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The Many Lives of Catwoman
The Felonious History of a Feline Fatale
By Tim Hanley
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2017 Tim Hanley
All rights reserved.
Gotham City's feline fatale is a familiar sight for superhero fans. From comics to television to movies, Selina Kyle has burgled her way through the city in her sleek costume and cat-eared cowl as the fiendish Catwoman for decades. However, her original incarnation would be almost unrecognizable to those familiar with her more recent exploits. When she first debuted in the spring of 1940, she wasn't even called Catwoman. She was simply the Cat for her first appearance, and then became the Cat-Woman; the hyphen eventually disappeared in the mid-1940s. She wasn't Selina Kyle, either. Instead of one regular alter ego, she adopted a string of different aliases to aid in her felonious schemes. Whatever name she gave was inevitably a ruse.
Her costume was different as well, in that she didn't actually have one. She relied on disguises, using false identities to get near the items she wanted to steal rather than the sly breaking-and-entering tactics that became her modus operandi years later. Catwoman also adapted her clothes and hair to the circumstances at hand so that she could blend in, whether she was pretending to be an old woman vacationing on a cruise ship or a society gal throwing legendary soirees. She donned a mask in her third appearance, but it was nothing like her modern, form-fitting cowls. Instead, it was a realistic cat's head, which was large enough to fit over her own and came complete with brown fur and whiskers. This mask stuck around for a few issues.
Catwoman eventually settled into a regular costume and adopted a consistent alter ego, leaving behind her enigmatic origins and cumbersome mask for more typical comic book villain fare. Despite her lack of resemblance to her modern incarnations, the original Catwoman was familiar at her core. She was a clever thief, almost impossible to pin down, and a constant headache for the Caped Crusader. Catwoman was a crafty, independent cat burglar from her very first appearance, firmly establishing the heart, if not the look, of the character for the myriad versions that followed.
The Men Behind Catwoman
The creation of Catwoman is usually credited to Bob Kane, the man also credited with Batman, Robin, and a host of Gotham City's other iconic characters. All the live-action adaptations of Catwoman, from the Batman television show in 1966 to Batman Returns in 1992 to Catwoman in 2004, have prominently featured a credit in their opening sequence that declares, "Based on characters created by Bob Kane." Creating Batman and his universe was Kane's entire identity, an accomplishment he traded on for decades until his death in 1998. Kane's tombstone even reads, "GOD bestowed a dream upon Bob Kane. Blessed with divine inspiration and a rich imagination, Bob created a legacy known as BATMAN." Understanding the creation of Catwoman requires a closer look at Kane and the development of the Batman mythos as a whole.
The standard Bob Kane legend begins in 1939, with DC Comics editor Vin Sullivan searching for another hit superhero after the surprise success of Superman a year earlier. Comic books were still a young medium in America and the Man of Steel was the industry's first unique success, so every editor was keen to find the next caped hero. Kane, a young cartoonist with a few credits in other DC titles, accepted the challenge. After speaking with Sullivan on a Friday, Kane came back to the office Monday morning with the Bat-Man, millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne by day and masked vigilante by night. Sullivan loved the character and made him the cover story for Detective Comics #27 in May 1939. He was an instant hit, quickly spinning off into other titles like Batman and World's Finest. For the next twenty-five years every Batman story featured the byline "By Bob Kane," and Kane created all of the Dark Knight's most infamous friends and foes in this span, including Catwoman.
Like most legends, this is an inaccurate and incomplete tale, but it's the story that everyone believed for decades. Then, in the letter column of Detective Comics #327 in May 1964, editor Julius Schwartz offhandedly mentioned Bill Finger for the first time, calling him the man "who has written most of the classic Batman adventures of the past two decades." A year later, Finger appeared at New York Comicon and confirmed that he'd written the bulk of Kane's Batman stories. Soon after, an article by Jerry Bails in the comic book fan magazine CAPA-alpha claimed that Finger was responsible for the bulk of Batman's design and his many supporting characters.
