Thursday, 25 November 2010
How To Be Good: Gail Simone's Catman, The Secret Six & Revolutionary Character Change
When we last discussed the Secret Six on this blog, back in the distant summer days of early August, we chatted about Deadshot and of how his disposition had been so artfully clarified and developed by Gail Simone. In particular, we talked of how Ms Simone had cleverly and subtly established her take on the personality of Floyd Lawton so that he might both evolve as a character in the Secret Six and yet remain fully recognisable as a familiar mainstay of the DCU (*1). In that piece, and I shan't repeat here the argument I made there in any detail, I promise, I contended that this was an achievement that had received far too little attention and praise, for all that the Secret Six is a comic book much loved both by professionals and fans, and for all that Deadshot is a popular supporting character in today's DCU. And it struck me then, and it still does today, that Ms Simone works in such a modest and unshowy fashion that the uniquely innovative way that she handles character in her books is all too-often taken for granted, or even quite unfairly overlooked.
We might say that Ms Simone's stewardship of Deadshot displays an evolutionary approach to character development. For it's obvious, of course, that Ms Simone had worked to identify a set of key and core psychological drives which might explain Floyd Lawton's behaviour in the DCU before she'd began to chronicle his misadventures, just as it's obvious that she's used that understanding to skillfully develop Deadshot ever since without ever irrevocably changing his established nature. And so, for all the subtle changes that Lawton has been subject to over the past five or so years, he'd still be immediately recognisable to anyone returning to read DC comics after a fair few years away. Indeed, our imaginary returnee might not at first even notice the slightest difference to Deadshot at all, which is of course the point. Ms Simone has made sure that Deadshot exists in a stable form that's always ready for duty elsewhere in DC's line of books, while at the same time ensuring that he exists as a distinctly three-dimensional character undergoing ingenious and self-consistent change in the pages of the Secret Six.
*1- That piece can be found in the August archive under the title of "Daddy Deadshot"
But the attention that Ms Simone has given to Catman constitutes by contrast an undoubtedly revolutionary process, taking a profoundly unimpressive super-villain and transforming him into one of the most fascinating and popular of the second string characters in the DCU. In doing so, she's achieved the improbable transmutation of a contemptible and functionless Batman knock-off into something of a star, into a figure that could conceivably carry a mini-series or two on his own as well as maintaining his berth in the Secret Six. It's an almost unprecedented turn-about in popular appeal and critical acclaim, and it's one that would have been simply inconceivable, and in truth somewhat laughable, to anybody except Ms Simone just half a decade ago. This was, after all, Catman.
But most tellingly, what's made this radical take on the previously almost-utterly inconsequential Thomas Blake so compelling isn't the surface make-over that Ms Simone and her artistic collaborators have given him. After all, although Blake has had the range and depth and effectiveness of his powers and abilities greatly increased, and although he's now capable of believably holding his own against even the Batman for a moment or two, the increase in his value as a superpowered brawler can hardly explain why he's now such a prominent and engaging figure. Yes, Thomas Blake is, as Ms Simone has declared, now a "bad-ass", but then again, who isn't these days? The history of the post-Watchman
mainstream superhero can often seem to be little more than one example after another of previously unimpressive characters having their powers amped up and their fighting capacity increased. And time after time, such revamps usually succeed in doing little but destroying whatever limited appeal the characters involved previously had, while producing identi-kit grim'n'gritty also-rans in return. Another writer might, for example, choose to armour up the Signalman as a Wolverine-esque psychotic, and have Lex Luthor declare him to be a fearsome opponent, but that doesn't mean that the audience will either believe that this is true or feel pleasurably enticed into following the further adventures of Philip Cobb, Signalman, and certainly not as they're following the second life of Thomas Blake, the Catman.
So the fact that Catman is now a rather fearsome, claw-slashing fighter of whom even Talia al Ghul will speak highly of, and compare "for a moment" to the Batman, is in a very real way an almost irrelevant issue when assessing Thomas Blake's popularity. For Talia might indeed be temporarily seduced by Catman's appearance and bearing and find herself believing that he now possesses something of the substance of Bruce Wayne, but we readers will soon discover that that's not really true. Catman is, yes, a "bad-ass", but he's both a great deal more and considerably less than that term might usually imply, and there lies the reason for the character's appeal.
"Mr Blake, it's clear that you've been through a transformative event." Talia declares when she and Dr Psycho first meet Ms Simone's thoroughly revised Catman, and those relatively-few readers who'd come across Blake before, and who'd succeeded in remembering him, could surely only agree with Ms al Ghul. Very muscular, considerably naked, surrounded and protected by five extremely intimidating lions, and a newly-minted master of jungle-king speak to boot -"Man has been in the business of attempting to make them extinct for decades." - Thomas Blake certainly doesn't seem anything like the "mere buffoon" that either the super-villains or the readers expected. And for awhile, it does seem as if the new Catman is a man transformed. He immediately establishes himself as the Secret Six's field leader, he defeats the incredibly-powerful Captain Nazi with little but a host of syringes inserted into the vile Abernathy's eyes, and he's even politically-engaged enough to denounce his opponent as a "dumb fascist Nazi"; it's hard not to be impressed by this Thomas Blake.
