While most people think that “On Leather Wings” was the first episode of Batman: The Animated Series to be shown on television, this is not actually the case. It was the first episode produced and the first episode a lot of people saw when it was aired in primetime on Sunday, September 6th, 1992, but the actual first broadcast episode was aired the day before, on Saturday morning. Why didn’t I talk about it in the first article? Because they didn’t air part two for a whole week, and that’s just kind of confusing to an 8-year-old kid such as me at the time. The two-parter I’m talking about is “The Cat and the Claw,” the episodes which introduced Batman’s love interest/sparring partner Catwoman, a/k/a Selina Kyle. The reason for this being shown first is simple: Batman Returns, yo! That movie was everywhere in ’92, and surely Fox, if not WB Animation, wanted to tie as much in with that success as possible. But, the episodes are so much more than simply a tag-on.
What the Animated Series got that Returns and most other adaptations of the characters didn’t is that Catwoman isn’t a villain; she’s a criminal, yes, and an adversary for Batman, but she’s not a cackling, maniacal baddie. If anything, she’s a Robin Hood figure, but Batman’s moral code is so stringent that he can’t allow her to get away with any kind of wrongdoing, even if it’s for the right reason. This is the tragedy of the characters; they clearly have feelings for each other, and in any other circumstance, they’d probably be great together, but they aren’t, so it’s a cat and mouse game, if you’ll forgive the expression. You know Batman goes home after another encounter with Catwoman just saying “Aw, man.”
“The Cat and the Claw” sets up Catwoman (Adrienne Barbeau)’s nightly trips to art galleries and jewelry stores. The Dark Knight arrives on the scene and the two have a verbal and acrobatic tussle before the feline thief is able to escape. Batman is intrigued. Later, at a charity date auction, Selena Kyle, a new player in town, buys a date with Bruce Wayne for $10,000. He is flattered and immediately twitterpated, but she seems much more interested in helping save a Mountain Lion habitat with Wayne’s help than actually going on a date with him. He insists, though, and the two agree to lunch. Of course, this doesn’t happen right away.
Selena talks Bruce into helping her get information about the sanctuary, and it becomes evident that Selena has drawn the ire of the mysterious terrorist organization The Red Claw and of its eponymous leader (voiced by Kate Mulgrew) who want the land as a staging area for their next big attack. Catwoman investigates on her own and Batman fears she’s gotten in too far, which she has. It is soon discovered that Red Claw has stolen a virulent plague from the military and will hold Gotham City for ransom. Batman and Catwoman have to put their differences (and ideas about justice) aside and work together to stop Red Claw and save the city and all the cats who live in it. She’s really nuts about these cats. Despite having worked together, and their feelings for one another, Batman cuffs Catwoman at the end of the episode.
While Red Claw isn’t the most dynamic of villains, even taking into account all the crimes she’s said to have committed, she does serve a very important narrative function, and that is to separate Catwoman even further from what an actual bad guy does. If it were just an episode featuring Catwoman, one might be able to construe that she’s a villain. Certainly in the 1960s TV show, she had henchmen and evil schemes and things like that, and while she was a bit more justified in Batman Returns, she worked with the Penguin and was a complete lunatic. Here, we need to see that she’s on the opposite side of the law, but is not like the other members of Batman’s Rogues Gallery. In fact, in all of her later appearances, she’s a supporting character and never the antagonist.
The relationship established between Bruce and Selena, and between Batman and Catwoman, is quite complex and complicated. Bruce likes Selena, Selena likes Batman but not Bruce, she’s a criminal and he’s a crime fighter. It’s a romance that can never be, but they’re probably the only people for each other. TAS doesn’t shy away from showing us this weird and kind of troubling relationship in a pretty realistic way, all things considered. The pair get into some rooftop flirting, but when Batman makes an offhanded remark about her criminal activities, she flings him off the side of the building, forcing him to grasp on to a parapet lest he fall to his doom. She probably knew he wouldn’t fall all the way to the street and die, but can we be sure? Catwoman is dangerous to Batman in that she makes him put his guard down, even if just slightly.
Like a lot of these first episodes, the design and animation is rich and textured. I keep having to remind myself that these were shown on daytime television and not in movie theaters, because a lot of the time they’re on par with most feature animation. Big, huge action set pieces, deep colors, shots you wouldn’t expect in your average cartoon show. Part 1 was directed by Boyd Kirkland and Part 2 by Dick Sebast, both of whom were among the show’s best, and they each bring something distinct to their work. Part 1 is much more about the meeting and interplay between the two characters, while Part 2 is more of Red Claw’s plan and Bats and Cats trying to stop her. It hangs together incredibly well as a piece.
Catwoman is a character interesting enough to have gotten her own spinoff program, which is the case for a lot of the show’s main foils. Next week, for example, we’ll take a look at another lady Bat-baddie, but this time one who is actually a villain, despite having similar motives to Catwoman. Is it different because she wants to save plants instead of animals? Yes, it’s the debut of Poison Ivy, and her problematic romance with Bruce Wayne’s friend, District Attorney Harvey Dent. “Pretty Poison” is next. Happy Birthday, Batman!