by John Wells
"Many years ago a Gotham man came to our remote Pacific island, a hunter, captor of big cats. His name was (Thomas) Blake ... An unpleasant man, he seemed jaded and bored with his life, despite the thrills it brought him. He told us he wished to study the rituals of our sacred cat cult. Of course it was impossible. Only men over 35 and born on our island may be initiated. We did not know our hospitality would be met with deception and greed.
"Blake knew that the (cat) carving -- and the cloth that wraps it -- were supposed to be imbued with magic power. Others would give a fortune for them on the collector's black market. Blake waited till we had drunk the sacred liquids and gone into dream-trance. Our culture did not have a word for theft before he came -- or murder! That night, as my people say, there was blood on the moon. The cloth is imbued with the luck of the cat, and protects those who own it. Things have gone bad for our island since then." -- a member of the Council of Three (1995's Batman: Shadow of The Bat # 43, script by Alan Grant).
The latter half of the 1950s and the early 1960s was a somewhat repressive period for the Batman series and comics in general. The introduction of the Comics Code authority seems to have left creators running scared when it came to some characters. Catwoman and Two-Face, for instance, had each returned to crime in late 1953 (Detective # 203 and Batman # 81, respectively) but were gone for good by mid-1954. One can speculate that DC feared that Two-Face's facial scars and Catwoman's revealing costume and attraction to Batman, however subdued they may be by today's standards, were considered too extreme to pass the Code.
Filling the void left by Catwoman was Kathy Kane, the Batwoman, who debuted in 1956's Detective # 233. Unlike Selina Kyle, Batwoman wore a costume that displayed virtually no flesh from the neck down and possessed none of the Catwoman's moral ambiguity. Ultimately, writer Bill Finger found that he couldn't resist the romantic conflict of the Batman-Catwoman relationship and recast it in 1962, reversing the sexes so that Batwoman now found herself attracted to the evil Cat-Man.
Illustrated by Jim Mooney, the first Cat-Man story introduced Thomas Blake as a wealthy animal trapper and a contemporary of Bruce Wayne. An inveterate gambler, Blake had lost most of his fortune but was still part of Gotham's elite social circle. Tom and Bruce's discussion of their boring lives during a dinner party led an eavesdropper to joke that they each put on costumes and fight crime. The suggestion lingered in Blake's mind even as he acknowledged that, in Gotham, he'd never be more than a second-rate Batman.
The prospect of being a villain appealed to the hunter far more, allowing him to match wits with the Dark Knight rather than follow his lead. Searching for a gimmick, Blake patted the head of his panther Felina and recalled the long-absent Catwoman. "She was a mere woman! Think what I, a man, could do. Imagine what I with my knowledge of cat lore can do. Yes -- cats will be my category of crime. I shall become -- the Cat-Man!"
As Cat-Man wore a yellow costume and tights with orange gloves, boots, tights and cape & cowl. The initials "CM" were emblazoned on his chest in orange. He also carried an orange satchel, a "kit-bag" that carried various Batman-inspired tools, from a cat-line to a catarang. And, for his getaways, he drove a heavy duty feline-themed "cat-car."
An encounter with Batwoman resulted in Cat-Man falling hard for the beautiful heroine and inviting her to join him as "the king and queen of crime." She sneered at the proposal and Blake never had a chance to make a second offer. Batman and Robin discovered their adversary's true identity and trailed him to an underground catacomb, where the Cat-Man seemed to perish when he plunged into a raging underground river (Detective # 311).
DC's Cat-Man was not the first character in comics history to use that name. Barton Stone appeared as the heroic Cat-Man (complete with hyphenated name) in two 1939 issues of Centaur's Amazing Man (# 5 and 8). From 1940 to 1946, the second Cat-Man appeared in Holyoke's Crash Comics # 4 & 5 and Cat-Man Comics # 1-32.
Holyoke's character was secretly Army captain David Merrywether. Like Quality's just-created Black Condor, Merrywether had been orphaned as an infant and raised by wildlife (in his case, it was by a tigress). David grew up to possess all the attributes of a tiger, including the nine lives that all cats were said to possess (Crash # 4, by Frank Temerson and Irwin Hasen). Initially, Cat-Man wore a green costume with yellow cape and bare legs but he changed to an orange-red combo in Cat-Man # 1 and the outfit evolved over the course of the series.
