Wednesday, April 23, 2014

YEAR 1959: WONDER GIRL



There was a time when I tended to disregard the first version of Wonder Girl in favor of the altered version who became a member of DC's TEEN TITANS title.  More recently, though, I've decided that the original character definitely occupies a distinct place in the history of femmes formidables.

In essence one could argue that her template was borrowed from that of Superboy: if you have a young audience that's willing to buy adventures of an adult hero/heroine, maybe the same audience will also buy a teen version of same, closer in age to said audience.  Unlike DC's Superboy, the teen version of Wonder Woman never sustained her own feature: her stories always appeared in issues of WONDER WOMAN.  Sometimes "Wonder Girl" stories shared space in the magazine with "Wonder Woman" stories. Sometimes stories of Wonder Girl, living on Paradise Isle at a time when she had yet to embark on her crimefighting mission, took over the whole book. Eventually editor/writer Robert Kanigher must have decided that Wonder Girl stories might have more currency if she could appear in man's world at the same time that Wonder Woman existed. Therefore the scientists of Paradise Isle came up with a magical machine that allowed the teenaged heroine to occupy the same time as her adult version-- not to mention a "toddler" version, "Wonder Tot," about whom the less said, the better.

I've sometimes wondered why Kanigher chose to emphasize the Wonder Girl version of the main heroine for so many years, giving up only near the end of his tenure on the title.  Kanigher had edited the WONDER WOMAN title since 1946 and became its exclusive writer in the following year. In 1958 the original artist H.G. Peter left the book-- whether at someone's behest or not, I do not know-- and the title's most regularly-employed artists were the penciller-inker team of Ross Andru and Mike Espositio. In issue #98 Kanigher and the new artists broke all ties with the Marston-Peter version of the character and formulated a new origin in which the Amazons were the wives of warriors killed in battle and Princess Diana was born naturally of man and woman, receiving her great powers via the blessings of the gods, much after the fashion of the Sleeping Beauty folktale.  Eight issues later, Kanigher introduced Wonder Girl, and kept her on a regularly appearing alternative to the titular heroine.

It's likely that the sales of WONDER WOMAN had slipped during that period, prompting the creators to try different strategies to pump up sales. At the same time, for professional comics-creators the important thing was to produce material efficiently, to meet the ever-steady demand of commercial comic books. Interestingly, during the 1950s Kanigher was less known for his work with superheroes than with war comics:

Starting in 1952, Kanigher began editing and writing the "big five" DC Comics' war titles: G.I. Combat, Our Army at War, Our Fighting Forces, All-American Men of War, and Star Spangled War Stories.[9][10] His creation of Sgt. Rock with Joe Kubert is considered one of his most memorable contributions to the medium-- Wiki page on Robert Kanigher.

A lot of Kanigher's Wonder Girl stories resemble the stock war-stories motif of the "green recruit;" the guy who doesn't yet know how to conduct himself in combat situations but who over time develops the requisite skills.  Thus Wonder Girl allowed Kanigher to re-use favorite tropes from his war books, to maximize his productivity.

In terms of quality the WONDER GIRL stories are largely of a piece with those of WONDER WOMAN: the daffy, make-it-up-as-you-go-along aspects of the stories is moderately entertaining, but rarely compelling. Kanigher never pushed himself on this title, with the result that every story reads pretty much like every other one.  Wonder Girl's tales were usually a bit less overtly violent than Wonder Woman's, so Wonder Girl's feats were usually less about defeating villains and more about outmaneuvering beasts and monsters, like her duel with the shark in the Irwin Hasen cover above.  On the plus side, though, she and Supergirl were the only two teen superheroines that female readers of the period might have enjoyed, though on the whole Supergirl's adventures were better written.  So Wonder Girl does hold a definite niche in "formidable history," though it's a place largely superseded by the independent version of the character developed in the TEEN TITANS continuity.


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

YEAR 1957: HONEY WEST



As of this writing I've only read three of the eleven novels starring Honey West, one of the best-known female detectives of the 20th century, though her fame may derive from the one-season 1965-66 teleseries, featuring a very different version of the character.

