By Kenneth Laster

The face of Western comics is changing, but it’s been a long road and a journey that still has many hills to climb. Black characters are taking on more prominent roles in the panels we read, and more Black creators are shaping their stories behind the scenes. But what of the creatives who came before? This column traces the path of Black comics creativity throughout the decades, with each year focusing on a book that features a Black writer, artist, colourist, letterer, or editor. From underground comix through Black Panther and beyond, this series will reveal the evolution of diversity in the comics industry, and shed some light on the unsung Black heroes that have helped to shape it.

Felicia Hardy, aka the Black Cat, is one of Spider-Man’s most enduring members of his iconic rogue’s gallery not introduced in the Lee, Ditko, Romita era – and she was drawn by the incredible Keith Pollard. 

Keith Pollard was a criminally underrated name in comics and had quite the prolific career, with the particular highlight of pencilling The Amazing Spider-Man, Thor, and Fantastic Four simultaneously. Pollard was born in 1950 in the Detroit area and had the ambition to draw for comics from a young age. Like a lot of artist’s stories, he recalls being more interested in drawing than his studies – which lead him to entering the field of becoming a graphic artist before committing to building a portfolio and taking it to conventions. In one interview he brings up an experience of getting critiqued from Jim Steranko and Neal Adams, with the former building up his ego and the latter demolishing it. Not long after that, he connected with fellow Detroit based artist and fan Arvell Jones, who was involved in the convention scene and published a fan publication that he brought Pollard in on.

Jones would also go on to become an iconic figure in Black Comics History himself, as a co-creator of Misty Knight and a part of the creation of the Milestone Comics imprint in the late 90s. 

Pollard got a lot of practice working on Jones’s fanzine, and the two eventually got connections to New York and then Marvel, where they were both hired by John Romita Sr. He made sure to hire them both, because the two artists complimented each other’s strengths and weaknesses: what Pollard lacked in dynamic figures, he made up for in consistency; and what Jones lacked in facial consistency, he made up for in Kirby-esque action. The two would cover artist corrections prior to moving on to Iron Man, Marvel UK covers, and Deathlok. Pollard’s big break would come in Deadly Hands of Kung Fu and from there he would get more and more mainstream work leading to his Amazing Spider-Man run and why we’re here today. The introduction of The Black Cat.

The concept of Black Cat existed prior to this book between Marv Wolfman and Dave Cockrum, who originally intended for the character to be introduced in Spider-Woman, before Wolfman left that title. Despite the many comparisons to the Distinguished Competition’s Feline Foil for a pest themed hero, the inspiration for Felicia Hardy was not actually Catwoman, but instead a Tex Avery cartoon called Bad Luck Blackie. While the collaboration for this design admittedly happened prior to this book between Cockrum and Wolfman, Pollard’s contributions are not consistently recognized in my research (aka his name isn’t on Black Cat’s Wikipedia anywhere) which is a travesty.

The semantics of creator attribution are messy and, yes, Cockrum’s design is iconic, and Wolfman did the writing – but Pollard’s execution of all of this in Amazing Spider-Man #194 is unquestionably crucial in the cementing of Black Cat as a Spider-Man staple. 

Marv Wolfman’s plot and script for Amazing Spider-Man #194 are very straightforward and very of the late 70s. The overall plot is that there’s a new player in town called the Black Cat, and she’s building a small crew for *something* and our webbed wonder gets involved. At the end it’s revealed to be a jailbreak for her father Walter Hardy. Along with this plot are some very specific Spidey soap opera moments that seem very specific to this point in Wolfman’s run: Ned Leeds has some beef with Peter Parker and the capital “B” Burglar who killed Uncle Ben is at Aunt May’s nursing facility for some reason that likely comes apparent in Amazing Spider-Man #200 (which Pollard also drew)

The most notable thing that stood out to me from reading this first appearance is just how much here sticks for the next few decades. Black Cat’s motivations in trying to save her father from prison are so recognizable because this story has been adapted in her appearance in the Spectacular Spider-Man cartoon. Boris and Doctor Korpse, Felicia’s goons, are familiar because they *just* showed up in the Black Cat series from last year. So many elements that last throughout the years of Felicia’s portrayals across media are all fully formed here, which is really incredible.

And Felicia in Amazing Spider-Man #194 is capable, confident, and playful, setting the tone for the character’s future portrayals. The scenes of her collecting the two men for her crew don’t make up a ton of page space, but in a way that adds to build up just how much Black Cat is about her business. The scene between her and Bruno as she pounces on him while reprimanding him for using the word “broad” (and suggesting “boss” instead) is really good stuff. There’s a lot of agency in her portrayal and she’s never written as a pawn of a grander plan – in fact she’s quite the opposite.

