The Many Lives and Origins of Catwoman

In the annals of comic book history there are few characters as iconic as Catwoman. But there are also barely any who are so nebulous, who can change and transform at will. Unlike her comic counterparts, her origin constantly shifts and there’s no one defining version of her. And yet she’s one of the most beloved and famous figures to ever leap from the pages of comic books.

The Early Days of Catwoman
An old Batman cover shows Catwoman whipping Batman and Robin in cages
DC Comics

Starting at the beginning seems like the easiest way to get a handle on Catwoman. However, just like the enigmatic anti-heroine, the reality is far more complex. A character known as “The Cat” first debuted in 1940’s Batman #1. Created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane, the crafty jewel thief was a classical femme fatale in the mold of noir icons like Jean Harlow. But it wouldn’t be until 10 years of unnamed criminal escapades that she’d take on the name Selina Kyle. That monumental moment took place in 1950’s Batman #62. There we got our first version of a Catwoman origin story. After taking a hit to the head, Selina revealed not only her name but also the fact that she’s a long term amnesiac who took to a life of crime after losing her memory.

Making Catwoman—and introducing Selina—as a troubled dame with a murky memory fits with her noir inspirations. But the issue also established another key part of Selina Kyle lore. After regaining her memory, she teams up with Batman, Robin, and Commissioner Gordon. That’s important because one of the few through lines throughout her career was her duality between ally and antagonist. The issue ends with Selina claiming that Catwoman has retired, which was surprisingly prescient. After a few more years of playing with Bruce’s emotions and expectations, Catwoman made her last appearance for over a decade in 1954’s Detective Comics #211.

An Unexpected Disappearance and a Transition to TV
A still from Batman 66 shows Eartha Kitt as Catwoman wearing a black catsuit with a cat on her head speaking into a sheep shaped phone
Warner Bros.

Her unexpected disappearance was likely to do with the recently introduced Comics Code of America. The rules had conservative ideas about both women and glorifying crimes. So with that issue of Detective Comics, the original era of Catwoman ended. But ever the shapeshifter, the writers and artists would reinvent her again and again and again. It’s a far cry from her superheroic colleagues. No matter the story, Superman was (almost) always born on the alien planet Krypton, sent to Earth, and found by a loving couple of rural adoptive parents. Batman’s life was always set on a new path after the murder of his mother and father, usually in crime alley. And no matter the changing face of who killed them, it sparks his life as a vigilante. In the case of Selina Kyle,  just like her feline namesake, she’s often hard to pin down.

Before Catwoman returned to the pages of DC Comics, she got new life on-screen. In 1966, ABC began airing a live-action Batman series. Adam West and Burt Ward took on the roles of Batman and Robin as they faced down a series of comic book rogues. One of these villains was Catwoman, who Julie Newmar played in the first and second season of the hit show. But, in a perfectly fitting fashion, she would be one of three women to play Catwoman throughout the show’s three seasons and a movie. In between those two seasons, Lee Meriwether took on the role in the tie-in movie. Finally, and arguably most iconically, Eartha Kitt took on the role in the third season, once again redefining the role and place of Catwoman in the DC Universe.

Selina’s Origins Begin to Shift
The cover of Batman the Brave and the Bold #197 shows Scarecrow looming over Batman and Catwoman
DC Comics

Catwoman is by no means alone in having multiple actors play her on screen. But her ever-shifting origin means that these reinventions feel even more fitting, like each one could reshape the way we see the character forever. While no author will likely try to decide that Batman had a happy childhood with parents, creators have used Selina as more of a blank slate. That’s led to her many origins, most of which are both tragic and cathartic.

Catwoman’s origin wasn’t upended again until 1983 when The Brave and the Bold #197’s creative team Alan Brennert and Joe Staton decided to revisit the amnesia storyline. But instead of the main Catwoman, the pair follow a different universe version of the hero: Selina Kyle from Earth-Two. The issue—narratively framed as Bruce’s autobiography from 1955—is probably best known for the questionable “pedophile” shoebox joke on the title page. But it’s also key to Selina’s history as it reveals she actually lied to Batman about her amnesia in order to escape judgment and justice. Her true origin was a life of crime as an escape from an abusive man. That’s a thread we’d see again and again in the many rebirths of Selina Kyle.

