The Princess of Plunder, Elva Barr, Marguerite Tone, Miss Pegg… Who exactly was the Catwoman during DC’s Gold and Silver Ages? Untangling her original backstory isn’t light reading. Though she belonged to a cartoony paradigm full of goofy gadgets and cat cars, Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s prodigal cat burglar was a surprisingly complex archetype who spawned more questions than answers. Don’t believe me? Scroll on.
Fast forward to the late ’80s. Hardened gangsters like Two-Face and Black Mask rule a grittier, Film Noir Gotham City. Dick Grayson has graduated from the role of Robin, passing the mantle onto the younger, ultimately doomed Jason Todd. DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths looms on the horizon, spelling death, distortion and reboots for the entire continuity. But before the final curtain, Batman’s long-standing enemy Catwoman has retired from cat-burglary, becoming his partner and fellow vigilante. Her costume is impractical by today’s standards, but it’s also iconic and a throw back to the days when she transitioned from an urban legend jewel thief dubbed the Cat, to a full-fledged super villain, the Catwoman.
I had a reprint of 1940’s Batman #1 in middle school. No big deal. It’s highly accessible. But back then it felt like a holy icon. One of the key stories featured a jewel thief. By the time Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson are settled, we learn of the shadowy cat burglar, known simply as “the Cat” most likely on board. The Cat is a mistress of disguise. During a well scripted investigation and chase scene we learn that the jewel thief had been posing as an elderly socialite named Miss Pegg (Minimalism, ladies and gentlemen!). The Cat turns out to be a dark and exotic bombshell, based partially on Jean Harlow. I’d like to pause for a moment to point out the Cat’s facial resemblance to Disney and MGM’s prototypes for the Evil Queen and scrapped (before Margaret Hamilton was casted) Wicked Witch, Helen Gahagan and Gale Sondergaard. It’s also worth mentioning that C.S. Lewis based his Queen Jadis partially on Gahagan’s She character, Ayesha.
Anyway, the Cat becomes a recurring character after escaping, which she usually does in the early issues, playing upon Batman’s attraction to her. In those days the character was more closely akin to historical jewel thieves and professional criminals than the whip wielding anti-heroine of today’s Batman titles. At the top of her craft, she poses as socialites and hair dressers to infiltrate high society, robe them blind and elude capture. I don’t know when the name Selina Kyle was first applied to her, but she could have just as easily been Marguerite Tone or Elva Barr; two of the aliases she was known by. Ultimately, she was buried under her married name, Selina Wayne–but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Enigmatic Cat’s metamorphosis into Catwoman is a delightfully slow process. Perhaps she was inspired by Batman. Certainly, this was the case for her successor in Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One almost fifty years later. Gradually, the Cat acquires a trademark ensemble, donning what comics scholars call “the fuzzy mask” above and relinquishing her orange dress for basic black. Oh, but she keeps the cape, albeit in another color by the time Catwoman’s majestic purple dress shows up.
Enter Catwoman, the full-fledged Queen of the Criminal Underworld. Still a burglar, she expands her presence over time with costume claws, cat-themed capers and a company of hired thugs, a la the Joker. Eventually, Kyle retires, becoming a mild-mannered pet shop owner after helping Batman. This remains the status quo for a handful of years, before the new reputation gets to her pride and she dons the purple cowl again. By this point, the Batman comics have abandoned the mystery-noir style for a campier, juvenile approach foreshadowing the ’60s television series with Adam West and Julie Newmar. Case in point: the Catwoman’s repeated use of cat-themed vehicles and devices.
This particular version of Catwoman gets sidetracked for a while by the Comics Code Authority and the distinction of DC’s Earth 1 and Earth 2 Catwoman. The way I understand it, Earth 2 was the setting of DC’s original continuity where the oldest versions of the characters lived. Earth 1 was the new continuity, where contemporary versions of the characters lived. Both versions were de-canonized in the late ’80s by DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths. Regardless, by the time this distiction is made, Selina Kyle of Earth 2 returns, shedding new light on her backstory. Previously, Catwoman claimed she was once a stewardess who suffered from amnesia after a plane crash, which somehow created her criminal alter-ego. However, this was an apparent myth. Kyle admitted she fabricated the amnesiac story, and told Batman what was probably the true story:
“When I divorced him, he responded… By using his connections to try and ruin me financially, professionally, emotionally!” This is probably my favorite version of Catwoman’s origin. She claimed to have been married once to a wealthy masochist. “He also liked to beat me,” she said. He kept her jewelry after she divorced him and one night she snuck onto the property and stole her jewels back. Exhilarated, she became a cat burglar professionally. By the time Batman #1 rolled around, she had been Catwoman for two years.
Upon sharing this news, she begins a romantic relationship with Batman, who also reveals his secret identity as Bruce Wayne to her. Kyle and Wayne marry, and her identity as Catwoman is set aside for the time being. So far as we’re told by The Autobiography of Bruce Wayne, Selina Wayne lives on with Bruce in relative peace. She gave birth to a daughter, Helena, before dying. Of her death, I can say she was blackmailed into becoming Catwoman again by a former associate in DC Super-Stars #17. She was survived by Bruce and Helena, who later became the vigilante Huntress, and her legacy, which spawned countless versions of the cat burglar.
We don’t hear much about this version of Catwoman in our modern world where the comics medium has been so heavily integrated into literature; not that that’s a bad thing. But she’s missed, having been unpredictable and downright mystifying. When you pause to think about it, Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s Earth 2 Catwoman is one of the most well-rounded Catwomen. She started as a battered wife, took back what was stolen from her and built a career on her own terms while getting high on jewel heists. She built a name for herself as the Cat, reestablished herself as Catwoman, over reached, disappeared, returned with a campy vengeance as a product of the times before disappearing again. She had a dynamic relationship with Batman, married and gave her life to protect her reputation and that of her family. If you haven’t discovered her, these stories are waiting as reprints in graphic novel collections and online in digital form. It’s never too late to introduce yourself to the original Queen of Crime.