Posts Tagged ‘denny o’neil’


Catwoman and Cleopatra: Inkblots of an Age

April 25, 2011

After Practical Cats, a reader asked me to summarize my Cleopatra theory as it pertains to Catwoman.  With shooting under way onCatwoman Inkblot The Dark Knight Rises, and Batman circles abuzz with speculation on what Christopher Nolan’s take will be, it seemed the perfect time.

Briefly: Cleopatra lived and died over 2,000 years ago, and what’s known about her life hasn’t changed.  There is the sensational Roman account, juicy but questionable material dating from a propaganda war with Augustus Caesar, and a drier but more flattering picture of her political accomplishments recorded by the historian Flavius Josephus.  That’s it.  It’s not like any new unauthorized biographies were unearthed in the 1300s, 1500s, or 1800s to account for the drastically differing images of her.  There is only one set of facts from which different ages have formed completely different Cleopatras: from “The Nile Slut” to a childlike innocent, from a murderous man-eater to a savvy politician, from a devoted mother to a tragic “slave to love.”   Obviously, they can’t all be right.  Obviously, what each era chooses to focus on—and what it chooses to ignore—says more about them than it does the real Cleopatra.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s fascinating Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams and Distortions does a remarkable job analyzing each of these incarnations and what they reveal about the eras which romanticized and vilified her.  Not surprisingly, it is the spin each age puts on the sexual aspects of her story that is most telling about their attitudes about women in general, and women’s sexuality in particular.   

Cleopatra and CatwomanLike Cleopatra, Catwoman is a sex symbol who has spanned many generations and gone through many incarnations.  From her first appearance in Batman #1, the draw between male and female has always been the distinguishing feature of Bat/Cat encounters.  Tame and subtextual under the early comics code: Batman saw through Catwoman’s disguise in that first appearance by noticing her shapely legs. Amusingly brazen by the time Julie Newmar donned her claws and Adam West’s Batman declared “You give me curious stirrings in my utility belt.”   Of course there is more to Catwoman’s appeal that the physical.  You can’t throw a batarang in mainstream comics without hitting a beautiful and voluptuous woman.  What made Catwoman particularly well-suited to the role as the Batman’s romantic foil was her playful free-spirited disposition.  In an era that was finally acknowledging that sex is fun, the Bat/Cat titillation reached its zenith in Batman #324 when Selina awoke naked in the Batcave after her costume had been torn to pieces.  Batman tosses her a replacement saying she was lucky he’d kept one of her old costumes in his trophy room, and she responds—just barely covering herself with the sheet—that she “got lucky in more ways than one.”

Approved by the Comics Code.  And that’s probably what made it so much fun: the tingle of being bad, of getting away with something a little naughty.  It is the appeal of Catwoman, and in scenes like that, the reader got a taste.

And therein lies one of the essential elements of a successful Catwoman portrayal that has often eluded DC Comics.  A simple comparison of the merchandise dating from Denny O’Neil’s day as Bat editor, where it seemed to be a mandate that her features be distorted by a hostile snarl, to the turning point when a Japanese company, Yamoto Toys, released a limited edition figurine based on manga artist Kia Asamiya’s design.  The sexy come hither pose and naughty grin sold out in days in many U.S. comic shops and was voted The Sexiest Batman-related Action Figure by Wizard’s ToyFare Magazine.  After a second equally successful figurine from Yamoto, again featuring the Jim Balent costume with an appealing pose and smile, DC appears to have got the message.  Recent offerings of the Balent costume from DC Direct have certainly featured an attractive pose and naughty grin.

Catwoman Merchandise, Action Figures and Figurines

But the detour into snarling hostility illustrates how, like Cleopatra, Catwoman has undergone reinvention after reinvention reflecting the insights, fetishes or fears of those doing the re-imaging.  Consider her Bob Kane origin from “The Secret Life of Catwoman,” an airline stewardess who suffered amnesia after a plane crash.  (Yes, amnesia. It’s a comic book.)  In the 1940s and 50s, stewardesses were incredibly glamorous figures.  Beautiful, svelt single girls, traveling the world, meeting exciting people and working side-by-side with pilots!  It is in this story that Catwoman’s real name is revealed to be Selina Kyle.  Selina meaning “daughter of the moon.”  Kane clearly gave his Catwoman a glamorous and romantic cache befitting her status as the Queen of the Night in Batman’s world.  This Catwoman, despite her criminal activities, was far from evil.  She bargained away loot to save Robin from Joker, and on regaining her memory, worked with Batman to bring down a crime boss and ultimately her own criminal brother.

