Some folks have pointed out that the press release clearly says Anne Hathaway will be playing Selina Kyle but doesn't even mention Catwoman, but I'm happy to assume that Catwoman will be appearing in The Dark Knight Rises. So while a lengthy Bane overview seemed reasonable, everyone knows the basics of Catwoman: she steals stuff, she likes cats, and she's into Batman, but she is a 70 year old character. As you can see above, over the years there have been many different interpretations of Catwoman, most of which will seem pretty unfamiliar to those who only know the character from television and film. So here goes, with almost certainly the longest post I've written here (but lots of pictures to hopefully break up the monotony).
Catwoman first appeared in Batman #1 in 1940 (the same issue that introduced the Joker and Robin, though Batman himself had already been appearing in Detective Comics). Bob Kane and Bill Finger, Batman's creators, also created the character of Catwoman.
DC Comics, the company that publishes Batman comic books, has a long and complicated history. They began publishing Batman comics in 1939, and expanded Batman's universe to include other superheroes. While some titles had their characters grow older, others, like Batman, stayed the same age. Batman would end up fighting alongside the son of a previous teammate even though Bruce Wayne did not appear a day older. Fans began to wonder how this could be, so DC introduced the concept of multiple earths to explain the inconsistency. Then in 198e, they had a major event called Crisis on Infinite Earths which collapsed all the earths into a single world, and started all their titles over with updated origin stories, as if none of the previous 40+ years of stories had ever happened.
Since this gets complicated, I'm going to break this up into a few different sections for different versions of the character that don't take place in the same continuity.
Catwoman in Golden Age/Earth One Comics
First only referred to as the Cat, she is a beautiful thief who is attracted to Batman. Batman is attracted to her as well, but as a crimefighter he can't get involved with a criminal. Still, because of his interest in her, he had a tendency to let her get away more often than his other foes.
After years of plaguing Gotham City with her crimes, it is revealed that Selina used to be a law-abiding stewardess, but she suffered amnesia after being struck on the head. With her memories now recovered, she starts to fight crime at Batman's side. Their team-ups are short lived, however, because it is soon revealed that the amnesia story was a fake and she returned to her life of crime.
In the 50s and 60s, the US government and special interest groups became concerned over the influence of comic books on children, so the publishers adopted the Comics Code which had strict guidelines on content. Catwoman's tight costumes along with her criminal nature and the lack of consequences for many of her crimes were likely in violation of the comics code, so she all but disappeared from the primary, Earth One, universe for many years.
She reappeared in comics in the 1970s, but, despite her success on television, she did not have any notable storylines.
Catwoman in Earth Two
Though Catwoman was no longer allowed to appear in Earth One, DC's alternate Earth Two universe proceeded as if she really had suffered amnesia and reformed her ways. Selina and Bruce fell in love and married. They had a child together, Helena, who would herself become a costumed crimefighter, The Huntress (in modern comics, this character would be reinvented as the daughter of a mobster and renamed Helena Bertinelli). This version of Selina would eventually be blackmailed into going back to being Catwoman, which ultimately lead to her death.
Catwoman in Modern Comics
Earth One and Earth Two stories now set aside, Catwoman received the first of several major overhauls.
Batman: Year One
Batman's revised origin also provided a radically new take on Catwoman. Selina Kyle is a dominatrix/prostitute who, after seeing her pimp abuse her sister, trains herself to fight in order to break away her pimp. She is often accompanied by Holly, a young runaway who Selina cares for like a daughter. Shortly before she escapes from him, her pimp gives her a skin-tight catsuit, which she decides to use as a disguise when she changes careers and becomes a burglar.
Subsequent comics have largely re-written the prostitute angle, but no matter the interpretation she lived a rough life, her sister endured abuse, young Holly is her constant companion, and then she begins to steal professionally. Elements added to her backstory include an interest in gymnastics during her childhood, her mother's love of cats and eventual suicide, and spending much of the rest of her youth in an orphanage.
Dark Victory/When In Rome
As a young and skilled thief, Catwoman frequently crossed paths with both Batman and the Gotham's criminal underworld. She comes to believe that Carmine Falcone, one of the most powerful men in the local mob, had an affair with her mother, and that she may be Falcone's daughter. She sets out to confirm her suspicions, and though she finds plenty of supporting evidence, she is unable to prove it.
Catwoman: the Series
Catwoman got her own comic series in the 1990s, and the character underwent further changes. Though she remained a criminal, she became much more sympathetic. Her love for cats expanded to a general concern for the environment. She teamed up with computer hackers and environmentalists to find polluting corporations, and steal from them as punishment. She also, at this time, got a little... shall we say "top heavy" as you can see above, presumably to appeal to the comic book audience which now consisted more of adolescent boys and men than young children.
