1. Salem, Sabrina The Teenage Witch (1996-2003)
Sabrina The Teenage Witch was Melissa Joan Hart’s second smart-but-youthful sitcom success (the first, of course, being Clarissa Explains It All). The series followed Sabrina’s exploration of her magical powers, as she learns how to navigate the world of witches and magic thanks to her aunts and their mopey pet cat, Salem. The latter is the typical wisecracking, self-loathing sitcom sidekick with a dour sense of humor. (The puppet is slightly awkward, which makes Salem’s verbal acuity seem like compensation.) Still, he’s no caricature; in a former life, he was a man with designs of world domination (which is why he was originally turned into a cat) and makes the best of his situation by being mischievous and bratty, and playing up quirks like his singing voice and love of the gross snack Lizard Flakes. He’s also a voice of reason for Sabrina, doling out advice and support when she’s in a bind. In reality, Salem is less of a Halloween cat than a sage learning to make the most of a (self-imposed) rotten lot in life.
2. Jiji, Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
Every traditional witch needs a traditional black-cat familiar, and Kiki, the 13-year-old witch from Hayao Miyazaki’s sweet coming-of-age story Kiki’s Delivery Service, is no exception. When she leaves home to set up housekeeping for herself in a new city, she takes very little with her except her broom and her constant companion Jiji, a kindhearted but fussy worrywart of a cat who essentially stands in as the voice of her doubts and fears. (In Disney’s English dub, he’s played by Phil Hartman and sounds uncharacteristically anxious and twitchy.) Still, he’s a loyal friend, even courageously helping out by subbing in for a stuffed cat toy Kiki’s supposed to deliver, but temporarily mislays. Like Kiki herself, he doesn’t let his fears get in the way of doing his job. It’s heartbreaking when she loses her self-confidence, and in the process, her magic, and loses the ability to understand him. Ultimately, she has to regain her faith in herself in order to bring magic back into her life, including her access to her faithful friend.
3. Binx, Hocus Pocus (1993)
Hocus Pocus is a surprisingly funny “scary” movie aimed at kids, more campy than brilliant. Binx’s silliness actually detracts from the fantastic comedic performance of Bette Midler as head witch Winifred Sanderson—he’s an animatronic talking black cat, and not even a very good one, at that. (If there’s an uncanny valley for puppets, Binx lives there.) But no matter: There’s enough cutaway work to real cats and enough emotional investment in his story that despite his technical flaws, Binx is a character in the film, not just the voice of exposition. As a boy, he was turned into a cat as punishment—and a really cute one, at that. And at the end, Binx dies, and the ghost of the boy he once was says goodbye as he walks to heaven. It’s cheesy, but also the saddest moment in the film. Binx is the quintessential Halloween cat, a magical creature with arcane knowledge who only comes out at night. Plus, he tells jokes, which seems to be a job requirement for magical familiars.
4. The cat, Coraline (2002)
In Neil Gaiman’s frightening fairy tale, Coraline’s only ally in the mirror world is an unnamed cat that she’d sometimes prefer to do without. Sure, she’s in a mirror world constructed by the other mother, but her only friend is “irritatingly self-centered” from the get-go, mocking her for being amazed at a talking cat or toying needlessly with a rat he’s caught. But he’s still willing to help Coraline when circumstances require his aid. His playful nature lets him point out that a challenge might be just the thing to hook the other mother’s interest and even saves the game at one point by decapitating a rat saboteur. He’s also charitable enough to forgive Coraline for throwing him at the other mother’s face, given that the alternative for both was being trapped forever in her mercy. In the 2009 film version Keith David gave the character an appropriate voice, his distinctive authoritative tones undercut with just the right air of wry superiority.
5. Faithful, The Song Of The Lioness (1983-1988)
Tamora Pierce’s young-adult fantasy quartet about a girl who dresses herself as a boy to become a knight is a cult classic among women who stumbled across them when they were about 12 years old. The whole series is a wish-fulfillment fantasy with strong similarities to The Hero And The Crown, but that doesn’t stop it from being fun, lightweight, female-centric adventure. Part of its appeal is that it draws on old-fashioned ideas of Pagan magic. Faithful is a talking black housecat with purple eyes, making him way cooler looking than most other cats. His role is about the same—to provide sarcastic comedic relief and guidance for our child-hero, Alanna—with the added twist of occasional magical powers, like healing and communing with certain goddesses.
6. Behemoth, The Master And Margarita (1967)
Mikhail Bulgakov’s tale of Satan’s visit to 1930s Moscow is bursting with instances of the Russian upper class laid low by the diabolical entourage of Professor Woland, and the most memorable of these come courtesy of Behemoth. Behemoth is a contradictory figure as the least outwardly human of Woland’s retinue (“a black tom of terrifying proportions… with a huge mustache, for all the world like a rakish cavalryman’s”). Yet, he’s seemingly its most sophisticated member, regularly featured with an aperitif or a chess piece in one of his paws. However, his complacent demeanor hides his true nature, as he acts directly where Koroviev and Azazello prefer manipulation. It’s Behemoth who tears off and then puts back on the head of the skeptic Bengalsky during Woland’s magic show, Behemoth who transforms Petrovich into an animated empty suit, and Behemoth who vividly ends their stay in apartment Number 50 when he mounts the chandelier for some trick shooting and sets the entire place ablaze as he departs. At the close of the novel, when Woland and company reveal their true forms, Behemoth fittingly turns out to be not a warrior like the others, but rather “a demon page, the best jester who had ever existed in the world.”