The first three novels, collected as THE HONEY WEST FILES vol. 1, are breezy entertainments clearly aimed, despite their feminine star, at a male audience. Most of the writing by pseudonymous author "G.G. Fickling" was by one Forrest Fickling, though he got some collaborative aid from his wife Gloria. The titular Honey, like many heroes of both genders, gets into her dangerous business because her father is killed by criminals.  She has no regular assistants, in contrast to the teleseries, but if the rest of the novels are like these three, readers weren't regularly picking up copies to see Honey trounce thugs with judo tosses. There are a few such scenes here and there, but-- in keeping with the target audience-- there are a lot more scenes in which Honey finds herself ogled and/or groped by a half-dozen males of varying quality in each story.  Her character pretty much accepts this as the way of the world, but she does have a knack for the basic putdown and defends herself as well with words as with judo.

All that said, Honey does have brains as well as beauty, and she does solve her cases with some decent if far from exceptional detective-work.  This might go toward explaining the less frequent use of violence; in contrast to the novels of Mickey Spillane, the Honey West stories are pretty firmly in the groove of the ratiocinative detective tale.






Friday, March 14, 2014

COVERFEMMES #2

The aforementioned book also overlooks a lot of the significant starring or co-starring femmes of the Silver Age, such as:

MERA



ELASTI-GIRL OF THE DOOM PATROL





And, as I've pointed out elsewhere, MADEMOISELLE MARIE, who actually became the cover feature to DC's STAR-SPANGLED WAR STORIES, at a time when Supergirl only had a backup.

YEAR 1957: KYRA ZELAS

 

I confess that I haven't seen the 1957 SHE-DEVIL in over 20 years, and haven't found even a greymarket source for a copy.  Thus I won't review the film here, but I will link to this review at DVD Savant.

This seems to be the ultimate-- in the sense of "the last"-- adaptation of Stanley Weinbaum's short story, "The Adaptive Ultimate."  I suspect that the short story's appeal to film, radio and television may have been that its "monster" was simply a woman who changed from less-than-attractive to a bombshell, in this case played by popular B-actress Mari Blanchard.  The fact that the monster needed no more than a basic Hollywood makeup job probably made it  attractive to producers than its loose adaptation of Stevenson's "Jekyll and Hyde" trope.  Still, SHE-DEVIL does deserve to be known as one example of the comparative wealth of femmes formidable- films that appeared during the 1950s decade.

One interesting addition to the standard adaptation of "Adaptive" is a memorable scene in which Kyra, having married a wealthy man, simply does away with him by crashing their car.  Her powers enable her to survive the wreck while he perishes, while the apparent circumstances give her a great murder-alibi.  Amusingly, the footage of the car-crash was lifted from an earlier femme formidable film of the period, 1952's ANGEL FACE.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

COVERFEMMES #1

This is a new feature I'm adding, one that may supplement the ongoing-- but infrequently updated-- "diachronic study."

I'd seen Louise Simonson's DC COVERGIRLS on stands when it was new but wasn't too impressed with most of the choices. I freely admit that this may be nostalgia on my part, as I prefer the comics covers of my youth to many-- though not all-- of those published today.

The other week I picked up a cheap copy of the book, and once I had a clear idea of everything it covered, I decided to touch on some of those "better covers" featuring "femmes" of some sort, though not invariably "formidable" types.

In the original version of this blog, I devoted some posts to some of these, including:

The second SUPERGIRL

The first SUPERGIRL and the third BATGIRL combined:

The first BATWOMAN

One of the two best Golden Age CATWOMAN covers

KNOCKOUT

THE LEGION

STAR SAPPHIRE

THE GOLDEN GLIDER

Now, these are only the best DC covers that I've reproduced so far; a really good survey of "girls on covers" would have to include all companies.  So whenever I update this feature, I'll take a stab at some of DC's competitors as well.

And just to prove that I don't necessarily have to confine myself to pulchritudinous pictures, here's a cover featuring a "dominant female" that I certainly HOPE no one finds sexy.