As that story ends, we learn that Bruce accepts Selina and they get married—not for the first time in the pair’s comics history—living happily for 20 years. Alas, when we catch up with Bruce in the present, he reveals Selina died a pointless and tragic death… killing her off-page. Luckily for Selina, the entirety of DC Comics was about to be rewritten only a year later in Crisis on Infinite Earths. With DC’s multiverse now streamlined into a universe following the outcome of the seminal crossover event, DC creators were free to redefine Selina Kyle for the Modern Age of Comics.

A More Serious Side to Catwoman
A still from David Mazzucchelli's Year One shows Selina Kyle with a buzz cut in all leather looking out a window saying Damn It
DC Comics

Two years after the conclusion of Crisis—and a year after his seminal Batman story The Dark Knight—Frank Miller teamed up with David Mazzucchelli for Batman: Year One. The grim and gritty tale imagines the early days of Batman through the lens of a young Jim Gordon as well as introducing a new origin for Selina. She’s a badass, street-hardened sex worker. We first meet her jumping to the defense of a friend whose client is harassing her. It’s heroic and edgy, and with Mazzucchelli’s art and character design, she’s also achingly cool. While she’s more of a side character in this tale, it’s a grounded, gritty story that thanks to Mazzucchelli feels radical rather than exploitative. Miller would later revisit the idea of Selina as a sex worker in The Dark Knight Strikes Again in a far less effective and more misogynistic arc for Catwoman.

Selina as a sex worker is one of the most controversial and oft-changed parts of Catwoman history. It’s also something we’ve yet to see brought to live action. After Year One introduced the idea, some creators explored it further. Mindy Newell and J.J. Birch’s 1989 Catwoman miniseries built on Year One as we learned about Selina’s time on the streets and once again added to her origin. This time we find Selina in an alley covered in cats prior to becoming Catwoman. It’s very evocative of Batman Returns, which came out just three years later and also took inspiration from the miniseries’ Catwoman costume. Soon, though, her story saw retconning again as writer Doug Moench reimagined Selina as a street thief. But her time as a sex worker has returned since. It stands as one of the most talked about and contested aspects of Selina Kyle.

Catwoman Creeps into the ’90s
A still from Batman Returns shows Michelle Pfiffer as Catwoman about to kiss Micheal Keaton as Bruce Wayne
Warner Bros.

Two of the most instantly recognizable and influential on-screen versions of Catwoman emerged in the ’90s. 1992 saw Michelle Pfeiffer take on the role in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. Her stitched together latex suit and supernatural-tinged origins were a world away from her grounded comic book life as a master thief. One thing that stayed the same, though, was the way male violence was key to her origin. In the movie, Max Schreck (Christopher Walken) pushes her out of a window, a fall that should have killed her. But she’s seemingly resurrected by cats. It’s her own tale of vengeance, which is a clever reflection of Batman’s own origin.

While Pfeiffer’s performance was stellar and laid out a new path for Selina, mere months years later in 1992, Batman: The Animated Series once again reimagined the early days and motivations of the heroine. Fittingly for their noir influenced cartoon, Paul Dini and Bruce Timm went back to Selina’s femme fatale origins. But here she wasn’t a beaten wife; instead, she was a wealthy socialite. In that way she became a female analogue for Bruce Wayne. Selina’s blonde hair, her chemistry with Bruce, and the pair’s matching double lives seem to have taken inspiration from Batman Returns, but otherwise this is a wholly new Selina. BTAS saw Selina back on top as a roving cat burglar, often romantically entangled with Batman as her alter-ego tried to woo Bruce Wayne.

Catwoman Returns to the Screen and Her Cuban Heritage Revealed
A still from Catwoman 2004 shows Halle Berry in her Catwoman costume and mask
Warner Bros.

In the ’00s, two major Catwoman origin events occurred, one on-screen and one on the page. The first was in the ongoing Catwoman series. Issue #81 established that Selina had a Cuban mother and white father. This made her one of the few Latine superheroes in Big Two comics. It’s also something that’s stuck with the character through other iterations. Most recently, Cliff Chiang highlighted Catwoman as a 50-something Hispanic hero in his limited series Lonely City. Alas, 22 years ago in the year 2000, we didn’t get a Chiang level exploration of Selina. Instead, the issue is mostly dated trauma porn and some incredibly rotund breasts floating in baths of blood. Despite all of that, though, her Cuban heritage is an aspect that means a lot to Selina’s fans. Four years later, another version of Catwoman with a new origin jumped to the screen…

Halle Berry’s Catwoman was a new take on the hero. Shortly after winning an Oscar, the actress took on the iconic mantle without taking on the name of Selina Kyle. This was a Hollywood origin that did away with the canon and introduced an ancient supernatural element. Berry played Patience Philips; she shares a shyness and lack of self-belief with Pfeiffer’s Selina, but that also changes when she’s killed by her evil boss… also like Selina in Batman Returns. In that way, a lot of what’s in Catwoman 2004 feels like a remix of Pfeiffer’s role. But here Patience is far more catlike and, as is later revealed, she’s connected to an ancient cat god. In this version of Catwoman, it’s more of a legacy title throughout the ages rather than something created by Patience (or Selina) as a way to get vengeance.

