Comic books have long been considered a male-dominated industry, though they in fact have a rich and diverse history of female writers and artists. Our own Kayleigh Hearn will examine the works of female comic creators in superhero comics, indie favorites, manga, and any undiscovered gems or oddities that come her way, in her monthly column Ink Ladies.
Around the time when I was thinking about which comic to write about for my second column, Marvel Comics announced the new series A-Force, which stars a new team of female Avengers and will be co-written by G. Willow Wilson and Marguerite Bennett. A-Force, along with Wilson’s Ms. Marvel and Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Captain Marvel, are evidence that it’s a pretty good time to be reading superhero comics if you’re a fan of female heroes and female creators. There have always been women reading comics, and we’re not about to disappear into the ether now. But the nature of superhero comics is almost damningly circular, and A-Force happened to remind me of a much earlier push by Marvel to attract female readers. In 1972, Marvel published three new titles: Night Nurse, Shanna The She-Devil, and Claws of The Cat—all written by and starring women—in hopes to broaden a shrinking female audience. All three books were canceled after a handful of issues. I initially remembered The Cat as a half-baked, underdeveloped little comic, a noble failure, perhaps. But re-reading The Cat for this column, I found myself pleasantly surprised by what it accomplished in a scant four issues. The Cat features a boldly feminist hero and art by classic Marvel artists, and it feels surprisingly ahead of its time.
Claws of The Cat was written by Linda Fite, whose time at Marvel also included work as Stan Lee’s assistant, and most notably, being the first female writer to work on the X-Men. Her back-up story in Uncanny X-Men #57 would, decades later, receive minor infamy on the internet for its dated “Oh yeah, this was the Mad Men era” gender politics, as Jean Grey uses her telekinesis to bake pies and do housework. By the time The Cat was first published in 1972, however, the women’s liberation movement was in full swing, and would be a significant influence on The Cat—Greer Nelson had no interest in baking cakes for the Avengers.
In many ways, The Cat’s origin is a familiar superhero tale—a young person previously held back by society reaches their full potential as a hero thanks to a kindly mentor and some gee-whiz comic book science. I could be describing Captain America, but I’m also describing The Cat. Greer Grant Nelson is a young Chicago woman married to a chauvinist policeman (“I want a full-time wife, not a Phi Beta Kappa!” he tells Greer when she asks about returning to college.) After her husband is killed, Greer feels lost, and knocks her head against the glass ceiling when she tries to re-enter the workforce. Greer’s dawning feminism, depicted as her steely glare of determination while sexist drivel floats above her head, is one of the most powerful moments of the series.
Greer’s path to heroism lies with her former professor Dr. Joanne Tumolo, who takes Greer under her wing and introduces her to an experimental, Kirby-esque machine designed to fulfill the potential of womankind. Greer volunteers as Tumolo’s test subject, soon acquiring advanced mental acuity, superior strength and agility, and (here’s where I groaned) enhanced “woman’s intuition.” Greer’s relationship with Dr. Tumolo is the emotional core of the book. Kindly mentors are common in superhero origin stories—for example, Captain America and Dr. Erskine, and Iron Man and Professor Yinsen—but strong relationships between a female mentor and her student are much rarer. Without a strong female friendship at its center, The Cat’s overt feminism may have seemed contrived or empty (seventies Marvel comics certainly aren’t subtle), but Greer and Tumolo give it a believable heart. As with any really great superhero origin, it isn’t Greer’s superpowers so much as her connection to her loved ones that give her newfound strength and heroism.
Greer soon acquires a costume to go with her superpowers, and it’s a strikingly simple yet bold design with a yellow bodysuit, blue sash, and clawed gloves. It’s an instantly classic design, and I’m not surprised that the costume has stuck around decades after Greer hung it up. (More on that below.) Linda Fite writes Greer as a tough, grounded superheroine, and has a good ear for 1970s superhero banter. (Sample seventies dialogue: “Violence begets violence! Didn’t you ever learn anything from history–or maybe from John and Yoko?”) After the obligatory eccentric millionaire supervillain endangers Dr. Tumolo, The Cat avenges her mentor but then struggles with the real moral issues of revenge and abuse of power. After all, what good are her powers if she fails womankind? The Claws of The Cat #1 ends on this powerful note, laying the groundwork for a solidly entertaining female-led series. But three issues later, it was over.
Why did The Cat ultimately fail? It lacked a consistent artistic team, but the artists who did work on the book were certainly impressive: Marie Severin and Wally Wood’s first issue is hip, dark, and moody; Patty Greer and Bill Everett made The Cat’s aquatic adventures in #3 look like a trip to the Golden Age; and Jim Starlin and Alan Weiss drew an intense, heavy stockyard brawl between The Cat and (oh man) Man-Bull. So, the art was good. How were the stories? Well, as compelling as Greer herself is, the book lacked original villains or a strong supporting cast, and the book’s Chicago setting kept The Cat away from most of Marvel’s other superheroes. But these are all problems that could have been ironed out had Marvel given the book more time to establish itself. Of course, Spider-Man didn’t have his rogue’s gallery and supporting cast all neatly lined up after four issues. A quick glance at the “Cat Scratches” letter column (I don’t how they resisted calling it “Scratching Post”) shows a mixed response, with male and female readers appreciating its tough new superheroine, while other readers criticized it for its “leftist” feminist viewpoint. (One fan who wrote in his support of The Cat? A little scamp named Frank Miller.) Perhaps The Cat’s unapologetic feminism made it simply too far ahead of its time; without the firm support of its publisher, and facing an often reactionary, sexist fanbase, Claws of The Cat was canceled before it could fully find its audience.
If The Cat didn’t have nine lives, she at least had two. If you’re reading this, you probably know Greer Nelson better by her other codename: Tigra. Shortly after The Cat’s cancellation, Greer was completely revamped by a new creative team, with both her and Dr. Tumolo inexplicably re-imagined as members of an ancient, mystical race of Cat People. (Val Lewton, it was not. Nor was it Paul Schrader.) Out with the yellow bodysuit, in with the tiger fur and tiny bikini. As Tigra, Greer would be a long mainstay of the Avengers book, and her original costume would be passed down to a heroine who wears it to the present day: Patsy Walker, Hellcat. And it’s in these duds that Hellcat appears on the cover of A-Force. (See? The circular nature of superhero comics strikes again.) I’m glad that Greer has stuck around, and that her career as a superhero hasn’t been banished to a dusty footnote in Marvel history, though part of me does wince that she only gained momentum as a character after she put on a bikini. Not to dismiss her history as Tigra, but I can’t help but wonder how her history may have gone in a different direction had Claws of The Cat lasted longer. Okay, so we won’t see All-New Claws of The Cat solicited any time soon, but the original series by Linda Fite is an interesting book in its own right, as well as a fascinating “might-have-been.”
Come back next month for a another installment of Ink Ladies!