In that case, you’re in luck, because there is 20+ years of comics continuity for you to enjoy with a canonical sex-working/ex-sex-working Catwoman and with everything from noir-ish crime solving and harm-reducing in Gotham’s East End to heightened narratives full of high adventure and a little (or more than a little) 90s comics excess and, well, some misadventures as well (but discussing Identity Crisis and related mind-wiping is not the topic at hand). Now, if you want to read some stories that deal explicitly with Catwoman’s history as a sex worker (and maybe find out which ones to skip), look no further than below the read more line.
Before I get started with a run-down of specific comic issues that show Catwoman’s history as a sex worker or engage with that history in other ways, I want to recommend an excellent resource for post-Crisis (big, continuity-resetting event in the mid 1980s at DC Comics), pre-New52 (company-wide reboot in late 2011 at DC Comics) Catwoman continuity: Dr-Von-Fangirl’s Complete Definitive Catwoman Origin. It has a really impressive, thorough methodology and a lot of scans and citations and does an amazing job of putting together a coherent, easy to read and find explanation of Catwoman’s origin story and background. Her background is a lot more complex and multifactorial than Batman’s and her first solo series (1993-2001) is out of print and was never collected into trade format so this is an invaluable resource and one I’d highly recommend for those interested in Catwoman and in questions related to Catwoman’s race, sex work history, and any other potential nice or not so nice questions about how she could possibly know what she knows and do what she does.
Now, on to a run down of comics with prominent mentions of Catwoman’s sex work history, starting with the story arc that started it all, Batman: Year One (1987), written by Frank Miller and drawn by David Mazzucchelli.
Originally a four issue story arc in Batman and later collected into multiple trade editions as Batman: Year One, this story was primarily meant to give background on how the post-Crisis Batman got his start, well, being Batman. It also gives the origins of future Lt., and, later, Commissioner, Gordon, a major player in the Batman-verse and a newcomer to Gotham at the start of this story. However, it also gives the first glimpse of an origin story for the post-Crisis Catwoman and it is a pretty good one in terms of how it handles the sex work.
Frank Miller does have a rather well known (largely deserved) reputation for having troubles writing women, but his sex worker Selina here is unapologetic about really anything and everything. She does have the obligatory pimp but he is treated as largely nothing more than a nuisance and an undesired manager Selina/Catwoman wishes to be free of and does get free of (and takes her young ward/fellow sex worker Holly with her). Selina is not a very large player in the story, but it is a four issue arc she’s sharing with two other people and their origin stories, so it makes sense.
In my opinion, it also isn’t overkind or sympathetic to Batman’s Captain Save-a-Ho-like attempt in his first proto-Batman venture.
Dressing in disguise and going to beat up pimps in the East End is treated as part of him being foolish and unprepared and he almost dies because of that foolishness (Selina was ready to ignore him until he hurt Holly and none of the sex workers are having Batman’s b.s., even if they don’t like Stan the pimp). It’s also the first and only time we see him attempt anything like that and it also gives us a chance to see Bruce and Selina match skills in a fight and he is rather impressed by her even if he does win (as much as someone who is bleeding from the leg and in deep … trouble can win).
In contrast to this, unfortunately, is the four issue miniseries Catwoman was given to expand upon her origin story in Batman: Year One and to test out the potential for a solo series. So, without further ado, Catwoman 1989, also known as Her Sister’s Keeper (1989), written by Mindy Newell and drawn by J.J. Birch.
This series really requires, and may eventually get, a post of its own, but in short – this expansion on Catwoman’s origin story from Batman: Year One basically reads like someone’s worst ideas about what sex work and being a sex worker are like.Even without later expansions (which are all verified and in this particular canon – again, read the Catwoman complete origin I linked earlier), where it’s clear Catwoman came from an low-income, abusive home and was justified in, and smart to, run away after she was orphaned so that she couldn’t be taken away (and also smart to run away from the abusive “helpful” institutions for troubled youths when she ended up in those), the way the story treats Selina’s circumstances is terrible. Her having run away from home at a younger age is talked about like she was rebellious and stubborn and this is never questioned or refuted by anyone and Selina never gets to give her side.
This repeats a really dangerous line of thinking (that gets internalized) where something can’t possibly be wrong in terms of how parents or other caregivers are treating a child because the child is just being a typical kid or teenager and they are just imagining that anything is actually really wrong. Even if this was not true in Selina’s case (which it is, based on later, in canon comics), it’s still a really harmful belief to perpetuate unquestioned. And worse because it comes from a moralistic nun sister invented just for this miniseries (she was later salvaged in Ed Brubaker’s run on Catwoman’s second solo series, fyi) and is being discussed with a cop who she pairs up with during the course of the story to find and “help” Selina/Catwoman.
