In January, 2016, some six months after the debut of this blog, I posted “a spoiler warning for all seasons” — a page dedicated to the idea that, while some might find the idea of spoiler warnings for comic book stories of a half-century’s vintage to be a little absurd, others might expect them as a matter of course. Since then, that single page has served as my blanket spoiler warning for any and all fifty-year-old comics discussed over the course of the blog. Today, however, we have a somewhat different situation, as I’m planning to refer to the concluding scene of a very recent comic book, namely Batman (2016) #32, which will have been on sale for only about three weeks at the time of this post’s publication.
So, here you go: if you haven’t yet read Tom King and Mikel Jamin’s concluding chapter to “The War of Jokes and Riddles”, and you’re planning to, and you’d rather not know what happens on the last page — consider yourself hereby warned.
And now, on with our regularly scheduled 50 Year Old Comic Book…
Back in the fall of 1967, fifty years ago, it’s highly probable that virtually every kid in the U. S. of A. was familiar with the comic book character Catwoman. But at the same time, it’s highly doubtful that that widespread familiarity had much, if anything, to do with the published output of DC Comics over the last thirteen years.
For, in the pages of Detective Comics #211, way back in 1954, Selina Kyle — Batman’s preeminent female foe, who’d made her debut in 1940 (in Batman #1, no less), and gone on to nineteen more appearances in the next decade-and-a-half — had made one last, futile attempt at defeating the Caped Crusader, and then had hung up her cat-o’-nine-tails.
But even if the brass at DC thought that Catwoman no longer passed muster as a recurring Bat-villain — perhaps, as many have suggested, due to the longstanding romantic tension between the Bat (a crimefighter) and the Cat (a criminal) having been deemed inappropriate in the wake of DC’s adoption of the Comics Code Authority in 1954 — the makers of the 1966-68 Batman live-action TV series had no such compunctions. Having decided on an approach that depended on a continuous succession of “Special Guest Villains” from week to week, they needed as many code-named, costumed criminals as they could scrounge up. Catwoman — the beautiful “bad girl” who maybe wasn’t even all that bad, deep down (otherwise, how could she have affection for Batman, and vice versa?) — obviously filled the bill. Whether or not she’d made an appearance in comic books during the lifetimes of most of the show’s fans was immaterial.
And so, with Batman‘s 19th episode (first airing on March 16, 1966) the Cat came back. In a big way.
The actress playing Catwoman in that first appearance was Julie Newmar (see above left), who went on to portray her throughout the show’s first two seasons, for a total of 12 episodes. Somehow, however, Newmar wasn’t available for shooting the almost-immediate cinematic version of the TV Batman — in which Catwoman would be one of four villains faced by Batman and Robin — so, the role of the Feline Fury in her big-screen debut was filled by Lee Meriwether (see left).
But by the latter half of 1967, even after two full TV seasons and a feature film of Batman, Selina Kyle still hadn’t made her return to the pages of Batman or Detective. She had, in fact, returned to DC Comics — but in the pages of Lois Lane #70, of all things. Apparently, the editor of the “Superman” family of comics, Mort Weisinger, was more eager to cash in on Catwoman’s new notoriety than was the “Batman” family editor, Juliius Schwartz — rather mysteriously, since Schwartz had been more than willing to feature most of the other Bat-villains prominently featured on the show; had tipped his hat to the show’s camp sensibility in numerous other ways; and had leaned in hard in exploiting Batman’s TV-fueled popularity in Justice League of America, to boot. It was hardly as if Schwartz could have thought his Bat-books were “too good” for Catwoman.
Still, for whatever reason, it took until the fall of 1967, and the start of the TV show’s third season — which would, by December, introduce yet another actress in the role of Catwoman, singer-actress Eartha Kitt (see left; sadly, I did not get to see Ms. Kitt in the role in her three episodes’ original airings, as my local TV station dropped Batman after the second season) — before we got to see Selina’s return to her old home ground.
