Monday, April 9, 2012

Marvel Firsts: Girrrrrrrrrl Power!

The Cat #1 (November 1972)
"Beware the Claws of the Cat!"
Linda Fite/Roy Thomas-Marie Severin/Wally Wood

Doug: How exactly should one do comics about female lead characters "right"? This has been a question for years, from the times of Phantom Lady and her "headlights" covers on through Sheena, Queen of the Jungle and into the Bronze Age with leads like Ms. Marvel and our subject du jour -- the Cat. I'm sure a viable female character can be created that is strong and noble yet beautiful -- even eye-catching -- yet tempered with a bit of political correctness. We shall see if that formula is afoot in this tale.

Karen: It is kind of perplexing and disappointing that Marvel has yet to create a heroine that can maintain a book for any appreciable amount of time. DC isn't much better though. Even Wonder Woman has had a troubled publishing history. I don't want to get into a discussion of the reasons for this in this review but it could be a topic for future discussion -if we haven't covered it already!

Doug: I'm using The Superhero Women (part of the Origins of Marvel Comics series from back in our misspent youths!) as my resource; since Stan Lee created everything in the Marvel Universe himself, I'll use his own words to describe what "he" was going for in creating the Cat:

"Towards the end of 1972, I was really determined to feature as many females as possible in our Marvel roster of headliners. One of the new projects I was enthusiastic about was the creation of a costumed character called The Cat. In fact, to add a bit more color to the title, we incorporated a little phrase up in the masthead -- "Beware The Claws of The Cat!"... Wanting to really do it right, I asked Marvelous Marie Severin to pencil our premiere Cat strip, and Liltin' Linda Fite to write the script. Since we had the considerable talents of two such fabulous females available to us, it seemed only fitting that they write and illustrate our newest superhero series -- which would feature a gorgeously garbed girl. And write and draw it they did."

Doug: So this seems like a formula for success. Toss in Wally Wood on the inks and Roy Thomas as editor and co-plotter and this looks like it's going to be a winner. But there's just something about it that doesn't click. We pick up the action right in the middle of, well... action. The Cat is on the prowl in Chicago on a rain-slicked night. She's trying to scale a wall that's getting more and more slippery. She finds the window she's after, at the penthouse level, and tries to break it (never mind that she says she's going to be as quiet as her namesake). Suddenly the window caves in and a big ugly makes a grab for our girl. But she makes short work of him, right before two thugs enter the fray. A little fisticuffing later and it looks like this issue's going to end soon. But then some gas enters the room and it's good night, kitty!
Karen: "... this looks like it's going to be a winner. But there's just something about it that doesn't click." You ain't kidding. This book was so utterly devoid of value it took me three separate reading sessions to get through it. I blame the story primarily, but I'm also not as fond of the artwork as you are. There's so much idiocy on this story that the stuff with the window is only the tip of the iceberg.

Doug: As the Cat slumbers, her mind drifts back a few years, to when she was Greer Grant, a co-ed at the University of Chicago (for those of you not in the know, you have to have at least a 32 on the ol' ACT to go there, and it's very expensive!). One day she spilled her change all over the sidewalk, right in front of a rookie cop -- who just happened to be pretty dashing. A dating relationship ensued, and soon the happy young couple was married. Then we go all Silver Age female -- drop-out of college, no job, husband won't let her do anything. Total domination. To top it all off, her husband gets shot while trying to apprehend some robbers. Greer's now all alone, and told that without that degree, she's basically secretary material and nothing else.

Karen: You know, although it is as you say "Silver Age female" this didn't get to me too much. It actually is fairly reflective of what many women were going through at the time. I've heard from plenty of women from that generation about how they dropped out of college when they got married. Worse, some only went to college to find a husband. So this part of the story bothers me less than what's to come.
Doug: A chance encounter with an old professor (physics? How come everything from this point on deals with biology?) finds Greer working as a lab assistant for Dr. Tumulo. Dr. Tumulo has been working on a way to bring out the optimal traits -- physical, mental, emotional, and intangible (women's intuition?) in females. It seems she's fallen in with a corrupt financier, a physical fitness fanatic named Mal Donalbain. Donalbain seems bent on creating a sort of master race of women to serve him in -- wait for it -- a series of health clubs that will tolerate no weaklings. That's it. No world domination, not even the riches fit for a king. Just some health clubs with some super-bad hot chicks keeping everyone in line.