Kane was furious. He sent a lengthy response to Batmania, another fan magazine, in which he unequivocally claimed that he was "the sole creator" of Batman. Kane threatened to sue Bails for "misrepresentation and distortion of the truth" and blasted, "Your article is completely misleading, loaded with untruths fed to you by Finger's hallucinations of grandeur." While Kane admitted that Finger "literally typed" many scripts, he contended that Finger was working off Kane's own ideas and that Finger had little to do with the vast majority of the Batman mythos. As proof, Kane cited the fact that "it remains obvious that my name appears on the strip alone," and thus he must be the true creator. Kane also claimed that he drew all the Golden Age Batman comics himself, and that he continued to draw 90 percent of the Batman stories being published at the time. These statements, along with most of the rest of Kane's missive, were all lies.
The real story behind Batman began like the legend, with Vin Sullivan looking for a follow-up to Superman and Kane taking a shot at the gig. But instead of going home, hunkering down, and creating Batman, Kane called up Bill Finger. The two had met at a cocktail party a few years before and discovered that they shared an interest in science fiction and adventure pulp books. Kane was an artist who couldn't write and Finger was a shoe salesman with literary aspirations, so Kane began to pay Finger for scripts that he then drew and submitted to comic book publishers as his own work. Kane had been working for Eisner & Iger, a sort of comic book story factory with many writers and artists churning out material for several emerging comics publishers. With Finger writing him stories, Kane was able to strike out on his own and get better pay directly from DC Comics, where he sold some humor and adventure stories.
When Finger showed up at Kane's apartment, Kane had already sketched out an idea for his new superhero: the Bird-Man. He had red tights, blond hair, a black domino mask, and large black wings. Finger was unimpressed and recommended something more along the lines of the pulp hero the Shadow, a dark and mysterious vigilante. The Bird-Man quickly became the Bat-Man. Finger suggested adding a cowl and gloves, changing the wings to a scalloped cape, and trading the bright costume for a gray-and-black color scheme. He then set about writing the first six-page script for the new hero, "The Case of the Chemical Syndicate." The story established the Bat-Man's detective skills, featured his socialite alter ego Bruce Wayne, and also introduced police commissioner James Gordon.
Meanwhile, Kane took the new design in to Vin Sullivan, who bought the feature straightaway. Kane's father had asked around for some legal advice before the meeting, and when Kane came in, he knew he didn't want to just sell the story. He wanted a regular job with his name attached, and Sullivan agreed, giving him a decent page rate, a guarantee of work, and a degree of control over the character. The contract was between DC Comics and Bob Kane alone; at this point, Sullivan didn't even know that Bill Finger existed.
Finger's early scripts established several iconic elements of the Batman universe. Along with his dual identity, Finger gave Gotham City its name, introduced the Batmobile and the Batcave, and created Batman's sidekick, Robin. When Batman launched an eponymous solo series in 1940, it was Finger who wrote the stories that introduced iconic villains like the Joker and Catwoman in Batman #1. Ultimately, Bill Finger was the man behind almost every significant part of the Batman mythos. Bob Kane just drew the pictures.
Except that Kane didn't actually draw much of anything. Recent research has found that a fair amount of Kane's artwork was swiped, meaning that he copied the basic forms and figures of other artists' work, altered them somewhat, and passed them off as his own. For example, Batman's iconic first appearance on the cover of Detective Comics #27 was a blatant copy of a panel drawn by Alex Raymond in a 1937 Flash Gordon Sunday comic strip. The body position and the angle of the head were almost exactly the same; the only changes were that one arm was posed differently and that Kane put the figure in the Batman costume. Many examples of other swipes have been found in Kane's interior art as well, including a litany of images copied from Gang Busters in Action, a 1938 children's book illustrated by Henry Vallely.
What Kane didn't swipe he farmed out to other artists. Initially, Kane hired young artists to ink his penciled artwork and fill in backgrounds, a common practice at the time, but this quickly grew into artists drawing entire stories that Kane submitted to DC as his own work. One of his first ghost artists was Jerry Robinson, who is today regarded as a legend in the comic book world. Robinson did the majority of the art in the story that featured the Joker's first appearance, and many now credit him, instead of Kane, with the creation of the Joker. DC eventually hired Robinson away from Kane, and he worked for them directly for several years, but Kane simply found replacements. Some of his ghost artists, like Sheldon Moldoff and George Roussos, worked for DC while doing Kane's work on the sly.
