Friday, February 27, 2015

YEAR 1965: VARLA




As I said in my review of FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL!, Russ Meyer's formidable film about three go-go dancers involved in murder resists easy summation. The same applies to the film's foremost star, Varla. In a technical sense, Varla, Billie and Rosie form an ensemble of eccentric characters, but Varla is the one that has become immortal in pop culture.

There had been, as this blog has detailed in depth, many female characters who demonstrated facility with the martial arts, though admittedly the cinematic medium doesn't have a very strong showing in this department. Varla, however, is something beyond characters like Nyoka the Jungle Girl. While Nyoka might occasionally best a male opponent, the factor of her lesser degree of strength always made her victories a little forced.

Varla, however, has something different: karate. It's important to remember that even in 1965, karate was a relatively new idea to Westerners. Though Meyer's film doesn't expatiate on the dynamics behind the martial art, it takes on a meaning in his film that it doesn't have in the spy-films: karate is an equalizer for the female.  

Varla only has two female-versus-male fights in PUSSYCAT. Today a martial female besting a grown man means nothing, but in 1965, it was a rare beast. Significantly, Varla never punches her male opponents, and only rarely kicks them. The karate chop is her signature move, and it serves her in the same way that a punch serves a male fighter. I don't know if Meyer was aware of the theory behind the karate discipline-- that in some traditions practitioners allegedly "hardened" their hands so that they would possess greater striking power. But I tend to think that this idea was in the public mind at the time, supported by dozens of exhibitions in which practitioners chopped through wood or stone objects with the edges of their hands.

Varla then is a contradiction in terms. Her mammoth mammaries, like those of her co-stars, code her as "soft," yet her hands, her legs and to some extent her handling of a car code her as "hard."

Varla is not a deep character, but the script is smarter about her than she is. Though her 'take-no-prisoners" attitude is admired, it's obvious that she's also a cheat and something of a hypocrite (she rails against the Old Man for having used his son for murder and procurement, when Varla herself has involved her followers in acts of murder and attempted robbery). It's unlikely that she could have been played adequately by anyone but Tura Satana, who possessed both real martial arts skills and experience as an exotic dancer. Varla isn't precisely the whole show in FASTER PUSSYCAT-- but she is the show-stopper.

Friday, December 19, 2014

YEAR 1965: HONEY WEST



While the Honey West novels are just tolerable time-killers, the short-lived 1965-66 teleseries remains a big step forward for shows featuring female protagonists. While this version of Honey was given a tough male companion in the form of Sam Bolt, he never hogged all the action as did the male companions of female serial-heroines like Nyoka. In all thirty episodes of the one-season series, Honey was invariably seen battling both male and female opponents with her masterful judo skills.
The scripts were light entertainment, but for all that much sprightlier than the BURKE'S LAW series on which ABC's version of the lady detective made her debut, as noted in detail here.




Perhaps the wittiest episode of the series was one entitled "The Fun-Fun Killer," in which Honey faced off against a bulletproof killer robot. And while to be sure, this robot turned out to be a human making a mechanical masquerade, I think it likely that the episode's scripters just might have remembered actress Anne Francis' prior encounter with a far more famous-- and genuine-- mechanical man.


Saturday, November 22, 2014

YEAR 1965: WONDER GIRL



As I noted in my essay on the first Wonder Girl, for some time I regarded the earlier character as one with the character who was essentially born in THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD #60 in 1965.  But even though Bob Haney's script initially kept some continuity with the character from the WONDER WOMAN comic, any commonality was soon forgotten by both the writer and the readers of the TEEN TITANS feature.

In Haney's TITANS, Wonder Girl became her own character, strong and sassy, rather than a reflection of "Wonder Woman as a girl." Because this character was so dynamic, I suspect that few if any fans objected to the retconning in TEEN TITANS #22, where this Wonder Girl was revealed to be a mortal girl from man's world, who was taken in by Wonder Woman's Amazon sisters. given a boost from a miracle-making "purple ray" so that she too became a souped-up Amazon living on Paradise Isle. She also began using the everyday name "Donna Troy" as a salute to her mentor Princess Diana (the one with the lasso and the bracelets, that is). I guess "Troy" was chosen because it had a vaguely Greek-ish sound to it.

