vrijdag 7 november 2014

The Top 10 Comic Book Cats!

So far I've put up a bunch of article about comics, and I'm having great fun writing them, but I know what pays the bills here in internetland. Cracked.com-style lists, and pictures of cats. So, to prove that I am not above a little pandering to the audience, here is the list of the 10 best cats in comics!

A little disclaimer: this list focuses purely on proper, catlike cats. A bunch of them are super-powered, some can talk, but all of them look like cats, behave like cats, and most importantly, have the attitude of cats. While Blacksad, Tom Poes and Krazy Kat might be cool characters, they are basically just fuzzy humans, and won't be found on this list. So...


Krosp is the Emperor of all Cats, though relegated to playing sidekick to Agatha Heterodyne, mad scientist in an steampunk version of Europe and eponymous Girl Genius. Agatha begins her story in an academy for "Sparks" (People who sometimes go a bit manic and create impossible machines in that state), and there she finds an talking cat wandering around, who warns her that she might be in grave danger...

I've kept Krosp of the official since he's a bit to anthropomorphic. Though he can be very much like a regular cat...

...usually he's acting just a bit to human for the list. But I wanted to mention him anyway, since the reason he failed in his job is just to funny. See, Krosp was created by someone from the academy to be the emperor of all cats, on the logic that cats get everywhere and thus could be great spies and saboteurs. They just needed an emperor. There is just one problem...

Jup. That sounds like cats alright. So let's start the list proper, and see which of Krosps subjects I've honored with a mention.

10: DOCTOR SKATEBOARD, from What's Normal Anyway?
What's Normal Anyway is a webcomic about Mel, who is transitioning from female to male. It's a slice of life comic written by a trans man, though not an autobiography. Like most slice of life stuff I find the quality varies from strip to strip. Some of the time it's very funny or touching, at other times it falls a bit flat, with the strip just showing a thing that happens in real life, or a "You had to be there moment". But one thing I can't fault the comic for: the name of the resident cat.

Oh, and its mission to create more trans visibility, and to showcase the everyday life of the trans experience in the hope that it might help people on their own path. The comic is absolutely amazing in that respect as well. But this is a list about cats, so I'm going to focus on Doctor Skateboard, the brilliantly named cat that never seems to do much, and yet seems to radiate supportive energy.

The doctor is low on the list due to a low number of appearances, but the name alone is worth a mention I think. Plus it gives me an excuse to plug a very worthwhile comic that deserves more attention.

9: STINKY, from Power Girl

For our first "mainstream comic" cat we'll take a look at DC, where we get a little kitty that proves not all cats are cute and cuddly, but loved nonetheless. Stinky's owner is Power Girl, who is... oh good god, how do I explain Power Girl? She started out as a grownup version of Supergirl from another universe. (Of to a good start) And then that universe merged with the regular DC universe. (Oh god) And then she was revealed to be a reincarnation of a wizard from Atlantis or something. (DC why u so) But then they went back to her being a future version of Supergirl I think, and god knows what her backstory is now. Oh, and her creator Wally Wood kept giving her bigger and bigger breasts to prove that his editors weren't paying attention to him. Superheroes with confusing (or just bad) origins often end up as very bland characters, which coupled with the breast thing could've resulted in Power Girl ending up as a boring fanservice character. But she was spared from that fate because writers gave her a very distinct personality: tough, straightforward, sometimes a bit cranky but still with a sense of humor. Which puts her in a strange position: on the one hand her comics still have a lot of fanservice and boob jokes, but on the other she is generally better written and has a more interesting personality than most female superheroes.

But that's a debate for some other time. We're here for the cat!

Stinky, who took years to get a proper name of than just "the cat", was first found in a dumpster by the Justice Leauge, and was only later adopted by Power Girl. It's mangy, ugly, stinky (obviously), has a terrible temper and was hated by virtually everyone who came in contact with it.

