Sunday, November 19, 2006

Actually Essential Storylines: Catman

This week’s 52 back-up story feature the origin of Thomas Blake, a.k.a. Catman. The fact that the cat-themed Batman foe who wasn’t Catwoman got this special spotlight so relatively early in the game (he’s merely the 17th DC character to be featured thusly) is a testament to just how well writer Gail Simone and artists Dale Eaglesham and Brad Walker were able to rehabilitate him in the last year or so.

Let’s ignore the Silver Age Catman, whose motivation involved wooing the old yellow and red-wearing, utility purse-carrying Batwoman, since he (and she) are no longer in continuity anyway, and focus instead on the post-Crisis Catman.

Blake was a Bruce Wayne like wealthy playboy whose boredom led him to big game hunting and gambling. Having mastered the former (and lost his forturne in the latter) he turned to Batman for inspiration and decided to wear a cape and cowl with pointy ears, his tracking and hunting experience coming in handy in his life of crime.

According to this new Mark Waid-written, Eaglesham-drawn, post-Infinite Crisis origin he’s a big game “trapper” (hunting big game is illegal now, yo) who became a Gotham super-villain out of boredom, wearing a “magic African cloth that gave him nine lives.” That’s panel one. Panel two is devoted to his Green Arrow appearances, panel three and four to what happened between then and Villains United, panel five and six to recapping VU and Secret Six.

Now, we’re told, Catman “hunts and punishes those who he believes abuse their power…whether hero or villain.” That sounds cool; hopefully it will actually be the case the next time we see him.

Under “Essential Storylines,” which is probably a bit of a misnomer since there’s no such thing as an “essential” Catman “storyline,” although there are some good reads involving the man who walks like a cat, here’s what DC recommends…

Detective Comics #311: Yes, by all means, this 43–year-old, out-of-continuity story is absolutely essential. If this were a Secret Files & Origins entry on Catman, this book would be listed under “First Appearance,” which it is. Essential storyline? Not so much. I’d still love to have it collected in a graphic novel though. This is the book whose cover features Cat-Man, still using the hyphen back then, astride a giant robot cat. He also carries a “kit-bag,” drives a Cat-Car (the engine even purrs…literally!) and calls his hideout his Catacomb. Before you hit the back issue bins and eBay for this golden oldie, you may want to visit the good people at Scans_Daily.

Green Arrow: The Archer’s Quest: This six-issue Green Arrow story by Brad Meltzer, Phil Hester and Ande Parks is undoubtedly a great Green Arrow story—hell, it’s one of the best—but it’s not really a Catman story. He does appear in two issues of it, but Meltzer’s depiction has little to do with any previous versions of the character. Not only is he a fat slob who wears his old costume around the house under a bathrobe (a costume he lost in a previous appearance, by the way) and have two little dogs, but his hair is the wrong color and he’s apparently in the witness protection program, for ratting out the Brotherhood of Evil off-panel somewhere. Simone did a great job of incorporating this out-of-character appearance into Catman’s subsequent appearances in her Villains United miniseries and the Infinite Crisis: Villains United special, making it all make sense and explaining away what might otherwise have simply seemed like lazy superhero universe writing on Meltzer’s part (For example, he obviously dyed his hair as part of his witness protection program-given new life). It’s available in trade.

Villains United: Simone does the seemingly impossible in this “Countdown to Infinite Crisis” miniseries, making Catman into one of the DCU’s baddest bad-asses. If you missed it, a cabal of villains lead by Lex Luthor (actually, Alexander Luthor in holographic disguise) is organizing every villain on earth into a massive trade union of sorts, killing most of those who won’t play along. These include six villains like Catman, who are organized by the mysterious Mockingbird into the Secret Six, operating out of the House of Secrets. Catman is one of the lucky members to survive the Luthor vs. Mockingbird war, and these survivors decide to band together for, um, some reason. They’re next seen in Villains United: Infinite Crisis Special #1, also by Simone and Eaglesham, mostly avoiding the big superhero vs. supervillain “Battle of Metropolis” seen in Infinite Crisis #7. VU is currently available in trade paperback, and the one-shot special is collected in Infinite Crisis Companion and it’s easily the best of the four stories within.

And here’s what they missed…

Detective Comics #612: As far as my longboxes can tell, Catman’s first post-Crisis appearance was in this 1990 story by Alan Grant, Norm Breyfogle and Steven Mitchell. Simply titled “Cats,” it was a jam-packed, elegantly written, beautifully designed and illustrated one-issue story of one bad night in Batman’s life. Grant’s tale involves Catwoman, Catman, a runaway man-eating tiger, a couple of guys collecting stray cats to sell to a lab and even an old-fashioned cat burglar, all of which gives Grant an opportunity to lay out an encyclopedia’s worth of trivia about cats and the superstitions surrounding them. When one of Blake’s exotic pets escapes and makes a meal out of some poor sap in a park, the sensationalistic media blames Catwoman, who seeks to clear her name. The three masked rooftop dwellers all search for the tiger simultaneously, and it climaxes with Batman fighting the beast hand-to-paw, and Catwoman pitching Catman off a roof. The story was never collected into trade, like so much of the superlative Grant/Breyfogle run on the Bat-books, but once again Scans_Daily comes through. Note the awesome-ness of the Breyfogle designed costume, with the Wildcat-esque floppy ears and the cat-symbol on the chest. I think this one puts the newer costume to shame, but hey, that’s just me.

(And while I’m linking to Scans_Daily like mad, check out Catman being defeated by a Hostess cupcake. Now, I’m no supervillain, but I’m fairly certain it’s just not good strategy to immediately stuff into your mouth any food offered to you by a foe in the middle of a fight. What if Robin had injected that cupcake with rat poison?)

