Welcome to the twentieth installment of Adventure(s) Time, a look back at a beloved animated series and a related issue of its comic tie-in. This week’s installment comes from a suggestion from commenter Antonio Canales, who requested we examine how the Adventures tie-in comic presented a very different interpretation of Thomas Blake, perhaps best known as Catman. (And if you have any pairings you’d like to see, let me know in the comments.)
Produced during the days when Batman: The Animated Series was believed to be cancelled, the creative team of Batman & Robin Adventures likely felt emboldened to introduce all of the obscure characters the animated series never got around to acknowledging. Catman probably wouldn’t be high on most writers’ lists, but writer Ty Templeton is a diehard Bat-fan with a deep respect for the mythology, so along with artist Brandon Kruse, Batman & Robin Adventures #16 (March 1997) gifted readers with what would’ve surely been Catman’s only appearance in the DC Animated Universe.
As the story begins, an elderly society lady witnesses someone in a catsuit stealing her “cat’s eye necklace.” The most obvious suspect isn’t the Riddler or Maxie Zeus, it’s of course Catwoman, who’s insulted anyone would believe she’s returned to crime. Templeton is referencing the final Catwoman appearances in The Adventures of Batman & Robin, which had her struggling with an honest life, resisting the urge to steal when she’s surrounded by what seems to be countless opportunities.
While the crime was being committed, Selina Kyle was taking a bath and making calls to her assistant, who’s attempting to convince Russian officials to spare a forest that’s a refuge for Siberian tigers. When Batman and Robin arrive to question her, Selina promises that she had nothing to do with the theft (when she isn’t flirting with Batman), but agrees to talk to the police if the crimefighters allow her time to get dressed. The following sequence really does feel like something out of the animated series, with Batman and Robin overhearing a crash in her bathroom, rushing to the broken window, discovering a body falling twenty stories to the ground, and repelling after it.
When they uncover the “body,” they learn it’s only a robe wrapped in wet towels. Selina is still upstairs, making her exit before the heroes could reach her apartment.
While the network censors might not have approved of Selina’s implied nudity in the scene, this is the type of sequence the show did extremely well. Templeton isn’t only familiar with his Bat-lore, he’s well versed in this show, and knows how to replicate the feel of certain beats from the cartoon. Templeton also deserves some credit for staying loyal to the original interpretation of Catwoman from this series; something even the writers of the show seemed to forget as the years wore on. This version of Selina Kyle is an animal rights activist, one with a history in high society and connections with important people.
On a mission to clear her name, Selina disguises herself and sneaks into a party she thinks is a likely target for a Catwoman imposter. The soiree is hosted by Thomas Blake, a self-professed “humane” big game hunter who captures big cats, then sells them to zoos and nature preserves. He’s displaying a solid gold statue of Bast, which Selina believes will be the next target. Her disguise isn’t as foolproof as she thought (glasses working much better for a certain Metropolis reporter than a reformed thief, apparently), so she’s recognized by both Bruce Wayne and Veronica Vreeland. When Veronica calls for the police, Selina overreacts, tossing her into a punchbowl and fleeing the party.
Before she can be apprehended by the police, Selina is pulled into a room by a mystery man…one who turns out to be the party’s host, Thomas Blake. Blake reveals himself, in just a few panels, to be more than a little “off.” The guy’s obsessed with Catwoman (and, sadly, cat puns), to the extent that he’s created his own variation of Selina’s costume. The cat’s eye necklace was snatched by him earlier, and he’s plotting another scheme to steal the priceless Ming tiger from the Peregrinator’s Club.
Selina isn’t flattered that Blake has patterned himself after her costumed persona (even though this is one of the rare occasions of a male adventurer patterning himself after a female in comics, instead of the other way around). She sees through his delusion and instead sets him up to work the Peregrinator’s Club alone, as a way of proving himself to her.
Blake dutifully arrives at the Club in his Catman garb, and quickly finds himself in a brawl with Batman and Robin. He lands a few blows, but is subdued soon enough.
Catwoman appears outside, handing over the cat’s eye necklace to the heroes, and taunting Blake with a kiss on Batman’s cheek. Promising that she has gone straight, Catwoman returns home and makes a phone call. She tells her assistant Maven she’s received an “anonymous donation from a wealthy animal lover,” one that covers the cost of bribing the Russian officials. The donation is Thomas Blake’s gold statue of Bast, which Selina swiped during his fight with Batman and Robin. In her defense, he did tell Selina he’d be thrilled to have her take it.
When this issue was produced, the focus of Warner Brothers’ animation was the new Superman series, so no one would’ve thought an appearance from such an obscure villain would cause any continuity issues in the future. Within a few months, however, the WB network made a surprise decision to revamp Batman and pair the show with Superman. Okay, but no one really wanted to use Thomas Blake…right?
Turns out, Blake wasn't so unpopular, after all. On September 18, 1998, "Cult of the Cat" debuted on the WB Network. Written by Paul Dini and Stan Berkowitz and directed by Butch Lukic, the episode marks Catwoman's final appearance on The New Batman Adventures series. And it's not quite an eloquent goodbye. The great Adrienne Barbeau returns in the role of Catwoman, only now she's visually unrecognizable under the mandated "new look" of the series. Many of the characters on the series had quite nice touch-ups to their designs, tweaking what was perhaps clunky and streamlining the models to fit the more graphic look Bruce Timm wanted for the series. Batman, Batgirl, Harley Quinn, Clayface...all of the characters who are still recognizable as the person the audience is used to seeing do look sleeker and cooler. And then there's the classic models that were simply junked and replaced with out of left field designs.
