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Spidiversity: The Many Portrayals of Black Cat

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Spidiversity is an ongoing feature that explores a diverse range of issues in Spider-Man media, including gender, race, sexual orientation, and disability. It is published on the second Wednesday of every month by Jaleh Najafali and the fourth Monday of the month by Alex Nader.

Amazing_Spider-Man_Vol_1_194If there is one thing there isn’t a shortage of in the Spider-verse, it’s women. Although there are so many to discuss, the one female that I never get sick of is Black Cat, so she seemed like the perfect character to kick off the new Spidiversity feature for Superior Spider-Talk. When she first clawed her way into Spider-Man’s life back in Amazing Spider-Man #194, she was boldly referred to as a “startling new villainess.”  Yet, she never firmly fit into this villainess role.  As one of the first female villains that Peter really interacts with, she plays an important part in laying the foundation for the future of Spider-Man’s female villains.

Despite an outfit that clings to every curve, the 1979 version of Black Cat is significantly less artistically sexualized than more modern takes on her. First designed by Dave Cockrum and rendered in #194 by Keith Pollard, I tend to think that Felicia isn’t as busty because of the artistic styles of the time. Even still, throughout Amazing Spider-Man #194 and #195, Black Cat contorts herself in a manner that could not possibly be comfortable, but somehow manages to accentuate her body in ways that are not emphasized in most male villains.

I do not think most readers care if we ever see a leggy Green Goblin (or whatever would be the equivalent of that), so it seems a bit reductive to me that most female villains and heroes seem to be portrayed as leggy/busty/sexual/etc. This portrayal automatically diminishes Black Cat’s power as a villain and turns her into someone boys (or girls) can hang up on their walls to fantasize about. That being said, this Black Cat is much more relatable than Ramos’ busty, Barbie doll interpretation of her. In the Black Cat’s inevitable reappearance in the book, I wouldn’t mind a more proportional woman closer to the Pollard or Romita Jr. illustrations of the 70s and 80s with the same smoothness and flash that Ramos brings to his comics.

Black Cat Featured ImageWhile her original design had its merits and faults, there are a few plot points throughout the pages of both #194 and #195 that still make me cringe. The first time Spider-Man encounters Black Cat, he thinks they may be able to go on a date if it turns out she’s not a villain. This one thought is the earliest point where it is blatant that Peter will approach a female villain differently than a male. When Peter first comes across Kraven in Amazing Spider-Man #15, he doesn’t think that they might share some tea if it turns out he’s good, and his reaction to Black Cat is definitely influenced by the fact that she’s a pretty blonde. By thinking of her in this way, Spider-Man makes Black Cat a woman first and a potential foe second.

She shouldn’t be defined solely by her villainy, but Spider-Man lacks any desire to truly beat her and others question how a woman could be doing this, which stresses the attitudes of the time. Black Cat knows how to use her sexuality in a boys’ club, but should she have to? On the one hand, she utilizes all the tools at her disposal, but on the other, why shouldn’t she be able to beat Spider-Man without kissing him into distraction like she does in #194? It’s a question I don’t have the answer to, but one that I believe is essential to pose anyway.

On top of all this, her softness is immediately emphasized after her introduction. By giving her a backstory, in #195, that fashions her as a villain driven by her love of her father and a desire to impress him, Black Cat becomes more than a flashy name.  She is revealed to be a person too, one named Felicia Hardy. She is a much more sensitive character than some of the male villains in the Spider-verse, and while she isn’t good, it’s hard to think of her as bad. She’s quickly moderated into this softer role, and I’ve always wondered whether Marv Wolfman doubted the appeal a truly evil woman in Spider-Man’s life. With the audience Wolfman originally wrote for, I would imagine that a sexy, sympathetic villainess was much more appealing than one who wanted to blow things up and maliciously harm others (as she is doing now).

Black Cat 2There is a lot of good that comes of this development, though, as it makes Felicia a more layered character. Since she isn’t wholly evil, she is someone that girls might be able to understand or appreciate more than a female villain on par with Green Goblin. I don’t know anyone who truly wants to be like Norman Osborn, but I know a number of people who wouldn’t mind becoming Felicia Hardy. Her attitude epitomizes how fun being bad can be and she doesn’t make you feel bad to root for her. She isn’t just a villainess, but also a real person beneath her cat costume, and although that person might represent clear sexist undertones, she is able to garner enough staying power to develop as time goes on.

Luckily, even though sexuality and femininity are a part of her right out of the gate, editors do not dumb her down because of her gender. She quickly asserts herself and expertly manipulates Spider-Man throughout many of their interactions. Felicia is quick, powerful, and clever throughout many of her arcs, rounding her out enough so she isn’t just a one-note woman who’s incapable of accomplishing her goals. One of her best feats occurs in 1982 with Amazing Spider-Man #226 and #227. Knowing she is not one for jail, Black Cat takes the term “crazy-in-love” to a whole new level. She convinces Spider-Man to put her in the Mitchell State Hospital because of her supposed obsession with him, which highlights her ability to outwit her foe, gain the upper hand, and avoid jail time. With this kind of quick thinking, she gets what she wants and masterfully avoids a sticky situation. This isn’t a long arc, but much like her first two issues, enough is revealed about her to set up further exploration in later issues.