After Power Girl left the Justice League she stumbled from book to book, and the cat got lost in the shuffle. Apparently it did come with her when she joined the Justice Society, but never had much appearances. Until the Power Girl series from Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti, it featured rather prominently in that one. Only... it had suddenly gotten a lot cuter.

I guess it's the Amanda Conner artwork. She's just incapable of drawing something that looks bad. It's a bit of a departure from the original Stinky (who now finally got his name), but we got that lovely scene of Wonder Woman doing relationship therapy for Power Girl and her cat to make up for it.

8: MICHAEL from What's Michael?

I wanted a diverse list, with comic cats from all over the globe, but I must admit my knowledge of manga in limited. Other than Michael I only know one other manga cat. That grey one, the kitten. Forget the name. But that one is a bit to saccharine for my tastes. Michael is pretty fun however, in a rather demented way. There are actually two versions of Michael. The first is just a regular cat, doing regular cat things. Eating, sleeping, playing with toys. These strips are basically slice of life stuff for cat owners. "I can't get up there's a cat on my lap", "Why are all my good shirts covered in cat hair?", that sort of thing. It's quite cute, helped tremendously by the way Michael himself is drawn.

But then you turn the page, and another kind of Michael strip starts, in which...

Yeah. Insanity. But despite all the dancing and judo, the behaviour is still very much like real cats. I like What's Michael in small doses, otherwise the slice of life stuff gets dull and the silly stuff just gets to much. That keeps it from ending up higher on the list, but it's still very much worth a look.

7: THE RABBI'S CAT from Le Chat du Rabbin 
(No points if you can guess what that means in French)

In French Algeria, during the interbellum, a rabbi has a cat and a parrot. The cat finds the parrot incredibly annoying, and eats it. Suddenly it can talk, but all it does is tell lies. The rabbi is horrified, and tells the cat that it can't hang out with his daughter anymore until he's studied enough of the Torah to make him a good, Jewish cat.

So. How's that for a high concept?

The rabbi's cat is the ultimate smartass cat. Not grumpy, like a lot of cats are portrayed, but convinced of his own superiority. He's always trying to win every single argument, always making comments on how stupid humans are.

But despite the entire comic being named after him, the cat stops being the focus with the second issue. The rabbi, his daughter and their friends and family become the main focus, with the cat commenting on events. Events such as discussing Jewish theology, going on holiday to Paris, telling each other tales and just generally living their lives. It's very charming, although in the end there is little pay off to the various character arcs. As such he main draw of the comic is the setting. A comic about the Jewish community in Algiers in the 1930's doesn't come around every day. Nor a comic in which characters debate various Talmudic interpretations, the Kabbalah, and inter-faith contacts. Which might sound a bit boring, but it's interspaced with other stuff, so don't fear huge walls of text. And the discussions are always in-character. (It helps having several rabbis in the cast.) Oh, and we can always rely on the cat for some remarks to make light of the situation. Or sometimes to join in with the discussion.

6: DEX-STARR, from Green Lantern

I've never been a fan of the Green Lantern. A space cop charged with protecting an entire galaxy, and he spends most of his time hanging out with his superhero friends on one planet? There's a flaw in that plan. And when your superpower is a ring that can do anything you've got me wondering how on earth any battle can be a challenge. Geoff Johns' recent additions have also left me cold. So now in addition to a bunch of green rings that give superpowers to people with a lot of willpower there are also other colored rings tied to other emotions? Pink Lanterns who draw their power from love and wearing barely any clothes? Yellow Lanterns who draw their power from fear? (Though not their own fear. As Paul and Al from the wonderful House to Astonish have pointed out, the Yellow Lanterns actually get their power from the emotion of Being Scary). And maybe the stupidest of them all are the Red Lanterns. Powered by rage, these guys don't just make stuff with theirs rings, they also vomit up their own blood, which apparently has napalm-like qualities. Yeaaaaaaah...