The second Wonder Girl's fame remained marginal in both the 1960s TEEN TITANS and a second iteration of it in the 1970s, though she made it into an animated TV series before Wonder Woman did, thanks to the Titans being adapted for segments of THE SUPERMAN/AQUAMAN ADVENTURE HOUR. However, thanks to her appearances in the 1980s series THE NEW TEEN TITANS, Wonder Girl's finally became a fan-favorite, thanks to her artistic depiction by George Perez and her characterization by Marv Wolfman, who had created her back-story in the 1960s story.

Sadly, due to the revisions of Wonder Woman series, the retcon-origin was no longer viable, since it depended on Wonder Woman and Paradise Isle having been known quantities in that narrative. After that, the poor girl was never the same. Over the ensuing years Wonder Girl would receive a dizzying number of reboots and retcons, to the point that I for one neither know nor care what she is these days-- much like another unfortunate victim of promiscuous rebootery, Marvel's hero The Falcon.

But when she was good-- she was very, very good.


Monday, October 6, 2014

YEAR 1964: THE SCARLET WITCH



Much like the Wasp and Marvel Girl, the Scarlet Witch received a bad rap, at least for her earliest depictions.  Yet the character of Wanda couldn't be accused of any of the sins attributed to those Marvel characters. Maybe Wasp gushed about shopping and Marvel Girl was seen playing house-mother to the X-Men, but the Scarlet Witch was rarely if ever seen in such stereotypically feminine situations. And while one must admit that the previous two femmes were not that formidable, the Scarlet Witch's power-- to cause catastrophes just by pointing her hands-- was not so marginal. Nor could anyone argue that it was largely defensive in nature, as with the Invisible Girl's force fields. In one early appearance the Witch beats the Swordsman by causing a machine near him to explode, and in a later one, she causes the ground beneath a tank to collapse.

I've only encountered one rather vague criticism of the Scarlet Witch, possibly originating with Trina Robbins: the Witch was a heroine whose main power was to "pose and point."  Maybe the criticism was that it placed the heroine on display for the evil male gaze, as opposed to having her engage in rough-and-tumble battles like the majority of Golden Age comics-heroines.  Nevertheless, the central conception of the Scarlet Witch was that she was a mutant version of a witch, and the archetypal idea of a witch is that of a being who casts spells on others-- not a bare-knuckle fighter.

The worst one could say of the early Witch was that she didn't have much backstory, or much direction beyond choosing to fight evil as an Avenger. Of course, one could say the same of many of Marvel's male heroes in the 1960s: the Human Torch goes to college for a while, and then drops it to pursue his romantic interests-- which sounds like a stereotypically feminine thing to do.  Arguably in the 1970s and thereafter, the Scarlet Witch eclipses the Torch and many others. Through her controversial romance with the android hero Vision, she showed a level of courage that surpassed the battles with super-villains, and she hopped up her powers through the study of witchcraft.  This seems to have been her best period as a character, though I confess I have no idea what her status is these days.

Friday, September 19, 2014

YEAR 1963: MERA



Whereas Hawkgirl was created as an integral part of the Silver-Age HAWKMAN feature, Mera-- DC's first Silver-Age character to marry the hero of her feature-- seems to have come about by happy accident.

Arguably, the template from which she derives is not so much Hawkgirl, Lois Lane or Carol Ferris, but that of Superman's nemesis Mr. Mxyzptlk. Although Mxyzptlk remained a perpetual thorn in the side of the Man of Steel, it might be argued that he indirectly spawned a plethora of helpful imps who either regularly or irregularly assisted DC heroes. 1959's "Bat-Mite" was conceived in the vein of a pest who wanted to be helpful to Batman, but others were better helpmates, like "Cryll," a shape-shifting alien who started assisting Space Ranger regularly in 1958. The first issue of Aquaman's 1962 magazine introduced a helpful extra-dimensional imp, "Quisp," who was only made occasional appearances. Quisp would be phased out of the feature as soon as Mera appeared in issue #11, and not only did she take his position, she was also given, via editorial fiat, the same powers Quisp had displayed: the ability to manipulate water much as Green Lantern manipulated his ring's energy, turning water into solid, offensive objects like clubs, fists, or, as seen above, giant monsters.