Catwoman, sadly, fits that second category.
Even if you're willing to accept her new, pixie-shaped body, the head that's so big her neck has to be sore, and those two cones -- uh, "ears" -- glued at the top of her mask...why the heck is she now blue?
With those gripes out of the way, I'll acknowledge that this episode is nicely animated, featuring solid work from the Koko and Dong Yang studios, typical of the animation in these late episodes. Regardless of how you might feel about the change of tone and new character designs, The New Batman Adventures does feature more consistent animation than its predecessor. There isn't a clunky Akom job popping out of nowhere to spoil a batch of fine episodes; it's a consistent stream of stable animation throughout the revamp.
Now, back to Thomas Blake. The wacky big game hunter obsessed with cat puns and harboring an obsessive crush on Selina is gone. Making his official debut in the DC Animated Universe is Thomas Blake, the British leader of a cat-themed cult that's hunting Catwoman, following her theft of a golden statuette of a cat. His followers, who all dress like the Black Panther and are armed with Wolverine claws, open the episode in pursuit of Catwoman. She turns to Batman for help, but after they both end up at the cult's hideout, Catwoman decides she'd rather bushwhack Batman and take advantage of her opportunity to rob them blind.
The only real acknowledgment of the traditional Thomas Blake/Catman from the comics is Blake's apparent crush on Catwoman. Over the objections of one of his aides, Blake is convinced that Catwoman is a prime candidate for membership in their cult. The captured Batman will serve as the source of the blood sacrifice that's required to join the cult, and the audience is teased with the possibility that Catwoman is actually going to turn on Batman and allow him to die.
Had this episode aired during the original run of Batman: The Animated Series, the writers wouldn't have had a shot of selling this. The New Adventures Catwoman, however, lacks essentially all of the redemptive traits given to her during the first run of the series. This Catwoman steals because she loves shiny things, is consistently manipulative, and really couldn't care less about animal rights. So, yeah, this Catwoman just might leave Batman to die.
When a genetically modified cat-beast is released in a pit to fight Batman, however, Catwoman makes a surprise move and helps him escape the beast. (Which, naturally, ends up turning on its creator and knocking Thomas Blake out during the climax.) And there's even a bonding moment between the pair, when Batman trusts her enough to help him out of the pit. The character development is squandered, however, when the audience learns that Catwoman picked the cultists' headquarters clean before the police could arrive, and headed off to Paris to enjoy her newfound wealth.
Like many of the New Adventures episodes, the background designs are more subdued and less art-deco inspired. The Cat Cult's jewel-encrusted statue is pretty impressive, though.
- Catwoman voices her disdain for Veronica Vreeland’s grandfather in Ty Templeton's story. This is a callback to the "Catwalk" episode of Batman: The Animated Series. (Which is another Paul Dini story that ends with Batman being disappointed by Catwoman's decision not to do the right thing.)
- Catman first appeared in Detective Comics #311, a creation of Bill Finger and Jim Mooney. His origin is fairly close to what we see in the Batman & Robin Adventures issue.
- Thomas Blake wandering his own party in that Batman & Robin Adventures issue, not recognized by his guests, is perhaps a reference to Bruce Wayne's intro in the 1989 Batman movie.
- Thomas Blake's main female flunkie in "Cult of the Cat" looks nearly identical to a previous Catwoman villain from the series, the Red Claw. There's no connection, however.
- Making this continuity more convoluted, another character known as "Catman" appeared in two episodes of the Justice League cartoon, as a member of an alternate reality version of the Justice Society. Based more on the DC hero Wildcat than Thomas Blake, his costume actually resembles the one seen in Batman & Robin Adventures #16.
Battle of the Obscure Revivals Only Hardcore Fans Could Appreciate
The Catman we see in Batman & Robin Adventures #16 is a respectful adaptation of the character's debut appearance, with some nods to the campy Batman '66 TV show thrown in. The "Catman" that appears in "Cult of the Cat," however, is simply Thomas Blake in name only. The show would occasionally revamp figures from the comics to the point of making them unrecognizable, and transforming Blake from a clueless costumed adventurer into a debonair cult leader who just so happens to have a thing for cats is quite the makeover. He's so different, there's really no reason to use the name. Yes, it's not as if there's a legion of diehard Catman fans out there, demanding absolute fidelity to the original interpretation of the character, but total rewritings of existing characters have always struck me as pointless. With that in mind, the nod goes to the Adventures tie-in.
Now, a bigger issue -- what was the deal with Catwoman's portrayal in these New Adventures episodes? She's consistently unlikable, seems to lack any depth, and is nearly impossible to reconcile with the classy animal rights crusader we met during the early years of the series. All in all, this was one of the most regrettable of the New Adventures revamps.
Special thanks to Antonio Canales for the great suggestion, and the World's Finest crew for research assistance. And if you have any issues of a comics tie-in that pairs nicely with an animated series, just let me know in the comments, or contact me on Twitter.