Green Day: Bad Kitty: Reinventing the Black Cat

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Continuing Kelvin Green's monthly skewering examination of Marvel Comics' catalog of characters. In previous installments Kelvin has written about Hank Pym, Reed Richards and Scott Summers. This month: The Black Cat!

I never understood the fuss over Gwen Stacy. That's probably because she was long dead by the time I started reading Spidey comics, with Amazing #226*, and besides, that comic featured Felicia Hardy, the Black Cat, who immediately came across as a far more compelling supporting character for the wall-crawler. She was a criminal, which obviously clashed with Spidey's moral code, but Uncle Ben's philosophy of power and responsibility didn't go as far as explaining what to do if one encounters a lawbreaker with a tight-fitting body suit and considerable feminine charms. Perhaps if Ben hadn't have been shot, he would have got to that bit eventually.

Some people will tell you that she's a blatant rip-off of DC's Catwoman. After all, they're both high-class thieves with a feline gimmick, and both have an on/off romantic engagement with a hero who, if he wasn't thinking with his... utility belt, should have turned them in long ago. The people who will tell you this are filthy liars, however, as Catwoman's reinvention as said high-class art thief came about during Frank Miller's Year One, long after the Black Cat's introduction. So stick that in your pedant pipes and smoke it, pedant pipers!

Anyway, for the next decade or so, the Cat flitted in and out of Spidey's life, and didn't take his marriage to Mary Jane particularly well, so went a bit Glenn Close** and tried to destroy his life instead. Except, through the wonders of demonic annulment, there never was a marriage, so that may not have happened. Or maybe it did happen. Or it happened in some inexplicably different way. Or maybe Flash Thompson was Xorn all along. Er... Once Spidey and the Cat broke up, she got relegated to something of a background character, turning up in soap opera subplots now and then, but not really attaining the almost-a-co-star heights she once enjoyed. Clearly something needed to be done, and quickly!

Normally, Marvel's approach to revamping heroes is to make them more EXTREME! This typically involves burdening them with impractical armour and/or enormous compensating-for-something guns, a dash of black leather perhaps, and a pathological desire to murder their opponents***. This clearly appeals to a broader demographic, including all those largely mythical young readers who would have been so very horrified at Spider-Man getting a divorce. They took a different approach to their revamp of the Black Cat, however, although one no less EXTREME! in tone. "Leave the tasteless violence to the guys," someone at Marvel might have said while trying to figure out how to work a light switch, "and let's up the sex-ay!" So rather than turn the Cat into a belligerent sociopath, plans were made to instead develop her into an uncontrollable slut with a history of sexual abuse. Hurrah!

Now to be fair, the sexual allure was always part of the character concept; the Cat's first appearances were pretty much all based around attempts to get into Spider-Man's red and blues, after all. But whereas before this approach was more in the vein of a confident woman with a strong grasp of her sexuality, it has of late been replaced by something far more basic, superficial, and on occasion, just plain seedy.

The creative genius assigned to improving Felicia's lot and turning her into a more well-rounded personality fit for cutting-edge comics storytelling was Kevin Smith, a writer well known for his hard-hitting character studies and well-observed social commentary. His tool for this titanic task**** was the Ugly Retcon, a device so well-used at the House of Ideas that the edges have become worn and blunt. Previously, the Black Cat had been inspired to take up a life of crime through adoration of her father, also a successful cat burglar; clearly, taking up the family business is not relevant in these modern, gritty times, so instead it was decided that the Cat's fondness for stealing precious works of art was due to a hitherto-unmentioned rape at college. A good thing too, as the original concept of the apprentice taking on the family occupation is blatantly ridiculous and utterly implausible, while the intimate connection between art theft and rape is abundantly obvious to all in the land.

Some might consider such a change to be exploitative, sexist and lazy, but those people clearly have no understanding of what makes light-hearted, swashbuckling art thieves tick.

As part of this bold new direction for the character, she also got a costume redesign, with the fabric suit swapped for an obviously superior fetishistic PVC body condom, accompanied by a brand new hugely inflated chest that barely fit inside said garment. It's not quite black leather, but it's close enough for EXTREME! purposes.

With such a delightful new plan in place for Felicia, it was hardly surprising that Marvel wanted to promote it, and the Black Cat began to make numerous prominent appearances across Marvel's line. There was the Sensational Spider-Man storyline in which she fell under the influence of a power which emphasised her animal-based abilities, only they're technologically based, so... um... And there was Claws, that ground-breaking miniseries which teamed Felicia with the little-seen Wolverine, and explored their relationship, except there wasn't one, so instead it was a bunch of flat jokes, a non-existent plot, and lots of Felicia thrusting her newly enlarged tits at the reader whenever things got dull, which was pretty much every other panel.

Not the best start for the New and Improved Black Cat, perhaps, but things were bound to improve with her inclusion in the all star Hos Heroes for Hire, a series which drew baseless criticism for its core cast of nubile young women in tight costumes. However, the series rose above such pettiness with its gripping character-led stories and emphasis on the personalities of its female cast, rather than their breast size. The Black Cat contributed to this with her tasteful cover appearances, and did much for the positive portrayal of female comic characters with the cover of #13, which spoke much about the empowerment of women, and wasn't tentacle rape at all, because there's nothing in the image of a wet, dripping, pseudopod slathering gobs of slime all over a young woman's nearly bare breasts while she's chained to the ceiling that even slightly suggests tentacle rape. Not. At. All.

We haven't seen much of Felicia since then, and it's unknown how Mephisto's Mighty Magical Mindwipe may have affected her, but with her new prominence and status, it's only a matter of time before she's thrust, chest-first, into the limelight once more. After years in the wilderness, with writers having no real idea of how to use the character, it took some true visionaries to reforge the Black Cat into a modern and compelling heroine, displaying her strength and independence through partial nudity, rampant nymphomania and occasional bondage. Quite obviously, this is a far more mature and interesting approach to a personality who had before been characterised by such laughably implausible traits as sexual confidence, carefree swashbuckling, and pride in her, admittedly criminal, work.

Or perhaps it's merely the cack-handed work of adolescents disguised as grown men, who seem to have confused "alluring" with "slutty," find complex personalities much too difficult to bother writing, and think that there's no female character that can't be improved with the liberal application of some good old-fashioned sexual abuse.

*Alternatively, it was because she was a simpering nobody, whose dominant personality trait was "beige".
** Except better looking, obviously.
*** See also the new X-Force.
**** Stan Lee has got nothing on me.

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