It's the fact that Thomas Blake has so successfully turned himself into a formidable super-powered mercenary while completely failing to attend to the root causes of his personal failings that makes the character such a beguiling one. No matter what he attempts, and no matter how hard he tries, he's always going to fail in the end, because, as we've discussed, his psychology is that of a dangerously obtuse, self-obsessed, self-pitying and irresponsible child. It's hard not to empathise a touch, and on occasion far more than just a touch, with a character that captures our most despicably childish qualities just as it's impossible to ever completely take his side. And so the fascination of watching him chase down one chimera after another is as strangely moving as it's often both amusing and, and on occasion, rather repellent. Catman's adventures are marked far less by the enigma of whether he's going to achieve his goals so much as how badly he's going to screw up along the way, and the more physically impressive he becomes, the more frustrating it is for him that all that strength and ferocity won't bring him the things that he's always wanted.
Everything that promises to liberate Catman simultaneously oppresses him. And so, although Thomas Blake might earn the respect of some of his once-fellow super-villains, and although he may occasionally achieve a substantial pay-day through craft and violence, he can't ever be generally respected for being a good man, because the costume he's using to try to earn that respect also marks his own mental flaws and ethical corruption.
Ms Simone has been careful to constantly underline the fact that the identity of "Catman" constitutes an ideal for Thomas Blake of all that he could be if he just worked to make the most of himself. That costume, those powers, those compromised achievements, all serve as facets of an exemplar of the very best that Thomas Blake is capable to dreaming for himself. When discussing with Batman the state that Catman had allowed himself to degenerate into, prior to his rebirth in the hills of South Africa, Blake refers to a period "when I wasn't myself", implying that he's now very much himself. Fitting into that silly costume, with its soft blunt ears and its kitty-scratch emblem, fighting with some of the most dangerous characters on Earth-DC, living his wretched life on his own confused and compromised terms; all that constitutes for Blake the essential business of being himself. Catman is his better self, and without that, he seems to feel that he isn't a person at all, so much as waste of potential and life, an absolute loser. And the more he tries to live up to the ideal of being Catman, it seems, the more he assumes he'll one day perhaps become a better man, a more respected and admirable man. He confuses Catman with the whole of his potential, being ignorant of the things he might achieve if he could think in a clearer and more moral fashion. He assumes that the business of being Catman will polish and illuminate the true "Thomas Blake", so that he'll no longer have to be ashamed or confused or wretched, but shining up "Catman" just makes a better fighter out of an incompetent human being.
On occasion, Thomas Blake will sense that there's something exceptionally wrong with him that leads him into behaving in troubling ways. We see him trying to talk to Deadshot, for example, about his suspicion that there's some quality missing in the pair of them that causes them to do terrible things, but Blake's solution isn't to stop and identify that problem so much as to throw himself again into the business of being a better lion-themed super-mercenary. And in that, he's a recognisably late 20th century, early 21st century man; he unconsciously identifies his - shudder - inner self with virtue, and associates not being "myself" with betraying his own potential. If only he could be truer to himself, he seems to believe, everything would be far better than fine.
But, as we discussed yesterday, this identity of "Catman" is nothing more than the wet dream of a deeply flawed psychology. Thomas Blake's ambition to be an admirable force for good, while still being free to do whatever he wants, will always and inevitably be short-circuited by the fact that he's concentrating on his fighting skills and tracking abilities rather than his flawed cognitive processes. And his membership of the Secret Six of course only drags him further and further away from any possible moment of crisis when he might see himself for what he is. Being with the Six is as counter-productive a business for him as hanging out in "Cheers" would be for a chronic alcoholic, because living with his troop of vicious super-comrades reinforces all his delusions and provides him with the short-term pleasures and sense of purpose that obscures his inadequacies.