She eventually moves to New York, schemes her way into running a corrupt corporation, and makes an ultimately unsuccessful run for mayor. After failing in her campaign for mayor, Selina returned to Gotham after an earthquake devastated the city. She helped Batman put the pieces of Gotham back together, but then is believed dead at the hands of Deathstroke.
Though this series ran for quite a while, the only addition to her character that really stuck was the idea that she had been trained to fight and generally mentored by Ted Grant, aka Wildcat, one of the members of the Justice Society of America.
Catwoman: The Series, Take Two
Private detective Slam Bradley becomes convinced that Catwoman is still alive and tries to hunt her down. Eventually he does, but rather than turn her over to the police, they become close friends. Selina and her old friend Holly, now about 20 years old, settle in Gotham's East End where Selina grew up. It's a run down neighborhood, and as Catwoman Selina becomes its unofficial protector. She still commits crimes but her primary motivation is to keep the East End safe.
This new development came with a new design as well, and the almost pornographic design was replaced by a still sexy but much more practical design, as you can see above. Gone were the skin tight purple suit, tail, high-heeled boots, and long flowing locks of hair, replaced with a more reasonable black outfit, boots appropriate for running, and the kind of haircut a woman would have if she doesn't want a combatant to be able to grab onto it. Additionally, her body returned to more normal proportions, and she began to wear goggles which could be switched to night vision.
Hush would not only introduce a new villain that would eventually become important in Catwoman's life, but it rekindled the long dormant romance between Batman and Catwoman. They began dating in earnest, and for the first time (hard to believe, given how long the character had been around), Batman revealed to her that he is, in fact, Bruce Wayne.
Unfortunately, the events of Hush lead Batman to believe he has been manipulated by the eponymous villain and by The Riddler, so he breaks things off with Selina.
Selina's criminal activities were by this point basically nonexistant, most of her time was spent either helping Batman or protecting the East End. How she went from a career criminal to a hero seemed strange until it was revealed that the magician Zatanna (I can't believe I never made a post on Zatanna) had performed a partial mindwipe on Selina, which removed her criminal urges. Selina was justifiably angry, and went through an extended period where she didn't trust herself or her memories.
Black Mask was the kingpin of his own little criminal empire in Gotham by this point, and he had it out for Catwoman in a bad way. Selina grew up in her orphanage with a girl named Sylvia, who fell into a life of crime and eventually associated with Black Mask. Sylvia told him that Selina was Catwoman, so Black Mask kidnapped Selina's sister Maggie and forced Maggie to watch as Black Mask removed her husband's eyeballs, then Black Mask forced her to eat them, driving her insane. Black Mask also threatened Slam Bradley and Holly, so in a fit of rage Catwoman killed him, despite never having killed anyone before.
One Year Later
"One Year Later" was a gimmick in which all the comics skipped ahead a year, with many radical changes happening, and the events that lead to those changes would slowly be revealed. In "One Year Later," Catwoman is still wanted for the murder of Black Mask. Though Selina is nowhere to be found, Catwoman keeps making appearances. It's eventually revealed that Selina's longtime friend Holly has taken up the role of the East End's protector.
Selina, in the missing year, had rebuffed the advances of her much older friend Slam Bradley, but instead had a brief affair with Slam's son. Selina became pregnant, and left Gotham knowing how badly her actions would hurt Slam, and how much a pregnant woman shouldn't be leaping from rooftop to rooftop. She kept the baby and named her Helena. For a time, Selena enjoyed motherhood, but after careful consideration, she decided she would be unable to escape her past. Despite living under an alias, the daughter of Catwoman would never be safe, and Selina herself could never live a normal life, so she felt Helena deserved a real mother. With Bruce's help, Selina fakes the death of her alias and her daughter, then gives Helena up for adoption, but is heartbroken over the whole thing. She even asks Zatanna to erase her memories of Helena, deeming them too painful, but Zatanna refuses.
Heart of Hush
After Hush's initial failure to take down Batman, he decides on a different tact for his second major assault on Bruce Wayne's life. After learning of Catwoman's feelings for Batman, Hush abducts her and removes her heart, attempting to affect Batman emotionally as well as forcing him to confront Hush to recover her heart. Obviously Batman prevails, but Selena is once again left emotionally scarred.
