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Mal Donalbain was a villain who appeared in the Marvel series The Cat.
The man who would become known as Malcolm Donalbain (and his brother) were born in the U.S. of parents from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. The family had been minor nobles (according to them, baronets) who lost their titles and property with the end of the empire in 1918. His older brothers were killed on the Eastern Front in 1917, resulting in the family maintaining a life-long hatred of Russians and Communists. Left with nothing, they immigrated to the U.S. He was born in 1922 and his brother in 1924. The family never gained a stable income and were forced to surrender the boys to a foundling home in 1929. As it was the time of the Great Depression, neither boy was ever adopted nor placed in a foster home.
In 1937, the future Donalbain left the home to enroll in the Spanish Legion, using funds from an anti-Communist society to cross the Atlantic. The Legion had been called home to fight in the Spanish Civil War and he eagerly joined the Nationalist side. He served alongside members of the German Condor Legion and the Italian CTV, learning Spanish, German, and Italian as well as a smattering of African languages. With Franco's victory in 1939, the Spanish Legion was dispatched back to Africa. He was stationed in Spanish Sahara and added a fifth language, the local version of Arabic known as Hassaniya. The colony suffered from repeated attempted revolts by the natives, and he jumped at the chance to leave the Spanish and sign up with the French Foreign Legion instead. He was stationed in the capitol of Niger, Niamey. It was there he learned his sixth language, French, and first learned of the African Traditional Religion of the Maguzawa. The aspect that fascinated him was spirit possession, an interest he would continue for the rest of his life.
The U.S. mandatory registration starting in September 1940 did not affect Donalbain due to a law that joining a foreign nation's armed forces resulted in loss of citizenship. Congress passed a blanket pardon in 1944. Nevertheless, Donalbain spent the duration of World War II in Niger.
In 1946, a revision to the French constitution granted citizenship to inhabitants of of the territories. Taking advantage of this, he left the Legion and migrated to Paris. He joined the PRSRF and then the RPF in 1947 but found he had no future in politics. Donalbain crossed the Channel and joined his brother. His brother had gained some attention as a boxer in the U.S. Army while stationed in England. Now mustered out, he was making a living as a professional wrestler. They both returned to the U.S. and took stage names. Malcolm Donalbain and Zabo appeared for the first time. Zabo never spoke in public, since his accent would have immediately revealed him to be an American, and no one knew they were related. Their timing was excellent, as the years 1948-1960 were a Golden Age for wrestling due to the advent of television. Donalbain parlayed their successes into a string of television and magazine outlets.
His contacts overseas and in the anti-Communist societies in the U.S. brought him to the attention of the CIA. He joined clandestinely and made his media outlets available to them. It was through this association that he became familiar with Project Bluebird, initiated in 1950, and its successors, Project Artichoke in 1951 and Project MKUltra in 1953. All of them were efforts to induce amnesia and other vulnerable states in humans. Donalbain made several trips to Africa, under the cover of big-game safaris, to retrieve various psychoactive substances used in ATR for testing. It was in this manner that he gained a reputation as a world-famous sportsman.
Pharmaceuticals never proved suitable and the CIA moved on to electromagnetic radiation. Research continued through the 1960s, but was halted in 1973. James Angleton, Deputy Director for counter-intelligence, was convinced that the Agency was compromised by Soviet agents. In 1958, the defector Anatoliy Golitsyn had convinced him that the KGB had been reorganized as a shell, consisting only of the agents the CIA was recruiting. By 1968, Director Helms was fed up with the "witch hunt" (as Angleton's enemies termed it) and forced the Deputy Director's resignation. As a result of the paranoia, Projects like MKUltra became more and more the work of contractors and reported to no one in the Agency. Subproject 119, the control of humans by electronic means, had been pursued at the Brand Corporation on Long Island, NY. Donalbain had secured an executive position at Brand to act as the Agency's liaison. Disgusted with the Project's termination when Director Helms cleaned house, Donalbain moved the files and equipment to his magazine headquarters in Chicago, IL to continue on his own. In 1968, the equipment resembled a refrigerator. The subject was placed inside a Faraday cage and exposed to radiation, then directed to fulfill a set of tasks to test the results. Donalbain employed a series of sympathizers, disgraced scientists, and compromised criminals to carry on the research, never letting anyone know the entirety of his project.
Donalbain's involvement in the early phases of MKUltra had a side effect. Trials of some of the psychotropic drugs had caused hallucinations. Some of the researchers took the drugs recreationally, including Donalbain. Experiences like worms crawling under his skin, being set on fire, and being tortured with medical instruments left him with permanent haphephobia, the fear of being touched. His sexual frustration led him into voyeurism. A covert division of his company acquired several semi-pornographic magazines. Besides satisfying his paraphilia, he also began dealing with various criminal organizations that controlled magazine distribution. In time, his personal staff evolved totally into criminal hirelings, the only ones Donalbain could trust now.