Suffering as he does with a chronic inferiority complex and what looks like serious attachment issues, it's no surprise to note how quickly Blake decides that the Secret Six is his family and its members his precious friends. By his second adventure with the team, he's already decided that Deadshot might be the very best friend he's ever had, which is both a terribly sad and an absolutely insane judgment, no matter how bereft of decent company he's been. But Blake obviously needs to feel that he's loved by those around him, and so Deadshot is his worthy if worrying buddy. Similarly, it's noticeable how Catman declares himself willing to risk his life to rescue Scandal Savage from her insane and immortal father, despite his having fought with her for little but a few months, if that. These intense thoughts, feelings and actions are all way out of proportion with common sense, but Blake doesn't know how to contextualise his emotions or recognise his insecurities. And so, his need to belong over-rides whatever little common-sense he has. In truth, for all his taciturn nature and his appearance of being self-reliant, he's terribly needy. Deadshot's slaughter of Catman's precious South African pride, for example, is quickly swept under the carpet with a pathetic haste. And Deadshot's habit of, for example, driving cars into Blake and expressing a lack of concern for Catman's emotional and bodily well-being can't do more than faintly and passingly dent Catman's fondness for Lawton. It's a naivety about his colleagues that appears again when he declares that he can't believe that Ragdoll would ever betray them after that seems to have very much occurred. Any man who can't believe that Ragdoll might betray them has surely missed the point that Ragdoll, for all of his apparent loyalty and good humour, has very much got his own peculiar psychology too.
But Blake has a quietly desperate need to belong, and so Ragdoll must have absolute integrity and Deadshot must be a true comrade and mate. And so Catman lives in a state of constant denial, although occasionally troubled by thoughts which, for example, suggest that Deadshot and he might end up fighting to the death one day. It's a nightmare that most would regard as being worth remembering, but it never seems to inspire Catman to be any less trusting of Deadshot.
Indeed, such is Catman's neediness that he'll ignore the evidence of betrayals that anyone else might at the very least be lastingly upset by. The Huntress may stab him in the leg while seeming to flirt with him, but that can't affect his warm judgement of her. And even the loathsome Cheshire, who uses Catman as nothing but a walking sperm donor before betraying the Six to Luthor's Society, is defended by Blake when he's reminded that she triggered a nuclear bomb above the capital city of Quirac; "we don't know that she's blown up a country" he says, because he doesn't want to have to know that she's undeniably done so.
And so this drive to belong somewhere keeps him where he is, as part of a dysfunctional group that he chooses to regard as his pride even as they fail to achieve any so ordered and stable an existence. His observation that the Six don't talk to each other in the absence of the kidnapped Scandal Savage explains something of his fervour to rescue her. In her absence, his new family isn't just missing a member so much as it's missing a matriarch who constantly establishes and reestablishes social relations between otherwise alienated individuals, and the illusion of family means a great deal to Blake, even though the family he wants to believe in doesn't truly exist at all.
It's one of the aspects of Blake's personality that most endears him to us, of course. He may not be able to recognise, let alone articulate, his desperate need to belong, but everything he does is coloured by it. And at times it's almost as if he were an abused child that's moved home and school so many times that even standing at a bus-stop becomes a frightening process of hiding from anxiety and searching for reassurance among folks that must surely be his new best friends.
Whatever doubts Blake has about being Catman and belonging to the Secret Six, the distractions and pleasures of his costumed identity provide him with more than enough moments of intense activity and sensation to stave off any fundamental questions about his objective situation. Like all social groups, the Six have their shared rituals which bond them. They meet across the table while Scandal Savage discusses missions and outlines where their fees have been invested. They change costumes together, as in "Dead Of Winter", where the team can't bring themselves to rush off as is absolutely necessary into combat without pulling on their fighting togs. And of course they're completely reliant on each other in the field, whether they're being hunted down by Black Lanterns or ambushed by a force of 50 or so super-villains outside Gotham City, a gang of costumed killers rather poignantly described by Blake as "mostly d-listers and losers". In the self-interest of protecting each other during their missions lies the illusion of close relations based on common and fond values rather than self-interest and need.