The next origin revealed that the amnesia story was a lie.  Selina Kyle had been married to a rich man who beat her.  When she left him, he tried to ruin her.  Her first robbery was stealing back the jewelry he’d given her and, titillated by the thrill, she continued.  The attitudes expressed by this version of Catwoman are not at all difficult to decode, for the author puts it right in the text: Selina tells Batman she made up the amnesia story to get out of the life of crime because  “I was thirty years old and I didn’t want to die without love… without children.”  That Selina does marry Bruce Wayne and has a child with him: Helena Wayne.  While modern sensibilities may kneejerk at the notion that every woman must pang for motherhood, I submit that the root idea that all humans, both men and women, want love is a timeless and valid one.

Things took a bit of a turn when the in-your-face feminism of the Sixties sent the comics boys into a tizzy.  Consider the mentality of a writer who had the Green Lantern’s girlfriend become evil Star Sapphire for 5 days each month.  How does such a man respond to images on the news of women shouting for equality and burning their bras?  Well, Catwoman donned go-go boots and snarled about “The Battle of the Sexes” and how “No man would ever tame her,” and that same writer gave Batman a new enemy/love interest, a submissive Asian who “was good company even when she was quiet.

Yeah.  Seriously.  Amazing, isn’t it?

The Catwoman of Tim Burton’s Batman Returns is of a period that lost the most fundamental “Look, up in the sky” aspect of superhero comics: the wish fulfillment of a child, the adventures of characters we would all want to be if we could.  To fly, to be strong, to swing across the city on a silken Batline, to have exciting adventures in a world of larger than life color…  In the spirit of remaking all the known characters as damaged human beings that no sane person would ever want to be, Selina was a meek, repressed, overworked secretary whose boss killed her.  All of her ‘empowerment’ was a reaction to oppression and victimization, but it should be noted that this is not really a gender attitude.  The men in Burton’s world fare no better.

Of Frank Miller’s Year One and subsequent comics based on its Catwoman origin, all that any enlightened reader need do is look at the body of Miller’s work.  The sheer number of prostitutes, rapes and castrations paint a vivid portrait of the man doing the writing and his attitudes, but just in case anyone doubts, Rob Bricken has taken the trouble to map it all out in 6 Hints that Frank Miller Might Have Issues with Women.   What all this says about Miller is – well, it’s Miller.  It doesn’t have to represent the rest of us.  We don’t have to be the generation that was so terrified of women’s sexuality they had to demonize it.  It was DC who let this guy with obvious issues about women’s sexuality define a woman’s icon.  It is DC Comics who refuses to remedy or even admit that error.  It falls to other media to do so.

Mr. Nolan, I’m looking at you.  The 21st Century is eagerly waiting to see what “Our” Catwoman will be.

Chris Dee

Article first published as Catwoman and Cleopatra: Inkblots of an Age on Blogcritics.


Comic-Con Tweets

July 24, 2010
If you have an iPhone to give away, you can get thousands of people at Comic-Con to tweet anything you want.  Next year, I’m buying a couple dozen for:

Didio looks like he’s aged 30 years since September.

Twilight fan panel canceled after CosPlay mishap.

Comic-Con fun: ordered a Cattitude at the Marriott bar in front of Matt Idelson.

Unless you’re dressed as an Imperial Storm Trooper, DO NOT go in Room 26AB.

Grant Morrison has the cursed monkey’s paw.

Three things that should never go together: IMAX, vampires and nachos.  I’m just sayin’

Jim Lee is HOT.
(Not giving away a phone for that, it’s just a personal observation.)

Bride of the Demon was only written to make Denny O’Neil stop trying to break up Batman and Catwoman, settle down and  do his effing job.

Of course it didn’t work, he just started spending his time trying to make Bride continuity and The Long Halloween an Elseworld.

No, seriously, my Uncle Larry was dead for 3 days and he looked better than Didio looks now.

Just saw a Xena, a real Catwoman and two Hulks beating up a goggle-whore in Ballroom 3.  WIN!

Comic-Con fun: ordered a DEE-vious at Hilton bar in front of Will Pfeifer.

Javier Grillo-Marxuach is HOT.
(No giveaway.  Again, just a personal observation.)