And yet, for all Blake's new physical abilities, and for all his undoubted bravery and determination, it soon becomes obvious that he's not a reformed character, although he is of course a transformed one. The self-loathing and shame that he's felt at his previous status as an obese, washed-up super-villain has indeed motivated him to change his life, but he's not changed nearly enough of the way in which he thinks and feels about the world at all. As the Huntress says of him, when he declares that he's as worthy as any other super-villain fighting for Neron's get-out-of-Hell card, he's not "repented" of the things he's done so much as regretted the failure that the pursuit of his previous goals brought him. He grasps that he's done some terrible things, or at least he does to a vague and ill-defined degree, but his solution is less to transform himself morally than reconstruct himself in terms of power, competence and focus. And in doing so, Thomas Blake has certainly turned himself in an impressive super-being, if not a super-hero, but he's still childish, egotistical, deficient in empathy and lacking the intellectual discipline to grasp the moral issues he thinks he's trying to fully engage with. He surrounds himself with comrades who are almost as morally compromised as can be imagined, engages with opponents who are even worse, and then judges his virtue in comparison to that of theirs.
It's as if Blake believes that, for example, arguing not to kill off the surviving guards of Vandal Savage's castle is in itself a definitively beneficient act despite the presence of all their slain and wounded brethern piled up on the ground around Catman and his colleagues.
And outside this closed circle of appalling super-villains and flawed superheroes exists the everyday world, wherein typical human beings attempt to live as best they can, and Blake rarely even notices them as they do so, unless it's to hurt them or keep them warily them at a distance.
For he just can't grasp, and he doesn't truly want to grasp, that being a good man isn't a question of doing a little better than some of those around him. Thomas Blake simply can't understand, because he's never learnt how to do so, that being somewhat less destructive than the worst of humanity isn't of itself a marker of the ethical life. At times, he sees glimmers of the fatal contradictions in his ideals and his behaviour, but he's too often locked into a myth of how he's doing the best that he can, despite the opinions of those judgemental and hypocritical superheroes he keeps running across. And so he stumbles along, an endless series of easily foreseeable and avoidable disasters before him, and he carries the best of intentions along with the most compromised of methods and every step forward he takes is immediately complimented with a traumatic step backwards. For he so often lets himself believe that he really is trying to be a better man, an admirable man, and an honourable man, but he's not, and so he's always going to fall short, because he doesn't truly understand what a good and honourable man might be.
Even if he were really trying to be good, he couldn't get there from here.
And that's what makes Thomas Blake such a fascinating character. He's marked by short-term strategies, a massive shortfall in empathy, sloppy and impulsive thinking, and a heart full of shame and self-pity. He exists in the stage of moral development that we might expect to find a typical if somewhat alienated pre-pubescent in, raging against authority for the inequity of its hypocrisies while longing for authority to respect the flawed and limited steps towards the good that he makes.
He wants to do well, he really does, except for the times when he wants very much to do terrible things instead, and so there's always a sense that Thomas Blake is just one second away from committing the most shameful, unforgivable sins, no matter how many times he manages to throw a punch or two on the side of the angels.
To take but two moments which sum up the fact that Catman's emotional and intellectual development hasn't proceeded a pace with his physical capacity to, for example, down a superhero as competent as the Bronze Tiger, or his ability to charm and excite a super-heroine such as the Huntress, who rather improbably declares that she only likes "nice boys" while swooning in his presence;
a. He knowingly delivers up the unconscious body of Wonder Woman into the hands of Smyth, a creature so morally repellent that even Ragdoll refers to him as "not a nice man" before murdering him. And Blake does so despite knowing that Smyth will undoubtedly kill Diana, and in a particularly gruesome fashion too. That Blake later has a change of heart isn't a badge of honour or redemption; any man whose conscience only kicks in after it's had a great deal of time to consider whether letting the monstrous Grendal murder Wonder Woman is a good idea is in no way morally competent. The fact that the reader is left suspecting that Catman was at the very least willing to see Princess Diana suffer simply because Blake resents how certain superheroes, or rather "little dictators", "sneer" and show "contempt" for him merely cleverly underscores how egotistical his ethical calculations are.
That those superheroes are often right, if somewhat uncharitable, to sneer and show contempt for a mass murderer, thief and mercenary such as Blake completely passes him by. "One saves a terrorist, one kills a terrorist. Who did more in for the world, in the end?" he asks of Ragdoll and Bane, and the very question, as well as the audience it's addressed to, damns Catman without any other word needing to be said.
b. Blake's inability to grasp that asking Deadshot, of all people, to help him with his moral quandaries is an utterly futile business which brilliantly shows how ethically deluded he is. It's not so much that Floyd's advice is as practically useless as it's morally compromised, but rather the fact that Blake could even think of asking Deadshot questions about whether their murderous natures are the result of nature or nurture. It's a scene that's as chilling as it's hilarious; Floyd Lawton is a repugnant if at-times roguish killer whose emotions are so suppressed that he's effectively sociopathic. No-one with the slightest concept of what "evil" might be would ask Deadshot to define its causes and cures.
