When Gail Simone rescued DC’s Catman from the Brad Meltzer Memorial Scrap-Heap Of Silver-Age Villains™, she asserted the nearly-forgotten character had the potential to be every bit as cool as a certain Dark Knight.
In fact, Ms. Simone suggested that Bob Kane and Bill Finger could have just as easily named their seminal creation “Catman” instead of pinning their hopes and aspirations on a winged rodent. Heck, if history had continued down that path maybe Bruce Wayne would have ended up a pathetic has-been in Meltzer’s Green Arrow instead of poor Thomas Blake.
The joke of it all, of course, is that a “Cat-Man” very similar to Blake in appearance and methodology battled crime during comics’ Golden Age for a small, nearly forgotten publisher who probably hoped to cash in on the Caped Crusader’s popularity.
Cat-Man (or “Catman,” as he was later known) first appeared in the fourth issue of Helnit’s Crash Comics (1940). Created by artist Irwin Hasen and a writer whose name is lost to the ages, the “Cat Crusader” (sorry, couldn’t resist) was David Merrywether, who – much like Batman – witnessed the death of his parents after the family was attacked by bandits while traveling across Burma.
The young Merrywether, however, was fortunate enough to be rescued by a kindly she-Tiger who raised the child as her own in the wilds of Burma. (Any resemblance to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan at this point probably isn’t coincidental … )
Through the magic of comics, the child somehow absorbed the physical attributes of his foster mother and found himself endowed with augmented strength, agility and vision. After the tigress passed on, her spirit also granted Merrywether the gift of nine lives.
Not a bad deal.
The young man returned to America and, shocked by the injustices he witnessed in so-called civilized society, adopts the identity of “Cat-Man.” He later enlisted in the U.S. Army and even adopted an 11-year-old girl who became his trusty sidekick, Kitten.
(Unlike Robin, who remained a prepubescent for decades, Kitten aged throughout the duration of the strip and was eventurally drawn with more … er … “adult” attributes.)
The Cat-Man feature ran for about five years and even spawned a Phantom-esque Australian doppelganger. Years after his title went under, the Golden Age Cat-Man enjoyed a semi-renaissance under the auspices of Bill Black and – more recently – Alex Ross.
Not too bad for a second-tier character that never enjoyed the benefits of a large publishing house or superstar creators.
From Cat-Man Comics # 25 -nearly 20 years before Bill Finger and Jim Mooney sent the Thomas Blake incarnation after Batman* – here’s the Golden Age hero and his able assistant in “The Eyes Of Justice.”
The art is credited to Charles Quinlan.
* I’m not even going to get into the Catman who fought Blackhawk in 1959…