Detective Comics #233
Writer: Edmond Hamilton
Pencils: Sheldon Moldoff
Inks: Charles Paris
DC Comics, Inc., 1956
by Peter Di Maso
It might be fashionable to chortle at the colorful Batman family of the Fifties, but it sobers us to observe that never has the Batman clan been as expansive as it has been in the last decade: Robin, Nightwing, Oracle, Batgirl, Sasha Bordeaux, Azrael, Spoiler (RIP), Catwoman, Huntress—even the JLA has fewer members. In fact, despite the Batman's insane expectations and lack of nurturing abilities, it's fairly easy to gain membership. If you manage to stumble your way into the Batcave, you're basically in. Aren't we just waiting for Sasha to survive this convoluted Omac debacle and pick out her Batwoman threads?
Maybe that's just me. In a perfect universe (i.e. Pre-Crisis) there would be a Batwoman. She would wear bright red and yellow fabrics and be heavily accessorized. Instead of a utility belt, she would carry all her gear in a Birken bag and use talcum powder, perfume and hairnets as part of her arsenal to thwart her enemies. Doesn't it sound too fabulous? This is just the type of color and glamour that begs to be injected into the Batman's surly and self-absorbed Batclan.
In fact, I'm not ruminating on what could be, but on what was—and what ought to be again. Before there was ever a Superman family, before there was a Supergirl in fact, there was...The Batwoman. One of the few heroes who has died and stayed dead—from negligence, if nothing else. Batwoman first appeared in the July 1956 issue of Detective Comics with, ostensibly, not a shred of irony.
It is no shock to us who have experienced every extended superhero-family derivative from She-hulk to Hulkling that a Batwoman should surface in town to try to upstage her source of inspiration. But in 1956 the idea of a Batwoman was all too novel and unexpected—both for readers and the characters in her story.
"The Batwoman" from Detective Comics #233 is a story of female independence on the one hand, and a stunning portrait (by men) of the presumption of women's roles in the 1950s on the other. This duality makes us ambivalent about whether to be grateful or simply outraged. Since I'm a gay man, I'm mostly grateful—simply because the heroine is so elegantly accoutered.
These days we only know about Betty Kane, or Bat-girl (the original) who calls herself Flamebird as a member of Titans West (East?...I lost track). Betty is the niece of Kathy Kane, a star circus performer who admires The Batman for using his acrobatic prowess to plow Rob..., I mean fight criminals rather than simply entertain audiences. She secretly wishes she could follow in his footsteps. When she inherits her uncle's fortune, she gives up her day job to begin a life of crime fighting. She acquires a mansion in the suburbs of Gotham—fully equipped with a batcave and a conveniently abandoned mine entrance. As Kathy Kane, she is the counterpoint of Bruce Wayne; as Batwoman, she joins his crusade against the superstitious and cowardly lot. Hers is a mission of altruism, not a mission of vengeful justice. Nor does she wish to hide in the dark muted colors of Gotham. She wants to bring a splash of color into the night with her bright yellow jump suit and vermillion cape (taking fashion advice more from the "boy" Wonder than the Bat-"man").
Soon, "a flashing feminine figure" is seen answering the call to justice on her Bat-cycle before Batman and Robin can hit the scene of the crime. The dynamic duo is stunned by the actions of "that girl". Batman is overly concerned about the danger this woman is exposing herself to, and apparently is a tad concerned about copyright infringement: "The law of Gotham City says that nobody can wear a Batman costume!" But The Batwoman has found a loophole: "You're wrong Batman! The law says no man can wear it! I'm a woman!" You certainly are, Ms. Kane.
The Batwoman proceeds to upstage the Dynamic Duo repeatedly, even saving The Batman's life on several occasions. "A girl saving you? That's ridiculous!" says the Boy Wonder, as the first hint of jealously asserts itself. But The Batman's only resolve (apparently) is that this mystery woman takes no more risks. But if one thing has remained consistent in the Batman mythos in the last half-century, it's that only The Batman decides who fights on his team. You know he's trying to squash the competition.
This Batwoman is no simple mimic however. She has her own unique arsenal, which one cannot imagine is represented in any way in the Dynamic Duo's utility belts. For one thing, she carries her crime-fighting tools in a red shoulder bag (one remarkably like a Birken Bag). In her earliest foray into the Gotham underworld, she thwarts some gangsters with an oversized powder-puff. Once she has disabled her victims, she converts her charm bracelets into handcuffs. The next night, she distracts a would-be diamond thief by blinding him with her compact mirror. She finally defeats him with her perfume flask full of tear gas no. 51.
This first phase of The Batwoman's career peaks several nights later at a posh Gotham nightclub called "Tomorrowland" where armed men are wrecking the interior "interplanetary-themed" exhibits. The Batwoman saves an unconscious Batman by capturing his aggressor with a "super-strong" hairnet. The story climaxes with a final encounter between the Dynamic "Trio" and a posse of generic gangsters. The Batwoman converts her weighted shoulder strap into a "Bat-bolo" to disable one of the crooks (who is characteristically dismissive of "the girl").
When the crime has been thwarted it doesn't take long for Kathy to hear the voice of (male) reason. The Batman has convinced her of the danger she has placed herself in and she ends her career as the Batwoman. How foolish of her to believe she could possibly do a man's job. Well, no doubt she reverts to foolishness, as The Batwoman became a regular part of the cast for the next few years. No doubt Robin perceived her as a threat to his "arrangement", as foreshadowed in one telling panel.
One has to wonder if the writer, Edmond Hamilton, wrote the character of Batwoman as an act of condescension towards woman or if he gave her the gift of irony. Has Kathy Kane transformed these objects woman typically use to attract men into dangerous tools to subjugate them? Is she terribly clever or just a bubblehead? Have the tools of surface beauty and seduction been transformed into dangerous weapons by Hamilton, Kathy Kane or post-feminist hindsight?
For me, it's all about the accessories. The Batwoman helps me channel my inner drag queen. More importantly, for this shallow fanboy, is that she is a beacon of light and uncomplicated altruism in the otherwise dark, mean, depressing and madness-tinged world of Gotham's crime fighting scene. Don't give me mind-wiping (i.e. mind-sapping) realism. Give me color and magic.
With her 50th anniversary one year away, isn't it time to resurrect her? Isn't it time—in the words of Ellen Degeneres—to bring glamour back to comics?
Peter Di Maso was born and raised in Montreal, where he trained in design and art history. After a five-year stint at the National Gallery of Canada in the early 90s, Peter landed in Los Angeles, and now New York, where he now works as a webmaster for advocate.com. Peter is working on a self-published anthology of "counter-autobiographical" comics called "The Elegant Firefighter."
Characters and Images © 1956 DC Comics, Inc. Review © 2005 Peter Di Maso.
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