It started in late September, in the 369th issue of Detective Comics, with a Batman story that guest-starred Batgirl (a character who, like Eartha Kitt’s Catwoman, was making her live-action debut on the Batman TV series that fall). Readers of that issue such as my ten-year-old self got nearly to the end of the story, and then, turning to the last page, got this nifty surprise:
Those three panels (along with the rest of the story they came from, of course) were drawn by Carmine Infantino, who also drew the cover of Batman #197 — and, I think it’s fairly safe to assume, also designed Catwoman’s brand-spanking new duds. For most of her comic book career, Selina had worn an ensemble consisting of a purple dress, with matching boots and cat-eared cowl, accessorized by a green cape — but the TV/cinema Catwoman, the one that most 1967 comics readers knew best, wore a sparkling black bodysuit — a catsuit, if you will — with a cat-ears headpiece and (sometimes) domino mask replacing the cowl. For her 1966 Lois Lane appearances, the dress had been replaced with a catsuit, but the rest of Selina’s classic comics look had remained intact.
Infantino’s new design was, obviously, inspired by the TV costume, without being a direct replication of it. The most significant difference — and, in fifty-year hindsight, the least successful — was the decision to make the new costume green. Obviously, this gave a nod to the color of the character’s traditional cape; and sure, lots of cats have greenish-yellow eyes. Probably more to the point, it also provided more of a contrast to the black, blue, and yellow of Batgirl’s costume than a costume colored more like the TV Catwoman’s would have. Unfortunately, however, the texture of the new comics catsuit — probably intended to suggest the screen version’s sparkly fabric — came across as scaly, and, combined with the bright green color, had the overall effect of making the costume seem rather more serpentine than feline.
Regardless of how successful his “new look” for Catwoman was or wasn’t, however, Carmine Infantino’s artistic contribution to the Feline Fury’s return to the pages of Batman ended with that cover. The story’s interior art, as we readers would learn upon turning to the splash page, was by “Bob Kane” — although, to my ten-year-old self’s eyes, it had a decidedly different look from most of the other Bob Kane art I’d seen over the past two years:
Of course, the real Bob Kane may never have come within fifty feet of the original artwork for this book. As has been frequently discussed on this blog, Batman’s supposed “sole creator” had a contract with DC that called for him to produce (and to be paid for) a certain number of pencilled pages each year — but virtually all of that work was in fact created by “ghost” artists. Throughout the Sixties, Sheldon Moldoff had been Kane’s most frequent and regular ghost — but, towards the end of this era, a few new artists would take a turn.
The actual penciller for “Catwoman Sets Her Claws for Batman!” was Frank Springer, who up to this point in his career had worked primarily for Dell Comics, and who (according to Bob Hughes’ “Who’s Whose in DC Comics” web site) had been hired for this gig directly by DC, rather than by Kane. The story’s inks were by Sid Greene, which helped provide some continuity with the lead-in story from Detective #369 (Greene had inked Carmine Infantino’s pencils in that issue), but also contributed to the sense of the art looking different from “Kane”‘s usual work, as Moldoff was almost always inked by Joe Giella.
Yet another factor giving the story a different look was, of all things, the lettering. The interior letterer for most issues of Batman (as well as most of Julius Schwartz’s other books) in this era was Gaspar Saladino; but for this particular issue, it was Ira Schnapp. Schnapp was hardly a newcomer; he’d been with DC almost since the company’s beginnings, and had designed many of their book’s logos. In addition, he lettered their distinctive house ads, and most of their covers. So, it’s not like I didn’t know his work — indeed, it defined the visual identity of DC Comics as much as (if not more than) virtually anything else in the company’s books. I just wasn’t used to seeing it within the captions and word balloons of the stories. And somehow, the way he wrote the letter “s” (among other things) just looked odd in that context, in a way it didn’t on the covers, or in the house ads.
Not that I apprehended this on any kind of conscious level in October, 1967. Back in this era, even when DC provided creator credits (which they did very inconsistently), those credits never included the letterer’s name — so it wasn’t an aspect of comics production that my ten-year-old self thought a lot about. (I’d only seen my very first lettering credit [for Sam Rosen] just a couple of months earlier, in my first Marvel comic, Avengers #45, and I wouldn’t see another until I bought my second Marvel, in January, 1968.) I probably just registered the lettering subconsciously, as part of the overall “different” look of the issue.
But I imagine I’ve taken you all far enough down this rabbit hole. Yes, there was an actual story in Batman #179, and yes, we are going to check it out now.
(I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to read the captions in the panels above without hearing the voice of William Dozier, the narrator as well as the executive producer of the Batman TV series.)
