Bizarro Back Issues: The Strange Secret Of The Cat-King Of Crime (1952)
Even though Catwoman is generally considered Batman's primary love interest, Batman and Catwoman have had a pretty rough road. They haven't exactly been faithful to each other over the years, and while everyone talks about Batman's dalliances with characters like Silver St. Cloud, Talia al-Ghul and Julie Madison, no one ever really brings up his rivals for Catwoman's affection. Like, say, that time that a retired Selina Kyle was almost lured back into a life of crime by the swooning, heart-eyed King of Cats.
It happened back in 1952 in a story that just keeps getting weirder, to the point where the army of trained cats that rob a jewelry store is the least bizarre thing that's about to happen.
"The King of Cats," by Bill Finger, Lew Sayre Schwartz and Bob Kane --- who, and I am serious here, apparently only drew Batman and Robin and left literally everything else to Schwartz --- originally appeared in Batman #69. If you're looking to read it yourself, though, it was reprinted in beautiful, crisp color in DC's recent Catwoman: A Celebration of 75 Years, which is definitely one of the better 75 Year collections that they've done.
So here's a little background: At this point in the comics, with Catwoman becoming an obvious fan-favorite and a love interest for Batman, someone decided that she should probably not be an arch-criminal anymore. As a result, Catwoman claimed that it was amnesia that drove her to crime (sure, why not) and retired from thematic robbery to open up a pet store. The thing is, Catwoman was such a popular character that even retirement in the world of retail couldn't keep her out of the comics. There are more than a few that deal with Selina's Pet Shop, which is where we open up this one:
"Cats a Speialty" is a little on the nose, but I guess you couldn't get away with having a sign that said "DOG OWNERS CAN GO STRAIGHT TO HELL" back in the early '50s.
But just because Catwoman is currently devoted to small business ownership, that doesn't mean that Gotham city is no longer subject to cat-crimes. In fact, there's one that goes down that very night, as a sinister figure unleashes an entire gang of cats onto a local jewelry store and uses the ensuing panic to make off with a bunch of jewels, hidden in tiny bags attached to the cats' collars. And when I say panic, I mean panic.
That dude in Panel 1 is flipping out to a level that seems a little extreme given that he is being presented with a situation that is at best pretty cute and at worst mildly allergic. Then again, he lives in Gotham City, and is probably well aware that there's a strong possibility that he's going to be gassed with a colorful anesthetic within the next few seconds.
Batman and Robin arrive on the scene and while they initially wonder if this means Selina Kyle has returned to her feline felonies, they get their answer soon enough. It turns out that they have a new villain to worry about: The King of Cats!
And also his genuinely terrifying automobile, the Kitty Car:
I've never really had terror struck into my heart by the Batmobile, but folks, that flattened-roadkill look for the Kitty-Car, complete with exhaust pipes that look like ribs sticking out of its sides, is one of the more disturbing vehicles in the history of comics.
Despite the fact that Batman and Robin are confident enough that they immediately head home and build a trophy case in the Batcave reserved for whatever they get when they throw the King of Cats into the hut (baller move), he manages to embark on a crime spree that leaves them in the dust. He escapes with the jewelry, steals a payroll, and then robs a chemical plant with what might be the best plan ever.
First, he sends a cat into a room with a security guard. Then, after a few minutes of watching the security guard pet the cat, he walks in...
...and announces that the static electricity from petting the cat has made the security guard unable to draw his gun. This, you will agree, is amazing.
Through it all, though, there are hints that he has a connection to the former Catwoman. First, she gets a gift of flowers --- tiger lilies and cat-tail reeds, of course --- and claims that she's interested in the "daring scoundrel." And later, well, he shows up himself, trying to get Catwoman to give up the straight and narrow and join him as his Queen of Crime.
See those hearts exploding out of his face as he, the King of Cats, offers her a spot as his Queen? Keep those in mind, they're going to be important in a few minutes.
Even though Catwoman keeps Batman and Robin from arresting the King by braining them with a vase, they're able to suss out his next criminal target: A rare black lion that, according to the Gotham Gazette's Just Good Enough™ reporting, is worth "probably well over $25,000." When they show up to stop him, however, he proves to be a match for the Dynamic Duo once again. First, he takes out Robin...
...and I have to say, I really do like the idea of a villain who will bonk you over the head with a rifle while also offering up some encouraging words about how you're just having a rough day.
Once Robin's out of the picture, he and Batman end up knocking each other into two separate tiger enclosures, just in time for Catwoman to show up in costume with a tranquilizer rifle. The problem is that she only has time to shoot at one tiger --- the one that's about to eat Batman or the one that's about to eat the King of Cats, whose title seems a little less accurate after this, but not both.
In a shocking twist, she chooses the King of Cats over Batman, confirming once again that she cares for him very deeply. And now, it's time to find out why. Remember earlier, how he was all full of hearts and wanting her to join him as his queen? Well, that's natural, what with the fact that she's his sister.
Yes, the King of Cats is actually Karl Kyle, who seems weirdly stoked about going to prison in that last panel, making his first appearance --- and, not coincidentally, his last one for 29 years. He'd eventually show up again in the pages of Superman Family and then be whisked off into the kind of obscurity that a story like this demands.