Batman: Shadow of the Bat #7-#9: This three-part 1993 story by Alan Grant featured art by a then still up-and-coming, pre-Long HalloweenTim Sale, and interlocking painted covers by Brian Stelfreeze. Entitled “The Misfits,” it followed losers Killer Moth, Calendar Man and Catman as they form an alliance to gain the respect they were always unable to earn on their own. Into the fold they welcome new character Chancer, whom I don’t think we’ve seen since. Their plot is a three-way kidnapping and ransom scheme, in which they nab Mayor Krol, Commissioner Gordon and Bruce Wayne. Since Batman can't come to the rescue, it’s up to Robin and Nimrod the Hunter (I know how it sounds, but it’s actually a biblical name, I swear) to save the day. Catman swears to Gordon’s wife that no harm will come to the captives once he collects the money, and is pissed at Moth for trying to renege on the deal and murder them anyway. This story isn’t in trade yet either, which seems odd considering the rising star of the artist. Maybe DC will give us a Sale omnibus someday collecting his many shorter stories.

The Secret of the Universe: Man, if you weren’t for Alan Grant, would we ever see a Catman story? This 1995 three-part crossover between Grant’s then-regular title Shadow of the Bat (#43 and #44) and Catwoman #26 might as well have been entitled “Rats, Bats and Cats,” as that pretty much sums up the plot. Catman and Batman battle atop the Cat and the Fiddle (seen in Catman’s first appearance!), while the religious leaders of the island cat cult that Thomas Blake robbed to get his magical cloth hire Catwoman to steal it back for them. Meanwhile, the Ratcatcher—an insane former exterminator who got a severe case of Stockholm syndrome and switched sides in the war between rodents and humans—has a crazy scheme to poison every human being in Gotham and give birth to a super-evolved races of rats he calls “Rattus Sapiens” (See? Crazy.) Catwoman beats Catman up again, and she makes off with his cape. He and his pet panthers give chase, and they all run smack dab into the Ratcatcher’s army of rats. The rodents prove no match for the big cats and cat-people, and Rattus Sapiens are apparently smart enough to realize the ‘catcher is a nutcase, and leave him to his fate. Catman gets hauled off to jail, while Catwoman makes off with his cape and his pets, saying she’ll give him the magic cloth back in a year or so (Blake is next seen rotting away in Gotham's Blackgate Prison during the earthquake that rocked the city in "Cataclysm" and plunged it into "No Man's Land;" Blake appears sans costume in 1998's unfortunately titled Batman: Blackgate, Isle of Men #1).

The story is probably most notable for it’s unique art, which really irritated me back in the day (I’m sure there’s a pissy letter from me about it in the back of a later issue of Shadow of the Bat). Barry Kitson provided the art for the SOTB issues, but the editors chose to highlight Kitson’s unique art process by skipping the inks and coloring the “high contrast” second step of his unique penciling process (Apparently, at the time Kitson would pencil an issue, then go back and re-pencil it to focus on the use of light and shadow during a second pass). It’s kind of cool-looking, making for a highly impressionistic story that would have fared better on a different story (his hordes of rats just look like little brown balls in the last chapter), or at least a story that didn’t feature a middle chapter penciled by Jim Balent, in the regular pencilled, inked and colored method. You could seriously get whiplash reading this story. The SOTB chapters also feature interlocking painted covers by Stelfreeze.There’s just something about Catman that inspires Stelfreeze to want to do interlocking covers, apparently.

Green Lantern 80-Page Giant #1: Catman’s most unlikely modern appearance was in this 1998 GL special. The book was structured as a sort of Green Lantern version of Cantebury Tales, with retired Lanterns Alan Scott, John Stewart and Guy Gardner gathering at Warrior’s to tell tales of their ring-slinging exploits. Though Hal Jordan, Kyle Rayner and G’Nort weren’t present, they each star in a story within the book, as told by one of the others. In “Whatever Happened to G’Nort?” written by Ty Templeton and drawn by Steve Ellis , we learn that the caninanoid Lantern is down and out in New York City. When he spies cat burglar Catman with a dufflebag full of loot trying to jimmy open a window on a fire escape, he assumes he just got locked out of his house, but some instinct deep within him stirs him to chase Catman. “My God! There’s a yeti after me!” Blake exclaims and runs, while G’Nort calls after “Hold on! Stop! I’m not trying to catch you! I’m only trying to chase you!” G’Nort eventually trees Catman, who is then taken down by firemen. Not exactly an essential Catman story, but a fun one.

Secret Six: There’s still one issue of this six-part miniseries left to go, which may explain why it wasn’t on the list of “Essential Storylines” yet. Simone is once again at the helm, but with a new art team consisting of penciller Brad Walker and inker Jimmy Palmiotti (they take some getting used to; I loved Walker's pencils as inked by Troy Nixey during the Bat-books’ “War Games” story, and obviously Palmiotti does awesome work with a lot of the pencillers he’s inked, but I don’t think the pair meshed all that well). There’s also a new Six, as Catman, Deadshot, Scandal and Ragdoll welcome Superboy villain Knockout and Batman villain the Mad Hatter to the fold. The series is a lot of fun, and Simone writes a hell of an awesome Hatter, but it’s also a little confused. It’s unclear if this story is “One Year Later” or not. If so, then it follows right on the heels of VU; if not, one wonders why these guys are all still living together, as they lack the clear mission statement Waid gives them in the 52 back-up. They mostly just play defense, as they fend off attacks from Cheshire, Vandal Savage and Dr. Psycho. If you missed it, don’t worry; a trade collection has already been solicited.

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