Incidentally, that cop also does a bit of a flip from the beginning of the miniseries, where he seems understanding of why a sex worker might not want to deal with cops or report a rape (he gives her the card for Ted Grant to use if she wishes, but doesn’t try to pressure her into getting self defense training with him or try to pressure her to report the rape that starts the miniseries), to the end, where he refuses to listen to and help Holly after she is raped by a different cop.
There are a lot more problems with the mini series, but, basically, I would only recommend reading it for a sense of completeness and as a comparison to all the other stories telling Catwoman’s origins in the post-Crisis, pre-New52 continuity. Besides the heavy problems with whorephobia (and using rape as a tool against two out of three main female characters and threatening the third, “good” woman with it and having the bad woman save her from the evil pasty-faced pimp/boyfriend), it is also just very poorly written and even more so because it tries to insert pages/scenes from Batman: Year One and they do not mesh up at all because the Catwoman here is written as a non-character and could easily be replaced by a sad version of the Sexy Lamp with no change to much of the action (which is how you do the Sexy Lamp test on comics).
Now we are getting into Catwoman’s solo series, so it becomes a matter of single issues for the most part. Her first solo series is no longer in print and has never been collected in trades (which is something DC Comics could have easily done as part of the Batman 75th Anniversary celebrations this year, since they bumped The Joker’s anniversary up by one and both he and Batman got lovely hardcover collections of some of their past stories) so some of these may be hard to find until we get to Ed Brubaker’s run on the second solo series, which now has a full release in three large, high quality paperback volumes.
First up is Catwoman #0 (1994), written by Doug Moench and drawn by Jim Balent, and part of the Zero Hour event at DC Comics.
People like to bring this issue up when arguing that Catwoman’s sex work history was retconned out of the post-Crisis, pre-New52 continuity, but it does not actually do what they say it does. It is not as clear about it as other comics dealing with the topic (especially Batman: Year One, although people will still try to make arguments about that one, based on the idea that a pro-domme is not a sex worker and therefore “okay” or less bad) and has some odd ideas about sex workers gathering information from their clients to use in robberies (or just outright robbing from them, in a silly weird 90s comics way), but it does not retcon the sex work out. Especially given that it is followed by Catwoman: Year One in 1995 (and then by multiple issues of Bronwyn Carlton’s run on the first solo series, and the Selina’s Big Score graphic novel, and Ed Brubaker’s run on the second solo series), which also verifies/retains the sex work and Catwoman’s time in the East End working under Stan and with Holly Robinson.
I don’t have a personal/physical copy of this issue, but from what I’ve seen, it comes off as a lot more cohesive and much more respectful of Selina’s/Catwoman’s agency than Her Sister’s Keeper/Catwoman 1989. It’s also a heck of a lot more interesting, although definitely more serious in tone than perhaps the main series was at the time (at least when Catwoman/Catwoman wasn’t being dragged into crossovers and events … which happened a lot).
This fleshes out her background a lot more and gives Catwoman an extra grounding in terms of socioeconomic origins and personal experiences that I think add positively to her character as Catwoman. It also make her more of a counterpoint to Bruce Wayne/Batman in terms of privileges and experiences with structural oppressions and failings of the system. As much as Batman himself breaks the law in the course of doing good, he also maintains some degree of belief in the system. He will acknowledge and fight against corrupt cops and other bad guys but Batman/Bruce still believes that it is individuals who are the problem, not the system itself. This, if handled well, can be really interesting (and help bring out the fact that Batman is not perfect) and adds an interesting dynamic to the Batman/Catwoman relationship and explanation as to why it never quite works out (at least on the main Earth post-Crisis).
Catwoman Annual #2/Catwoman: Year One (1995), written by Jordan Gorfinkel and drawn by Jim Balent, also gives a more fleshed out portrait of pre-Catwoman Selina Kyle and an early days Catwoman. With added ninjas. Because it was the 1990s in comics publishing.
The best way to think of this issue is of it picking up where Catwoman #0 left off, even if that is not entirely the case. This story picks up slightly before Selina arrives in the East End and becomes a sex worker and deals with that period of time at more length than the Zero Hour tie-in. It also removes the direct robbery element of Selina’s interactions with her clients, which is actually only present in Catwoman #0.