Zabo, who for some time had been retired from wrestling, had amused himself by participating in body-building competitions. Photos of him had appeared in some of Donalbain's "men's health" magazines. Eventually he took responsibility for those magazines in the company. He accidentally learned that Donalbain had diverted funds to his "girly mags" and paid illegal bribes and kickbacks to distributors. He picked a particularly bad time to confront his brother about it. By 1972, advances in mind control theory and microelectronics had reduced the size of the equipment from a refrigerator to a bulky collar that could be worn around the neck. When their argument became heated, Donalbain had some of his personal bodyguards seize Zabo and attach one of the collars to him. Much to Donalbain's satisfaction, Zabo became helpless to resist his brother's wishes. Donalbain ordered him to concentrate on his body-building, exercising 8 to 10 hours a day. In a few months, Zabo was the embodiment of Donalbain's "perfect man", almost inhumanly big and strong.
Donalbain began thinking of founding a chain of health spas, where members would become "perfect" men like Zabo. He scoured the medical journals looking for shortcuts to his goal. One day his clipping service forwarded an article about research on the nervous system and motor responses. The author was a University of Chicago physicist, just across town from his headquarters. He made an appointment to meet her.
Donalbain opened their conversation by pretending that he was interested in her work as a treatment for his phobia. Dr. Joanne Tumolo explained that her work had no application for his condition and thought the meeting would be over quickly. Instead, he plied her with leading questions. As many experts in esoteric subjects were wont to do, Tumolo soon opened up and spoke at length about her planned experiment to allow "any woman to totally fulfill her physical and mental potential", about the handicaps she experienced as a woman, and finally on the fact that she was looking for a sponsor. Donalbain convinced her that his own "physical culture" magazines and proposed health clubs made him fascinated with her goals. They agreed he would subsidize her work, with the proviso that Donalbain provide the first subject for the experiment. Donalbain had planned on sending one of his men as the subject, but with the doctor's vehement 'women's lib" emphasis he knew he would have to provide a woman. This wasn't a significant obstacle, since his publications meant he saw a steady stream of young women seeking modeling work. He placed a similar advertisement for instructors for his proposed chain of clubs and soon made his selection: a young blonde named Shirlee Bryant who was trying to exit the "girlie 'zines" and had been a high school cheerleader and gymnast. Shirlee signed on to be his first trainer. Once under contract, he acclimated her to acting as "arm candy" at business appearances and social functions. Showered with beauty treatments, lavish quarters at his headquarters, an extensive wardrobe, and an expense account, Shirlee soon became his "girl Friday." She privately thought he was creepy, but his phobia meant he stayed at arm's length. She thought that kept her safe.
Donalbain outfitted the ground floor of his headquarters building with a running track, weights, a vaulting horse and springboard, uneven parallel bars, a balance beam, and mats. He described Dr. Tumolo's plans and had Shirlee work on each of the apparatus to establish a baseline. Shirlee developed her own fascination with the prospect of perfecting her physique and looked forward to the experiment. Unfortunately, Dr. Tumolo had hired an old student of hers, Greer Nelson, a down-on-her-luck policeman's widow who soon became the doctor's choice for the experiment. When Dr. Tumolo sent word to Donalbain that the experiment was ready, she was dismayed when he arrived and introduced Shirlee. He reminded the doctor that their contract gave him the choice of the first subject and told her Shirlee would report for testing the next day. Dr. Tumolo would have backed out, but Greer pursuaded her to test her in secret, along with Shirlee.
Shirlee found herself in an untenable position. Dr. Tumolo and her assistant treated her as a waste of time and paradoxically complained about her lack of cooperation. When she discussed the situation with her mentor, Donalbain reminded her that the treatment promised mental enhancement as well as physical. If she endured the testing the doctor was performing to establish her baseline, once she was exposed to the ray that triggered her augmentation she could use her new abilities to steal Dr. Tumolo's ideas. Together, they would build a duplicate of the equipment at Donalbain's headquarters and continue on their own. Shirlee eagerly agreed, mentally picturing herself showing up her tormentors.
Over the next few months, as Donalbain observed Shirlee's observation, memorization, and reproduction of Dr. Tumolo's project he gained more and more respect for her. His paranoia kicked in, and one night he had a nightmare: he was back in Africa on safari, stalking a lioness when the animal turned on him. The beast stood on its hind legs to attack and he found himself facing Shirlee, hands raised to rake him with claws on her fingers. He awoke in a cold sweat. He realized that his subconscious had dredged up another project at Brand, called Weapon X. A key part of the project had been a yellow costume with dark blue gloves and boots equipped with metal claws. Unable to get the image of Shirlee in the outfit out of his mind, he made a call to Brand the next morning and learned the project had been suspended when the sponsor could not provide any people to become living weapons. Since the sponsor had backed out, Brand was more than willing to sell him as many copies of the suit as he wanted. Donalbain ordered dozens and waited impatiently for their arrival. He knew he was playing with fire but counted on Shirlee's naiveté to allow him to finish his plan.