But is you make it far enough into the realm of stupid, you find a region where things turn back to awesome. Napalm-blood vomiting, rage-powered aliens? Meh. But a napalm-blood vomiting, rage-powered blue cat that wears his red ring around his tail? Now you've got my attention. And Dex-Starr is not a cat-like alien either, he was a regular (though for some reason blue furred) cat on earth, who experienced great rage when someone threw him of a bridge, and was thus gifted great power. And napalm-blood-vomit. It's so insanely stupid that it becomes funny again. Also, when you introduce a superpowered cat among your human superheroes, you're going to get scenes like this

That was my original write-up of Dex-Starr, who was a bit lower on the list at that time. But then I decided to do some research. (As you probably guessed from my enthusiastic write up  above, I don't usually read much Green Lantern related stuff.) And then I stumbled on Dex-Starr's origin story.


Oh dear. Poor blood vomiting raging space kitty.

5: MR. SCRUFFY from the Order of the Stick

Mini made at Morlandstudios 
The Orderof the Stick is a stick-figure webcomic, but don't let the sticks fool you. It's one of the most impressive and successful webcomics out there. Don't believe me? At one point the creator, Rich Burlew put up a kickstarter to fund the reprinting of the first collection. It made its original goal twenty times over, for a grand total of over 1 million dollars!

Order of the Stick started out as a joke comic about Dungeons and Dragons, but from there it evolved into a long running plot. It has massive battles, fantastic character work, and (and this is where a lot of webcomics trying for seriousness fail) hasn't lost its amazing sense of humor. You'll get the most out of it if you're a roleplayer yourself, but I reckon most of it's still a great read if you're not.

So where does the cat come in? One of the main characters is Belkar. He is the stereotype of the token evil party member, always looking for something to kill, steal or destroy. The rest of the team just keeps him around because he's useful, and because they're afraid of what he'll do if they're not around to keep him in line. The team does good stuff, Belkar kills and steal where he can. That's the dynamic, we all laugh. But over time Belkar's character had gotten a bit stale. And that's when they met Lord Shojo. This elderly ruler of Azure City pretended to be senile to avoid assassination and easily swayed. On of the people who could easily sway him was his cat, Mr. Scruffy.

Through events that are way to cool to spoil, Belkar ended up with Mr. Scruffy. Which worked out pretty well for the both of them. Scruffy picked up some fighting tricks...

... and Belkar? Well, first Belkar got some advice in exchange for caring for the cat...

God the comic is wordy when you see it at this size. Don't worry, it's not always like that!

...faking character growth. Surely that's not as good as the real thing? But Lord Shojo is a crafty character, even his ghost/illusion thingy. Because now Belkar is pretending to be a better team player, plus he's got a cat to care for. At one point the Order is trapped by an evil overlord and forced to fight in his arena. And while trapped there two minor characters, friends of each other, are forced to fight. The Belkar of old would've sat back and watched, but now he releases a bloody Allosaurus to interrupt the battle, so the two guys can get away. Obviously Belkar claims that he just wanted to see an Allosaurus stomp over stuff (a valid argument I think), but his real reason...

Belkar is becoming the mask. All because he took care of a little cat.

4: Earthling from King City

You want weird? King City's got your weird. The eponymous city is a bit like Gotham, in that half run by organised crime and half run by the decadent and wealthy. Only, unlike Gotham, it is filled with Russian sasquatches, mermaids, demons and soldiers returning from the zombie-wars in Korea. Oh, and the entire thing seems to be made mostly so Brandon Graham can draw awesome stuff. And make a lot of silly puns.

The main character is Joe, a catmaster. What is a catmaster, you ask? Well, it's- um- someone who does magical stuff with cats. In the opening scene of the comic he feeds his cat a key in order to make a copy. That's stupid pun number one. (No wait, there's already about a million on the inside of the cover)

But later we learn that catmastery extend to much more than that.

