On the face of it, the Marvel Comics character Black Cat could seem like a complete ripoff of DC Comics’ Catwoman.
Catwoman predates Black Cat by several decades, and they’re both infamous female cat burglars who wear black, skintight costumes. They both have “cat” in their name. And they both enjoy a will-they-won’t-they relationship with an urban male superhero — Batman and Spider-Man, respectively — who feels conflicted about dating them because of their illegal activities.
But the unlikely truth is that all of those similarities are pure coincidence — or maybe just Felicia Hardy’s bad luck to be created second.
Let’s go to the timeline
Black Cat was created by writer Marv Wolfman (also co-creator of the Teen Titans, Blade, Bullseye and Spider-Woman) and artist Dave Cockrum (also co-creator of Nightcrawler, Storm and Colossus) and made her first appearance in 1979’s The Amazing Spider-Man #194. And, to be fair, that’s nearly 40 years after Catwoman was introduced in 1940’s Batman #1.
But in the time when Catwoman was created, she was not quite the big deal she is today. For example, she’d been absent from comics entirely from 1954 to 1966, under the Comics Code Authority’s rules for depicting female characters. For a modern comparison, imagine if Catwoman had disappeared from all Batman-related media in 1993 and hadn’t shown up again until 2005. You probably wouldn’t think she was very vital to his stories, either.
Catwoman also dressed a lot different in 1979. She wore a few different fabulously impractical and colorful getups from her creation until well into the mid-’80s, most of them with barely a nod to her animal namesake. The one exception to that rule is the black cat-suited Catwoman of the 1966 Batman TV show, but in 1979 we were even the better part of a decade away from that being relevant.
If you still think there’s still an unreasonable amount of coincidence between the two characters, consider this: Black Cat was not originally intended to be a femme fatale for a conflicted male hero. Wolfman came up with her during his run on Spider-Woman (no relation to Peter Parker), but he left the book before Felicia could be introduced and decided to use her in The Amazing Spider-Man later.
“I never even thought of Catwoman when I did her,” he once told Comic Book Resources, “I got the idea for her from a Tex Avery cartoon, ‘Bad Luck Blackie.’”
“Bad Luck Blackie” features a kitten enlisting a professional black cat to curse the bulldog that torments him with a string of bad luck (mostly in the form of heavy objects dropping onto the bulldog’s head out of nowhere).
And that brings us to one major difference between Black Cat and Catwoman: Black Cat can cause people to have bad luck. In her early stories, Felicia’s powers weren’t entirely explicit, but whenever she warned people not to cross her, something inexplicably unfortunate would usually follow. Later, it was canonized, thanks to some tinkering from the Kingpin. Then her powers were removed — because they were spelling unintentional doom for her loved ones — then restored. You know, comics.
Catwoman traditionally has no superpowers, and didn’t start to appearing in a skintight catsuit — complete with a tail and ears and claws — until a decade after the Black Cat was created, in the late ’80s, when David Mazzucchelli and Frank Miller redesigned her costume for 1987’s Batman: Year One. You might be able to argue that that costume was ripping off Black Cat’s black catsuit ... but Black Cat’s costume doesn’t have a tail or ears.
Stories of deliberate ripoffs and open inspiration are so common in the comics world that nobody could be faulted for thinking there was some funny business going on in Black Cat’s creation. But what actually happened is even more interesting. Black Cat and Catwoman are a rare, genuine example of convergent evolution.
Two cat burglar characters bowing to the catsuit’s place as “the film maker’s costume of choice for stealth” as the New York Times noted in 1989, the very year that Catwoman finally adopted one in the main DC Comics continuity. Maybe the most surprising thing here, is that Catwoman stayed out of that black, skintight number for so long.