Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Why Catwoman's Current Originstory Is Important...

...At least to me.
Catwoman drawing by the excellent Cameron Stewart

Personally I think that it shows how far she's come, as well as demonstrating why Batman was needed in Gotham, how the Wayne's death lead to the overall erosion of the city's policeforce and social services, as well as reflecting on how Selina is Bruce's opposite in a lot of ways.

To expand on this, Selina being born in a poor part of Gotham, while Bruce was born into what is effectively American Royalty.

Both their parents died when they were young, but whilst Bruce's parents were murdered, Selina's parents' deaths were self-inflicted (suicide and booze respectively).

BUT, while Bruce was cushioned somewhat by his family's wealth and the care of his surrogate father figure, Alfred, Selina had no one except her sister, Maggie, and was abruptly stuffed into "the system" by Gotham's social services. This meant that, at least subconciously, while Bruce relies on people to support him either emotionally or as actual help in his crusade, Selina is MASSIVELY independant because there was no one else to back her up when she needed it most.
From 'Catwoman 89'

Bruce was able to train in his skills in order to fufill a mission, while with Selina everything she had to learn she learnt in order to survive. Bruce learned how to hunt people in France, whilst Selina learnt how to steal in order to feed herself.

Similarly, her drift into prostitution was a result of the apathy of Gotham's social structure at the time. When the Waynes were alive with all the charity work that they did the chances are if they lived then Selina and Maggie would have been helped by them, either first or second hand. And after Bruce came back to help the city as both Bruce and as Batman, he also put in place things to keep people from just falling through the cracks like Selina did.

But in the gap between those two events, there was no one avaliable, meaning that Selina and Maggie had to do what they thought that they had to to survive. With Maggie that meant falling upon religion and becoming a nun (both her parents were implictly Catholic, what them being Cuban and Irish respectively), but with Selina her independant streak meant that she wasn't able to accept the support that her sister's path provided, so she had to go her own route... which lead to the aforementioned way of having to steal and sell herself in order to live.

Selina's belief that she had to look after herself, was both her best and worst feature, and argueably in keeping with her favourite animal.

Before the advent of Batman, the idea that she could just dress in a costume and attack all those that kept her down never seemed to occur to her. She had stolen from gangsters before, but she knew that the risks outweighed the rewards for the most part. She had the skills, learnt from the Fagin-figure that ran a gang of child pickpockets that she ran with when she was young, and from the armed robber Stark when she was in her teens, but she didn't have the inspiration yet to set it into motion.

Her seeing Bruce take out the SWAT team etc. was what made her realise that, yes, one person COULD go up against the mob! One person could go up against the police! One person didn't have to put up with their crap any more!

This acted as the catalyst, no pun intended, to make her put the things she had learned into use, climbing out of the gutter (bringing her friend Holly Robinson along for the ride), and through shear hardwork, determination and grit she made herself someone who could could move in the same social circles as Bruce without looking out of place.

THAT is inspiring! But... again the independant streak rose up again, and the tole of what she had to do in order to get to become Selina Kyle, multimillionairess and international woman of mystery, caused her to get a massive chip on her shoulder and something of an entitlement complex.

She no longer had to steal to survive anymore, she did it for her amusement, or because she felt that she deserved it more that the original owners did. Selina wasn't a bad person... at least, not entirely, but just as Bruce has/had his amount of baggage, so did she. This drive to do what was best for her, in turn lead to her making a lot of bad decisions and selfish choice, such as dumping Holly like a sack of potatoes, resulting in Miss Robinson ending up back on the game and developing a heroin addiction.

Eventually, coming up to the Brubaker era, Selina had undergone something of a identity crisis, wondering just how much of the front she put up as Catwoman as her and how much was actually Selina? So she travelled back to Gotham, and found that things in her old neighbourhood still sucked, and that children were having to deal with the same garbage that she had, but without the intelligence, opportunities and determination to work their way out of there.

So she decided to use her skills to help out the people of the East End, and make the place somewhere where an orphan wouldn't be forced to steal and prostitute themselves in order to do something as simple as get food.

Selina by this point had grown emotionally, to the point where she was now mentally and emotionally an adult, loosing the idea that "society owes me!" that caused her initially villainous behaviour.

Personally I think that this journey has a lot more emotional punch to it than the "she's a rich person who steal for fun" versions that are waved around occasionally.

I do admit that the prostitution angle isn't absolutely necessary to the character, and in the hands of a bad writer it could be used in an exploitative manner (like with the women in Frank Miller's Sin City, for example), but if handled correctly it won't take away from the character either. This isn't to say that Miller isn't a good writer... most of the time, in fact her was the one who laid the groundwork for Selina's current version, but in some of his latter work it seemed that a lot of characters were depicted as being involved in prostitution in a way that seemed unrealistic and an amateurish attempt at being edgy.