It was an interesting diversion and a great return to having a Black actress as Catwoman. But it didn’t fare well with fans and critics, and ended up having little impact on the lore of the hero, though Berry is just as important as the other women who have brought her to life. There was another fan favorite comic in these years too: the Ed Brubaker and Darwyn Cooke Catwoman series. Those pulpy crime tales are currently out of print, but worth seeking out. While they harked back to Selina’s noir-inspired debut, they didn’t radically alter her origin. Though visually it’s clear they’ve had an influence on multiple later iterations of Selina, taking the slick pixie cut look from Year One and modernizing it something we’ll see again and again, including in the popular comic arc Hush, and the upcoming The Batman movie.

The New 52 and The Dark Knight Rises
A still from the dark knight rises shows anne hathaway as catwoman in a tactical suit near a safe
Warner Bros.

Like every character in the DC Universe, 2011 saw Selina taken back to the drawing board with the company’s New 52 initiative. The company cancelled their entire line and started 52 series at issue #1, resetting the DC timeline once again. Selina came from an Oliver Twist-inspired group home where she trained to be a thief. It’s an interesting way to explain her propensity for crime. This era also introduced a mystery around Selina’s true parents, which would follow her into DC’s Rebirth era. But before that she would once again come to life on-screen in Christopher Nolan’s final Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises.

Anne Hathaway’s Selina takes grounded notes from the New 52 era. Here she’s a streetwise thief who lives with another young con woman. There are echoes of Year One, as the pair live and work together, but Selina is never anything but a thief. We quickly learn she’s an honorable one, trying to escape a life of crime by wiping out her past. This new tech savvy take on Selina fits into the Nolan world. Though she never wore a true catsuit, she did have Hush-inspired goggles which sat on her head in a way that was reminiscent of ears. Something that’s most interesting about this Catwoman is she’s the rare Selina who gets a happy ending. In fact, as The Dark Knight Rises ends, Nolan seems to pull more from Earth-Two Selina and Bruce, a happily married couple who’ve escaped the hardships of crime fighting.

Rebirth and the Modern Age of Catwoman
a still from the cover of gotham high shows an illustration of Jack napier teen joker, teem bruce wayne, and teen selina kyle
DC Comics

After the aforementioned Rebirth reboot, Selina—in what is now her current continuity—went back to an origin based in male violence. In this continuity she’s the battered daughter of an abusive father. She and her young sister have to fight to survive, which is how Selina learns her street savvy chops. In an intriguing choice that has massive ramifications—and echoes the journey of her sometime daughter, Huntress—the story revealed Selina to be the biological daughter of a crime boss named Rex Calbrese. It’s another aspect of Selina that leans into her being defined or shaped by the men around her. But like her struggles before, this one only makes her stronger. Since Rebirth, Selina has come to life in numerous guises and stories.

The flexibility of Selina Kyle has never been clearer than in DC’s current publishing line. Standalone prestige series like Chiang’s Lost City imagines a future for Selina where she’s out of prison and trying to crack the secrets of the Batcave. The YA novel Gotham High imagined Selina as a trendy Latina teen in a love triangle with Jack Napier (Joker) and Bruce Wayne. Another teen focused title, Under the Moon, delved deep into Selina‘s toxic childhood and explored her life as a homeless teen. And in the mainline comics she’s still as present as ever, playing key roles in events like Fear State, Joker War, and starring in her own ongoing title.

What’s Next for the Catwoman? The Batman and Beyond
Zoe Kravitz as Catwoman Selina Kyle in The Batman.
Warner Bros.

Next up for Selina Kyle is another big screen origin. The Batman is Matt Reeves’ take on the early days of the Dark Knight. We know it’ll be heavily influenced by Year One, as well as multiple other comics. But will it introduce a new origin for Selina? And what from that origin will stick around for future iterations? We’ll have to wait until March 4 to see. But until then why not get yourself acquainted with one of the most beloved and transformative heroes in comics.

Featured Image: DC Comics, Warner Bros.

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