And in those brief moments of adrenalin-rush and attention-focus encountered during the Secret Six's usually-disastrous missions, Thomas Blake can over-ride all his demons and fully concentrate on those things that he really can do well. Whether it's determining battlefield strategy or trying to survive against armies of human killers and battalions of super-powered ones, Catman can not only live in the moment, but gain credit for doing so. He's the one who flies his colleagues in, the one who advises them on how to stay alive, and the one they can probably most rely on when the punch- ups start. It's no wonder he associates the role of Catman within the context of the Secret Six with success and fulfilment, because compared to what Thomas calls "The old me", the fat loser whose "milk and cookies" would probably have been "whooped" by Batman every time, as he admits, his new self at his teammates side has at least some status, some purpose and some measure of achievement.
And in this way, his membership of the Six constantly delays the moment when he'll have to come to terms with himself. At the beginning of "Unhinged", for example, Blake rather futilely confides to Deadshot that he's "lost the horizon", that's he lost faith in what we might call the "Catman project", and that he's even "thinking" about going straight. He's grasped that there's a fundamental quality of restraint and regret missing from his thinking and his behaviour, and that it's not his conscience troubling him so much as the awareness that his conscience isn't doing any such thing. It could have been a fundamental turning point in his life, but it's one that's lost as soon as the Catman costume is pulled on again and mayhem indulged in. And by the end of that misadventure, Blake is so consumed by costumed identity and so lost in the moment of trying to survive that he's found his horizon again. He is, he declares to the Huntress, no more unworthy of being saved from hell than all the other super-villains around him, and the fact that it's actually his own flaws that he should be concerned with, rather than the possibility that other reprobates might share them, has quite escaped him again.
But of course, the business of being Catman and fighting with the Secret Six isn't ever going to inspire the transformation of Thomas Blake into a self-aware, well-adjusted, benign member of society. Belonging to the Six is for Blake a process which functions somewhat like methadone to a heroin addict; the very worst of his problems are temporarily controlled, but the treatment's no cure while the programme's addictive in itself. And as a consequence, Thomas Blake can't ever quite delude himself enough to feel entirely secure in his own skin, no matter what the Six achieve or who Catman out-slashes. It's a fact that can be observed in how he behaves with his colleagues when the bullets aren't flying, for he's usually seen sitting quietly and looking on whenever there's no fighting or planning to be done. Like a shy guest at a party who takes on kitchen duties in order to mask their awkwardness, Blake flies planes and drives cars, establishes strategies and worries about coming disasters, but he never seems socially at ease. Indeed, placed in the midst of these people who're supposedly his nearest and dearest, he often seems unable to handle casual conversation with anyone beyond Deadshot at all. In the "road trip", during "Compound Fracture", for example, everyone else has something to discuss, but Blake's quite silent and focused on the road. No wonder he misses Scandal, the social nexus of the group, when she's absent in "Six Degrees Of Devastation".
And no matter how Thomas Blake transforms himself, it's never enough to ensure that he's as respected beyond the ranks of the Six as he longs to be. He's constantly insulted by the folks he meets as well as the people he fights beside. He's "Captain Cat" to Tarantula, an "imbecile" to Batman, "a perpetual bile-stained amateur" to Dr Psycho, and even Ragdoll unkindly laughs at the idea that Blake might be mistaken for the Dark Knight. To Bane, Catman is nothing more than Batman's "pale brown shadow". In fact, it often seems as if Blake has only to walk into the presence of another super-villain to find himself being referred to as "Kitty" and "Catface", just as he was once the "cowardly lion" to Green Arrow before he remade himself. Even so, the respect he gets these days is a far more substantial brew than he ever earned before. Folks may still on occasion laugh, but they mock less as time passes, and so the costume and the codename and the colleagues all combine to make his long-term problems more tolerable in the short-term.
Being Catman in the Secret Six is certainly a more effective palliative for his feelings of inadequacy than his previous strategy of dying his hair black because he hoped it'd make him look "tough", but at least that option had the virtue of doing less harm to others.