But it's also a mark of how terribly confused and touchingly lonely Catman is, that all he's got is Deadshot to turn to, and that's an unhappy truth that helps endear us to the character even as Catman is thinking and behaving in a quite repellent fashion. No matter how hard he tries, no matter how much he achieves, Catman can never reach a point where he can rest and feel satisfied, because he doesn't grasp, again, what that might involve. And in that contradiction, between his muscles and his mind, between his desire to do the right thing and his ability and willingness to do so, lies, I believe, the particular and considerable appeal of Gail Simone's revolutionary reinvention of Catman. We just can't help but care for this lost and lonely boy, just as we ought to never forget that he's a profundly deluded and dangerous man.
Having sat down and re-read the various Secret Six collections again in the past few days, including the newly-released "Danse Macabre", I'm at a loss to know if there's a more piteous moment in the whole run than Catman's first appearance in "Villain's United". Of course, there are scenes concerning other members of the Six which immediately arouse the reader's sympathy, such as those showing Scandal's despair at the loss of Knockout, or even that of Ragdoll betraying the unsuspecting and terribly vulnerable Mad Hatter, but there's nothing to match the melancholy that's inspired by a reacquaintance with what appears to be Thomas Blake's finest hour. There he suddenly is, an unexpectedly impressive presence standing half-naked in the wilds of the north-west of South Africa, all defiance and threat, a man who has, as Talia says, "remade himself", become "Admirable", commanding a pride of beasts and facing down the frankly terrifying Dr Psycho and, through him, the might of Lex Luthor's "Society". It appears to be one of those defining moments which marks the point at which a reborn, newly-heroic figure reappears from a season in the wilderness and takes his place as a force for justice in the world.
But of course, that's all an illusion, and, within days, even the lions who stand so loyally and ferociously by Catman will be slaughtered by Deadshot. The opinion of Talia al Ghul may seem to count for something, when it's her power and intelligence that's being positioned straight in front of the reader's eye, but then, Talia isn't a woman known for her empathy or moral perception either; she's not a trustworthy source for the reader to use to assess the success of Catman's remaking of himself. If we trust her first impressions, and those lent to us by Dale Eaglesham's art, which celebrates a supremely self-confident and steamingly sexual Catman, we might indeed think that Blake has made himself into a man of some "stature" even beyond that indicated by those considerable muscles and that knee-melting stare.
But Thomas Blake has remade himself in the only way he can conceive of, which is, somewhat counter-productively, to turn himself into a well-functioning leader of a society of lions rather than a better human being. Within the fundamental and relatively simple social structures of his pride, he has indeed earned himself a place of authority and worth. He's recreated himself, focused himself, made himself something of a different and far more impressive creature, and he's no longer the overweight loser who even other underachieving supervillains laughed at. But for all that he's changed, he's only changed by becoming a beast. He wanted to be relied upon and respected rather than mocked, and he's achieved that, but not in the context of a life with other, typical human beings. He's not mastered the complexities of human decision making or developed his empathic understanding of other people. He's not learned to grasp how morality exists separate to his own individual desires, and even his communication skills remain somewhat basic, as the simple and chuckle-inducing example of his licking of the Huntress's neck during their first dance might testify.
Human society is of course infinitely more complex and demanding than that of a small community of lions in the South African hills, and heading a pride is of course no preparation for becoming a productive and socially engaged member of a modern nation-state. And so whatever impressive changes Catman has achieved for himself physically, the root causes of his consistently dysfunctional behaviour remain unrecognised, let alone untreated. Thomas Blake might have better saved himself all the sacrifices he made during his African sojourn and invested in a demanding programme of cognitive and emotional development in a therapeutic community instead. That might have taught Blake how to be a human being rather than giving him a better understanding of what it means to be a highly competent lion.
But no, being a lion has brought him a measure of the respect and purpose that he's never known, just as it's trapped him in a role that dooms every enterprise he embarks upon beyond the occasional punch-up.
"That bastard is part of my pride." says Catman to a man he's stabbing to death in retaliation for an assault on Bane, "He dies when I say.", and it all sounds rather commanding and noble until the reader disconnects from the sentimentality of the scene and asks themselves whether the basis for practical, let alone ethical, action is to think like a dominant lioness would.
No wonder poor Thomas Blake is such a mess, and no wonder he causes such great harm. If only he'd aspired to be a more rounded person rather than a more perfect beast, he and a great many more folks might have lived far less wounded and unhappy lives.
To be continued and concluded tomorrow;
I hope the reader will forgive the fact that this waiting-for-the-trade reader has even avoided as best he might the basic content-descriptions of the Secret Six's adventures beyond Danse Macabre. This piece therefore only covers the 6 collections up to and including Danse Macabre. And I also hope, as always, that your day is splendid, that you're sticking together, and that you might be back for the second and final piece of this look at Catman, and then, beyond that, for a chatter about Marvel's new Heroic Age compilation.