Saturday, August 30, 2014

Favorite Marvel Characters #2 - The Black Cat

Character: Felicia Hardy (the Black Cat)

Creators: Keith Pollard and Marv Wolfman

First appearance: Amazing Spider-Man #194

First encounter: I'm not entirely sure. At the absolute latest, it was "The Revenge of the Spider-Slayers" arc, which would mean around Amazing Spider-Man #371. But I'm fairly certain I'd seen her before that, probably around Amazing Spider-Man #342, during an arc when Peter had his powers removed, but kept getting sucked into fights against various enemies. Meaning Felicia had to bail him out repeatedly.

Definitive writer: Well, I owe Roger Stern a thanks for taking the off-putting ending of Felicia's first story (where she seems to conflate Spider-Man and her father, creepy), and revealing it was a trick by Felicia so Spidey would have her placed in a mental health care facility, which is much easier to escape from than prison. David Micheline has probably written the majority of her appearances I've read, but I really liked Jen van Meter's approach in her 2010 mini-series, so it's Jen van Meter.

Definitive artist: It's kind of a toss-up. Javier Pulido drew most of her 2010 mini-series, so it's him as far as her classic costume goes. It's probably Mark Bagley overall, even though the costume he gave her, well, we'll get to that. What can I tell you? I read a lot of comics he drew when I was young, and it imprinted. Timing can make a difference.

Favorite moment or story: The 2010 mini-series that van Meter, Pulido, and Javier Rodriguez worked on. It focuses on Felicia Hardy as a thief, even as she's dealing with a sleazy, second-rate kidnapper and thief trying to force her to do his dirty work. I like it because even though it was tied in to the Grim Hunt story in the Spider-books, this was Felicia's own story. Vasili would have been up to this nonsense whether the Kravinoffs had been trying to kill Spidey at that moment or not, it merely offered him a convenient opportunity to get leverage on Felicia. So it's still about her, and even though she's the hero, she handles things her own way. Lots of deception, sleight of hand, sneaking around, and playing on people's weaknesses. It's a nasty way to fight, but it shows what Felicia values, and how she'll go about defending it.

There are a lot of little pieces from it I like. Felicia borrowing a boy's skateboard to scout a museum's security. Felicia's crew of assistants. Her professional pride, and the fact she's so good it's headline news if there's any evidence linking her to a crime. Felicia realizing what Vasili is really after, and how he's trying to do all this without the Kravinoffs noticing. So Felicia comes up with a plan that draws a lot of attention to what he's doing, and when the Kravinoff Matriarch catches Felicia, the Cat escapes by playing on the lady's suspicions about Vasili. And steals her ring on the way out, just to twist the knife.

What I like about her: To start, two quotes from the Futurama episode, "Bender Should Not Be Allowed on Television"

Bender: 'Whoa, whoa, whoa! You can't censor me just 'cause I'm an obscenely bad role model!'


Hubert Farnsworth: 'Our boys have taken up stealing, one of the worst and coolest of crimes!'

Before Power Girl or Cassandra Cain, before Hellcat or Spoiler, there was the Black Cat. She may not have been the first comic book superheroine I decided I really liked - that's probably Rogue - but she was probably second, and a lot of those qualities I've mentioned in the earlier posts, I saw in her first.

Although, being honest, the costume redesign she got when she got back in the game in "The Revenge of the Spider-Slayers" may have had something to do with. And look, yes, I'm aware it's a completely improbable and impractical outfit, even by superhero standards, but, you know, Early Nineties Calvin didn't care. It got my attention, and frankly, I was more interested in the fact she was getting to team-up with Spider-Man than anything else. That was automatic cool points. She switched back to something closer to her more conventional look within a few years. After Maximum Carnage, but definitely by the time Ben Reilly was acting as Spider-Man.

