Although the twenty-seventh issue of Detective Comics was cover-dated May 1939, the issue was actually released in March 1939, meaning that it was in this month that readers were first introduced to perhaps DC Comics’ most popular character, the Batman. With Batman returning to cinema screens this month, March is the perfect time to celebrate the Caped Crusader so I’ll be spending every Saturday doing just that!
Story Title: Technically untitled, but commonly known as “The Cat”
Published: March 1940
Writer: Bill Finger
Artist: Bob Kane
Following the huge success of Clark Kent/Superman, National Comics Publications set Bob Kane to work creating another masked crimefighter to add to their repertoire. Thanks to the long-suppressed influence of artist Bill Finger, the “Bat-Man” soon became not only one of DC Comics’ most popular characters but also a mainstream cultural icon. In the years that followed, the Batman matched wits against numerous costumed supervillains, but none more alluring or enticing that Selina Kyle/Catwoman. Debuting in Batman’s first solo comic book, Kane and Finger collaborated on the creation of a femme fatale who would add some sex appeal for their readers; originally calling herself “The Cat”, Catwoman began life as a beguiling and wily burglar and jewel thief whose inspirations were actresses like Jean Harlow and Hedy Lemarr. Following this inauspicious debut, Catwoman would go on to be a constant thorn in Batman’s side; their on-again-off-again relationship has been explored in both mainstream and non-canon stories and the character is often cited as one of his greatest adversaries and a powerful feminist icon in her own right. Naturally, Catwoman has featured in many of the Dark Knight’s forays into videogames, cartoons, and live-action, and even starred in her own dreadful standalone feature film once. With Catwoman returning to cinema screens today in The Batman (Reeves, 2022), this seems like the perfect time to see how her debut story holds up today.
Our story opens to find a luxurious yacht, the Dolphin, out on stormy seas, where Dick Grayson/Robin is currently working undercover. We learn that, some days prior, wealthy philanthropist Bruce Wayne spotted in the newspaper that Martha Travers arranged for a select group of guests to join her on a yacht party and get a glimpse of her ludicrously expensive emerald necklace. Bruce has a hunch that this will attract every crook in town; however, since he has a prior engagement, he requests that his ward take point on this investigation, something Dick is only too eager to sign up for.
Thanks to Bruce’s connections, Dick is easily placed onboard the Dolphin as an unassuming young steward and sets to work eavesdropping on Martha’s conversations for any hint of any potential threat to her. However, he overhears nothing more suspicious than the affluent lady’s “favourite nephew”, Denny, introducing her to the wizened and hobbled Mrs. Pegg, but one of the other stewards shares a titbit that Denny is little more than a shameless moocher who’s no better than all the other guests and constantly leeching off Martha’s vast fortune and generosity. Later, Dick overhears a heated argument between Martha and her brother, Roger, where she vehemently refuses to lend him the money he desperately needs to pay off his stock losses and he makes a thinly veiled threat against her as a result. Dick’s suspicions are raised even further when he spots a letter from the mysterious “Cat” in which the villain is colluding to steal the necklace and, sure enough, the Cat makes good on their threat and Martha is devastated to find that her necklace has been stolen from her room!
While Denny and the other guests console her, the cost guard quite conveniently come aboard to help, but are quickly revealed to be heavily armed gangsters looking to hijack the boat and steal the necklace for themselves. Although Martha convinces the captain to offer no resistance, she is driven to laughter at the demands and the crooks are stunned to find that the Cat has beaten them to their prize! Believing that the necklace must have been swiped by one of the guests, the gangsters begin accosting the passengers and Dick finally leaps into action, tackling and fighting the goons before diving into the water and shedding his guise to switch to his Robin persona. The crooks speed away from the Dolphin with their loot but are quickly apprehend by the Batman, who has finally showed up after the trail on his other case ran cold. Oddly, Batman decides to teach the thugs a lesson in humility by disarming them and having Robin pummel all four of them at once in a fourth-wall-breaking moment designed, I guess, to teach any young readers that armed criminals are all cowards deep down.
Anyway, Robin catches Batman up to speed and the Dark Knight immediately suspects that Denny is in league with the Cat, but has his own suspicions about who amongst the guests is the enigmatic Cat. He exposes the true culprit by making a splash at Martha’s costume party, handing over the stolen jewels and spotting that the elderly Mrs. Pegg is quite spritely (and shapely) for an old woman when she races off at the sound of a fire alarm. Mrs. Pegg tries to make a run for it but is collared by Robin and dramatically revealed to be a beautiful young woman in disguise. Batman then wallops Denny when he tries to take the necklace at gunpoint, but turns down the Cat’s proposal that the two of them join forces as partners in crime. However, when the Cat leaps overboard while being transported back to dry land, Batman makes no attempt to stop her and even gets in Robin’s way when the Boy Wonder tries to pursue her. Robin is less than impressed by how smitten Batman was with the Cat, and the issue ends with the Dark Knight musing over the beautiful thief’s captivating eyes.
Well, this was certainly a short and whimsical tale full of the same ridiculous conveniences and elements you’d expect from a Golden Age Batman tale. I’ll never not be amused by the sight of Bruce Wayne sucking on a pipe, or the odd, corny inclusions in tales from this era. Just the fact that the story wastes so many panels on having Robin beat up unarmed thugs is incredible in so many ways; I get that the idea is to show that, deep down, bullies and criminals are cowards who hide behind guns but the message also seems to be “Hey kids, don’t be afraid to get into a dust up with adults as long as they’re not packing heat!” The Robin fan in me enjoyed how big a role the Boy Wonder played in this story, going undercover and building a healthy list of suspects and even being very hands-on with the crime busting and apprehension of the Cat. Unfortunately, his efforts are completely overshadowed by the Batman; after hearing all of Robin’s evidence, he immediately pegs the culprit as “Mrs. Pegg” despite the fact that other passengers actually seemed much more viable, and his explanation for figuring our Mrs. Pegg’s true identity is paper thin, to say the least.
If you’re a big Catwoman fan, this probably isn’t the best issue for showcasing her character; we never learn anything about the Cat beyond the fact that she takes a perverse thrill in conning the wealthy out of their prized jewels, and we don’t even learn her real name. Additionally, she’s not technically Catwoman here either; she has no cat-themed accessories and is far from the sultry femme fatale she would come to be known as. Instead, this is a Catwoman at the very beginning of her career, one who relies on disguises and subterfuge rather than claws and agility. One thing that is very familiar about her, though, is the mutual attraction between her and Batman; she practically throws herself at him, impressed but his strength and charisma, and he is so captivated by her that he actively breaks his own code to let her go free. It’s pretty clear that the Cat would be inspired by Batman’s iconography to take on her more theatrical appearance in later stories, but in her debut she’s just another wily, self-serving swindler who presents a mystery for Batman to solve with his uncanny deductive abilities. The Cat is able to stand out from Batman’s other rogues by being an alluring, beautiful woman but I’d argue that seeing Batman so lovesick by her beauty actually makes him seem like a bit of a fool by the end, and I much prefer the more playful, physical back-and-forth the two would build up in subsequent meetings.
Could Be Better
Have you ever read “The Cat”? What did you think to Catwoman’s debut story and the mystery of her true identity? Did you guess who was behind the theft or were you surprised when Batman fingered Mrs. Pegg? What are some of your favourite Catwoman stories? Which interpretation of Catwoman, whether animated, pixelated, or live-action, is your favourite? Whatever you think about the Catwoman, sign up to share your thoughts below or leave comment on my social media, and be sure to check back in next Saturday for more Batman content!