Evoking comparisons with Batman, Merrywether also had a female ward, Katie Conn, who worked with Cat-Man as Kitten (beginning in Cat-Man # 5). Most striking was the resemblance that his costume ultimately bore to that of Tom Blake's, complete with the "C" chest emblem in early Holyoke stories. Unlike DC's Cat-Man, though, Merrywether wore an orange costume with red gloves, boots and cape & cowl.
The Cat-Man name (and the concept of a male counterpart to Catwoman) clearly resonated with the Batman team. Late 1951's Batman # 69 had introduced the King of the Cats, secretly the brother of then-reformed Selina Kyle. 1959's Blackhawk # 141, overseen by BATMAN editor Jack Schiff, featured a villain named Cat-Man, as well.
The Thomas Blake incarnation of Cat-Man resurfaced in mid-1963, miraculously unscathed by his plunge into the cataract, and he launched a new series of crimes revolving around fictional cats. Robin couldn't help but wonder why Blake hadn't simply relocated to a city without costumed crime-fighters but Batman observed that "he's in love with Batwoman, remember ? I think he hopes to win her by proving he's a better man than I am."
Indeed, Cat-Man even orchestrated a chase between him and his beloved so that he could save her life. Even as she acknowledged his evil, Batwoman admitted that she couldn't "help having mixed feelings about him."
For a time, Blake seemed to have won the woman of his dreams when Batwoman broke her ties with the Dark Knight and agreed to be the Cat-Man's partner. If she'd questioned his feelings for her before, Batwoman had all doubts erased by the huge portrait of her that hung in Cat-Man's subway tunnel lair and the Cat-Woman costume that Blake had created for his queen. Having ingratiated herself into Blake's confidence, Batwoman summoned Batman and Robin for another inconclusive duel. Cat-Man was seemingly killed when his speedboat hit a buoy and exploded (Detective # 318, art by Mooney).
Recalling the orange cloth that he'd acquired years earlier, Blake was finally convinced of its supernatural powers. 1964 became the Year of Living dangerously for Cat-Man, who returned to Gotham with a reckless streak that astonished Batman and Robin. After cheating death from a high-voltage wire, Cat-Man boasted of his costume's mystic powers.
Batwoman, who'd kept Blake's Cat-Woman as a trophy, wondered if her outfit would have the same properties and found a message attached to the fabric: "The cloth that protects the idol shall nine lives on the wearer bestow." Kathy speculated that she might drain some of Blake's nine lives away if she wore the Cat-Woman outfit and endangered her own life.
After several adventures in which both heroine and villain risked life and limb, they had a final encounter atop the huge Perisphere at Gotham's World Trades Fair. Cat-Man prepared to leap to the ground but Batwoman assured him that she'd exhausted the properties of the orange cloth and that he would perish. Instead, Cat-Man grabbed her and prepared to throw his beloved to her death. "I love you -- but I love freedom more! I cannot allow you to capture me!" The swift action of Batman prevented Kathy Kane's premature death and Thomas Blake was taken into custody after more than a year as a fugitive (Detective # 325, art by Sheldon Moldoff and Charles Paris).
Within two months of his release from prison in mid-1977, Tom Blake had resumed his costumed career. A trio of acrobatic thugs had acquired cat-like attributes (including the ability to see in the dark and land on their feet) and convinced Cat-Man to serve as their front man, assuring Blake that "you won't regret working with a gang." His infatuation with Batwoman now having faded, Cat-Man brought his team to Minneapolis, Minnesota, convinced that he'd have no trouble with masked heroes in the Midwest.
Incredibly, his first crime, the robbery of a firm known as Cathcart and Company, attracted the attention of the New York-based Freedom Fighters, who perceived a tenuous (and, as it turned out, mistaken) connection between the theft and their own nemesis, the Silver Ghost. Uncle Sam, the Human Bomb and Phantom Lady arrived in time to stop the Cat-Man and company from stealing rare Siamese kittens from a Minneapolis pet shop. Knocking Blake onto his head, the Bomb noted the difference between him and his henchmen: "He can't be a Cat-Man -- he didn't land on his feet!" (Freedom Fighters # 10, by Bob Rozakis, Dick Ayers and Jack Abel).