Black Cat 4Like most females in the Spider-verse, Black Cat is attracted to Spider-Man and eventually embarks on a relationship with him. In her first appearances she often mentions this crush; however, as writers fleshed out her character, the romantic aspects of her are increasingly emphasized. Not surprisingly, their attempts at a relationship never work out well for either party. They have great banter and really challenge each other, but their personalities never quite match up enough to have a successful romance. Their attraction was one thing, but when they date they are usually blind to the fact that one loves pilfering paintings and the other has committed his life to stopping crime. Throughout #226 and #227, Black Cat halfheartedly tries to change her ways to be with Spider-Man and abate her loneliness, but she never loses her desire to prowl around and burglarize homes. She learns pretty quickly that she isn’t meant for jail nor the quiet life of an average citizen; she lies somewhere in the middle, and that’s where she seems happiest.

Their first attempt at love might be short-lived, but they never lose their playfulness and really give their relationship a go within the pages of Spectacular Spider-Man #74 through #100. A romance isn’t always the best way to develop a character, especially since Peter couples with a large majority of Spider-verse females, but this essential arc for the Cat works well for her development. She gains a strong personality, learns more about Spider-Man, and allows Kingpin to give her super-human abilities, which all give us more insight into who Felicia is.

Black Cat 5After Doctor Octopus gravely injures Felicia in Spectacular Spider-Man #75, Peter realizes how much he cares for her and it is the catalyst for their more serious attempt at love. Of course, they probably should have realized before this that even though they cared for each other, their romantic relationship was doomed from the start. Even though their coupling may have never worked, it all really starts to go downhill in #87 when Spider-Man makes himself vulnerable and unmasks himself to Felicia. Black Cat always loves the fun of Spider-Man more so than the reality of Peter Parker, and once that magic is taken away for her, she never quite approaches her lover in the same way. I feel bad for Peter because he doesn’t get what he needs from Felicia, but he also expects more from her than she is willing to give.

Though their relationship starts to sour quickly, the biggest decision that brings about their downfall is Felicia’s choice to gain real superpowers in #89. One of the linchpins in Black Cat’s personality from the beginning is her desire to get more, whether that be more money or time with her father, so when she seizes the opportunity to get powers from Kingpin, it is a natural advancement of her character. However, her eagerness to be on par with Spider-Man causes him to fail, often due to her new bad luck powers, and further deepens the rift between them. I think all readers probably knew by #89 that this relationship wasn’t going to last much longer, even if there were some people out there hoping for an epic romance.

By the time the powers are taken away from her in #117, it is much too late and they have broken up. Given their different outlooks on life, Black Cat and Spider-Man always work better as friends and flirters than as a couple. I do love that this relationship happens though because it emphasizes how you can care about someone and still not be right for him, which is relatable for most of us. She might not approach romance in the a realistic way by constantly wanting the excitement of Spider-Man, but she is honest about how she loves the hero, not the regular Peter, and I can respect her for that. More than any other arc, this one cements Felicia as a layered, interesting character that deserves to stand the test of time.

Black Cat 1Although she regularly lives in the grey area of morality and her relationship with Peter has evolved since 1979, Black Cat’s most recent story written by Dan Slott depicts a much darker woman intent on being admired and feared by the criminal underworld.  This isn’t the first time her friendship with Peter has been a bit icy, but it is the first time she has such a one-track, dangerous mindset. As I’ve read the most recent issues of Amazing Spider-Man, I constantly find myself asking whether or not Felicia needed this change. It might have been better to just introduce a wickeder female villain for Peter to spar with because it wouldn’t have seemed as uncharacteristic and odd choice for Black Cat’s character. Otto Octavius managed to anger a lot of people while in Peter’s skin, and I’m sure there was some way to introduce a villain filled with anger and a desire for revenge without pulling Felicia in this direction.

The consequences of Peter losing his body to Ock are still being explored within the most recent pages of Amazing Spider-Man, but Black Cat is one consequence I wish was handled differently. I understand that she is hurt and livid at the end of Superior Spider-Man #20; nevertheless it is odd when she claims in Amazing Spider-Man #3 to not care that Ock was the one who hurt her. Even if their romances never end well, she cares about Peter, so I would think she’d take a second to at least hear him out. I am all for the evolution of a character, especially for Black Cat, who has such a rich backstory to work with, but this new storyline is doing nothing to advance or enrich her. She doesn’t seem to care about anything other than intimidating others and getting everything she wants no matter the cost. She’s becoming a malicious bad girl, and starting to lose the qualities that I’ve come to respect about her. From her first appearance, she has been a distinctly human villainess who is fun to read, but now I can’t see myself wanting to read about her if her future continues to have her sport crazy eyes and a demoniacal attitude.

Black Cat 7For many of the encounters between Black Cat and Spider-Man, there are moments when it is clear that she’s a creation of men attempting to write about a woman, but there are also many instances where I admire Felicia. The one thing I always see in her, whether she’s being good or bad, is that she is shamelessly who she is. Sometimes she’s going to piss of the good guys, and other times she’s going to fight the bad guys. The most important thing about Felicia’s role in the Spider-verse is that she’s not an angel, but she’s no devil either, and I just hope that she’s able to regain this role again after burning her bridges with Peter. She’s never been a perfect character, and I would love to see more of the girl who mistakenly got into it all to impress her father. So, even though Felicia’s future may be up in the air, I will still hold out some hope that Dan Slott can alter his interoperation of the Black Cat character and develop her into  a character that I appreciate once again.

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