There is still some story weirdness about her using her job to collect information for future robberies, but it is in the spirit of 90s plot and story weirdness and her job is very clearly her job. Despite whatever arguments people try to make, Selina is very clearly a sex worker here. Yet again, the sex work is not retconned out. And there is no need to conduct an investigation and split hairs over whether or not she had sex (however the people making these arguments define it, and I’m pretty sure they mean PIV intercourse) with her clients because she would still be a sex worker either way.
This comic also deals significantly with Catwoman’s training (at least, the martial arts part of it) and with her first few outings as a thief post-East-End-sex-work era, with a heavy appearance by the most 90s of nemeses, Hellhound.
I honestly really enjoy this story, so I’d recommend it as a fun read and a good choice in terms of which Catwoman origin issue to read given the fun 90s-ness of it, plus how many pages of confirmation about the sex work and about events shown in Batman: Year One you get from it. Also, the very classic/characteristic Catwoman attitude and … the origins of her first two Catwoman suits. Ninjas and volcano gear. Ninjas and volcano gear and a sex worker getting bored and quitting her job and becoming a burglar dressed as a cat.
Time for a slight breather as we are now leaving the 1990s and, contrary to my original thinking, it seems as though the East End sex worker part of Catwoman’s origins is not covered in the two retellings during Bronwyn Carlton’s run on Catwoman’s solo series. However, while that final part of the first solo series is not the most impressive (and is largely a women-in-prison story that I think was pushed on the writer so DC Comics could have sufficient basis for the Bat-title wide Officer Down crossover), it does go over Catwoman’s parentage, race, and experiences at home and with youth facilities. It does this in Catwoman’s own words and again in a retelling by Harley Quinn when she tries to pitch the real life Selina as a fictional character to a tv network so it’s really important in terms of verifying contentious bits of her history. Which, incidentally, seem to be most contentious with the people who also take issue with Selina having been a sex worker. Fancy that. 😉
Moving on into the 2000s, and leaving a link to my post on Catwoman and race in case anyone is curious about Bronwyn Carlton’s run, we get into the last of the comics dealing explicitly with Catwoman’s history as a sex worker. I think it might be mentioned offhand on a few occasions by people trying to (unsuccessfully) use it against her elsewhere in comics, but otherwise, this post is almost over. Relatively speaking. 😉
First up is the original graphic novel (OGN) Selina’s Big Score (2002), written and drawn by Darwyn Cooke:
This one is a bit complicated, both because of its placement in time and because, while enjoyable (and gorgeous to look at), it is not without problems.
The biggest of these is that while the story has some really great bits in it regarding sex work, both from Selina and Chantel, the current sex worker who helps initiate the heist and is vital to the rest of the team pulling it off, on a second read-through it also has slight lurking undertones about sex work being the worst thing in the world. They’re not heavy or overt, but it does sour the positive bits a little to have that lurking underneath them.
Chantel also dies (spoilers!), but so does almost every single person involved in the heist and in the story as a major or supporting character. Selina and the PI who was tracking her down in a set of backup stories in Detective Comics (as preparation for her being brought back from the dead and given a new solo series) are the only survivors and Slam Bradley (the PI) only survives because he wasn’t part of the heist caper and also arrived too late to help anyone involved in it. So I don’t really take issue with that or necessarily with Chantel not getting her own assigned chapter since only some members of the team got one and the book then switches format and chapters are no longer named after characters. I would have enjoyed it, but it’s also not a deal-breaker.
Overall it is an enjoyable story though and, even with its problems, it explicitly embraces the sex worker history Selina/Catwoman was given in the 1980s and 1990s. This is important since Cooke’s graphic novel, along with the back-up comics in Detective Comics, bridges the gap between Catwoman vol. 2 (the four issue miniseries Her Sister’s Keeper/Catwoman 1989 unfortunately counts as vol. 1) and Catwoman vol. 3, which effectively relaunched her series and brought the character back after she was killed off at the end of the last series.
This effectively sets the tone for the new series, which has a different writer (although Cooke did illustrate the first story arc), but which also retains Catwoman’s time in the East End and actively engages with it. So, without further ado, our final comic is actually a set of comics: Ed Brubaker’s run on Catwoman (2002), in particular the first story arc “Anodyne” and the first volume of the original trade paperback set, The Dark End of the Street (2004). Also included with that is Catwoman: Secret Files & Origins (2003), written by Ed Brubaker (with the exception of Black Mask’s fact sheet, which is written by Geoff Johns) and drawn by an assortment of artists.