By 1980, Cat-Man had struck a deal with Greek "multi-millionaire (and) shipping magnate" Andros Akropolis to acquire an Egyptian cat-god collection currently touring Gotham City. In exchange, Akropolis would provide Blake with the deed to one of his remote islands. Cat-Man's goal was "to turn this island into a sanctuary for wanted criminals, where they can live safe from prosecution -- in exchange for a mere 25% of their loot, of course" (Batman # 324).
Cat-Man was glimpsed during the theft of the artifacts (Batman # 322) but the crime was blamed on the reformed Catwoman, then living in Gotham as Selina Kyle. Now a fugitive, the Catwoman was determined to clear her name and, more significantly, locate one of the Egyptian urns that contained herbs that might cure the illness that would soon take her life.
Pursued by Batman, Catwoman tracked the thief to a Prohibition-era hideaway in a secluded warehouse only to be trapped along with the Dark Knight in a massive cat's cradle. Described as "a system of cables -- covered with a polymer adhesive," the cat's cradle would literally saw its victims to pieces when its cross-section of links began to vibrate rapidly. The Cat-Man stepped out of hiding long enough to gloat (Batman # 323), condescendingly referring to the woman who inspired his career as "Kitten," before making his exit and leaving his captives to die.
Though his costume was left in tatters, Batman managed to free himself and Selina as well as turning up evidence that linked Cat-Man to the Greek isles. Catwoman insisted on accompanying the Dark Knight and, together, they traced Blake to "his" island just as he was providing Akropolis with his loot, hidden within a geyser. With his bodyguards holding a gun on Blake, the multi-millionaire attempted to take the artifacts without payment but the fortuitous arrival of Batman and Catwoman provided Cat-Man with an opening to escape. Firing wildly at his "partner," the baffled Akropolis failed to strike his target even once, a development credited to the legend of the cape of nine lives.
Cat-Man was cornered by a desperate Catwoman, who accidentally knocked the villain and his loot to the edge of a geyser. With the corner of his cape clutched in Selina's hands, the geyser erupted, apparently taking Tom Blake and the life-preserving herbs with it.
Returning to the United States, Selina was stunned to learn that "her disease appears to be in complete remission." Catwoman was convinced that the fragment of the Cat-Man's magic cape had saved her life even as Bruce Wayne expressed skepticism (Batman # 324, by Len Wein, Irv Novick and Bob Smith). Ultimately, Batman had to admit that "he's got something strange on his side -- whether luck or merely the psychological power instilled by his own belief, I don't know" (Batman # 371).
Tom Blake had not died in the eruption but he had been left with an ugly scar on his left temple, the result, he believed, of the magic cape's divided loyalties between him and Catwoman at that pivotal moment. He returned to Gotham in the fall of 1981 with revenge on his mind, kidnapping Selina, leaving Batman for dead and retrieving the piece of his cape that Catwoman had donated to the Wayne Foundation for research. Cat-Man had convinced himself that uniting both pieces of the cape would heal his face but he was sadly mistaken.
He prepared to take out his frustrations on the securely-bound Selina, vowing that "if they ever find your body -- they'll have to bury it in a closed coffin!" Instead, Batman burst in and briefly dodged Cat-Man's blows before knocking him off of his yacht into Gotham Bay. Unable to swim, Tom Blake was forced to beg for his life. It was fitting, the Dark Knight thought, "for as everyone knows, cats hate water" (Detective # 509, by Gerry Conway, Don Newton and Dan Adkins).
Early in 1983, Cat-Man and more than a dozen other villains were united by the Joker to try and kill The Batman before the upstart Killer Croc could do the job. Instead, thanks to the Joker's treachery, Croc got wind of the plot and left Blake and others "beaten half to death" (Detective # 526, by Conway, Newton and Alfredo Alcala).
