Monday, July 31, 2017

Black Cat: Well-Developed Female Characters

Black Cat, female comics characters, and character development.

I’ve seen it noted elsewhere that Marv Wolfman overwhelmingly chose non-physically super-powered antagonists for the wall crawler in his year and a half run on The Amazing Spider-Man. it’s true: they use gadgets, conventional weapons, and disguises, but a Wolfman foe- unless, of course, he’s a Man-Wolf!- is a non-super powered foe. (He does bring in a formidable even-match criminal Human Fly who adds to the drama nicely during the twenty-four hours spent shackled to a bomb with Jonah, and there’s a Starlin- drawn bout with Electro I believe was intended for Marvel Team-Up.)
He created one, too. In genuine Wolfman fashion, her apparent gimmick’s later revealed to be a gadget-type set-up, but if Luck be a Lady, the Black Cat’s bad news all around for Spider-Man!

Say what you will about Madame Web, but I recognize how cool it was for Spider-Man to gain a character who’s enigmatic, non-physically powered, elderly, physically invalid, and female- many identifying categories for which there was no one of the like in his world. How not to overuse her as lazy plot device was another problem, but good try! She’s the next original female character after recent team-ups with Dazzler.

Along with recruiting Moonstone from Stern’s Hulk run, we’ve gotten Belladonna, too, over in Peter Parker, and Denny brings back the Man-Killer when Spidey teams up with the Savage She-Hulk in Marvel Team-Up #107. But the costumed lady craze that featured in efforts to find something new to do with a Spider-Man Marvel felt uncomfortable fundamentally changing all goes back to the one original new enemy co-created with Marv Wolfman.
First of all, a black cat makes an awesome female character totem. Spidey’s rogues were classically animal totems, too, so good place to start. Black Cats are traditionally familiars to witches, and historically, witches were more often than not misunderstood women who moved along their own paths, if not dis-empowered by those who wished to outright take their property, backed only by the ‘witch’ accusation. You might say, this is a black cat who steals property back! (There’s surely room for great Scarlet Witch/ Black Cat team-ups, especially with the ‘hex’ factor.) The creatures are often feared, even injured, by superstitious, vicious ignorance. A misunderstood representative of oppressed, nature-based female power? Yeah!

Amazing Spider-Man #194 came to me as part of a drawing kit, using a plastic mirror to copy. It’s sort of a terrible way to learn drawing but a kid can at least learn layouts. So, the spooky Black Cat’s hurtling towards Spidey on the cover- a nice one-as she will in the middle of her prison break-out of her dad at the end. (This is two prison break stories I’m writing of, back to back?) She looks really, really nice under Pollard’s pencils inside; this is the first time a super-villainess had ever flustered Spider-Man, and just as he’s abandoned the idea of a relationship with Betty Brant, too! The Romance element wasn’t prominent in the kid-friendly Wein run, but Wolfman puts a lot of time into Spidey’s love life. He begins with the natural next-step approach, the big threshold with MJ that Pete won’t be carrying her across. His proposal’s in the first Wolfman story arc, Amazing #’s 182 & 183.
One door shuts, and when Pete’s opens at the apartment, there’s first love Betty Brant-Leeds, desperate for a shoulder to cry on after leaving Ned in France. The “married woman” marks an adult complication: they try rushing from “old friends” to something more. Byrne’s guest stint in #189 is scripted to be quite a bit more yet-that’s in keeping with the more adult approach Byrne seemed to prefer. But someone, not for Pete, but for Spider-Man? That’s another new twist! The fact that her infatuation’s connected to the man in the mask and his mysteries, and not Pete this time, is certainly not lost on Bill Mantlo, as we’ll see in the 80s when she joins the Spectacular Spider-Man cast for a couple of years. Their interplay from the start marks a first fight like no other. It might be a tad sexist, the “butt in” joke, but Cat gets the better of Spider-Man through use of her ‘bad luck’ set-ups and charm.