 During the whole comic there is some Chtullu-like entity rising, threatening do destroy the universe, but surprisingly that isn't the point of the plot. So don't get to excited for the final battle with the thing (although the final resolution is great and in the spirit of this list.) The comic isn't really about the plot at all. The real point is the relationships between the characters. Joe has to help his best friend (who has fallen in love with a mermaid that is being held by a bunch of gangster. Joe has to help, and deal with his feelings for, his ex-girlfriend (who's current boyfriend has PTSD from the zombie wars and is addicted to a drug that's turning him into chalk.) Joe is approached by a girl he knows is bad news, but is just so sexy he has trouble saying no. Much more important stuff than the rise of an Elder Demon.

And what about the relationship between Joe and Earthling?

 Now, despite being able to function as a torch, periscope, flamethrower, power cable or 3D-printer, and despite being able to write detailed rapports (with excellent handwriting), Earthling can't talk. Most of the time he is content to be carried around in a bucket until Joe needs him for some bizarre task. Like a regular cat he is quite capable of amusing himself, lazily lying about, watching tv, scratching the sofa or solving complex mathematical problems. Yet at the same time he seems like a good friend of Joe, always ready with help or a fistbump. (Pawbump?) The more I think about it, Earthling feels just like a regular cat. Bit lazy, not doing much, and yet full of personality. And then you can use him as a heart rate monitor.

3: NIELS / HAIRBALL from Speedball

There's two DC cats on the list compared to only one Marvel cat, but the Marvel one ends up higher. That's should be enough to make me appear balanced, right? 
In 1988 Steve Ditko created Speedball. (Not the drugs cocktail, the superhero). Ditko's days as the superstar who drew the formative issues of Spider-Man were far behind him at that point. His style of drawing and writing hadn't much evolved since the 60's, which resulted in Speedball being a strange curio rather than a big success. The comic starred a kid called Robbie Baldwin, who got into an accident with some strange radiation (sounds familiar), which gives him the power to bounce of stuff, while bursting out in strange lights. This is still a great Ditko-visual.

But Robbie isn't the only one with his powers! No, while he was being irradiated he walked into a cat. And while anyone who has seen the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would expect that to result in Robbie sprouting cat ears and a tail and becoming Catman, Ditko goes another route, and gives the cat the same bouncing powers! And while Speedball spend most of his ten-issue series stopping uninspiring supervillains, Niels the cat kept eluding capture. Speedball wasn't a success initially, but during the 90's he was brought into the New Warriors book, which was fairly successful. And Niels, finally captured, went along for the ride.

But the real good stuff with Niels came later, as the result of a very strange turn of events for Speedball. In 2005 Marvel kicked of their crossover Civil War with the destruction of the city of Stamford by the supervillain Nitro, who was fighting the New Warriors at the time. Speedball, who up till then had been a happy-go-lucky, wisecracking kind of superhero, became traumatized and couldn't access his powers. But then he discovered that by hurting himself he could access a whole new type of energy-manipulation power, so he had a suit designed full of spiked on the inside and became the superhero Penance. A strange direction for one of Marvel's more innocent characters, and a very stupid portrayal of mental health issues I my mind. Later however, better writers managed to get a lot of good stuff out of the situation by portraying his PTSD more realistically. Warren Ellis's story in which superhero psychiatrist Doc Samson visits Robbie was great, and that moment when he got through to him and for just a second Robbie manifested the Ditko-style light bubbles again genuinely chilling.

But back to Niels. He was absent from comics for a long while, but returned in a comedy issue in which fellow funny character Squirrel Girl tries to get through to Robbie that this Penance stuff is nonsense...

Luckily that was just a joke issue. Niels returned in real life when Robbie's mental health had deteriorated even further thanks to super villain manipulations, and he had lost his memory. His new psychiatrist thought it would be good to start with animal therapy, and tracked down Robbie's bouncing buddy. Which had immediate effect on his memory.


Since his reintroduction Niels has joined giant teleporting space dog Lockjaw and his Pet Avengers. I'd make a joke about the silliness of a giant teleporting space dog, but after the Dex-Starr and Power Girl explanations I'm all out of "oh comics, *eyeroll*"-style comments. As a member of the Pet Avengers Niels has taken the name Hairball, which is of course perfect for the cat-sidekick of a character named Speedball. We also learn that while Niels is generally a super nice, cuddly cat around humans, he channels his inner Grumpy Cat when dealing with other animals, especially dogs.

