As Catwoman celebrates the 80th Anniversary of her comic book debut this year, it is important to commemorate the fact that Catwoman has had many different roles over the years. She has primarily been a thief, but within that general description, she has served as both a villain and as a hero.
Right up until her recent relationship with Batman, Catwoman has had trouble keeping straight whether she is a hero or a villain, with the last few decades generally settling on “anti-hero,” as a sort of mixture of the two worlds of good and evil. Here, we will look at Catwoman’s roller-coaster journey through the peaks of heroism and the valleys of villainy.
Right from the start in Batman #1 (by Bill Finger, Bob Kane, Jerry Robinson, and George Roussos), there was something a little bit different about Catwoman, who was originally called just “The Cat” (she wasn’t Catwoman until Batman #2 and we didn’t learn her real name of Selina Kyle for over a decade). When Batman and Robin traveled to a luxury ocean liner to prevent The Cat from stealing an expensive diamond, they succeeded in their mission, but Batman was wowed by The Cat’s good looks when he arrested her.
When Batman intentionally lets her get away at the end of the story, it is clear that Batman and The Cat/Catwoman are set to have a very unusual relationship. Throughout the 1940s, the Bat and the Cat flirted with each other, and, in a variety of disguises, Catwoman dated both Bruce Wayne and Alfred Pennyworth, almost marrying Bruce Wayne in Batman #15. She was still clearly a villain, but it always seemed as though she was right there on the edge where her attraction to Batman might bring her to the side of the angels at any moment.
That moment finally came in 1950’s Batman #62 (by Bill Finger, Bob Kane, Lew Schwartz, and Charles Paris), when Catwoman sees that Batman is about to be killed by a falling piece of a building. She knocks him out of the way, saving his life, but in the process suffers a head injury.
Her injury uncovers hidden memories of her life as Selina Kyle, a law-abiding flight attendant. She had suffered amnesia years earlier and had a psychotic break, where she became the villainous Catwoman.
At the end of the story, she retired as Catwoman.
She made appearances in Batman #65 and #69, which both played on the idea that perhaps she would be willing to lured back into a life of crime. She resisted that lure in those two issues (heck, in one of them, she even convinced her criminal brother to also reform), but finally, in 1953’s Detective Comics #203 (by Edmond Hamilton, Bob Kane, and Charles Paris), some criminals figured out that the way to Catwoman was to play to her ego. They planted stories that said that Batman believed that Catwoman wasn’t much of a threat as a villain.
This spurred Selina to become Catwoman again and go back to a life of crime…
She made two more appearances as a villain before she then disappeared from comics for over a decade. The institution of the Comics Code Authority likely led to DC believing that Catwoman was too risque of a character as the whole “Batman/Catwoman sexual tension” angle was not going to fly in those early, extra stringent days of the Comics Code. Catwoman didn’t return to comics until she made an appearance on the blockbuster 1966 Batman TV series, played by Julie Newmar. When DC finally brought her back, she was still a villain and she made her 1960s debut in, of all places, an issue of Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane #70 (there is a certain amount of symmetry there, in that Lois received her comic book series based on Lois being featured prominently on the 1950s Adventures of Superman TV series and now Catwoman came back comics because of her Batman TV series appearance).
During the 1970s, Catwoman was a good deal more ruthless than normal. In 1976’s Brave and the Bold #131 (by Bob Haney and Jim Aparo), Catwoman has a trained jaguar kill a guy for her, and even more bizarrely, she gets away with it at the end of the issue! She escapes and Batman and his team-up partner for that issue, Wonder Woman, effectively say, “Oh well, we’ll catch her some other time.”
However, Brave and the Bold was famous for how its writer, Bob Haney, did not really care if his stories matched other depictions of the characters in their other comic book appearances, so DC sort of adopted a loosely defined approach of treating stories written by Haney as having occurred on an alternate Earth, Earth-B (for Bob) and so no other writers have ever addressed her actions in those Brave and the Bold issues.
In 1979’s Batman #308 (by Len Wein, John Calnan, and Dick Giordano), Selina Kyle visits Bruce Wayne and announced that she was done as Catwoman and now that she was pardoned, she wanted to become a respected citizen. Wein soon had her become a love interest for Bruce.
In Batman #323 (by Wein, Irv Novick, and Bob Smith), Selina had to take up her Catwoman identity once more to clear her name of a crime that she did not commit.
Once she successfully did so, she remained as a costumed adventurer and hero. She and Batman even began to briefly date before breaking up but remaining friends…
That changed in Detective Comics #569 (by Mike W. Barr, Alan Davis, and Paul Neary), when the Joker, annoyed that Catwoman had reformed, brainwashed her into becoming a villain again…
As we saw in the next issue, it worked…
Batman continuity, though, soon rebooted in Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s “Batman: Year One” storyline, and Catwoman’s history as a hero was erased. She was back to being a thief.
When she received her first ongoing series, though, in 1993 (by Jo Duffy, Jim Balent, and Dick Giordano), she was still nominally a thief, but was more of an anti-hero than anything, as she almost always stole from bad people and would often help out good people along the ways as an international mercenary as well as a thief.
In 2002, Ed Brubaker, Darwyn Cooke, and Mike Allred relaunched her series with Selina now actively a hero, protecting the people of the East End of Gotham.
A year later, she and Batman began to date (for the first time in this continuity)…
However, in a shocking twist, in the 50th issue of that series (by Will Pfeifer and Pete Woods), Selina discovered that the reason she had become a hero is that the Justice League had basically magically brainwashed her into becoming one.
Soon after this, Catwoman was included in a government program that trapped supervillains on another planet, called Salvation Run…
Selina did some harsh things while trapped on that planet of villains. However, when it was all over, she continued to be a hero (even though it was no longer magically forced upon her) as part of the Gotham City Sirens…
Then DC rebooted their continuity once more with the “New 52,” and Catwoman was back to being a thief.
Once more, though, she was a thief with a heart of gold, so while she was less of a hero than her previous series, she was probably more like an anti-hero once more.
Then she briefly became the head of a crime family (when she learned that her father was a mob boss, so she inherited the business)…
although she tried to control it in such a way to not be so, well, you know, criminal.
Then DC rebooted their continuity again in DC Rebirth, and now Catwoman was considered to be a mass murderer when Batman breaks her out of Arkham Asylum because he needs her help.
We soon learn that she was taking the blame for killings done by her protege. Selina blamed herself for her protege’s actions (as Selina trained her, after all), so she was willing to take the heat. Once he realized the truth, Batman cleared her name. He and Catwoman began dating again and almost got married…
While that didn’t work out (then, at least), she is firmly on the hero side of things now.
But who knows what the future might hold for her? Especially if DC hits the continuity reset button once again. It’s been four years. They must have an itchy reboot-button-pushing finger by now.
As she celebrates her 80th anniversary, try to follow along as we see Catwoman's constant fluctuation between being a villain and being a hero.