Since early childhood, I’ve absolutely loved cats. My mother has never owned less than 2 of them, so I had a wonderful time playing with various felines as I grew up. While I certainly love all animals, cats have always had a special place in my heart, so I was extremely happy when I discovered this month’s D-Lister many years ago.
For the first two decades of his existence, Niels was exactly what you’d think: a pet cat. Writers never granted him more than a simplistic personality, and no one attempted to develop him as a character until recent years. Less than a decade ago, Niels was featured in a few miniseries where he was given plenty of characterization, but he has made only scant appearances since. Such a meow-velous feline, it’s time to welcome Hairball to the D-List.
Niels first appeared in Speedball #1 in 1988. Created by Steve Ditko and Roger Stern, Niels belonged to a scientist named Dr. Benson, who conducted research at a lab. Local teenager, Robbie Baldwin, worked part-time at the facility and wanted to watch one of Benson’s experiments take place. The scientist tapped into an extra-dimensional energy source, but the energy was accidentally blasted into the room and struck Robbie. The teenager learned that he had gained the power to create and direct a force-field of kinetic energy, which granted him the ability to move like a human bouncing-ball. With his newfound power, Robbie decided to become a hero and took the codename, “Speedball.” Robbie also learned that Niels was present during the experiment, because the cat gained the same power. Unfortunately, Niels became a predictable gimmick – Robbie would try to catch Niels, and the cat would bounce away.
While Niels wasn’t given an exceptionally original personality, at least he made more than just nominal appearances in a few stories. However, those stories were absolutely ridiculous. For example, a giant rat with a gun tried to kill local cats, but Niels managed to save one from harm. Later, alien-cats tried catching Niels with giant fishing nets (because fishing nets are certainly the pinnacle of cat-capturing technology). Niels did manage to kick (or claw) some ass, however, when he helped Speedball defeat a local criminal – Niels spat kinetic energy at the villain and knocked him unconscious.
I’m certainly grateful for some of what Steve Ditko contributed to comics, including Spider-Man and much of the hero’s rogues’ gallery, but surely the absurdity of its stories led to Speedball’s quick cancellation. However, Niels appeared shortly thereafter in the New Warriors series with Robbie as his owner, and the cat was granted thought-balloons. Unfortunately, he had a very stereotypical personality – Niels thought about terrorizing the neighborhood birds and eating salmon (stop feline profiling).
This cat had superpowers, so why wasn’t he involved in more action? He and Robbie could’ve teamed up on a regular basis – I’m sure plenty of fun stories could’ve been written. Alas, after years of no appearances, Niels was shown getting dragged through Robbie’s emo phase (Niels’ favorite band? Meow Chemical Romance). Speedball blamed himself for the destruction in Connecticut that killed hundreds of people after a fight with some supervillains went wrong. In response, he fashioned a costume for himself that was covered with spikes and changed his codename to “Penance.” Robbie stuck Niels in a smaller spikey suit and dubbed him, “P-Cat, the Penitent Puss.” Thankfully, this phase didn’t last long.
Later, in New York City, Niels was being chased by Aunt May’s dog, who was named Ms. Lion, even though he was a male. The extremely stupid dog thought the two were playing, even though Niels was clearly annoyed and threw energy balls at the canine (quite a hissy-fit). The Inhuman puppy, Lockjaw, learned that the infinity gems were missing and scattered around the world. Lockjaw and Frog-Thor decided to put a team of animals together in order to locate the stones, and dubbed themselves, “Pet Avengers.” Niels joined the team, and called himself, “Hairball.” Unfortunately, Ms. Lion wanted to tag along, much to the chagrin of the cat.
This was the first time that Niels was given a unique personality, and it was certainly a grumpy and sarcastic one. It was hilarious to watch Niels and Ms. Lion interact; the rest of the Pet Avengers seemed to tolerate Ms. Lion, but Hairball frequently made demeaning and even threatening comments to the dog. At one point, Niels even threatened to eat Falcon’s sidekick, Redwing. I loved this cat with all my heart.
While Hairball certainly seemed like a jackass, he was a brave feline and always ready to fight. As one of the smallest members of the team, Hairball didn’t have a size-advantage when the team faced Devil Dinosaur or Thanos, but he leapt into action and hurled energy balls at the enormous villains in order to secure the infinity gems. What Niels lacked in patience, he certainly made up for in heroism (but he should really smoke some catnip and mellow out).
The Pet Avengers helped Fin Fang Foom and some of his dragon buddies protect eggs which were buried under China for safe-keeping. The Avengers thought that the beasts were there to cause destruction, so the human heroes attacked the monsters. Since the Pets couldn’t communicate with the Avengers, the animals simply tried to buy the dragons some time. Hairball fought Spider-Man, and hilarity ensued. Once the dragon’s innocent intentions were clear and the situation was resolved, the Avengers gave the Pets their own mansion and Hairball had his own enormous cat-house inside (with a litter box fit for a king).
I loved Hairball’s sarcasm, wit, and air of superiority. Regardless of his short temper, Hairball was an asset to his team. I wish that the Pet Avengers were given their own ongoing series, but unfortunately, the team was only featured in a few miniseries and haven’t appeared together in quite a few years. To my knowledge, Niels’ most recent appearance showed him living with Jim Hammond, the original Human Torch. S.H.I.E.L.D. had been keeping Hairball caged in a lab, and Hammond rescued the feline.
I don’t believe that Hairball has ever appeared outside of Marvel Comics’ Earth-616 Universe, which is a shame, because this cool cat deserves more recognition. I’ve heard rumors of a New Warriors’ sitcom coming to TV, so if Speedball is included, maybe Niels will also make an appearance. I certainly hope so, because there aren’t enough super-powered cats in pop culture. Could there ever be an “Avengers vs. Pet Avengers” movie? Fans can only hope.
So because Hairball is an animal, he can’t have as much of the spotlight as human characters? Way to practice speciesism, Marvel. However, I am very happy that a writer actually gave Hairball a personality. He might be a jerk, but what would you expect from a cat who lives in New York City? Regardless of his rough temperament, Niels has proven himself to be a hero, and it is my hope that Hairball continues to bring his courage and bad cat-itude to the Marvel Universe for many years to come.