Karen: Maybe Dr. Tumolo was like the Professor on Gilligan's Island -an expert in every field of science! Donalbain looks an awful lot like Norman Osborn to me. But sort of a mincing idiotic Norman Osborn. His master plan is so pathetically laughable -to "be the spiritual and physical master of a nation of perfect physical specimens" -that you might think this story was a Mad magazine parody of a comic book! Seriously, starting out with a villain like this as her foe, is it any wonder the Cat disappeared quickly?
Doug: The Professor! I love it! Well, in regard to this short-lived series, the Cat fought this doofus Donalbain, the Owl, Commander Kraken, and the Man-Bull. Two Daredevil baddies and a Subby minor-leaguer. So they couldn't even see fit to create a female antagonist, such as Wonder Woman had the Cheetah. Please see my earlier reviews of Claws of the Cat #'s 3-4; my thoughts weren't exactly in the "glowing" category...
Doug: Donalbain has developed a mind-dampening device that he will use to subjugate his women. He has a big circus-looking goon with the mind-deal around his neck. Donalbain sics him on the Cat, but she's able to get away. We then get another lengthy flashback that tells us the origin of the Cat costume (I felt too sexist if I'd have said "Cat suit", but it's certainly what it is). We see the first meeting of Donalbain and Dr. Tumulo, and meet the first girl to be The Cat. She's an airhead well-suited to Donalbain's desires. Her name is Shirlee Bryant (Shirlee?). Greer doesn't care for her and doesn't trust Donalbain. She talks Dr. Tumulo into conducting dual experiments, on Shirlee as well as on herself. Dr. Tumulo, also smelling a rat, agrees. Greer trains hard, much harder than Shirlee. Greer's mind and body do reach optimal levels, and it is she who becomes the success of Dr. Tumulo's research.

Karen: Zabo the giant -what the heck is he doing there? Why is he running around in swim trunks? I'm not sure what the point was of having Donalbain have a phobia of being touched? It seemed like a gimmick for the sake of a gimmick. And why does he wear jodhpurs and carry a riding crop all the time? Stuff like this just annoys me. I know they wanted to get across the idea that Donalbain is a smug, rich jerk, but this is nonsensical, and lazy. There's some pretty weak scripting here too -"Donalbain and his touchless wonders" - it sounds like Linda Fite is going for the Marvel (Stan Lee) style but is clueless as to how to do it.

Doug: It's as if the creators didn't even want to try to do a serious take on a female lead. It's almost as if they are writing/drawing some sort of in-joke.

Doug: After much conversation, Dr. Tumulo and Greer decide that it would be best if Donalbain and his financing were removed from the project. Gathering her notes, Dr. Tumulo heads to Donalbain's residence to confront him. But while there (we have no idea how she gained entrance to his penthouse), she discovers that he's built a laboratory in duplicate to her own! And as she steals inside, she is witness to Shirlee in a Cat costume, and with the mind-dampening collar on. Donalbain gives her orders to test her powers, but while under his influence her body doesn't react naturally and she dies in a fall. Donalbain scoffs, and declares that he'll just get another subject. Dr. Tumulo turns to leave, spies a closet full of Cat costumes, grabs one as evidence, and bolts.

Karen: So let me get this straight: this rich guy who can't stand to be touched wants to create a band of obedient and powerful women to be his slaves? Really? He wants powerful women? Wouldn't it make more sense for a guy like this (who due to his phobia is also likely impotent) to just want to order around women who are weaker than him? And why the costume? Some sort of fetish, I suppose. Honestly, I shouldn't even waste time thinking about it.
Doug: Now feeling terrible, Dr. Tumulo agonizes over going to the police. Greer convinces her that it's the right thing to do and leaves to get some things -- she's going to stay with Dr. Tumulo until this is seen through. But as she departs, some goons arrive. Get this -- wanting it to look like an accident, they pull out some dynamite. Seriously. Well, of course the house goes up, the good doctor is dead, but the Cat suit is fine -- see, they'd put it in the safe. So, you can see where this is heading. We've come full-circle in this story, to where we began. Recall that the Cat had evaded the biggest ugly. Back in the lab, she's out to destroy Donalbain's means of duplicating the Cat powers in other young women. One last tussle with our musclebound henchman and he's done. Donalbain pulls a gun, Greer avoids it and plunges the room into darkness. And then she goes all Batman on him, real scary-like. Did we mention that Donalbain's got a phobia against being touched? Well Greer knows it, plays it up, and Donalbain ends up putting a bullet through his head. End of story.

Karen: Yeah, dynamite always looks like an accident. Did Roy even look at this book before it hit the stands? This is a terrible comic. No two ways around it. I don't think the constant jumping from flashback to present helped it either. I was never a big fan of the Hellcat but she's miles above this dreck.
Doug:I felt that the art in this story was pretty good; I would criticize some of the faces when shown at a 3/4 turn -- but then that's a touch angle sometimes even for masters like John Buscema. Wally Wood's inks were really smooth, and the women were usually beautiful facially. I do have a comment on their figures, however, and I guess this is an even more glaring observation given that half of the creative team was female -- all of the ladies in the book seem to morph cup sizes at will. Seriously -- I don't think they had push-ups and/or underwires back in the early '70's (shoot, weren't many women burning their bras?), but all the going big/going small was a bit distracting. The plot? If I were Roy, I'd have stricken that from my name on the splash page. Or, was it all his idea?


