In the mid-1950s, Batman and Robin comics had a tried-and-true formula: The Dynamic Duo encounter the Joker/Penguin/Catwoman, slug it out with Gotham City’s most fiendish villains, save the day, and retire to stately Wayne Manor for some well-earned down time. That basic rhythm dictated the adventures of the Caped Crusaders since Robin was introduced in 1940, but in July 1956 readers were wham-pow-zapped by a colorful, ravishing new addition to the Bat-family.
Batwoman, announced on the cover of Detective Comics 223, rocked the Batcave’s status quo. Here was a major addition to Gotham’s ranks, and she was capable of besting Batman and Robin at the superhero game. But the female superhero’s arrival wasn’t just about spicing up Batman and Robin’s routine; it was also intended to short circuit the perceived subtext that the Dark Knight and Boy Wonder shared more than an interest in punching out bad guys.
In 1954, German psychiatrist Fredric Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent gripped America. The country was in the midst of a 10-cent panic, paralyzed with fear that lurid comics—not only superhero tales, but pulpy romances, war stories, westerns, horror and sci-fi books—were corrupting the nation’s kids with delusions of grandeur and fantasies of depraved violence. (EC Comics’ Crime SuspenStories 22, from April/May 1954 featured a man holding a bloody axe and a woman’s severed head as the body lay in the background.)
Wertham and his book told parents and other agents of conformity that, yes, comic books were indeed rotting adolescents’ moral, emotional, spiritual and sexual well-being. His dubious claims were later shown as coming from falsified research, but at the time they landed forcefully, especially when it came to superheroes. Superman, the most popular comic book hero of the time, was fascist. And in the dynamic between Batman and Robin, Wertham saw “a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.”
For the industry generally, Seduction of the Innocent led to the self-censoring Comics Code Authority, to keep the government from touching books. And when it came specifically to making Batman “safe,” National Comics (the predecessor to DC Comics) decided he needed a love interest—and Batwoman was born.
Kathy Kane, a top circus acrobat and stunt motorcyclist, yearned to follow in Batman’s crime-fighting bootsteps. She got her chance after inheriting a large fortune, which she used to stock her satchel of gadgets—sneezing-powder powder puff, charm bracelets that double as handcuffs, tear gas perfume. She even had her own Batcave, hidden in an abandoned mine under her estate. After her 1956 debut, Batwoman became a Bat-family regular through the ‘50s and early ‘60s; her niece, Betty Kane, even became the original Bat-Girl—introduced in 1961, replaced by Barbara Gordon in 1967—giving Robin his own heterosexual love interest.
But while Batwoman served her purpose—to straighten up Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson—she was perhaps more transgressive than Batman and Robin ever were. Three years after Marlon Brando set the template for leather-clad biker rebellion in The Wild One and nearly a decade before The Shangri-Las immortalized the “Leader of the Pack,” Kathy Kane—a single woman in an era defined by shackling women to marriage and kitchens—cruised Gotham on a motorcycle, busting bad guys in a skin-tight bodysuit. She was a brainy, beautiful badass, and Bruce Wayne—and Batman fans—couldn’t get enough.
By 1964, though, National phased Kathy Kane out of Gotham. She appeared here and there over the next 15 years, before being killed off in Detective Comics 485 (September 1979). The move didn’t sit well with longtime Batwoman fans.
“Few female characters ever developed for long periods in either Batman or Detective,” Marianne T. Hauser wrote to DC editors. “The Batwoman was a refreshing change from the stuffy, inflexible, overly-moral attitudes of a former Batman. He changed and grew, why couldn’t she?”
It took some time for Batwoman’s fortunes to turn. After being wiped out of DC continuity during the seminal event Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985-86), Batwoman became a virtual non-entity for 30 years. But as part of another line-wide event, she was resurrected in an incarnation that, again, proved immensely popular and demonstrated how far DC—and mainstream superhero comics—had come since 1956.
Introduced in 52 issue 11 (September 2006), the new Batwoman, a/k/a Kate Kane (who first appeared in 52 issue 7) was a fiery redhead with ghost-white skin clad in a black costume accented with red boots and gloves and bat crest across her chest. Like Kathy, Kate was inspired by Batman to clean up Gotham’s streets and used access to a fortune to turn vigilante. And after the Caped Crusader disappeared (long story), she became Gotham’s no-nonsense dark knight.
But what made the world (not just comic fans) take notice of the new Batwoman was DC’s decision to make her a lesbian. The character who originated as a heterosexual solve for Batman’s perceived homosexual problems was now, herself, queer.
It was a move that attracted attention from publications not normally on the comics beat, and it unsurprisingly drew criticism from some fans and pundits. But since her return, Batwoman has been given a prominent role in the DC universe. For a while, she was the lead character in Detective Comics, and she’s a key figure in the twisted soap opera unfurling in the Batman books. In December 2018, she will reach her biggest audience when she’s introduced to DC’s CW television universe (Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl) during the shows’ annual crossover event. Played by Ruby Rose (Orange is the New Black), Kate Kane’s small-screen debut will be a precursor to a Batwoman series, written by Caroline Dries (The Vampire Diaries), set to premiere in 2019.
“Growing up, watching TV, I never saw somebody on TV I could identify with—let alone a superhero,” Rose, who identifies as a lesbian, told Jimmy Fallon. After getting cast as Batwoman, she realized kids like her will now be able to “watch this growing up and relate to it and feel empowered and think they can be a superhero.”
In her 60-plus years as crime fighter, Batwoman has endured dastardly plots and difficult trials—including being erased from existence. And yet, like all the great superheroes, she has endured by connecting with readers, fans and creators beyond the action in the panels. It’s an enviable trajectory for any character—especially one born out of prudish fears.