Hmmm... somehow Niels ended up with the longest write up. Blame Speedball's bizarre character path that needs explanation.

2: 2 from We3

Grant Morrison is notable for a few things. Banging on about the DC Multiverse is one. Breaking the fourth wall, for example by having himself appear in the comic he's writing is obviously the big one. And then there are the weird stories. Like him being kidnapped by aliens in Kathmandu. Or how he suffered a collapsed lung after having the character King Mob nearly die in Invisibles, making him believe Invisibles was actually a magic spell he was casting, so he had King Mob spend the next volume having loads and loads of sex. The man is... colorful. Oh, and he's the baldy guy in that My Chemical Romance video.

But what I really associate with Grant Morrison, is making people cry about animals. There is the scene at the end of animal man with his imaginary fox friend. There is the story where Professor X is given super-Alzheimer's by a super villain and keeps talking about his childhood dog. There is that bit in The Filth where a bad guy impersonates the hero and does the worst, most spiteful thing any character has ever done in any work of fiction: he brings the heroes cat to the vet to be put down! And then there is We3

We3 might just be my favorite thing Morrison has ever written. I loved his Animal Man, Flex Mentallo, New X-Men, All-Star Superman... but no, We3 is the best thing he's ever written. And it is the best thing Frank Quietly, his frequent collaborator, has ever drawn. It's heartrending, heartwarming, full of character, action packed, and has some of the greatest experimental use of the comic book page you've ever seen.
(Warning: gore ahead)

The story is about three animals, a dog, a cat and a rabbit, which have been augmented with cybernetics to become the weapons of the future. Like drones, but capable of independent reasoning to be even more effective. When a government official declares he wants the animals killed, a scientist who worked on them gets a pang of conscience and releases them. And so starts a race in which the army sends everything they've got against these cyborg-animals, which only have a dim recollection of the place they should be going to. Home.

Sounds like a fun romp, right? Guess again. We3 is bloody and gory. The idea of a cat with a machine gun fighting soldiers might sound funny or cool at first. But later on in the story, when their robo-shell is damaged and you see the animals with the patchy remnants of their fur exposed, and steel and wire poking out from their flesh... it becomes painfully clear what Grant Morrison's stance on animal testing is.

Of the three animals, the cat is (obviously) the most angry and short tempered. The dog is most concerned about helping people and getting home. The rabbit is... a bit dumb, mostly just hopping along with the others. The cat just wants the three to look out for themselves, and questions the existence of this "home".

Yet its loyal it its friends, and at the very end, when they've finally laid waste to the last of the troops the army has send after them (in a very satisfying manner, I might add)...

Goddamn you Grant Morrison.

1: Lying Cat from Saga

Of those on this list, Earthling may be the cat with the most uses. But there is one cat that might be even more useful. Lying Cat is the partner of the bounty hunter The Will, and it can always tell when someone is lying. How is this useful? Well, it can help you in negotiations,

it can help you see through illusions,

and it can make you realise that you are lying to yourself,

even if you don't know it yourself.

That last scene was what made me go from "This Saga thing looks okay" to "I need to own this right now!".

What more is there to say really? I've already written about my love for Saga quite extensively, and Lying Cat is another example about what I like about the comic. A bizarre fatasci-fi idea, very funny at one time but a source of genuine emotion the next.
Lying Cat is not top of the list because he was featured in the best comic however. (I love Saga, but Order of the Stick is as good at times, and We3 might even surpass it.) No, Lying Cat is also a great example of a cat character. Funny and endearing, grumpy but cute, and capable of displaying a lot of character despite its limited vocabulary.

So that was the list to show of how diverse my comic collection is- no, wait, sorry, the list of best comic book cats! I hope you liked it, and if you know any other great comics featuring cats, feel free to recommend them in the comments!

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