William Preston said...

"Since Stan Lee created everything in the Marvel Universe himself . . . "

I do hope that was brutally deadpan irony.

One does wonder what kind of script guidance Linda Fite was given, or whether the whole enterprise, though left to two bright and talented women, was so cynically conceived by Stan that no one saw fit to attempt to ensure the series success.

Since you didn't mention it here: Fite, now a newspaper reporter, was married to Herb Trimpe for a time. They had three children.

Doug said...

"Since Stan Lee created everything in the Marvel Universe himself . . . "

I do hope that was brutally deadpan irony.

William --

Dripping with sarcasm, sir. Dripping.


William Preston said...

. . . like the burns-through-metal acid spit from the jaws of the Alien . . .

david_b said...

Never read this comic, but I KNOW I saw it left on the stands when all the other heavy-hitters were either taken or mangled.

From your reviews, it's hard to tell whether the characters and plotting were just 'phoned in', or whether someone tried to instill something memorable, with the state of Women's Lib back then. Yet you have the sexist drawing of swelled, um, mamaries.., so much like the Beast issue covered in the last 'Marvel Firsts', it seems considerably unmemorable and arguably contradictory, although kudos to the Marvel Staff for letting lesser known Bullpen staff have a go at this.

At least at this juncture, nobody was yet throwing in the Spiderman cameo for the sales boost.

Anonymous said...

My first issue ever of Marvel Team-Up starred Spidey & The Cat. So I have a sentimental attachment there. MTU was one of my favorite Marvels in the 70's. It doesn't make up for this comic, though. The story here really did suck. But I love Wally Wood's inks, and they sure work nice with Marie Severin, despite the C-size confusion.

My mom had the "Silver Age Female Career Trajectory". She dropped out of college in the 60's to start a family. In the early 70's, she had to re-enter the workplace, divorced and degree-less. She worked her way up from terrible job to less-terrible job, and went back to night school. She got her degree, and ended up with a decent career. Nowadays she's an ace grandmother. She's my hero!

Regarding the Professor-"Maybe Dr. Tumolo was like the Professor on Gilligan's Island -an expert in every field of science!" Except women!

James Chatterton

david_b said...

"Except women"..??

Actually I'd argue that, sir.

Ever wonder WHY he didn't get them off the island..?

Sheesh, I wouldn't either.

Doug said...

Sounds like an upcoming Face-Off post: Mary Ann or Ginger?


Edo Bosnar said...

Didn't we already do something like Mary Ann v. Ginger? And yes, I wouldn't have wanted to leave that island either...

As for the topic of the day, despite its flaws, I have a sentimental attachment to this story: I first read it in that Super-hero Women book Doug mentioned, during Christmas vacation when I was about 11 or 12. Maybe it was just the setting and the context - it was a prized Christmas gift and the weather outside was rainy and windy, thus perfect for sitting inside curled up with a good book - but I really liked the story initially, although upon later readings I realized how silly it was. It's too bad, too - I always thought it was truly unfortunate that this character never succeeded. It seemed to have everything it needed to become the great new iconic female hero series: two women were the core of the creative team, comics veteran Wally Wood was helping out on the art, the normally astute Roy Thomas was editing ... and we got this mess.

david_b said...

I never warmed to this character or Tigra for that matter. It just didn't seem like **anyone** knew what to do with 'em.., growth, personality, you name it.

It's regretable, but even in the Avengers, it just didn't work, at least not for me.

Funny, as for the Mary Ann vs. Ginger thing, we've got WKRP on 'Antenna TV' now, so the Mego Museum's got the similar Jennifer vs. Bailey thing going. I'm totally in the Bailey Quarters group.

(" has to be those glasses..")

Doug said...

Bailey. Same reasons I'm a Mary Ann guy.


Edo -- did we have this conversation? Maybe we did. It's been almost three years, man... Every time Karen or I get a great idea for a post, we have to ask the other if we've already done it. Sadly, many times... we have!

Doug said...

In regard to the cover of today's offering, I'd like to sing its praises. It's as busy as it can be, with all of the call-out boxes and word balloons. But it a) hypes the mag effectively, and b) gives the reader a very fair idea of what lay inside. It's quite representative of a solid cover from the early Bronze Age. Well done!


Edo Bosnar said...