If you can, ignore the outfit and just focus on how much she's enjoying it. Felicia lost her powers at the end of that story I mentioned where Spidey had lost his earlier. Somehow when he reversed the effect on himself, she was close enough it removed her abilities (though it didn't seem to affect the 5 super-villains she'd been fighting). Which doesn't make a lot of sense, but hopefully there's some explanation in the comic I'm not remembering that makes it less stupid. Anyway, she was depowered for about 25 issues, until she finally got annoyed when she offered to help fight Electro and Peter turned her down flat, stating, 'There's nothing you can do!' Ouch. She paid the Tinkerer to hook her up with some cybernetic attachments, and here she is. Spidey is, of course, not enjoying having giant robots try to kill him, and he's worried about his recently back from the dead parents, and Felicia's busting his chops, and whine, whine, whine. But that's OK, Felicia is having a great time.  She's back in action, getting to fight giant robots and tease her Spider a little. It's similar to what I saw later in Spoiler and Robin, where Steph would help keep Tim from moping too much.

The thing I didn't realize then that I saw later is Felicia is almost always having a good time. Can be stealing something, fighting bad guys, flirting with Spider-Man, out for a night on the town, testing a security system for an old friend, doesn't matter. She'll find a way to enjoy it. I get the feeling she tries not to waste her time with things she doesn't think will be fun. She's remarkably good at not letting bad outcomes ruin her day. She's had bad times - Octavius nearly beat her to death once, the bad luck powers she got from the Kingpin were actually a way for him to take revenge on her and Spider-Man, then she lost her powers helping Spider-Man - but it doesn't seem to get her down. Her solutions to problems aren't always great - accepting powers offered by the Kingpin probably wasn't advisable - but she has this deep self-confidence that things will turn out in her favor. Some characters, when they show their resilience, it feels like watching them grit their teeth as they walk into the wind. Felicia carries herself like there's no obstacle at all. It's probably related to her success as a thief. She can always find a way around an obstacle or trap, no matter how much of a problem it looks like on the surface.

When I was young, one of the other things that intrigued me was her odd place in Spider-Man's circle of acquaintances. By the early '90s he'd assembled quite the little crew of former foes who had gone straight and would help occasionally. Prowler, Rocket Racer, the Puma, the Will O' the Wisp, and Sandman. Which probably had an impact of my view of the web-slinger, but we can discuss that another time. But they were all kept at a distance. Puma knew his secret identity, but it wasn't like he came over to the watch the big game and eat pork rinds with Pete. None of Peter's close family and friends knew he was Spider-Man other than MJ (I think Harry was in one of his forgetful stages). Felicia was the only person besides Mary Jane that got to be in both sides of his life, at least once she decided she wanted in on the Parker side of things.

But she wasn't entirely trusted. MJ was leery of her for a long time, even though she trusted Felicia to watch Peter's back in a fight. In that Spider-Slayer story, Peter and Felicia stop by Aunt May's so he can make a call, and May is decidedly frosty towards Felicia. Her voice balloon had the icicles and everything. I'd never seen Aunt May be inhospitable towards someone before then. She had this outsider status that was simultaneously cool and made her sympathetic, because I didn't understand things. I was just reading whatever issues I could find on spinner racks, I didn't know all the romantic history between Spidey and the Cat (and the idea of Peter being unfaithful to MJ never entered my mind), so I didn't understand Mary Jane's apprehension. I'd also missed that she initially dated Flash as a way to get into Pete and MJ's life, and maybe she was even going to break Flash's heart as a sort of revenge for Peter picking MJ. Which is not cool, and thankfully she didn't do that, but by the time I came into the storyline, Felicia had actually started to fall for Flash.

For a while Felicia was strictly a good guy, even opened a detective agency. Somewhere along the line, she drifted back towards the other side of the tracks. Not all the way, but more a grey area. Which is fine with me. I like classy cat burglars, people who sneak in, avoid every trap or obstacle with seeming ease, take what they like, and love doing so. Garrett from the Thief games. Bandette. And Felicia Hardy. That line Arcade had, about how any fool can kill, but he wanted to do it with style? Replace "kill" with "steal", and there you go. It's very cool to me, the idea of being that stealthy, that in control and prepared. My friends tell me I have a knack for slipping away unnoticed, and then returning without them seeing me. Which is probably a nice way of saying I lack presence, but I'll take it. I don't really have the nerve (or the inclination) to steal, though. But it's interesting to read about people who do.