Those were the droids you were looking for.

Unless that hazmat suit is real, DO NOT go in Room 8.

Ferregamo, Manolo Blanik and Jimmy Choo recognize DC Comics w/ special merit award.

There is no such thing as a Lego Amazon.

Chris Dee



May 19, 2010

Several people have sent me the trailer for this Batman XXX: A Porn Parody that is making the rounds, and a few have suggested I take up my sword and lead the charge. What’s interesting is that some assume I’d be leading the charge against it and others assume I’m all for it, but despite that 180-degree difference of opinion, both sides seem to think I have a sword.

Okay, technically, I do. Remember that “shoe fund” I started years ago with money I no longer waste on comics? I’ve used it to acquire some serious movie props over the years, including (the in-joke of all time for Cat-Tales readers) a pair of hero swords from Batman Begins. Oh if Mr. Didio’s stockholders only knew. I mean seriously, primo memorabilia with a documented provenance does not come cheap. I realize they’d only have my word for the fact that the money was diverted from comic purchases, that every penny of it would have gone into their coffers if Didio & Co. hadn’t screwed the pooch so completely on Batman and Catwoman. But c’mon, look at the amount of time and creative energy I have put into these characters over the past 9/10 of a decade. Don’t I look like one of those people who keep the comic shops in business? And, as I’ve stated many times, I’m not a Marvel gal. So you do the math.

Anyway, point is, I do technically own a sword or three, but I can’t say I have an opinion on Batman XXX to bother unsheathing one. I admire their cojones in putting out a press release for it. That’s not something fair-use dwellers normally feel comfortable with. But that’s about it. I thought I might use the opening to talk a bit about fair use, but come on. If you clicked on a blog entry called PORN and got a dissertation on copyright infringement, I think you’d be justified in slapping a bait-and-switch tag on this entry. So let’s talk porn, just bear with me if I take the occasional detour into the dry stuff. It will get back to the Bown-chicka-wow-wow momentarily:

First: I am not a lawyer. I did, however, have an uncle who was a member of the Pennsylvania Bar and passed on to me the only true thing you will ever read about the subject on the internet, the one thing that all of the hangers on, support staff and friends of the practicing attorney never quite get: any time a lawyer speaks in absolutes, they are on the clock. If Action X is absolutely illegal at all times, in all states, and under any circumstances, if Person Y is absolutely within his/her rights and all culpability falls on the other party, that lawyer’s meter is running. Off the clock, there is always a trialable issue, a question of fact for the jury or judge to determine, a grey area or a mitigating factor that indicates, at the very least, it’s time to challenge the established precedent. It’s not hypocrisy, it’s the nature of the beast: if everything actually was as cut, dried and never-changing as the meter-running advocate pretends, there wouldn’t be two sides to argue. Not only would none of them have a job, there wouldn’t even be a need for the process they’re all a part of.

So let’s dispense with this notion that copyright is gravity, and let’s take a short break to cue up the bump-and-grind soundtrack, because you were all patient for that last part. Now then…

DC Comics, a subsidiary of Time Warner Inc., owns Batman. (Bown-chicka-wow-wow…)

I don’t. (Bown-chicka-wow-wow…)

The kids running around in their backyard right now playing Justice League, they don’t. (No music here, there are kids playing. Pretend we’re talking about the census until they’re gone…)

The couple cosplaying Batman and Catwoman prior to making love in their own bedroom, they don’t own either character. (Bown-chicka-you get the idea…)

And the makers of Batman XXX, they don’t own the rights to anything either. So what is this “ownership” exactly, and how do we reconcile it with this thing called the human imagination and the way it responds to storytelling?

(Yes, this is where the porn comes in. Really, trust me.)

First, stories are meant to capture our attention and excite our imagination. So the kids playing in the back yard and the couple roleplaying in bed are, bottom line, using DC’s products in the way they are meant to be used. It worked, imaginations are engaged and running wild with what they have been given. And even though some copyright holders may be unaware of it, that is absolutely what they want. It’s the reason Star Wars and Lord of the Rings are still going strong after decades when Farthest Star and The Gray Prince are not. Enforcing your rights as an “owner” is a tricky business in this arena, because it’s not like somebody trespassing on your land to fish in your stream, shoot your deer, or eat grapes off your vines. Just consider two shampoo simple extremes:

Of course LucasArts is going to go after a virtual world offering a complete roleplay environment when they’re gearing up to launch their own official MMORPG.