Doug, I'm still a bit lethargic from the long Easter weekend (Easter Monday is also a holiday in Croatia, so the day was spent on a long walk/hike with the dog and then much lazing around), so I don't feel like searching your archives, but for some reason I'm convinced there was a Mary Ann/Ginger (or was it Mary Jane/Gwen?) face-off. Anyway, for what it's worth, I'm on the fence on that one, although on the WKRP front, I prefer Bailey.
By the way, david_b makes a good point about no one knowing to do with poor Greer Nelson, even as Tigra. While I recall liking some of the early Tigra stories (although it's been a while since I last read them), Shooter really messed her up in Avengers. And then Byrne had her catching and eating mice in the kitchen in West Coast Avengers. The horror, the horror...

Doug said...

June 12, 2011 --

But there were only 5 comments... no wonder it was forgettable (by me, too!).


Garett said...

I'll go with Ginger.

For female comics leads, my favorite is El Cazador, with a woman pirate. It had a great story and art, but was cancelled when Crossgen went down.

Anonymous said...

I own the entirety of this series -- yes, ALL 4 ISSUES!

While 2 through 4 were weak tea, I actually have a lot of affection for the first issue (and the MTU appearance) I think most Bronze Age stories -- read all these years later -- don't hold up that well. I mean, have you tried to slog your way though Denny O'Neil's 70s stuff lately?

But to me, the art is still pretty great. Wally Wood was an awesome artist -- whose use of black ink made the artwork pop. Yes, he had a penchant for zaftig women, but I don't think he had anything on Frank Cho.

Regarding Tigra, though -- her stories in Marvel Chillers are worth a read, but yes, Jim Shooter assassinated the character in Avengers, and she's never really recovered since.


david_b said...


As for Bronze female titles, I liked DC's Black Orchid (had an issue as a kid..), but I don't think it lasted long. I know they brought it back in the 80s for a spell.

J.A. Morris said...

Never read this story, but did you know Zabo had a 2nd appearance? I remember getting this MTU issue off the racks:

Fred W. Hill said...

The MTU issue was my sole Cat issue too, although I did get that Marvel Superhero Women collection too and the last two issues of Tigra's Marvel Chillers appearances. That first issue didn't strike me as exceptionally horrible, just all too typical and not particularly memorable. Alas, as the Greer Nelson introduced here seemed to have some genuine potential as a great character but she had disappeared by the time someone using the same name joined the Avengers years later. Looking back at nearly all the classic Marvel Silver Age characters, most of them -- the Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Ant-Man, Human Torch, Daredevil -- had some very terrible early stories, even if they started out with a fairly good origin story. Spider-Man was fairly unique in that for the most part his early stories hold up very well. With the exception of Ant-Man/Giant-Man and the Human Torch, most of the stories of those other heroes eventually did get much better. Bewared the Claws of the Cat, of course, fell apart before any truly inspired creative genius could rescue the mag and then Greer was transformed into a were-tigress, a late entry in the semi-horror/hero mags, and that was that for her career as the Cat.
As for her successor, the Hellcat, I liked Englehart & Perez' portrayal of her in the Avengers, but her character seemed transformed for the worse when she showed up later in the Defenders and she went downhill from there, all the way to Hell.
Sheesh, poor kitties!.

J.A. Morris said...

My intro to Greer Nelson was this issue:

Anonymous said...

I think it just shows what you often get when you build-to-suit.

Doug said...

J.A. --

Thanks for the links. I enjoyed looking at both of those books -- hadn't seen either one in the past.


Chuck Wells said...

One thing that I've appreciated about Marvel over the past several years is the return of Bronze age characters like Ms. Marvel, the original Spider-Woman, Moon Knight, Nova, etc. to featured roles in various series. When Secret Avengers began it had the coolest Avengers lineup of the batch, built around a core group of Bronze Age faves: Beast, Valkyrie, Nova, Shang-Chi, Moon Knight, Black Widow (yes I know that those lines become a bit blurry), plus Captain America Steve Rogers and the newest Ant-Man. Mike Deodato's art was a plus too!

Darci said...

Re: "it sounds like Linda Fite is going for the Marvel (Stan Lee) style"

Linda was Stan's assistant prior to getting this writer's gig, so I think it's natural.

Re: "And why the costume? Some sort of fetish, I suppose."

At the time this was written, we were supposed to believe Donalbain was the designer of the Cat suit. He'd already disposed of one of his phobias with this project (his will-dampened women wouldn't touch him), so perhaps he also was afraid of cats?

Later, Steve Englehart revised the tale, describing how Dr. Tumulo was the designer of the Cat suit as part of her determination to create an artificial Tigra (a legendary female warrior of the Cat People).

Perhaps you'll like issue #2 when you review it?

Goldenrulecomics said...

I read the four issues of this series when they first came out, and even as a pre-teen thought they were just bad or, at best, forgettable. I did like the costume, though!

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