoral integrity, a code of behavior beyond all those deadening drags like responsibility, duty, morality.

That’s the category Catwoman belongs to. You only have to look at the way many of the female characters in comic books (mainstream ones at least) are drawn to see that they exist to appeal to adolescent male sex fantasies. But when you introduce unrepentant female sexuality into an adolescent male sex fantasy, all the male impulses of control and domination run for cover. That can easily be the basis for the old sexist tropes of the female being deadlier than the male. But unlike any of Batman’s other regular nemeses, Catwoman has never inspired hatred. She divides us from the ostensible hero, and her function in the comic and in the TV show and movies has been to divide Batman from himself.

The new scrapbook volume “Catwoman: The Life and Times of a Feline Fatale,” by Suzan Colón, is illustrated with examples of Catwoman’s relationship to Batman. There are stories from the old comics where Batman “inadvertently” allows Catwoman to escape. There’s also this great exchange from the ’60s TV show: Catwoman says to Batman, “I can give you more happiness than anyone in the world. I mean, it’s me and you against the world.” To which the Caped Crusader responds, “What about Robin?” Catwoman has the perfect answer. “I’ll have him killed,” she says, “painlessly! Well, he is a bit of a bore, with his ‘Holy This’ and ‘Holy That’.” And she’s right. Like Spanky and Alfalfa forming The He-Men Women Hater’s Club, Robin is the little boy who still thinks girls have cooties, the one who doesn’t want to lose his buddy to icky old girls. And I can’t be the only Batman fan who doesn’t wish, at some point, Batman had the gumption to let this cat eat his canary.

Colón charts some of the changes Catwoman, aka Selina Kyle, has gone through, from her initial 1940 appearance as “The Cat” — a bored socialite jewel thief — to her ’50s incarnation as a stewardess driven to crime after suffering amnesia, to the abused ex-wife of a rich man in the ’80s, to a prostitute who dons the costume to get revenge on her pimp later in that decade. (The current Catwoman comic, written by Ed Brubaker and drawn by Javier Pulido, is a stark, visually flattened-out noir where Selina is having a torturuous love affair with a broken-down detective.)

Despite the greatness of all of these incarnations, it was Michelle Pfeiffer, in 1992′s “Batman Returns,” who created what (for me, at least) remains the definitive Catwoman. This Selina Kyle was a rumpled frump, the ditzy doormat secretary of an evil industrialist (Christopher Walken), reborn as Catwoman after her boss pushes her out of a window. In outline, it’s the oldest feminist story in the book: the woman who asserts herself after being put down for too long. Pfieffer took the role into the stratosphere. This Catwoman was motivated by self-disgust as much as a desire for revenge. In one of the most shocking scenes in any American movie, Catwoman saves a woman from being raped in an alley and then turns on her. “You make it so easy,” she says, dripping contempt, “always waiting for some Batman to rescue you.” This was a heroine who might have sprung from one of Camille Paglia’s more incendiary passages.

There were all sorts of delights to the performance, such as the moment everyone remembers when we first see Selina in her new vinyl get-up, purring to one of her beloved tabbies, “I don’t know about you, Miss Kitty, but I feel sooo much yummier.” Or the later moment when, using her bullwhip, she knocks off the heads of three department store dummies and then, turning the whip into a jump-rope, blithely skips away.

But the movie’s greatest moments, the ones that make you wish director Tim Burton had had the good sense to cut everything with Danny DeVito as the Penguin, were the scenes between Pfeiffer and Michael Keaton. As Selina and Bruce Wayne, they engage in a slow dance of seduction. As Catwoman and Batman, all the longing and resentment, all of their desires to simultaneously dominate each other and submit to one another, come to the surface. And as the barriers of her two worlds start to blur, Pfeiffer conveyed a trembling, acid-edged, schizoid vulnerability.

Sadly, we never got the movie that the last shot promised, Catwoman rising again from the dead to hover over the Gotham City skyline. For a while there were rumors that Burton would be making a Catwoman movie with Pfeiffer. For the last few years, word has periodically surfaced that he is planning it with Ashley Judd (one of the few actresses who may have the malicious wit needed for the part).

Especially now, with the recent disappointments of the big cartoon movies — the problematic, occasionally stirring “X2″ and the overblown “The Matrix Reloaded,” which evaporates hours after you leave the theater — a Catwoman movie that would allow the character the space she deserves seems a great unfulfilled pop movie dream. There are greater villains than Catwoman, but few who have upset the stories they are introduced into in the way she consistently has, few who have made us question our allegiance to the hero in the way she does. The initial whiff of sex may come from that form-fitting costume. But it’s Catwoman’s embodiment of sex as a great disruptive force that holds the key to her erotic appeal. Standing up for everything good and decent seems a paltry vocation when you can throw yourself over the cliff with her.

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>