I’m going to start with Secret Files and Origins because, well, that’s what I have scans of to use. 😉 Plus, this is also the comic where we hear about Selina from Holly’s point of view. Not the only one (at least in Brubaker’s run – Holly is not short on thoughts about her best friend), but this gives us the first time they met and from Holly’s perspective. With guest appearance by Holly’s girlfriend Karon.
The narrative continues on and gives more of Catwoman’s background, verifying what’s previously been given (and handling it in a brief and respectful way), while also altering small details (Brian Kyle loses custody due to his drinking and then drinks himself to death, instead of drinking himself to death or committing suicide). This is also interwoven with a group of criminals telling their own stories about Catwoman, which lets us experience a lot of fun, playful art and storytelling and see a variety of her costumes, including the purple dress from decades ago.
I really recommend reading this issue if you can find it, since the story is so much fun, as is a shorter joke one about superheroine costuming and about Holly being dead and then not.
Now we are really in the home stretch, since this brings us to Ed Brubaker’s run in general. This part of the guide to reading sex worker Catwoman is more about the formats Brubaker’s run on Catwoman v.3 is available in and recommendations for reading each, along with general commentary about the first story arc Brubaker re-introduced Catwoman (character and series) with and his general approach to her and the series.
So, first up is The Dark End of the Street (2004), which contains the backup stories from Detective Comics cluing us in that Catwoman is still alive (and which ends with PI Slam Bradley having a deep respect for the woman whose life he has researched deeply into and refusing to tell the people who hired him that Selina Kyle and Catwoman are both still alive and are the same person) and the first, four-issue story arc from Catwoman v.3.
I really like the original format trade paperbacks for their smaller size and easier readability, as well as for the better division and story sense they provide. The more recent collections are gorgeous and include bonus material in each of the three volumes, along with including Selina’s Big Score in the first volume (thus eliminating the need to find and purchase it separately). However, they aren’t as neatly divided up into story arcs as the smaller, original volumes are and they are a bit big and heavy for easy reading. It’s really a toss-up in terms of what you want, along with what you can find (although your local comic shop may still be able to order in the original format trades or have at least one lurking around – most of the ones I’ve been able to find are from a second-hand book shop but my lcs did have The Dark End of the Street).
The art style also changes significantly closer to the end of Brubaker’s run on Catwoman and I think there may be some tonal shifts as well (I think partly due to events/crossovers for the Bat titles), but if you want a good, slightly noir-ish Catwoman, Brubaker is your guy. He is also your guy if you want to see a murdered sex worker storyline where their deaths actually matter and the story is centered around sex workers and their experiences with the police and the criminal justice system, not around using the deaths of sex workers to rack up a high body count to make a serial killer look scary without distracting the audience from the plot and main characters with feelings about all those deaths.
Anodyne is the first story arc of Catwoman’s new series and it is all about her return to the East End and coming to grips with the outcome of the heist in Selina’s Big Score and with whether or not to be Catwoman again and how. It also reintroduces Holly, who shows up at Selina’s old safe house looking for a safe place to get off the streets for the night due to the serial killer targeting sex workers (Holly had come back to Gotham and fallen back into sex work to support her relapsed drug habit before the events of the story).
It is tonally more serious than a lot of her 1990s series (because it’s more of a detective/noir genre than an action/adventure one), but I really like this opening arc. Anodyne does a lot of great character work and self reflecting with Selina and by the end of it gives her a new, solid purpose to her existence as Catwoman and one that fits in well with, and embraces, her history. The series does eventually wander away from it, but while it maintains this tone Selina does (and attempts – of course crime bosses and a big name villain aren’t going to like what she’s doing) a lot of harm-reduction-esque work in the East End, both as Selina Kyle and as Catwoman, and it’s clear that while she has mixed feelings about her past, she definitely cares about the people of the East End and understands them.
Hopefully this guide has been helpful and informative, and I’d just like to close by thanking you for sticking with me til the end and reminding you to click through to the Complete Definitive Catwoman Origin I gave the link to at the top of the page. I’d also like to offer a slight bit of bonus content in the form of a Do Not Link-ed version of a conspiracy theory post about Bronwyn Carlton and a link to detailed information (with citations!) on that particular person’s expanded alternate universe (AU) where Selina having been a sex worker is just a nasty tabloid rumour meant to smear her name.
Note: Ed Brubaker’s run on Catwoman was originally only collected up through issue #24 (where Wild Ride ends), so if you want issues #25-37 you will have to purchase volume three of the newer format trades, Catwoman: Under Pressure. That’s only if you want them though …
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