What a strange time for one of comics’ greatest characters.
The funny thing about Catwoman in the 1960s is that she was simultaneously at her peak and her nadir.
As a succession of three wonderfully sultry actresses — Julie Newmar, Lee Meriwether and Eartha Kitt — were playing her on screen, she was hardly anywhere to be seen on the printed page. And to top it all off, she was saddled with a screechy persona in the ’68-’70 Filmation Batman series.
Why am I even thinking about this right now? Well, the latest Batcave Podcast is now available for download — click here or here or get it on iTunes or Stitcher — and in the new episode, host John S. Drew and I go over Catwoman’s Filmation debut (plus, we talk about a hilarious Joker short).
Really, check it out. It was a lot of fun to record and I think you’ll dig it. (See below for links to previous Filmation episodes of The Batcave Podcast.)
In the meantime, let me back up with some Catwoman background: The Feline Fatale was a Golden Age mainstay who fell out of editorial favor amid the anti-comics witch hunts of the ’50s. Basically, Batman’s sexy adversary was sidelined after 1954.
Fast-forward to 1966. The producers of the Batman TV show, who loved sexual innuendo as much as they did DayGlo colors, knew they needed women foils for the Caped Crusader. Enter Julie Newmar and the fever dreams of adolescents and adults the world over. Meriwether and Kitt followed for a variety of scheduling reasons but no matter how you look at it, Catwoman was on top.
Except at DC Comics, where she remained largely in limbo. Catwoman popped up in a couple of reprinted stories in 1964-65, right as William Dozier and company were gathering string for the show. But as Batmania surged along, you’d think DC would have leaped at the chance to bring Selina Kyle back to Batman and Detective Comics.
Instead, she starred in — a Pop-Tarts promotional comic …
… and in the daily syndicated newspaper strip.
If you notice in the Pop Tarts comic, they rejiggered her costume so it combined her classic purple-and-green dress with Julie Newmar’s melted-licorice catsuit. It’s a little weird but it kind of works, I suppose. The daily strip, which hewed much closer to the show than the monthly comics did, out and out lifts the Newmar look, which debuted just three months earlier.
Now, oddly, though perhaps tellingly, while Catwoman remained MIA in Batman and Detective, she did appear in … Lois Lane, where she and “Superman’s Girl Friend” engaged in a front-cover brawl that stops just short of being a hair-pulling, ahem, catfight. (She’s also wearing that hybrid outfit.)
Catwoman didn’t make it back to the Caped Crusader’s titles until Batman #197. This issue is cover-dated Dec. 1967, which means it was hitting the racks just as the show’s third season was getting under way:
It’s great to see Selina finally back in action here but to this day I’ll never understand why they picked green for her outfit. I’ve never seen a purple cat, but for some reason that color works for Catwoman. But a green jumpsuit?
Unfortunately, that was the look DC was going with as Lou Scheimer’s Filmation crew began production on its Batman show, so that’s the costume that ended up in the cartoon:
It’s not a mortal sin or anything, but its emblematic of Catwoman’s troubles at the time. Unlike the Joker or the Penguin, who were pretty consistent across all platforms, DC just didn’t know how to manage one of the greatest characters in comics history.
Now, the thing is, Catwoman’s Filmation episodes tend to be good but they’re ruined by Jane Webb’s vocal performance. Before you think me unkind, the late Ms. Webb was a Filmation stalwart and was a terrific Batgirl, but her Catwoman had a voice that could have broken glass. It’s the exact opposite way to play the character. To be fair, perhaps it was the producers’ idea. Either way, it is actually physically difficult to listen to.
I don’t want to be too heavy handed but I can’t help but consider the sexual politics of it all. As she is today, Catwoman should have been consistently played as a strong, alluring, dangerous woman, across all platforms. The live-action show’s producers understood what made her great, even if the series’ ’60-era cultural references were frequently soaked in chauvinism (though even a lot of that was actually, subversively pro-woman).
Filmation, on the other hand, almost completely missed the mark. Perhaps they feared over-sexualizing her for a younger audience but they didn’t have to go full-on harpy. (The 1977 Filmation version was a vast improvement.)
Meanwhile, at DC, it’s as if they just didn’t know what to do.
After all, in 1969, they dressed her up like this:
MORE ON FILMATION BATMAN
For 13 QUICK THOUGHTS: The Kitschy Kick of FILMATION BATMAN, click here.
For MR. FREEZE: The Fifth Beatle of Batman Villains, click here.
For The Single Best Sequence in FILMATION BATMAN, click here.