By the spring of 1972, Donalbain had his copy of Dr. Tumolo's equipment, the Weapon X costumes, his "will-nullifier" collars, and Shirlee's results had plateaued. One night he summoned her to the health spa template and told her an edited version of his nightmare. Dressed in the yellow cat suit, she could use its enhancements to become a superhuman adventuress. When she asked what enhancements he was talking about, he handed her several cardboard boxes and directed her to take them to the locker room, put it on, and she would find out for herself. In the dressing room, Shirlee removed her clothes and pulled out the unitard. "No wonder he called it a catsuit," she thought, "it fits like a second skin." After wriggling into it, she sat on the bench to pull on the boots. Unlike regular boots these had individual digits for each toe, each equipped with a steel claw. She stood and tugged on the gloves, which similarly had a steel claw for each finger. Furthermore, the claws were attached to a framework that stretched across the back of each hand. By flexing her flexor digitorum superficialis muscle ("Ha!" she thought, "What do you think of me now, Doctor?"), the frame detached and revealed it was fastened by several cables tor her wrist. By extending the opposing muscle ("the extensor digitorum communis," she thought, still grinning) the framework was retracted. Shirlee went to the full-length mirror at one end of the room and tied a long blue sash around her waist. She also noted a "cat's paw" emblem centered on her chest. Not bothering to consider its implications, she returned to Donalbain. He now had three of his entourage with him, while Zabo loomed in the background. He handed her one of the two remaining boxes and passed the other to one of his men. "This mask has ears formed to funnel sounds to your ears and eye coverings that aid your night vision," Donalbain told her. "Put it on." Shirlee turned it over and over in her hands. "Okay, okay, she replied, "I'll wear the mask too -- but I still think it looks like a Hallowe'en costume!" Once she drew it over her head though, she found it functioned as he'd said. Sounds were amplified and the light was brighter. At a gesture from their employer, the man opened the box and extracted a thick blue collar with bright metal studs. She remembered that Zabo wore one like it and glanced at him, but as usual he didn't react to her. "Your opinion becomes less and less relevant, my dear." Donalbain commented. "Adorn your lovely neck with this accessory -- and I'm sure we will see eye-to-eye -- about everything!" The bodyguard handed it to her and she wrapped it around her neck, then snapped it closed with a latch hidden in the front.
The room seemed to go out of focus for a moment and her ears heard a roar. Then everything went back to normal. In fact, Shirlee felt better than normal. She recognized that Donalbain had been grooming her for this moment, making her perfect in mind and body, and she acknowledged her gratitude. "Yes, Mr. Donalbain," she replied, "I am quite ready to do as you wish." "You see? The perfect woman!" he exulted, "Totally obedient -- and strong enough to do anything I command!" The guards relaxed as Donalbain continued to marvel at his success. He ordered her attack and disable his three men, which she accomplished easily but inelegantly by seizing one of them, lifting him over her head, and throwing him to bowl over the other two. Next he commanded her to climb to the top level of the atrium, using her steel claws to dig into the beams. Once she reached the ceiling, he told her to throw her claw like a grappling hook to the other side and swing across on its cables.
While this was going on, Dr. Tumolo had been watching from a mezzanine. Her puzzlement over the Cat uniform was replaced by alarm as she saw Shirlee fall under his control, then outrage as she listened to his plan to enslave hundreds of women with the doctor's unknowing aid. Her emotions turned to horror as she witnessed Shirlee fail to swing across and fall six stories to her death. She was stunned as she saw Donalbain callously dismiss Shirlee's death and vow to create as many more subjects as he needed. Blindly fleeing, the doctor stumbled across a closet with dozens of the Cat uniforms. She took one, as evidence of his scheme. She returned to her lab and related the deadly turn the experiment had taken to Greer. Greer told her she would go prepare an overnight bag and return to stay with the distraught scientist while they waited for the police. Greer never got the chance. Donalbain's three men had driven to the lab and arranged an explosion to eliminate the doctor and make it look like her experimental equipment had killed her. Greer took the Cat costume, but as she raced toward the campus police station she decided laying out the whole story would take too long and Donalbain would have a cover-up in place by the time they arrived. Seized with cold fury, she decided to avenge Shirlee and Joanne personally. She donned the costume and climbed and swung across the city to Donalbain's headquarters. Greer broke in, but was rendered unconscious when she was trapped in a gas-filled room. When she awakened, Donalbain told her she would take Shirlee's place in his plan and showed her his copy of Dr. Tumolo's design, where he would create a nation of Shirlees and Zabos. Greer escaped before they could attach a will-nullifier to her, then dodged them until she could wreck the equipment. Donalbain ordered Zabo to kill her, but she executed a flip that sent him head-first into some apparatus. The device erupted into flames. Donalbain wasted 5 of his 6 bullets trying to shoot her. When the electrical system failed and the lights went out, she taunted Donalbain that she could still see him and flicked her claws so he could hear them unsheathe. "Stop!" he screamed, "No one can touch me! No one!" and shot himself. Greer escaped the now fully-engulfed burning building, but Donalbain and his henchmen disappeared along with the evidence of his nightmarish plans. Greer was left to ponder if she'd become "a stronger woman -- only to become a poorer human being?"