Returned to prison, Blake eventually fell into a weeks-long state of catatonia, staring blankly into space while his cellmate, a burglar named Collins, talked in his sleep about his fifty-thousand dollar cache concealed in Gotham. After a magazine cover-featuring the Gotham Museum and the Egyptian cat-goddess Bast was tossed on his chest, Blake awoke with a start, declaring that "I wasn't cataphoric OR catatonic -- I just like to take cat-naps."
Gazing into the evening sky, Blake observed "the moon -- in its catabibazon descending node -- and a good omen. Even catarchic astrology favors me, indicating its the perfect time to begin a new endeavor ... and its the fourteenth of the month -- catorce in Spanish!"
Shaking Collins awake, the one-time gambler Blake made a proposal, "a bet that I can steal Bast from the Gotham Museum -- and what's more, outwit The Batman in the process. ... If I win, I get your unrecovered loot in the catacombs ... but if I fail -- meaning YOU win -- you get my Catman outfit with its magical properties giving the wearer nine lives." Collins agreed and Tom Blake, using a catgut line to scale the prison wall and a catawba catalpa tree to catch him as he leaped to safety, prepared to make good. An astonished Collins suddenly began to sweat, wondering if the Catman's costume "rubs off even when you're not wearin' it!"
Luck seemed to be with the Catman during the robbery and, with the Dark Knight reeling from a blow to the head, Tom Blake prepared for his final strike with "a Japanese catan sword -- another good omen for me." Batman was able to counter the attack with another weapon on display -- a baton, or as he emphasized to a groaning Robin, "a baton. You might even say my victory was a catharsis of sorts."
Officially, the Catman was reported to have escaped after critically wounding Batman, a ruse to draw Collins into the open and finally lead the police to the long-sought loot from his robbery (Batman # 371, by Doug Moench, Newton and Alcala). Collins escaped and acquired the Catman costume, unaware that every stroke of good fortune that he credited to the magic cloth had actually been orchestrated by Batman and the Gotham City Police Department.
Just as Collins reached the cavernous location where his treasure was hidden, the catacomb began to collapse, its walls weakened by an earlier assault on Gotham by the Quakemaster (DC Special # 27). Batman crawled from the debris with the stolen goods but soon discovered that he had a new problem. The cave-in had diverted Collins directly into an opening into the Batcave. His confidence buoyed by his belief in the costume's supposed magic, the new Catman proved surprisingly resourceful, using trophies such as Joe Coyne's giant penny to strike back at the Dark Knight. Conceding that he'd "created a monster," Batman finally succeeded in subduing his foe (Detective # 538, by Moench, Gene Colan and Bob Smith).
Having failed to learn his lesson when he went up against Croc, Catman accepted subsequent invitations to work on behalf of Brainiac (1985's Crisis On Infinite Earths # 9) and Ra's al Ghul (1986's Batman # 400) and quickly met with defeat each time.
In 1987, Americomics publisher acquired the rights to Holyoke's Cat-Man and reintroduced him in early 1989's Femforce # 19. Almost simultaneously, DC's Cat-Man made a comeback in he pages of Manhunter # 13 (by Kim Yale, John Koch and Pablo Marcos). The villain's attempt to snatch a Bast statue from a museum was opposed by Mark (Manhunter) Shaw. Shaw sustained a nasty gash on his chest thanks to Blake's clawed gloves but he got his man. As Cat-Man made his escape, he discovered that his car was being towed away and, momentarily distracted, he was tripped up by an energy blast from Manhunter's baton. Mark had noticed Blake's license plate ("GATO-1") when he first entered the museum and reported him for unpaid parking tickets.
The Cat-Man escaped incarceration and, under an assumed name, took up residence in Gotham, living in a mansion paid for with stolen money. On a night in early 1990, Blake's pet, a white Siberian tiger named Rasputin, escaped from his grounds and went on the prowl in Gotham. After "a badly mauled, partially consumed human body" was discovered in Robinson Park, a sensationalistic news reporter suggested that the killer might be the Catwoman.
