Several years ago, I became an early advocate for an underrated superhero comic that I believed people weren’t giving a fair shake. That comic was The Unbelievable Gwenpool by Christopher Hastings and Gurihiru; people wrote the character off as a lazy cash-in mashing up two popular fads, while it was actually a stunningly witty and irreverent take on the nature of superhero comics and the shared universe as a narrative device. Years later, I think I have been vindicated and that the general consensus came around on The Unbelievable Gwenpool which is now seen as a cult classic, but I have a new cause and a new comic to advocate for that I believe in just as strongly. You need to be reading Black Cat.
Just like The Unbelievable Gwenpool, Black Cat kind of has the deck stacked against in in a number of ways but not in the same ways. First of all, its launch ostensibly spun out of the most forgettable story of Nick Spencer’s Amazing Spider-Man run, which is saying something for that run. Then there’s the covers by J. Scott Campbell, which I think makes the book suffer from what I like to call “Emma Frost Syndrome” which is when the overtly male gazey cover betrays the actual content of the comic which couldn’t be more different. Finally, Black Cat isn’t really a leading lady in people’s minds. This is the first time she’s received anything more than a miniseries and comic readers are fickle; it’s hard to recondition people into accepting supporting characters as leads in their own right.
However, I don’t want to spend this article talking about why I think people aren’t reading Black Cat, I want to convince you to read Black Cat which has been one of my favourite ongoings for the past year or so. The series is written by Jed MacKay with art primarily by Travel Foreman, who you may know from working with Jeff Lemire on Animal Man and Al Ewing on Ultimates and the premise of the series is to basically take Felicia Hardy out of the shadow of Spider-Man and make her the entire Marvel Universe’s problem. The first volume of Black Cat features guest appearances from Doctor Strange, Human Torch, Iron Man, Iron Fist, Wolverine and a host of some of the most obscure references to Marvel lore that I have ever seen in a comic.
Jed MacKay has quickly become one of my favourite writers at Marvel for work on titles like Black Cat, Daughters of the Dragon and Taskmaster because he has such a holistic view of the Marvel Universe as a narrative canvas and utilises every corner of it in a masterful way. An example from early on in the series; Felicia and her crew need to break into a vault hidden in another dimension, so they need to build a door into that dimension. Black Cat and her crew’s plan to build a door into another dimension is to build a Randall Gate, referencing Phineas Randall, father of Orson Randall — the Iron Fist before Danny Rand. In another issue, they recruit an obscure Doctor Strange villain named Xander The Merciless, who made three appearances in 1977 and then was never seen again, as their specialist to break into the Sanctum Sanctorum and steal a painting.
What I love about MacKay’s perspective when working in a superhero shared universe is that he sees the opportunity this presents to bring together disparate threads and tell a new story. His stories never feel tied to one particular corner of the Marvel Universe and it opens up the storytelling possibilities of Black Cat to a limitless degree. Yeah, you could see Black Cat dealing with Spider-Man villains like Hammerhead or Tombstone or whomever, but don’t you wanna know what she’d do if she had to fight Blastaar? Don’t you want to see her steal an Iron Man suit? Don’t you want to see her go on a date with Batroc The Leaper?!
The real trick that MacKay accomplishes though is that you don’t feel penalised for not knowing any of the allusions he’s making or the stories he’s referencing. You don’t need to know that Felicia’s crew are the same characters introduced alongside her in her first appearance in 1979; if you do know that, then it’s better but it’s not worse if you don’t. It’s really easy for creators to get caught up in how clever they think they are for referencing past continuity but MacKay is really careful not to hoist himself on his own continuity knowledge. It’s really fine line to walk, but it’s something he accomplishes incredibly well; not just in Black Cat but in pretty much everything I’ve read from him.
In addition to being one of the most tightly plotted and well-written superhero comics published by Marvel, Black Cat is a genuinely hilarious comic book. MacKay sees the humour in the absurdity of the shared superhero universe and Felicia Hardy is a great window into that. Yeah, she’s kinda got superpowers and she makes out with Spider-Man every now and then, but she’s not a superhero and she’s not really of that world, which is a great place to pull comedy from. Black Cat feels like a spiritual successor to The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl in that way, in that it asks questions about the ways superheroes have become accustomed to how bizarre their lives and worlds are and points out the utter absurdity of it without belittling it.
I haven’t even touched on the art yet but Black Cat is a gorgeous book. Travel Foreman does a great job of establishing the tone and the feel of the world and it’s a low bar, but I really appreciate that his work isn’t the cheesecake pin-up style you’d expect for a Black Cat comic. There are moments of surprise or anger or frustration where Foreman breaks from the traditional mould of what we expect Felicia to look like and instead she looks unpretty, which is something a femme fatale anti-hero is not allowed to do. Foreman’s take on Black Cat humanises her and recovers her agency in a way that goes hand-in-hand with the journey MacKay is taking her on.
If that isn’t enough for you, how about some top-tier guests artists like Annie Wu and Kris Anka? That’s right, two of the most popular artists of the 2010s drop into Black Cat for guest-spots in the back-half of the first volume. Wu draws a great sequence where Felicia takes her mother out shopping while trying to convince her to leave Manhattan for a bit, and it’s the kind of touching, human scene that made Wu a star on titles like Hawkeye and Black Canary.
Later, Kris Anka gets to really stretch his action/espionage muscles with a Wolverine team-up in Madripoor which, in my opinion, is some of his best sequential work. Of course, the real unsung hero of Black Cat is Brian Reber whose colors aren’t just phenomenally vivid and captivating in their own right but create a visual consistency across the different artists that ties each issue together as existing as part of the same story.
Black Cat wrapped up its first volume at twelve issues, partly due to the pandemic, but was relaunched a few months ago with a new #1 as a tie-in to King in Black. Don’t let the event tie-in scare you off though, it’s a three-issue story that’s self-contained and doesn’t require you to read a dozen other comics. Black Cat is continuing beyond King in Black, following on the cliffhanger of the previous volume which reintroduces Lily Hollister as “Queen Cat” and as a potential rival to Felicia’s plans.
It looks set to be a great jumping on point for one of my favourite superhero comics but I really think you should go back and read that first volume first, it’s got everything you want from the genre in a way that’s accessible and appealing to new readers and continuity-heads alike. I was right about The Unbelievable Gwenpool and I’m right about Black Cat, don’t wait until it’s over to realise what you missed.