Wednesday, March 12, 2014

YEAR 1956: THE SWAMP WOMEN



For some reason various sources list this Roger Corman "roughie" as appearing in either 1955 or 1956, but the most reliable sources seem to go with the latter date.

Though this is far from the worst film ever to be spoofed on MST3K, SWAMP WOMEN provided one of the comedy-team's best riffs, in part because it's one of Corman's dullest films.  It's one of three films Corman completed in or around 1956 with actress Beverly Garland, but both have greater moxie than this one.  GUNSLINGER, featuring Garland as a tough lady sheriff, deserves to have its own entry here, while IT CONQUERED THE WORLD has earned a place on many viewers' "best bad SF film" lists.

SWAMP WOMEN, though, is basically a "fugitive on the run" story, with the comparative novelty that the fugitives are four gun-molls escaped from a women's prison.  One among them, name of Lee Hampton, is in truth an undercover policewoman who arranges the escape so that the real gun-molls will cut her in on a cache of stolen diamonds.  Her brilliant scheme doesn't make a lot of sense in that she apparently has no means of calling for backup.  Maybe she assumed she was tough enough to take down all three molls in the wilds of the Louisiana swamp?

To her good fortune, during the escape the Swamp Women come across a rich young guy named Bob (Mike Connors), his good-time girl date, and the guy piloting their canoe.  The bad girls want the canoe, so they kill the pilot, and eventually the good-time girl too, despite Lee's attempt to prevent bloodshed without blowing her cover. 

This leads to the only mild asset of the film: a G-rated kinkiness as the four comely women all take turns mooning over the safely-trussed-up Bob.  In addition, Corman-- who may have noticed an increase in female-centric exploitation flicks of the decade-- appears to be playing to the catfight-connoisseurs in the audience, just as GUNSLINGER did.  But whereas GUNSLINGER's simple characters are involving, the script's idea of "characterization" is to have the molls sitting around dreaming of the ways they'll continue flouting the law after they cash in on the diamonds.

To be sure, "real molls" Marie Windsor, Beverly Garland, and Jill Jarmyn do pretty well with their threadbare roles, though for most viewers their fistfights will prove more memorable than their line-readings.  Eventually Bob and Lee team up to defeat the real molls and the law recovers the stolen diamonds-- a dull resolution that may have persuaded Corman to give more attention to the outlaws in some of his future endeavors, like 1957's NAKED PARADISE and 1958's MACHINE GUN KELLY.

Monday, March 3, 2014

YEAR 1955: POLICEWOMAN LIZZ



I can't top author Jay Maeder's observation from his DICK TRACY: THE OFFICIAL BIOGRAPHY on the subject of Lizz's introduction. She was not just the first policewoman to become a regular fixture in the Dick Tracy strip, but also an indicator of author Chester Gould's awareness of changes in the air.

Lizz (whose married surname was "Worthington," though it wasn't regularly used) first appeared in 1955.  She began as a nightclub photographer whose husband was killed by petty leather-jacketed hoodlum Joe Period.  Period was an unmistakable clone of Marlon Brando's character from 1953's THE WILD ONE, but cast as an unmitigated lowlife.  The Joe Period arc, ending with the villain's capture, concluded after a few months, but this swaggering embodiment of 1950s "edge" didn't come back. Lizz, however, was inspired to become a policewoman by Dick Tracy's example, and she remained a regular supporting character throughout the remainder of Gould's tenure and continued to appear regularly thereafter.  Gould created many one-shot characters, and Lizz easily could have been one of these.  The fact that she stayed around, even in the years prior to the development of "second-wave feminism," suggests to me that Gould valued, either personally or professionally, the representation of women in the police force.

Admittedly, Lizz is not a great femme formidable in the mold of Gould's villainesses, particularly Breathless Mahoney.  But she was consistently represented as a tough customer, skilled both in judo and firearms. Oddly, since she was first introduced as an adversary to a "fifties rocker," she was later married to a sort of "hippie cop" with the painful name of "Groovy Grove." But Grove disappeared from the strip, and Lizz remained-- again, rarely if ever using her married name.