Selina promptly proceeds to prove she’s as good as her word, tidily wrapping up the robbers in a single page of action, and then…
Readers of Lois Lane #71, published less than a year previously, might have been surprised to see Batman and Robin acting so blasé about seeing Catwoman cruising around in her Kitty Car, considering that the last time they’d seen the three together, the Dynamic Duo was hauling the Feline Fury off to jail. But hey, that’s comic books, right?
After Catwoman motors away, Robin notes that whether or not she’s actually reformed, at least she’s dropped the habit/compulsion of always needing to have a cat motif present in her exploits. “Not so, Robin!” replies his mentor. “I happen to know the Gotham winery uses catawba grapes to make its wines.”
The next evening, the Dynamic Duo interrupt a robbery at a silk handkerchief factory, and Robin, at least, is glad that neither Catwoman nor Batgirl are anywhere in sight. “Nabbing crooks is man’s work!” declares the Boy Wonder. But, two or three fisticuffs-filled pages later, Batman and Robin haven’t quite managed to put the kibosh on the criminals — in fact, the bad guys have gotten the drop on our heroes:
“Do I detect a note of affection in Catwoman’s voice?” Yep, he’s the World’s Greatest Detective, all right. Twenty-seven years, and he still doesn’t have a clue.
After Catwoman leaves, Batman observes that there’s nothing “catty” about a silk handkerchief factory, so hey, maybe she’s reformed after all. But the next day, we find Batgirl (in her civilian identity of Barbara Gordon, “boss-lady” of the Gotham City Library) musing on the same topic, and we learn that she, at least, isn’t so sure:
“…wear a filmy dress…” ? Yeah, Robin probably would say that. (To which Batman might respond: “Think clean thoughts, chum.”)
Babs soon figures out what’s stuck in her fabled photographic memory — there’s this silk bandana or handkerchief manufactured in India that’s called a pulicat, you see (God bless the story’s writer, Gardner Fox, and his reference library) — so Selina’s still not in the clear as far as giving up kitty-themed stuff goes. And that’s enough to convince Barbara not only that Catwoman’s next crime-busting escapade will occur at the Gotham Wax Museum, where a catafalque surrounded by chests full of precious gems is on display, but that it wouldn’t be a bad idea for Batgirl to make that scene, as well:
Catwoman allows Batgirl to have first crack at the crooks, but it doesn’t go so well — somehow, Babs’ karate chops, judo holds, and other moves all miss the mark:
Catwoman wades into the fray at this point, and saves Batgirl’s bacon by taking out the bad guys — just in time to be able to gloat to Batman and Robin when they show up late to the party:
Selina Kyle becomes the toast of the town by day, while Catwoman is the terror of the underworld by night. Still, she can’t quite get what she really, really wants:
“Of course she is! Everybody knows that — but you!” Robin’s matter-of-fact reply to Batman’s tentative suggestion that Catwoman kinda likes him, maybe, is probably the best moment in the book. But what’s this about “a certain precautionary move”? This is a 1967 Code-approved DC comic book, so you know the guys aren’t talking about what used to be called “protection”. Hmmm…
The Dynamic Duo heads out to a certain “rare coin emporium”, whose “collection of rare ducats” Batman suspects will tempt some thieves or… someone. Sure enough, when they arrive, the place is already in the process of being robbed — but as they burst in upon the crooks, so, too, simultaneously, do both Batgirl and Catwoman:
Um… so all the crooks that Catwoman has captured since the beginning of the story — and taken to jail, where they all presumably still languish — were in her employ all the time? Riiiight.
“What a man!” Unfortunately for Selina, Dick and Barbara’s faces are similarly painted. Well, at least we understand now about Bruce’s mysterious “precautions”, though it’s unclear how and why Babs got in on the act. All will be made clear in due course, but for now, let’s just go with it:
Batman’s response is just what you’d expect. He hurls himself forward at Catwoman and her henchmen, but…
Catwoman immediately leaves to commit her promised robbery, which goes exactly as planned. When she returns, however, Batgirl gives her a surprise by charging right out of the cataphonic sound-trap, and…
Batgirl’s avowal of having “absolutely no romantic interest in Batman” is rather refreshing after a whole issue that’s played heavily on the sexist idea of “natural” feminine rivalry. It’s also pretty much the way the relationship between Batman and Batgirl has been characterized throughout most of the latter character’s 50-year history. I suspect, however, that that has a lot to do with the fact that, over the years, writers and artists would come to portray Barbara Gordon as obviously closer to Dick Grayson’s age than to Bruce Wayne’s. Ultimately, it would seem more logical for a romantic relationship to develop between Babs and Dick than Babs and Bruce, and that is in fact the tack that most creators have taken in the last couple of decades — those, that is, that have been inclined to pair Batgirl with either member of the Dynamic Duo at all.