Everyone has a role to play in her plan, and even Spider-Man can be handled with a quickness: just kiss him and ditch. Felicia Hardy from day one is a prime example of, to quote the great philosopher Megan Thee Stallion, “Real Hot Girl Shit.”

Pollard’s depiction of Black Cat really is a fascinating relic in this issue, because there’s such a collective image of this character and it feels like Pollard’s is just out of step with the vision of the character that has lived on. At one glance, it’s incredibly clear that Pollard’s work is the gold standard for Marvel’s house style in the Bronze Age. His artwork reads extremely like someone whose inspirations were Curt Swan, and who worked under John Romita Sr and was told to get a little more dynamic by way of Kirby. The soap opera aspects that are right at home in a Spidey title feel like a natural evolution of Romita Sr’s takes on the characters with the figures being a bit slimmer, and a bit more detailed, but still having those roots of romance comics glam.

Characters are expressive, and sell the drama and the narrative, and Felicia herself gets a lot of characteristics through her posing. Whether it’s a cat-like perch, or a playful lounge with her feet up, there’s a lot Pollard gives to her character. The action scenes are a bit weaker, but serviceable. There’s a Kirby-like sense of motion but at the same time the figures are stiffly posed. A number of panels feel like stills from a Scooby Doo running scene which I don’t mean as a knock (Scooby Doo is great!) but feels like an accurate assessment. 

Overall, there’s a lot to the Black Cat in The Amazing Spider-Man #194. It’s a testament to the creative team and Felicia Hardy as a compelling character that she has endured for around 40 years of comics with a number of adaptations in cartoons, video games, and a potential film always on the horizon. She’s a competent cat burglar who owns her sexuality and has a penchant to give others bad luck. While the supernatural aspects of the last bit have fluctuated over the years, you can’t deny that description is the Black Cat we know and love. 

As for Keith Pollard? His tenure in comics was not nearly as long. His time as an artist in the 80s and early 90s was incredibly prolific – and he would accomplish his aforementioned impressive three title run on Marvel’s flagship titles. He would then do some work at DC and, almost in a last hurrah, the madman drew every character entry for the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. However following the financial troubles of the 90s that nearly caused Marvel Comics to go bankrupt, the industry couldn’t match the rates he was accustomed to and so he made the decision to leave comics for work in the burgeoning field of computers in 1996. More recently he’s retired and attends conventions – and according to the panels I pulled up for this piece, seems like a nice guy.

It’s interesting to look at Pollard as a figure in this era and think about why his name isn’t as well known as his contemporaries, though. It’s easy to chalk it up to him making the decision to leave (and a lot of others sticking it out) rather than other insidious reasons of “racism”. Pollard himself says he never saw race affect his time in comics, at least early on while he was in it, and his breaking-into-comics tracks a lot with the paths of non-Black artists of his day. There’s an implication that it may have been a factor and he didn’t notice it at the time while he was in it.

Pollard’s decision to leave the field out of a totally financial concern is one that felt really rare to hear about during this era from the “greats” and “legends”. As Black people, there’s always the focus on survival and being able to take care of ourselves. Sometimes there’s no option to pursue aims at building a legacy in some niche industry when you need to make sure you and yours are eating: again, however, that’s just speculation. Pollard’s new rates could have still been comfortable, but then it’s become the case of him knowing his worth. Were George Perez’s rates dipping? 

Keith Pollard, from the interviews I’ve perused, seems content with his decisions and is happy to talk about his comics career. He still does cons (pre-pandemic) and sells commissions. I want to say that it’s a shame that he didn’t stay in comics longer. It’s always a bit disappointing that there are not enough established Black voices in comics… but honestly? Good for Keith! There’s often a lot of discourse on the old guard “overstaying their welcome” or their new stuff “is never as good” or worst of all “oh god they are sharing horrible opinions on Twitter.”

And bless Keith Pollard for having the foresight to drop a truly Herculean body of work and dip when the money wasn’t right. Truly an invaluable lesson, and one I think Black Cat would approve of. To paraphrase a popular tik tok song, “Get that bread, get that *web-head*, then leave.”  

 

Amazing Spider-Man #194
Script by Marv Wolfman
Illustrated by Keith Pollard and Frank Giacola
Coloured by Ben Sean
Lettered by John Costanza
Published in 1979

 

Kenneth Laster is a cartoonist and critic who has written for sites including Multiversity, ComicsXF, and Comic Book Herald. You can find Ken’s comics available (for free!) here, and follow Ken on Twitter here!