Just when you thought Chasing Amazing was done with theme months, I’ve decided to kick of another batch of loosely connected posts in June. Because the recently rebooted Amazing Spider-Man series is featuring Electro and Black Cat so prominently as part of its first arc, I thought I would spend some time over the next few weeks looking back at some classic/significant storylines that star both of these characters. And what better place is there to start another round of thematic posts than with 1979’s ASM #194-195, aka the first appearances of the femme fatale, the Black Cat.
As long-time readers of Chasing Amazing should note, I have a very mixed opinion of the Bronze Age era of Spider-Man, especially once Gerry Conway stopped writing ASM and Len Wein and later, Marv Wolfman, replaced him on the flagship book. Wein especially crafted a number of cringe-worthy stories featuring the likes of Stegron the Dinosaur Man, Mirage and the ghost of Hammerhead, while Wolfman’s dialogue always read as being bland and Howard Mackie-esque to me.
And yet in the entirety of Spider-Man comics in the 1970s, outside of the Punisher, no other character made as much of an impact on Spidey and the rest of his supporting cast as Felicia Hardy/Black Cat. So I guess I can’t say Wolfman’s run was completely devoid of anything memorable (and before you ask, despite some people thinking it’s one of the best Spidey stories ever, I think ASM #200 is grossly overrated and Wolfman’s clunky script comes close to ruining the issue for me).
Black Cat’s first appearance in ASM #194 was actually a tricky comic for me to locate, probably because of the character’s popularity. When I first picked up this issue five or six years ago, I was in the midst of completing my Bronze Age run of ASM (everything I was missing between issues #101-199) and found the always reliable mycomicshop.com was the best place for me to get these comics in bulk. I would order 10-15 of these Spideys at a time, and would complete this run of issues within six months – except I could never find a copy of ASM #194. I eventually had to go the eBay route, which always makes me edgy since I hate having to babysit an auction and get sucked into a last second bidding war as the clock starts running down. But I have my copy now, and I’m thankful that I don’t have to fight through the throngs of Spidey fans who are probably seeking out this issue in gusto again after Felicia appeared in Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
With all that said, I hesitate to say if Black Cat’s popularity is a byproduct of how Wolfman writes her in these two issues, or is more related to the character’s subsequent appearances in ASM and Spectacular Spider-Man, as scripted by Roger Stern and Bill Mantlo. As first appearances go, ASM #194-195 does manage to create some intrigue around the Black Cat while also capturing some of the charisma and sex appeal that would later go on to be some of the core tenets of the character’s personality. But Wolfman’s story emotionally feels like the equivalent of rubbing two sticks together to create a spark, while the aforementioned Stern and Mantlo Black Cat stories dumped gasoline on a pile of old leaves and lit a match – demanding readers to pay attention to this very unique anti-heroine.
Part of the problem is the pacing of the storyline’s opening few pages. Keith Pollard and Frank Giacoia deliver us an opening splash page depicting a uniquely beautiful platinum blonde woman in a cat outfit (color me interested) but then show her interacting with some generic criminals fighting over the fact that one keeps calling the other “boss.” Black Cat proves to be agile and acrobatic, but lacks any actual “powers” beyond her ability to make a stack of tires fall down on the criminals – dubbed her “bad luck powers” though if memory serves, in turns out these were actually “powers” at all until much later.
Please don’t interpret that last paragraph as me complaining about how Black Cat doesn’t have super powers. This part of her profile would later become moot when future writers made Felicia a more fascinating character. Rather, where my issue lies is that the very first time we meet this character, she’s getting the leg up on a couple of small-time dullards who were never referenced again (that I can remember) in Spider-Man comics history. There’s nothing about this sequence that makes me as a reader think, “wow, what’s her deal?” though she is in a cat suit, so I guess for those seeking cheesecake in their comics, this will probably meet your requirements.
Once Black Cat and Spider-Man interact for the first time, the story picks up, though again, it lacks the fire, electricity, or any other element of choice, that future Spidey/Felicia stories featured. Showing Black Cat slowly unfurling Spidey’s mask in order to kiss him as he simultaneously balks and just goes with it, is still an incredibly sexy scene by 1970s comic book standards, though there’s nothing in the script that illustrates exactly why this scene is unfolding this way.
Later in the arc, some clarity is provided when Spidey tells Felicia that he feels bad about having to haul her to prison because he “kinda likes” her. But the scene is also a blatant instance of the creative team telling and not showing. Outside of the random, uninvited kiss an issue earlier, what is it about Black Cat that Spider-Man kind of likes? He watches her brazenly commit a crime when she breaks her father out of prison, and she threatens to kill him multiple times when he confronts her about it. It could just be an instance of the “good” guy liking the “bad” girl, but even over the course of two issues, I just don’t feel like Wolfman and Co. adequately evolve these characters enough for me to buy their stated emotions.
So I’m not just beating up on poor Marv Wolfman, who certainly has had a landmark career as a comic book writer and would probably just shrug his shoulder at my criticism of his 35-year-old Spider-Man story, I will admit I’ve always liked Black Cat’s origin story. Wolfman gives his character a variation of the “Electra Complex” – a psychological idea developed by Carl Jung that proposes a girl can harbor a psychosexual competition with her mother over the possession of her father. In Felicia’s case, she so idolized her father’s career of a cat burglar, she decided to follow-suit and then succeeds in breaking him out of prison so he can die with the rest of his family.
Other writers would provide more complexity to Felicia’s biography, but even without these future embellishments, Wolfman manages to craft a fairly unique and gripping female origin story. Of course, the end of ASM #195 teases the idea that the Black Cat fell to her death, a rather cheap way to bait and switch the reader since she reappears in ASM #204.
In an odd twist that is actually indicative of how a lot of Wolfman’s Spider-Man stories play out, while the Black Cat story is lumbering along, there are actually a number of somewhat interesting subplots developing involving a Peter/Ned Leeds/Betty Brant love triangle (marking one of a number of times where Peter acts like a total slime ball to a woman when, in an effort to drive her back to her husband Ned, he coldly tells Betty that he only hooked up with her because Mary Jane rejected him). And the comic ends with the shocking death of Aunt May (which was reversed about five issues later, though at least Wolfman didn’t resurrect May by hiring an actress to pretend to be her and die in her stead). As much as I complain about these late-70s ASMs, the secondary and tertiary storylines were always quite entertaining.