"...there's this dark thing in all of us struggling to get out. Maybe it's anger. Maybe it's sex. Maybe it's all the frustrations of being who we are instead of who we'd like to be or feel others want us to be."
Archie Goodwin, Introduction, Catwoman: Her Sister's Keeper
Writer: Mindy Newell
Penciller: J.J. Birch
Inker: Michael Bair
Colorist: Adrienne Roy
Catwoman made her first appearance in 1940. An adventurous, athletic thief, initially known as the Cat, she went through several incarnations before being established as Selina Kyle, a criminal who had an admirable side and an attraction to the Batman.
In 1985-86, DC Comics made mainstream headlines with Crisis on Infinite Earths, a groundbreaking series which effectively ended their fictional universe(s) and birthed a new one, free of the clutter of a half-century's history. The major characters received revised origins; Frank Miller retooled the Dark Knight in Batman: Year One. Along the way, he gave readers a glimpse of the new Selina Kyle. Before either she or Bruce Wayne don their disguises, they meet on the streets of Gotham City. This Selina Kyle is a prostitute with interests in BDSM, a fondness for cats, advanced training in karate, and a female sidekick of sorts, a child prostitute named Holly. She would appear in the regular DC comics, but the connection between that costumed anti-hero and Year One's grim figure remained unclear, until 1989.
Mindy Newell wrote the original Catwoman comics, which present a character both dark and swashbuckling. The first four issues later were collected in a trade paperback, Catwoman: Her Sister's Keeper.1
The story begins with a chance encounter; novice nun Sister Madelaine fails to recognize the badly battered young prostitute found in an alley near the convent as her long-lost sister, Selina Kyle. While in hospital, a concerned detective, George Flannery, provides Kyle with information on Ted Grant, who once fought crime as Wildcat. The retired vigilante lives in Gotham, and apparently provides defense training. We're left uncertain as to how Kyle affords Grant's services.
Meanwhile, her pimp, a pallid, brutal waste of skin named Stan, puts Kyle in her first cat outfit, a leather fetish costume desired by a client. She objects. "Hey, baby," he comments, "you the one loves cats."
The plot develops with the melodrama typical of comics. Costumes aside, however, the excesses remain at the level of pulp fiction; we have brutal violence and simplified psychology, but we see no signs of impossible science, world-domination-coveting madmen, or other comic-book flourishes. Even Batman plays only a supporting role. As the plot develops, Holly, Flannery, Stan, and Sister Madelaine all become involved as the title character ceases to be Selina Kyle, angry prostitute, and transforms into Catwoman, thief, occasional vigilante, and anti-hero.
The comic presents the sisters as obvious dichotomies. One woman struggles to improve the world; the other fights to protect and expand her piece of it. One prays for the man who brutalized them, while the other stalks him. But Catwoman's problematic lifestyle also makes her a doppelgänger for Batman. Both have chosen to engage the demons in their past, and in doing so both have become creatures of darkness.
Holly, at the end, becomes a ward of Madelaine's. The girl looks out the window, wondering about Selina Kyle. On a rooftop not far away, the Catwoman crouches in the shadows.
"I miss her too," Madelaine says, "but she'll never come back. Never."
It should be obvious that the story was not aimed at young children. The comic depicts a sordid world-- and its artists frequently depict Selina Kyle in undersized underwear. Still, Catwoman: Her Sister's Keeper, while not great literature, holds up to repeated readings better than the average superhero comic book.
As the successful 1990s Catwoman comic developed, writers distanced themselves from this origin. DC's official history was re-retconned in Zero Hour, and has been tinkered with since, so that many of the changes established by and immediately after Crisis no longer held. In the altered continuity, Selina Kyle was never a prostitute, nor does she have a sister.2 Nevertheless this version remains, to many fans, the definitive take on the character.
1. A special Issue #0 also appeared, which fleshed out the troubled childhoods of Madelaine and Selina Kyle. It is not part of this collection.
2. UPDATE: Madelaine, Holly, and Stan the Pimp were later restored to continuity. DC seems uncertain, however, as to whether Selina was ever a prostitute. UPDATE: Since this original update, DC has reset their continuity once again.