Post-Heart of Hush
Since the cancellation of her own series, Catwoman's appearances have been less frequent and her characterization varied. She briefly enters into another relationship with Batman, but then he is lost in time after a confrontation with Darkseid. She joins The Network, a group of Gotham City heroes combining forces to keep order in Batman's absence. She takes on a sidekick in Kitrina Falcone, who wears a hideous black and pink costume and takes on the name Catgirl. She's visited by a resurrected Black Mask when the events of Blackest Night cause the dead to rise from their graves. And, most notably, she takes on two roommates: Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn, and their adventures together are told in the Gotham City Sirens series.
Catwoman is obviously one of comics' best-known villains, but her film and TV appearances have been much better received than her time in comics. Many of her stories either cast her as a damsel in distress, a femme-fatale without any real danger, or a pin-up girl in largely pointless adventures mostly designed to show her in skin tight and/or minimal clothing.
However, the work of Ed Brubaker, Darwyn Cooke, Cameron Stewart, Will Pfeifer, and others in the version of her solo series that ran from 2001 to 2008 was incredibly well received by critics. It was a time when comics sales were shrinking after the boom of the 1990s, so it was never a tremendous commercial success but it is beloved amongst Catwoman fans.
Outside of Comics
In the 1960s Batman series, Catwoman was initially played by Julie Newmar, and was one of the series' most popular villains. Though the show tended to be campy, a sexy actress in a tight costume added a new dimension. Newmar eventually left and was replaced by Eartha Kitt. In the subsequent motion picture, the role was again recast, with Lee Merriwether taking over.
In 1992's Batman Returns, Michelle Pfeiffer played Catwoman. Selina Kyle was re-imagined as a secretary to a corrupt businessman, who survives a murder only to be revived by a cat. This version of Catwoman is notable for her hand-sewn vinyl cat suit, whip, and possibly supernatural ability to survive treacherous situations thanks to her "nine lives."
Catwoman was involved in the backstory of the short-lived WB Network series Birds of Prey, very loosely based on the comic book of the same name. The Huntress in this series is, in fact, the child of Batman and Catwoman, but Catwoman only appears briefly in flashbacks.
Every animated version of Batman (that I'm aware of) has had its own take on Catwoman. The 1990s animated series made Selina a blonde to stay close to Michelle Pfeiffer's movie depiction, but recast Selina as a socialite commuting crimes to fund her efforts to care for lions and tigers and other large cats whose habitats were in danger. In The Batman, she was similar to the earlier series' depiction, but had gone back to black hair. On Batman: The Brave and the Bold, she wears one of the golden age costumes, a purple dress/green cape combo, and is merely a thief with a love/hate attitude towards Batman.
Catwoman has also appeared in a number of video games, most of which I haven't played, but she's featured prominently in the promotional artwork for the upcoming Batman: Arkham City, which looks pretty good.
Halle Berry played Catwoman in the 2004 movie, which looked so bad I didn't bother to see it. The movie had nothing to do with Batman or most anything previously established about the character in any medium, and was a commercial and critical disaster. Though Ms. Berry did look very good in that otherwise ridiculous costume.
Catwoman suffered from infrequent appearances, poor writing, and cheesecake art for much of her career in comics, but here are some times where she came out ok.
Batman: Year One by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli is the definitive origin of Batman and one of the finest superhero comics ever. Though its depiction of Catwoman is controversial and a little odd, it's still a fantastic read.
Catwoman: When in Rome by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale follows Catwoman in her pursuit of the truth about her real father. It does feature the cheesecake art that I dismiss above, but with Tim Sale handling the art, it's really good cheesecake art.
Catwoman: Selina's Big Score by Darwyn Cooke places Selina in an old fashioned heist story, and it's incredibly well-done. Darwyn Cooke is one of the finest artists in comics, and if you're a fan of a retro-cool style or heist movies, this should be right up your alley.
Any book from the Catwoman series written by either Ed Brubaker or Will Pfeifer. Here's volume one. Reading them in order is best, but the paperback volumes' stories are relatively self-contained. Some of the volumes are out of print, but they're recent enough that they can be found used fairly cheaply. This series was top notch from start to finish.
After The Scarecrow, Ra's Al Ghul, The Joker, and Two-Face, who should be Batman's next enemy in the Batman Begins/The Dark Knight series? Well, as of now we know that Tom Hardy will play Bane and Anne Hathaway will play Catwoman.
Check out the master list for all the villains covered. I've pretty much run out by now. Obviously, there are more Batman villains, but not any of significance that I know of. As of February 2009, no one is confirmed as a villain. Not the Johnny Depp Riddler, not Phillip Seymour Hoffman Penguin, nobody.