An example of another DC character having a similar backstory to Selina's current one would be the current Speedy, Mia Dearsden. After she ran away from home after her dad was abusing her, she ended up on the streets, falling victim to drug addiction and becoming a prostitute herself. She also was inspired by the appearence of a superhero, in her case the mysteriously resurrected Oliver Queen aka the Green Arrow, to break from her life, and make her life better.

The difference between the characters may be that while a huge part of Selina's personality is her attempt, at first, to distance herself from her past, Mia was pretty much stuck with it. Both in the terms that the writers brought it up every twenty minutes, and that Speedy had to deal with the long term effects of being forced into that situation via her contracting HIV, and even in this case that bit of character development appeared to be there to have Mia provide a PSA while Ollie acted as if it was a personal slight against him. But that's a topic for another time.

Anyways, that's all I have to say about the subject at the moment. I'm sure smarter people than myself can find flaws in my judgement, but there it is.

I'm a sucker for characters that have to work to achieve their happy ending, which may be where my dislike of the Jeph Loeb reboot of Supergirl comes from, but, as I said above, that's a subject for another time...


  1. I just don't even see the need for Selina to be "inspired" by Batman. I prefer how it was presented in her first appearance, that she was already a world-class cat-burglar before ever meeting Batman.

    Her being a prostitute just feels like Miller's incapability to feature a strong woman who isn't also hyper-sexualized, and her being a dominatrix just feels like Miller further confusing the issues of strength and sexuality.

    Aaron "The Mad Whitaker" Bourque; if it really must be reconciled, and I don't think it does, why not have her be a high-class call girl, who transitioned from that into a con artist and cat burglar? Her training as a high-end escort gives her access into the world of those whose wealth she'd be interested in stealing. A little time as a con artist diversifies her criminal portfolio. And it might even explain where she got the taste for having big cats hanging around. A typical literary shorthand for decadent wealth has typically been to have rare animals on the premises, like big cats . . .

  2. @Aaron "The Mad Whitaker" Bourque
    I did say that her being a prostitute wasn't necessary to the character, but her coming from a working class background and working her way up to Bruce's social level through hard work and grit is what makes her interesting.

    As I said, the fact that she learnt how to steal to survive acts as a balance to Bruce learning how to fight crime as part of a personal crusade.

    Selina starting at the bottom and working her way up, through learning how to organise heists from the character Stark from 'Selina's Big Score' and that pickpocket ring lady from 'Relentless', kind of makes more sense to me than her being a high class callgirl who decided on a whim to become a catburgular.

    I believe that it's possible to portray a character as or having been a prostitute WITHOUT the situation becoming sexualised. I'm not saying that it's necessary to the role, it's entirely possible to portray the character as a woman who grew up on the streets, got involved with gangs and con artists (as you said) and worked her way up that way. But there are characters who were involved in the sex industry who AREN'T protrayed in a way that was sexual.

    For example, the other example I used as Mia Dearsden, aka Speedy.

    Yes, it is victimising. Yes, her being forced into the situation is unpleasant and sexist. But the point is that she was able to escape it and make her life better. She doesn't HAVE to be defined by her past.

    Mia doesn't/didn't (she seems to have evaporated post-Rise of Arsenal) get a metaphorical sign hung around her neck saying "I used to have sex for money! LOL!", so by rights Selina shouldn't EITHER.

    I'm not saying that Selina's time as a prostitute was right. I'm not saying that it was fair, or sexy. But it can be shown in a way that makes more real world sense than the women from Sin City.

    Selina being stuck in the situation where she had to steal or sleep with people simply to live, is shoorthand for how bad the situation in Gotham was before Bruce came back as Batman.

    You can say that "Oh, Selina shouldn't have been inspired by Batman! She's her own person!", but a lot of things were caused by his debut in Gotham. Some where good, like Jim being able to clean up the GCPD and the rise of other superheroes in the city, like Stephanie Brown for example. And some were bad for the city, like the sudden and massive growth in the city's supervillain population, like the Joker.

    Before Bruce showed up, the last people to wear a costume in public in Gotham effectively were either the Green Lantern/Sentinel back in the 1940s/50s or the New Justice Experience (I think that was their name) for a few years in the Seventies, but they were a blip more than anything. Selina seeing a guy in a costume beating up corrupt cops and demonstrating that the guys keeping her, Holly and the rest of the people of Gotham down weren't as tough as they protrayed themselves to be, certainly makes more sense to me storytellingwise than her independantly deciding to rob people in a Halloween cat outfit all of a sudden.

    The fact of the matter is, really, considering the impact that Batman had on the lives of so many people, Selina being (really) the first or second person to see him and decide to change her life isn't that much of a leap really. If it's sexist or not for her to be defined by she a man do something... it's subjective, but it's no more subjective than a girl listening to the Beatles on the radio or see them in a concert and wanting to start her own band as a result.

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