Mera quickly became a dominant force in the feature, somewhat shoving Aqualad to one side. She married the titular King of the Seven Seas in issue #18, about a year after her debut, and gave the feature a more domestic feel, particularly when she gave birth to Aquaman's first son.

Mera's popularity, like that of many other Silver Age heroines, has waxed and waned many times. At present, she seems to have undergone a slight rebirth, thanks to the "Brightest Day" series. Not surprisingly, I find that she, like Star Sapphire, had her best stories in the Silver Age and never quite made a meaningfuil transition to the current era of DC Comics, as did characters like Batgirl and Black Canary.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

YEAR 1963: ELASTI-GIRL



A while back, ultimate fighter Ronda Rousey-- who made her film debut this month in EXPENDABLES 3-- called out comics "for being sexist." In her quote she sneers at Invisible Woman and Marvel Girl, and even finds a reason to downgrade Wonder Woman. It's a typically thoughtless celebrity quote, but a lot of full-fledged fans have made similar claims about the supposed marginalization of all female characters in the comic book medium. And though I've made some criticisms of the original Marvel Girl myself, Rousey's broad criticism sounds almost like it was derived from an almost identical oversimplification that appeared in Trina Robbins' THE GREAT WOMEN SUPERHEROES.

One of the many powerful heroines Robbins completely overlooks is the female member of the 1960s DOOM PATROL: Elasti-Girl. Perhaps she was overlooked precisely because she weakened Robbins' case re: marginalization. Like the other members of the team, the character was once an ordinary mortal who became "super" due to a cataclysmic event: after actress Rita Farr accidentally inhaled mysterious volcanic gases, she gained the power to grow to the size of a skyscraper or to shrink to the size of a mouse. The latter ability came in handy for the occasional espionage situation, but unsurprisingly Elasti-Girl spent most of her 1960s career "getting big." As the above panels show, the heroine could even enlarge discrete portions of her body at a given time.

Though her partners Robotman and Negative Man were both "heavy hitters" in their own right, Elasti-Girl was one of the first, if not the first, times that the female member was the "heaviest hitter" on the team. She and her fellow members perished in the DOOM PATROL's final issue, but her male compatriots were both revived in the 80s and 90s while Rita stayed dead. For all I know, she may have been revived in recent years, but I for one wouldn't mind if she'd been kept safely dead back in the period of her conception.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

YEAR 1963: THE WASP



Many early 1960s Marvel heroines get a bum rap, but none more so than the Wasp.

She was introduced as a partner to the Ant-Man in TALES TO ASTONISH #44, the same issue in which the sketchy backstory of the main hero was given new depth. This story revealed that scientist Henry Pym lost his first wife to the Communist menace, and this later motivated him to devise his size-changing abilities in order to fight all forms of crime and tyranny, as the Ant-Man. But years later he met a potential replacement in heiress Janet Van Dyne, a much younger woman who returned his interest, albeit covertly.

However, in keeping with the slam-bang world of early superhero comics, no sooner did they meet than an alien monster killed Janet's father. She swore vengeance in the presence of Pym, so right away he revealed his costumed identity and invited her to become his crimefighting partner as the Wasp-- albeit with very different shape-changing powers, which extended to giving her Tinkerbelle-like wings in her miniature form.

Many fans have not liked the Wasp simply because she was not a powerhouse, and was often relegated to camp-following her partner-- who soon upgraded his powers as "Giant-Man"-- and as comedy relief. But these fans overlook that the Wasp was more than a source of woman-based jokes about going shopping and the like.  The Pym-Van Dyne interaction was a bit like a famous quote explaining the appeal of the Astaire-Rogers team: "He gave her class, and she gave him sex appeal."  Stuffy scientist Hank Pym didn't really have a lot of class to offer, but he did have scientific smarts and a sense of mission. Janet Van Dyne internalized many of those elements, but added her own very feminine take on all of the male alarums and emergencies. That's not to say that she invalidated those struggles, but she grounded them in a greater sense of everyday reality.

Over the years the Wasp received assorted power upgrades and became the Avengers chairman for a time. Currently she may be dead, though this probably won't last. Still, her original incarnation remains her best version; one that gave full reign to Stan Lee's phenomenal abilities to provide credible voices for a wide spectrum of comics-characters.