Soon, Batman, an insulted Catwoman and Catman (now sporting a revised costume with a cat's-head icon replacing the "CM" on his chest and longer ears on his hood) had all taken to the streets, each in search of the big cat. The chase invigorated Blake, who observed that "it's been too long since I felt like this. Wind in my face -- the night wrapped round me like a well-worn cloak -- the thrill of the hunt -- There's no feeling in the world like it!"
Once Catman had been reunited with Rasputin, he decided that his pet needed "a little exercise." A shackled Batman provided just what the big cat wanted but Catman didn't get to enjoy the show. Catwoman wrapped her whip around Blake's ankle, yanking him out of his loft and onto the roof of a van passing below. While Batman succeeded in beating Rasputin, a dazed Catman staggered out on the van, which had been transporting cats for illegal experimentation. Shrieking in terror, the teenage drivers ran away, swearing that they'd "never sell another cat to a research lab as long as (they) live" (Detective # 612, by Alan Grant, Norm Breyfogle and Steve Mitchell).
In late 1992, Catman joined forces with other so-called "misfits" Calendar Man and Killer Moth in a plot to kidnap Gotham Mayor Armand Krol, Commissioner Gordon and Bruce Wayne for a ten-million dollar ransom. Catman recruited a fourth partner, a crook named Chancer who, like Blake, relied on good fortune. introducing the new guy to his latest pet, a black panther named Sasha, Catman observed that "luck is relative. It's the difference between having your throat torn out and merely losing an arm."
Chancer agreed to participate (Batman: Shadow of The Bat # 7) and the kidnappings went off without a hitch. Unknown to the others, Killer Moth intended to kill Krol, Gordon and Wayne once the ransom was delivered (# 8). An unwitting Catman even assured Sarah Essen, who delivered the ransom, that "you have my word they're okay, Sergeant. I'll set them free myself." Through the combined efforts of Robin and Bruce Wayne, the victims were freed and Wayne, as Batman, quickly brought the rogues to justice (# 9, by Alan Grant and Tim Sale).
Outside of mainstream Bat-continuity, Doug Moench and Russ Heath presented an alternate Cat-Man origin in 1993's Legends of the Dark Knight # 46-49. In this account, set in the pre-Robin era, Blake was a serial killer of women (beginning, apparently, with his mother) who wore a gray Catwoman-like costume that initially led the police to believe that she was the killer. Batman and Catwoman formed a truce for the duration of the crisis and brought the Cat-Man to justice.
Yet another take on Cat-Man's origin appeared in 1997's Batman & Robin Adventures # 16 (by Ty Templeton, Brandon Kruse and Rich Burchett). As in the Legends story, Cat-Man wore a gray costume, this time out of admiration for Catwoman. Obsessed with the reformed Selina Kyle, the wealthy Blake had initiated a series of copycat crimes and eventually lured Catwoman to his home and a veritable shrine to her costumed career. Cat-Man was finally captured in a duel with the Dark Knight and Selina deflated his romantic fantasies by observing that "in a match with Batman ... the better man just won." Tom Blake (but not Cat-Man) later appeared in the September 18, 1998 "Cult of the Cat" episode of the animated "Adventures of Batman and Robin" (with vocals by Scott Cleverdon).
In 1995, members of the Pacific island cat cult finally caught up with Thomas Blake. When one of their representative Council of Three disappeared after a confrontation with the Cat-Man, the remaining two natives hired the Catwoman to steal the cat idol and the mystic cloth on their behalf (Shadow of The Bat # 43, by Grant and Barry Kitson). "I've never been able to hate him with the intensity such a cruel, callous creep deserves. So this scam really appeals. Stealing Cat-Man's cape and cowl back for its rightful owners will leave him with a king-size flea in his ear -- and me with a million bucks in my king-size pocketbook" (Catwoman # 26, by Grant, Jim Balent and Bob Smith).
Unknown to all, Thomas Blake was planning his retirement. A robbery at a Gotham casino brought Catman into conflict with Batman and, inevitably, the Dark Knight and the law would close in on him. The arrival of the member of the cat cult, thus, was met with great enthusiasm by Blake, who promptly subdued the man and dressed him in his original "CM" costume (Shadow of The Bat # 43, by Grant and Barry Kitson).