Finally, it's well worth noting how Ms Simone shows us how Blake's mind working to protect itself from the truth of his rather squalid, rather wretched existence. For example, when he's faced with circumstances which are particularly disturbing to him, Blake untypically calls on God or refers to religious concepts. It's usually a sign that he's ashamed of his behaviour or deeply concerned for someone else, or, usually, a mixture of the two. When he stabs Scandal for the second time, for example, he declares that "I sincerely hope to God you can heal from this.", as if he's somehow showing goodwill of any substance despite just having seriously wounding her. (Not stabbing Scandal twice in two separate occasions would've been the more godly approach to take, of course.) And when he's driving away from a host of freed North Koreans prisoners and effectively dooming them to death in the snow, he grasps at Deadshot's declaration that "It's only five miles to China. They might make it" with a shamed reply of "Christ I hope so." Of course, Deadshot's pathetic attempt to not feel guilty works on no rational level at all; five miles to weakened prisoners in hostile country might as well be five hundred miles. But Blake's desperate to find something that will assuage his guilt that he's calling on Jesus to help him feel better, if not help the prisoners themselves. Finally, in one of the series most touching and yet most stomach-turning scene to date, Blake is moved to assure Scandal that she still has a "soul" even as she's horribly torturing Pistolera, displaying the fact that he associates the sacred with the people he cares about rather than the things they do. Scandal has a "soul" because Blake doesn't want the Six's matriach upset, although it's hard to see what's soul-strengthening in the act of cold-blooded and protracted torture.
There's no thought that Blake can't turn into a defence against self-knowledge. Cheshire mocks him for wanting to be respected by "men of virtue", but the truth is that he wants to be respected as being a virtuous without having to behave in any coherently virtuous fashion. He's got a string of excuses that kick into gear whenever he feels he's being called upon to defend the morality of his actions. It's a fact that's best expressed in the speech he gives to the Doom Patrol in order to distract them before a super-powered brawl. Why should you be trying to arrest us, he asks;
"For petty little robberies and for stealing people's hats? ... Do you guys really care if money goes from some rich people to us, only to be replaced by insurance ... Look ... you all and us, we're in the middle. On the far end of one side, there's the Justice League, all shiny and sweet. On the other far end, there's people like Joker and Darkseid, who'd kill everything and everyone if they could. Us, we're in the grey zone. Neither side approves of either of us."
It's a speech full of what criminal psychologists have termed "techniques of neutralisation", or ways of convincing oneself that bad deeds haven't really been committed. And for all that the speech an attention-distracting ploy, the sentiments are too well-expressed and come too easily to Blake's mouth in stressful circumstances not to reflect his real thinking. Take a second glance at his speech and it's saturated with excuses such as;
- we only steal a few little things. We're not serious criminals. Crime is relative and not absolute. Stealing a few things isn't really bad, especially compared to what others do.
- the things we do don't financially harm our victims. They're always compensated, one way or another.
- our crimes don't really involve violence or threat and they don't inspire upset and trauma; we're just thieves, and so thieving is all I need discuss here
- other people want to kill everyone! We're not really bad when you compare us to them.
- you're not liked either, you know, and you ought to throw in with us because morality is really a popularity contest. The more of us who're disapproved of, the less questionable our actions must be.
And it's a subtly clever touch on Ms Simone's part that Blake's criticisms of the superheroes he meets are founded in exactly the opposite principles to those self-serving ones listed above. If, as he argues, he and the other members of the Six aren't really to be considered culpable because they're not truly as bad as they might be, super-heroes are expected to be absolutely morally perfect or they're worthy of nothing but contempt. Green Arrow, for example, is attacked by Catman for being morally compromised by the programme of mind-wipes revealed in "Identity Crisis";
"You were all great once. You can be that way again .. But you'd better hurry. Before the line between you and us gets too damn blurry to see."
Now, the JLA did indeed cross a significant moral Rubicon there, but the point is that Blake expects those who represent authority to be perfect or they're not worthy of his respect, let alone the right to sit in judgment over him. He can't grasp that the value of the law remains even if those who serve it are compromised. He only sees folks who might limit his freedom and his own good opinion of himself. In that, he's like a child who argues that if her mother can raise her voice, then she can too, and whenever she likes as well. Super-villains, according to Blake, shouldn't be judged by what they do, but by whether they're as bad as "Darkseid" or not. But superheroes have to be utterly spotless or they're worth little at all. It's one rule for Catman and another for those superheroes who might challenge his own view of himself, the "little dictators" he hates so.
