Sunday, June 13, 2010

Lettercolumn Classics: Cat Scratches

Welcome back to another installment of Lettercolumn Classics, our semi-irregular look at some of the more interesting and offbeat lettercolumns in comic history. Last time out, you may recall, we explored the strange debate in the pages of Sgt. Fury about the treatment of German soldiers in Marvel comics (check it out here). Today we take a look at another hot button issue: women in comics.

Or, specifically, women in comics in 1972. That's when new Marvel editor-in-chief Roy Thomas came up with one of the riskiest, most innovative and most progressive initiatives in comics: a whole mini-line of comics featuring female characters and written and drawn by female creators with the idea of both expanding the role of women in the industry and drawing in girls and women who may not otherwise be reading comic books.

Sounds familiar? Yes, nearly 40 years later, the industry is still wrestling with these same issues -- check out the massive drag out internet fight in the comment section of this article, for instance -- so you can only imagine how groundbreaking this concept was back in 1972 when Thomas and Marvel unveiled Shanna the She-Devil, Night Nurse and The Cat to a skeptical fan community. Just how likely Shanna (a female Tarzan knockoff) and Night Nurse (essentially a soap opera, as I've discussed before) were to succeed is questionable, but if any of the titles had a fighting chance of making it, it was The Cat, which featured a classic Marvel-style origin of a woman named Greer Nelson who comes into possession of a costume that gives her superpowers. This was seemingly right in the wheelhouse for most superhero fans, except, of course for the fact that the main character wasn't a Spider-man type nerdy loner but instead a self-possessed, modern woman.

So how did the readers react? The lettercolumn tells the tale. Let's just say that not everyone was excited to embrace the idea of equality is the world of superheroes. Case in point, this typical exchange courtesy of The Cat #3:

And this was hardly the only letter expressing these feelings; here's another example from The Cat #4:

Of course, not everyone was unhappy with the idea of a liberated female superhero, but proving just how sticky the issue is, even supporters of the idea wrote in with complaints. And the reason should be no surprise to anyone: they were complaining about the unrealistic depiction of The Cat's body. Sound familiar?

The upshot of all this controversy? Well, unfortunately for Marvel and champions of comic book equality, it didn't translate into sales. Instead, all three titles in the female creator line were canceled after four issues. Shanna ended up becoming a supporting character in Ka-Zar, Night Nurse vanished into obscurity for decades and Greer Nelson, of course, was reborn as Tigra the Were-Woman, with the only negative side-effect being the fact that her character was completely re-written and has shifted to become the high-profile sex-kitten in all of comics. Not exactly what the creators of The Cat had in mind.

Lest you get the idea that all the letters were negative (they were actually split about 50-50), we'll leave you with this positive bit of commentary from a 15-year old boy who couldn't possibly have realized how ironic his words would later appear given his own adult self's less than stellar reputation when it comes to dealing with women in comics:

Tune in next time for another... Lettercolumn Classic!

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Re: "The Cat, which featured a classic Marvel-style origin of a woman named Greer Nelson who comes into possession of a costume that gives her superpowers."

Actually, Greer's powers have very little to do with the Cat costume. Her powers derived from Dr. Tumulo's experiment to "allow ANY woman to totally fulfill her physical and mental potential".
Hope this helps,