7. Socks, Animal Man (2012)
When DC Comics revived Animal Man for the New 52, the titular hero’s daughter Maxine was given an expanded role and a furry feline sidekick named Socks. Maxine Baker is an avatar of The Red, the supernatural force that connects all animal life, and Socks is her mentor, helping her understand the nature of her quickly developing abilities. Formerly a member of the Parliament Of Limbs, the cat named Ignatius gave up his place in The Red for a new role and a new name on Earth. Writer Jeff Lemire has emphasized the horror aspects of the title during his run, and a talking black cat is a way of connecting the book to past scary stories. Socks is around to make sure that Maxine learns how to control her power over all living things, and his wise, but serious demeanor is contrasted with the exuberance of his child charge for comic effect. It’s like a superhero version of the Sabrina and Salem relationship, except Socks is considerably more benevolent than Sabrina’s cat companion.
8. Luna, Sailor Moon (1991-1997)
In the entire Sailor Moon franchise—spanning manga, anime, and films—Luna is always part of Sailor Moon’s origin story, a wise, talking black cat who knows the true past of the Moon Princess and her whole court of warriors. She brings the magic to our heroine Usagi (or Bunny, or Serena, depending on what you’re reading), a bumbling teenage girl without much self-confidence or direction. Luna gives her the key to her past by revealing her powers to her, and as the story unfolds, Luna acts as mentor and friend to the entire sailor scouts, helping them with their journey to restore Usagi to the Moon Kingdom. Luna’s much less sarcastic and much more compassionate than the other cat-familiars mentioned; she’s also female, and has a love story and a child of her own. Luna gets her happy ending; in the final act, Sailor Moon transforms her into a human, presumably as a thank you for enduring Usagi’s terrible teenage years while in cat form.
9. The cat, Go (1999)
One of the funniest scenes in Doug Liman’s scatter-gun comedy Go is the encounter between a dude tripping on ecstasy and a black cat who gets his attention and announces—in subtitles, for the benefit of anyone who, for whatever reason, came to the movie sober—“I can hear your thoughts.” The two of them have a brief (telepathic?) argument over the correct way to spell Chiang Kai-Shek’s name, and then the cat tells its new friend, “You are going to die.” But nobody who’s owned a black cat needs chemical assistance to know that’s what they’re thinking half the time anyway.
10. Felix The Cat, various shorts (1919-1989)
One of the earliest funny-animal cartoon icons, Felix The Cat was born an agent of mischief during the silent era. A stylized ink spot of a feline, Felix stands in pleasant contrast to the blank backdrops of the surrealist black-and-white shorts produced by animator Pat Sullivan—and all without being one of the racist caricatures in which Sullivan and his team occasionally indulged. His puckish nature aside, Felix’s ability to speak wasn’t always used in service of a prank: In 1924’s “Felix Dopes It Out,” the star cries out in order to keep a troubled clown from killing himself. (It was, um, a different era.) It would be a full year after Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks debuted “Steamboat Willie” that Felix would gain the true gift of gab, and Sullivan’s skepticism toward the talkie craze essentially snuffed out the life of his grinning star. When the character received a small-screen revival in the 1950s, much of his edge was packed into an innocuous gimmick—“the bag of tricks”—but the addition of supporting characters like Poindexter and The Professor gave him plenty of opportunity to chat.
11. Bagheera, The Jungle Book (1967), Adventures Of Mowgli (1973), “Mowgli’s Brothers”(1976)
The black panther Bagheera is one of the central characters of Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli tales, which make up part of the collections The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book. In Kipling’s tales, Bagheera is a sly plotter and a murderous hunter, capable and ferocious, proud and languorous, immensely knowledgeable, and loyal to his friends. Watching the many live-action and animated adaptations of Kipling’s stories, it’s fascinating to see how different versions choose among these traits, and come up with closely related, but still very different Bagheeras. The Bagheera of the Disney musical version, voiced by frequent Disney narrator Sebastian Cabot, is a sort of amiable curmudgeon, easily amused but easily annoyed, and persnickety when he doesn’t get his way. The Bagheera of “Mowgli’s Brothers”—one of three animated specials adapted ultra-faithfully from Kipling’s stories in the ’70s, and directed by Looney Tunes vet Chuck Jones—is softer and far more rounded in appearance, and is mostly a wise, removed guardian who dispenses critical advice, while rarely budging from a treetop perch. The Bagheera of the Russian animated film Adventures Of Mowgli is the most stylized of the group, often appearing as an abstract streak of darkness with an iconic smirk at one end. She’s also female, and more motherly and nurturing than her animated doppelgängers. But in any form, Bagheera serves roughly the same function, as the least bumbling, least changeable of Mowgli’s parent-figures.