Despite his often complete reliance on ghost artists, Kane refused to give them any recognition whatsoever. After Kane's Batman contract made him a wealthy man, Jerry Robinson approached him and said, "Look, you're very successful now, and you can afford to give me credit for what I did." Kane simply replied, "I don't see it that way."
Kane's editors were aware of his reliance on ghost artists but generally let it go. When Kane turned in some work in the late 1940s that was very obviously not his own, his editor Jack Schiff told him to stop using ghost artists, but he didn't. Later on, Schiff's replacement, Julius Schwartz, knew that Moldoff was doing Kane's work at the time but recalled, "We continued with the charade of working with Bob as if he actually did the work." Kane's contract with DC guaranteed him a good enough page rate that he could pay someone else to do the work at a lower rate and still clear a decent amount of money for himself. So long as the art came in on time, it seems that DC Comics didn't particularly care who did it. Every story still said "By Bob Kane" regardless.
Kane was notoriously quiet about his contract with DC, but he definitely came out ahead when he renegotiated it in the mid-1940s. Some sources say that when Superman's creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster sued DC for the rights to the Man of Steel in 1946, Kane came in and claimed that he was underage when he signed his contract for Batman. DC's moneyman Jack Liebowitz then granted him partial ownership of Batman, a higher page rate, and a percentage of subsidiary rights for his silence. Another version says that Kane's lawyer threatened legal action that would derail DC's plans for a Batman serial film, and so DC granted him an annual stipend and a percentage of Batman's merchandising profits. Whatever the case, Kane lived quite comfortably and made an absolute killing when the Batman television show started a Batman craze in 1966. Legendary comics creator Will Eisner, Kane's former boss and colleague, said of Kane's ability to make so much money through such minimal work and talent, "Bob was the luckiest man in the world you ever knew. He's an example of how to succeed out of pure luck."
While Kane was making a fortune and getting all the credit, Finger languished in obscurity. DC eventually found out about his arrangement with Kane and hired him directly, and he continued to write Batman comics for many years, as well as Green Lantern and Superman stories. Robinson said of Finger: "He was a very good visual writer; he knew what could translate visually. Bill wasn't a cartoonist himself, but he knew the limitations and the potential of the art form." However, Finger was slow and often late with his assignments. He was a perfectionist, and he wouldn't submit a script until it was just right.
Finger never made any money off Batman's success other than his page rate for new stories. He certainly had a claim to more, but he didn't pursue any legal action. The most common term Finger's associates used to describe him was "agreeable," though his son put it far more bluntly when he said, "My father had a very weak spine." Finger's pay wasn't great, and he moved to smaller and smaller apartments as the years went on and money became increasingly tight. He was fired briefly in the 1960s for asking his boss at DC about a health care program, though he returned a few years later. Finger was drinking heavily at that point, and he passed away in 1974 at the age of fifty-nine. He wrote Batman comics for decades but never saw his name in the credits.
Meanwhile, Kane became a millionaire because of Batman, and he tirelessly defended the legend that he was the sole creator of the Batman universe for his entire life. He took all the credit in early comic book features about him, including a profile in Batman #1 that ironically declared, "Bob Kane is certainly not a copyist; his work shows a definite originality and freshness." In a two-page article decades later in Detective Comics in 1964, he didn't mention Finger or any of his ghost artists at all. Instead, he suggested that young aspiring artists should work hard and rely on "good old elbow grease" because "I've never found a short cut." Kane also claimed grandiose inspirations for Batman as he grew older, including Leonardo da Vinci's flying machine; his autobiography even included "early sketches" of a da Vinci-inspired design that most scholars believe to be backdated forgeries. Kane eventually did say, "I must admit that Bill never received the fame and recognition he deserved," but only long after Finger was dead.