"I'm tired of being a hunted man, hounded by the law, switching houses every few weeks. I want to be free to enjoy the wealth my crimes have brought me. And fate sent you to help. A half-dozen witnesses saw Tom Blake at the casino tonight. Even more saw Cat-Man robbing it including Batman himself. They won't think twice when they find a body in a cat-suit with the remains of the loot -- especially," Cat-Man said as he set the timer on an explosive device, "when there's not enough of you left to identify!"
Blake's plans were disrupted when Catwoman raided him home, battering Blake relentlessly, raking her clawed gloves across his cheeks and finally pulling his cape and cowl into her hands. Pursued by Blake's panthers Khan and Hun, Selina roared away from the estate in Cat-Man's sportscar (Catwoman # 26).
Falling back on his tracking skills, Tom Blake followed Catwoman to the sewers, where she had unwittingly stumbled across a plot by the Ratcatcher to poison the city and Batman's attempt to prevent it. Cat-Man's arrival alongside Khan and Hun provided the Dark Knight with the resources he needed to fight the Ratcatcher's army of rodents while he rounded up the ringleader. Upon his return, Batman found Cat-Man lying unconscious and Catwoman and the panthers long gone.
When the Council attempted to renege on their deal, Selina suggested that Khan and Hun might convince them otherwise. Moments later, the Catwoman was carrying away one-million dollars while silently thinking that "you have the idol and A cloth, guys -- but what makes you think I'd give you the real one ? Not that I intend to keep it. If Thomas Blake thinks it's lucky, he's welcome to it. I'll let him sweat out Blackgate Prison for a year or so, then send it back to him. Anybody who has pets like these can't be all bad" (Shadow of The Bat # 44, by Grant and Kitson).
Blake had scarcely been returned to prison when he and dozens of other villains were freed by the demonic Neron and offered great power in exchange for their soul. Cat-Man declined (1995's Underworld Unleashed # 1, by Mark Waid, Howard Porter and Dan Green). Soon after, in a perhaps apocryphal account, he may have wondered whether he made the right decision. In New York, while wearing a replica of his magic cape and cowl, he was chased up a tree by the alien canine (and former Green Lantern) named G'nort (1998's Green Lantern 80-Page Giant # 1, by Ty Templeton, Steve Ellis and John Lowe).
In any event, Thomas Blake was serving time in Blackgate Penitentiary again when the Gotham City earthquake struck and sent a tidal wave smashing into the prison. Cat-Man was freed along with the other inmates but couldn't resist going back into the prison to loot the cells. Instead, his chivalrous side was awakened again when he discovered the KGBeast attempting to murder a fellow inmate, Jared Manx, as well as a nun and lawyer who'd been with Manx at the time of the disaster. With his acrobatic skills still first-rate, Blake effortlessly distracted the Russian killer until his would-be victims escaped. Grinning, Tom dove into the water (1998's Batman: Blackgate - Isle of Men # 1, by Doug Moench, Jim Aparo and David Roach). It's unknown whether he ever learned to swim.
Whatever the case, the Cat-Man made it to dry land. In the months since his departure from Blackgate, he's said to have been captured at least once (by the Black Condor in Starman # 80) but soon escaped. The inveterate hunter found himself fascinated by reports of gladiator-style battles staged by Roulette and was last seen in an audience of super-villains at the House (JSA # 28). Though he continues to keep a low profile, Tom Blake seems destined to match wits with the Dark Knight again. That darn Cat-Man just can't resist the thrill of the hunt.
John "Mikishawm" Wells, the pride of Batavia, Iowa, is a lifelong comics fan, working his way forward from Disneys in 1969 to newspaper strips in 1973 to SHAZAM! and the rest of the DC Universe in 1974. During the 1980s, he began compiling a lists of DC character appearances, a massive database that he's tapped into when writing articles for publications such as the DC Index series, Amazing Heroes, The Comics Buyer’s Guide, Comic Effect, Comic Book Marketplace, It’s A Fanzine, The O‘Neil Observer and, of course, Fanzing. He is Kurt Busiek's unofficial reference guide, as the keen-eyed may have noticed in Power Company #2.
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This piece is © 2002 by John Wells.
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