Notice I said most. Of course, we could talk about the worst idea that talented animator Bruce Timm and/or his frequent collaborator, animation writer Alan Burnett have ever had, which they don’t seem to be able to let go of, for some reason. But, hey — we don’t have to, so let’s not. OK?
Having returned to the pages of the Bat-books after her absence of thirteen years, Catwoman would never really go away again (although, we must note gratefully, the scaly green version of her costume was quickly mothballed). Indeed, she would grow in stature, eventually getting her own title — not just once, but several times — and evolve into a character more appropriately defined as an antihero than as an out-and-out villain.
The romantic attraction between Bat and Cat would continue to be a major factor in storylines involving the two as well, with the former’s obtuseness (or, if you prefer, denial) becoming a non-factor as superhero comics generally grew more sophisticated over the course of the 1970s. And while the “marriage proposal” motif featured in Batman #197 wouldn’t resurface in any meaningful way in the characters’ mainline continuity until 2017 (not to my knowledge, anyway), creators at DC nevertheless managed to find ways to “go there” in the intervening years.
Most prominently, of course, was the in-continuity marriage of Earth-Two‘s Batman and Catwoman — in the terms of DC’s pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths continuity, the original versions of those characters, the ones who debuted in Detective Comics #27 and Batman #1, respectively — as first depicted in a story in 1977’s DC Super-Stars #17 which also served as the first appearance and origin tale of Helena Wayne, the Huntress — Bruce and Selina’s adult daughter. That marital history got swept away by the Crisis, of course — though it later came back, sort of — twice, in fact. Even in DC’s current, still-evolving “Rebirth” continuity, one must imagine that there’s an Earth somewhere out there where Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle married decades ago, and raised at least one child.
Of course, they’ve never come anywhere close to that on DC’s “main” Earth (Earth-One, New Earth, or whatever we’re calling it these days), though we did once get a glimpse of Selina’s elaborate fantasy of a Bat-Cat wedding (in a 2000 issue of Nightwing, of all places). Never, that is, until June, 2017 — when current Batman scripter Tom King finally allowed the wish that Selina had expressed just a little short of fifty years ago — to hear Bruce “say the magic words, ‘Marry me!'” — to come true, on the final page of Batman (2016) #24:
Then, of course, King and his collaborators made us wait for eight whole issues to learn Selina’s answer — though, granted, at the series’ current semi-monthly publication rate, that only took four months:
And so, here we are — exactly fifty years to the month that the Feline Fury demanded that the Caped Crusader pop the question, that question has finally been asked — and answered. So where do we go from here?
There has long been a strong, perhaps prevailing sentiment among comics fans and creators, expressed with varying degrees of fervor, despair, or resignation, that the classic comic book characters can’t change. Not really. Not, at least, without damaging the elements that, at a character’s core, make them “work”. According to this point of view, the best that a creator who’s trying to maintain a reader’s interest can do is to create what Stan Lee called “the illusion of change”. Nothing should happen to the character that can’t be undone — so, Spider-Man shouldn’t get married. Neither should Superman. Nor, presumably, should Batman. And if a creative team does dare to take a classic character down such a road, someone else is bound to reverse that course, sooner or later.
But y’know what? I think it’s way too early to say what the “rules” are. Comic book superheroes haven’t even been around for a hundred years yet. A kid who bought Action Comics #1 off the newsstand in 1938 could, in theory, have spent a lifetime reading the adventures of the Man of Steel, and could still be reading them to this very day. If so, that reader has seen Clark Kent married to Lois Lane, then unmarried via a continuity reset, then married again via yet another reset. If the couple is still married when that lifelong Superman reader finally passes from this mortal plane, will “their” Superman have experienced only the illusion of change — or the real thing?
We’re still in the early days of a grand experiment in storytelling, as far as I’m concerned. None of us have been around long enough to be 100% sure how it’s all going to work out. None of us are going to be around long enough to find out, for that matter
But I don’t mind. I’ve been on this ride for fifty-two years now, and I’ve enjoyed it the whole time. And I have no reason to believe I’ll ever stop enjoying it — even though I know I’ll never make it to the end.