In short, Bob Kane was a liar and a fraud, and his discussion of the creation of Catwoman should be viewed with a very critical eye. In his 1989 autobiography, Batman & Me, Kane claimed a specific inspiration for Catwoman: 1930s sex symbol Jean Harlow. Kane recalled, "She burned up the screen with her sensuous face and torrid figure," and added, "At my impressionable age she seemed to personify feminine pulchritude at its most sensuous." How much of Catwoman's first appearances Kane actually drew is debatable, but regardless of the true artist, she didn't look a thing like Harlow. Harlow was known as the "platinum blonde" and the "blonde bombshell," while the original Cat was a brunette. Her face structure wasn't at all similar and she lacked any of Harlow's signature facial elements, like her dimpled chin and her mole.
This wasn't the only time that Kane cited an iconic actress as his inspiration for a character. He not only claimed that Marilyn Monroe inspired the look of Gotham City reporter Vicki Vale, who first appeared in 1948, but also spun yarns about meeting the actress twice while visiting Hollywood during the filming of the Batman serials. Supposedly, they first met at a Hollywood party in 1943 when she was still just Norma Jean, and the pair danced all night long. Then Kane ran into her again five years later and they spent a lovely day at the beach, where Kane drew sketches of her in her bathing suit that he later used as reference while creating Vicki Vale. Unsurprisingly, these all seem to be lies. The details ring false; Monroe was an entirely unknown munitions factory employee in 1943, and the timing of their 1948 encounter was all wrong. Plus, Lew Schwartz drew the bulk of the story in which Vicki Vale first appeared anyway.
While Kane citing Harlow's influence on Catwoman was a far less elaborate whopper, it was in keeping with his fondness for manufacturing grandiose inspiration long after the fact. From da Vinci for Batman to Monroe for Vicki Vale to Harlow and Lamarr for Catwoman, Kane often made up stories to appear more cultured and impressive when the actual origins of his supposed creations either had nothing to do with him or were entirely mundane.
Beyond the Harlow chicanery, Kane's autobiography did shed some light on Catwoman's creation. Kane actually mentioned Finger's involvement in her development, which adds some legitimacy to his words. He wrote:
We knew we needed a female nemesis to give the strip sex appeal. So Bill and I decided to create a somewhat friendly foe who committed crimes but was also a romantic interest in Batman's rather sterile life. She was a kind of female Batman, except that she was a villainess and Batman was a hero. We figured that there would be this cat and mouse, cat and bat byplay between them — he would try to reform her and bring her over to the side of law and order. But she was never a murderer or entirely evil like the Joker.
Excerpted from The Many Lives of Catwoman by Tim Hanley. Copyright © 2017 Tim Hanley. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
1 Perjured Origins 1
The Men Behind Catwoman | The Cat Debuts | Feline Fatale
2 A Conspicuous Pause 19
Capturing Catwoman | Pet Shop Gal | Into Thin Air
3 Same Cat Time, Same Cat Channel 37
Julie Newman Season 1 | Lee Meriwether: Batman: The Movie | Julie Newman Season 2 | Eartha Kitt: Season 3
4 A Streak of Heartbreaks 59
Trial and Error | Sudsy Drama | Another World
5 Gone Astray 77
Frank Miller | Roman Holiday | Frank Miller Strikes Again
6 Hear Me Roar 97
This Hit, That Ice Cold | Whipping the Patriarchy | The Real Protagonist
7 Leaping into Animation 113
Batman: The Animated Series | Animation Duplication
8 Glaring Fixations 129
The Women Behind Catwoman | The Art of Jim Balent | Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose
9 A Novel Perspective 147
Brubaker's Three Dozen and One | Den Mother | Identities and Events
10 Cinematic Catastrophe 163
Development Hell | The Catwoman Calamity | White Male Superhero Domination
11 Sidekick Tales 179
Film and Television | Games and Toys
12 Perusing the New 52 197
Sexy, Sexy Times | The Ups and Downs of Comic Book Sales | Selina Kyle, Mob Boss
Source Notes 223