Even when Blake faces down Batman, who wasn't involved in the brain-wiping programme, he still has to find a way to neutralise his opponents moral authortity. And so he argues that Batman's only pretending not to be tempted to harm his various opponents, as if it would matter a whit if that were true or not. Batman's only playing a role of being ethically perfect, implies Blake, and somehow that makes Catman his equal. But the point isn't whether Batman is tempted to do wrong or not, but the fact that he doesn't do so. Blake will be Batman's moral equal when he starts behaving ethically and not before. Whether Mr Wayne occasionally wants to kick the Penguin off of a roof is irrelevant; he doesn't, whereas Blake travels the world killing large groups of people and then arguing that the survivors should be allowed to escape execution, as if that makes him a good man.
"I know we're not the Justice League." Blake later declares, just as he states that the Six are a "team of A-Holes". But by that, he doesn't really mean to say that he and his colleagues are immoral recidivists committing a string of appalling crimes one after another. He just means that he's rather hard-done by, but that he tries, and that he's well-meaning, and that other folks are far worse than he is. And then he pulls on the costume and he hides his immorality behind noble-sounding slogans of "honour" such as "I like to face my enemy face on - like a man", and he manages all the time to ignore the fact that he's doing all he can not to face up to himself at all.
It's disconcerting to think that one day a writer might be given responsibility for Catman who sees him as nothing more complex than a previously criminal individual learning how to be a superhero. There's already a huge number of characters whose progress might be taken as a template for such an approach, from Hawkeye to the newest take on Ant-Man, and the assumption of many writers seems to be that everyone loves a handsome rogue who's seen the light. But, as I've struggled to express in these pieces, the true appeal of Catman isn't in his bad-ass-ness, or in any supposed superheroic apprenticeship, but in his deeply flawed personality, and any attempt to make a superhero out of him would require the character to cease being Catman in the first place.
It's the great strength of Gail Simone's conception of the character of Catman that while he can't ever win what he wants to achieve, he's not the victim of his own story either. He's every bit to blame for the things he does even as he endearingly longs for family and friendship and respect.
Yet the sympathy he inspires does at times threaten to overwhelm the fact that he's not just a bloke who's gone slightly wrong so much as a major-league criminal who's ruined the lives of countless folks all over the world. For he can sound so terribly plausible and caring and worthy of our sympathy, such as when he points out that none of the Secret Six has had a parent who cared for them. And then, having absorbed what sounds like a touching declaration of vulnerability, the reader recalls that Blake's not done a thing to rescue his own child from Cheshire since the events of "Six Degrees Of Separation". In fact, I've struggled to find a single reference to Catman's child in the later stories, let alone a sustained campaign on his part to try to find and help his baby. It's exactly the kind of occluded, unempathetic thinking that permits Thomas Blake to self-pityingly discuss the fate of his soul while, as Deadshot points out, utterly ignoring the plight before him of "two defenceless potential witnesses with a gang of humiliated racist scumbags."
Thomas Blake is an awful man, but he's also a profoundly lonely and well-meaning one. That's why we're so interested in seeing what he does next. He can be used to perform the most extreme of heroic deeds as well as the most profane and disgusting of immoral ones, and yet still stay true to the psychological profile that Ms Simone has created for him, which means that he'll never become stale as a character.
Or: Miss Simone hasn't created a heroically tormented bad-ass. She's created a pathetic but lethal bad-ass who can be put to use as superhero or supervillain without ever losing the studied contradictions which make him so compelling. And so, where yesterday we discussed how making a character popular doesn't rely on making them violently able, so today we've chatted about how making a character interesting can be achieved by putting noble dreams before them while ensuring that they're too flawed to ever fulfil such ambitions.
Now, why aren't more folks writing clever in such a way?
Well, I always end up feeling somewhat dim after writing about Ms Simone's work, so I hope you'll forgive the above if dim is what it's been. Coming next, a piece on Marvel's new Heroic Age compilation. A splendid day to you, dear kind reader, and my best wishes for your sticking together!