And the fact she takes it seriously. Just because she finds it an exciting profession, doesn't mean it's only about thrills. She has a lot of professional pride. Her father was a thief, and she became one because she wanted to be like her dad. So she couldn't half-ass it, that would have been disrespectful. She doesn't try to skate by on her bad luck powers, barely uses them at all. She does the prep work, the research needed, and then she goes in and gets what she's after. That's how you become the best in the world at something, and I would contend she is. Who else is it gonna be, Gambit? Please.

And she gets actively annoyed by other people who don't respect the profession. In that 2010 mini-series, when we first see her, she catches some schlub trying to break into a jewelry store safe by waving a gun at a schmuck of a security guard. Felicia was also there to steal some rings, and was pretty annoyed this guy was trying something so stupid that had no chance of working, all because he couldn't be bothered to do a little research. I'm not as good at anything as she is as stealing, but I do get annoyed at people who can't be bothered to do our work well. They take shortcuts, half-ass it, don't pay attention or follow directions. It's just frustrating because it makes it harder for the people who are doing things right, who take some pride in their work.

Hopefully the Farnsworth quote is self-explanatory by this point (if it wasn't immediately so). As for the Bender quote, well, Felicia isn't an obscenely bad role model. You could do worse than to emulate a young woman who went into her father's line of work out of respect for him and kept at it until she was the best in the world. A lady who sets the terms for her romantic life. One who protects her reputation, her life, and the people she cares for with a fierceness. But she is a thief, and robbery is a crime, albeit a cool one. In that scene from the 2010 mini-series, as you hopefully could see, Felicia used several rings as impromptu brass knuckles to knock him out. Afterward, Spider-Man asks for the rings back, and Felicia returned them, but kept the one she'd been after all along. Spidey never suspected a thing, because he ultimately trusts her, and she is not above taking advantage of his good nature.

But that's fine, not every character has to be a moral paragon,and Felicia's hardly a monster. She's someone who takes her professional life very seriously, but crimefighting is a more personal matter. You don't often see Felicia on patrol, unless it's a way to spend time with someone else. If she sees a person in trouble, sure, she'll help. In general, she fights evil because it threatens someone or something important to her. It's probably because of her being a thief. She knows how easily things can be taken away, and so she fiercely guards the important things in her life. Her freedom, her reputation, her friends, her family. Mess with any of those things, and you're going to be sorry.

Because Felicia isn't a friendly neighborhood superhero, she'll fight on her terms. She'll be sneaky, duplicitous, and she will make whoever crossed her sorry they did. Look at Vasili. He pinned one of his crimes on her, which hurts her rep because she never leaves a trace when she commits a crime. He made Spider-Man doubt her, and sure, as we've demonstrated he had more cause than he knew, but Felicia had worked hard to be trustworthy enough he wouldn't doubt her. Then Vasili killed one of her fences, and he topped it off by kidnapping her mother, who Felicia hadn't visited in over a year, but still. It's her mom. And Felicia wrecked him. She didn't kick in the door, followed by his face. She let him think he was winning, then stole everything. All the relics he'd acquired for the Kravinoffs, all that hope he had of proving himself worthy of Ana Kravinoff, that she'd be his prize at the end for his hard work and dedication. Felicia made him a failure, at his own quest and in his position as Kravinoff servant, and exposed him as the creepy little man he was. Then she left, with Sasha Kraven's ring, as Vasili took to the hills, fearing for his life. It's vicious, and it's beautiful.

I'm impressed by and admire those who can fight for anyone, simply because they believe it's the right thing to do. I can more readily understand someone who will fight with everything they have for the people that matter to them. Felicia will risk incurring the wrath of the Kravinoffs for her mother and friends. She'll fight 5 super-villains just to buy Spider-Man time so he can hopefully get his powers back. She'll come off the bench and immediately start fighting killer robots, because Spidey's having trouble (and he kind of dissed her earlier). She's in that grey area, but she's good enough the other heroes still trust her. Matt Murdock will try to help her when she's railroaded for a crime she didn't commit. Captain freaking America will ask her to retrieve his original shield from someone who didn't respect his wishes with regards to it. She's not all good, but she's very far away from being bad. She's just bad enough to keep you on your toes, and to make you keep your eyes peeled so you don't miss what she's up to. But you'll still miss whatever she's got planned.

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