Of course too, they’re not going to touch Randy picturing Leah in the gold bikini when he’s trying to get off. That’s between his ears, beyond their control, and none of their damn business, thank you Captain Obvious.

So let’s start adding stuff and see when it becomes their damn business… Can Randy bring his girlfriend into this process? Can he ask her to call him Han? Can he ask her to actually wear a gold bikini rather than just imagining her in it? Can she add silks to the bikini and braid her hair? Can a third party participate if everyone is a consenting adult? Can that third person just watch if that’s their thing? (BTW, if at any point you’re googling copyright law to find the answer to these questions, you need to call your credit card company right now, get your limit raised and go buy yourself some perspective, some common sense, a sense of humor, and a good therapist.) What if Randy and his girlfriend are into the virtual worlds and make a private area where they can do this same thing with avatars that look more like Han and Leia than their pudgy middle-age bods will allow in person? Where exactly is the line between OF COURSE SHUT IT DOWN and OF COURSE, IT’S NONE OF THEIR DAMN BUSINESS? Even in these extreme, absurdist scenarios, that line is a slippery little sucker and it keeps dancing around.

But wait, we’re not done yet! There is still fair use to discuss, which is what I do (Don’t leave, we’ll get back to the porn shortly). I criticize DC Comics and they way they have consistently mishandled the legends that are an important part of our collective psyche. I say look at this guy who has a track record for making female characters prostitutes, that isn’t someone you allow to establish the origin of a woman’s icon. I say look at his take on heroes in a myriad of other writings, that isn’t someone you allow to write the bible on your hero. I say look at this former writer-turned-editor using the bully pulpit to trying and insist his characters into importance: mandating plotlines that eviscerated where the story had gone naturally and organically in order to force relationships, both romantic and adversarial, with his own creations. I say look at that editor’s successors piling degradation upon degradation on certain characters in order to punish the fans of those characters for not accepting a new direction despite a full court press of manufactured hype. I say that these people have abdicated their responsibility as caretakers of our legends and are not fit to be their custodians. That’s one woman’s opinion, and the right to express that opinion in whatever manner I feel will be most effective is the essence of what fair use is about. It’s protected speech precisely when the opinion expressed is one the copyright holders won’t like.

Which brings us back to the porn, because it brings us to The Streisand Effect, which I have to believe is what Batman XXX is banking on. Basically, you file a cease and desist or a DMCA, and rather than making the offending thing go away, you propel it into a stratosphere of fame and recognition that even Superbowl ads can’t always deliver. The most recent episode:

Ralph Lauren had a new ad out with an impossibly skinny model in it. As Boing-Boing put it, “Dude, her head’s bigger than her pelvis”. The ad was highlighted on PhotoshopDisasters, as an example of (we really hope) bad Photoshopping. However, Ralph Lauren filed a (bogus) DMCA takedown notice on the post, which has since been removed.

That’s the end of it, right? Post removed, story gone. Ha! BoingBoing has now covered the story, as has the Huffington Post, TechDirt and others. Ralph Lauren filed a DMCA complaint against BoingBoing, but their ISP (Canada’s Priority Colo) knows what they’re doing and didn’t remove the post. They spoke with BoingBoing about it, and decided (rightfully) that the post can stay.

The BoingBoing blogger was then invited onto the Rachel Maddow Show to discuss American companies that respond too quickly to these DMCAs and the troubling implication of a practice that puts the burden of proof on the accused and not the accuser. And of course, every time this discussion escalates or takes a new turn, there’s that picture again displayed for a new and larger audience.

Is there a wrap up to all this? I’m not sure… Maybe it comes down to maturity. Cut free of all the job titles, jargon and dollar signs, there is an inherent childishness running through these stories. In Ralph Lauren’s behavior with the photo, in Denny’s when he became editor, and in DCs when their new direction didn’t fly. In The Lion in Winter, Queen Katherine says “A nation is a human thing. It does what we do, for our reasons.” A woman finds it hard to love the son she was carrying when her husband took a mistress. She favors the other boys over him and the father overcompensates, favoring the other way – and when that man is a king, the rivalry that ensues brings civil war. Today, corporations have more power than most nations, and what was true in 1183 hasn’t changed: they do what we do for our reasons. Some of these guys, they really need to grow up.

Chris Dee

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