I have a little trouble buying her ‘bad luck’ power as a series of complicated set-ups on the scene to make her appear as though it’s a real power. At least she’s a woman with her own motives and inspirations; from the start, her plan to break her cat burglar father out of jail gives her a more sympathetic motivation than usual for the villain of the piece. It’s human, relatable- much better motives than the majority of villains. She enjoys being bad; it appeals to her outlaw sensibilities. She’s manipulating Spider-Man, but she seems to have a genuine attraction to his body, his quirky modus operandi, probably even his longtime rebel status. And hey, Black Cat could muse, he just might be a crook after all, like her? Spider-Man actually falls more on the stickler-side-of-the-law than I think is usual. He goes out of his way to stop her, but it turns out Felicia Hardy-the Cat- wants only to bring her father home to die in peace, as parole has been denied him. Her introduction’s very effective, because she comes along rather fully-formed in tune with who she will be. Her apparently deadly fall is played straight in #195, adding to the haunted feel of #196. I think she was too big a hit for the Cat not to come back, and a year later, that’s just what she does!
This character’s interesting for tying together, in three appearances, three different long-time writers of Amazing. The second one, Iron Man scribe David Michelinie, is just pinch-hitting in 205, but he’ll be back one day for one of the title’s longest stretches.
Good start, bringing back a promising character. But where he takes her demonstrates an object lesson about not writing one into a corner, and we’ll also get into how Roger Stern, that third long-term scribe, rehabilitates her without ignoring the mis-step, and why that matters.
The hand-off begins with the return of The Black Cat in Amazing #204, where she’s purloining artistic treasures. In an year where fill-ins are used to tie up previous threads all-too-often (a practice deserving of its own post), Michelinie decides Felicia leads Spider-Man back to a lair where she’s got a massive photo-decorated shrine dedicated to her infatuation with him! (Spidey, not David M-heh, heh!) She confesses to the thefts of amorous-themed objects d’arte; it was her way, she tearfully explains, of dealing with unrequited love for him.
This plays into the idea of her continuing as a villain, but a sympathetic one. However, it accomplishes that, and her already-established attraction, at her expense. A motivation like that- a limitation like that-writes Felicia into a predictable corner, story-wise, but it undercuts her calculated cunning, demeans her in relation to Spider-Man, and I don’t think it’s been warranted. Seen as a motivation for male or female, it creates a fragile, pitiful persona, but for Hardy, it’s an unnecessary weakening of an incredibly rare, independent female character. Spidey’s only female foe is psychotically hung-up on him and out-of-touch with reality? No.

At Marvel, we’ve had a revival of feminist power, but it’s kind of undermined by circumstances like: Ms. Marvel has a split personality, and when she gets that resolved, she also starts a relationship with her therapist. Spider-Woman’s got a strange pheromone power complicating her interactions with men (attracted) and women (repulsed) that is hard to keep straight, not to mention she behaves like she’s new to the human race, trying to dig out from the psychological manipulations of HYDRA, who made her believe she’d been an evolved spider. A tough fellow-espionage agent-turned-heroine, the Black Widow, has gone from being saddled with a mournful “black widow’s curse” for no logical sense to feeling diminished as the partner of Daredevil, displaying insecurities I’m not sure suit the psychological profile of someone who’s done what she has. Her best recent storyline in 1979 had her flee into a vulnerable schoolteacher persona, one of her covers. See a pattern of women characters doubting their minds, here? To a pathological, clinical point? (We haven’t even hit where they’re going with Dark Phoenix, yet- and that’s from Chris Claremont, a rather good writer of women characters, including taking over Ms. Marvel, Storm, Rogue, Kitty, Maddy Pryor...dang, there we go with Crazy Lady tropes again!) Seen in that light, a nervous breakdown for the most distinct new female villain at Marvel clutters and cliches her story.

Writer three, Roger Stern, gets it right.
“As I later revealed in Amazing Spider-Man #226, the Black Cat had realized that Spider-Man was about to capture her, so she let him think that the pictures she had used to study his moves was a "shrine" to him. Spelling out how Felicia had faked her illness -- in order to plan her next moves and her eventual escape -- was my way of showing just how clever she really was.”

Read more:

Stern’s about to go on to a reputation for strong female characters, who are not written as tough guys-but-with-boobs. She’s more in line with David Kraft’s She-Hulk, who defies her psychological dilemma to become fiercely independent, humorous, even free to pick the romantic path of her own choosing without being weak and wishy-washy. She’s also not strictly a crime fighter, cutting out her own unique path of choices. That’s where similarities appear: the Black Cat’s not committed to moral strictures, but the thrill of adventuress life. Particularly if this can make her friends with Spider-Man, she can play with the idea of, as #227 is titled, “Goin' Straight!“
She’s reunited with Stern on Amazing, too: we check in on her recovery, see her stubborn attempts to shake the bedside blues, see Captain DeWolff again, and in #246, uncover her daydreams about life with Spider. This hilarious issue ends her chapter on a somber note that’s simultaneously very funny: aboard a motor boat, debonairly-behaved Spider-Man unmasks to reveal he’s...golden age-era Cary Grant! It’s a poignant way to underscore the idea she’s in love with the idea of him, and the thrill of adventure- without mere maudlin speculation. It’s a skillful unveiling of a problem we’ll discuss in a further article near the end of our Roger Stern/ John Romita, Jr. series.
As for the Cat, her cosplayers alone suggest she’s still wildly popular- someone women enjoy emulating and symbolizing on a level matching the fervor of Marvel’s stable of male heroes. She became an avatar of a coming day, a generation later, when women make up a large portion of the writers and artists, as well as the fans and heroes themselves. She’s appeared in every further cartoon incarnation of Spider-Man’s adventures, and maybe once they’re past Avengers: Infinity Wars, she’ll finally hit the screen after the now-vital Captain (Ms.) Marvel- maybe once we get She-Hulk and other fantastic femmes. She’s been given many a fitting end..”But The Cat Came Back...”!

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