Monday, December 2, 2013
In one of the JUNGLE TALES OF TARZAN, the ape-man kills one of the native tribesmen who have been his enemies since they killed his adoptive mother. Tarzan then debates with himself as to whether or not he should eat the flesh of a dead man, just as he does with most of the animals he kills. Since there's no rational way that Tarzan could decide against cannibalism, author Burroughs fills him with an instinctive revulsion at the idea of eating man-flesh, and there the matter ends.
In 1946 Al Capp created a feral female with no such convenient inhibitions: the Wolf Gal, who lived in one of the forested areas neighboring Dogpatch with a pack of wolves. She and her human-eating pack perpetually prey on any humans who venture too close to their territory, and though Wolf Gal could speak as well as any Dogpatch hillbilly-- which isn't saying much-- she thinks of herself as another wolf and considers all other humans her enemies.
Up to this point Capp had created many predatory females, but their mode of predation concerned attempting to seduce Li'l Abner Yokum before his true love Daisy Mae could link him to her in marriage. Wolf Gal has some leanings in that direction, but the thing that gets her on Abner's trail was somewhat more involved. When Wolf Gal turns eighteen, she and her pack manage to corner an old crone in her secluded cabin. Bargaining for her life, the crone reveals that she knows Wolf Gal's nature: that at birth she was born with a "wolf's heart" despite the otherwise normal natures of her hillfolk parents. A nearby wolf-pack senses that the child is a kindred spirit, so the pack attacks and devours her parents-- much to the delight of the infant child. In addition to revealing Wolf Gal's origins to the lupine Amazon, the crone also makes a prediction: that Wolf Gal will only know the meaning of "love" under certain circumstances. Wolf Gal, stung by curiosity, begins to study human mating rituals, as well as catching her first sight of Abner. She interprets the prophecy to mean that she must kill Abner to learn what love is.
There follows one of the quickest transformations from "nature" to "culture" ever shown in fiction. Wolf Gal decides that the only way she can get close to Abner in his Dogpatch milieu is to educate herself in the ways of women-- and not hillbilly women, but "sassiety ladies." She journeys to some big city, locates a finishing-school, and by threatening the teacher's life forces the woman to give Wolf Gal the appearance of a well-bred woman.
I won't dwell on the details of her plan, except to note that of course Abner does not get killed, nor does Wolf Gal manage to devour him in any less grisly manner. After the plan fails Wolf Gal returns to her wild life and continued to make occasional appearances in the ABNER strip. Her last, to the best of my recollection, was in the 1960s. By that time Abner had finally married Daisy Mae, which on one level should not have prevented other women from chasing him. Yet for some reason Capp dropped that device with respect to Abner: it was almost as if the suspense was gone once Daisy Mae managed to "pluck his cherry," so to speak. However, to generate a new source of romantic suspense, in 1954 Capp introduced Abner's kid brother "Tiny," who like Abner was a big dumb cluck who ignored all the women who pursued him. This included Wolf Gal, and she didn't take rejection well. She fattened him up with lots of food and tried to ship Tiny to her wolf-brethren for a full-course meal. Like Abner Tiny too survived and Wolf Gal faded from the scene.
In addition to commanding her wolf-brothers, Wolf Gal had an appropriately savage way of fighting: she bit chunks of flesh out of anyone who opposed her. I thought it was pretty strongly implied that she consumed humans as a matter of course, allowing for some comic scenes in which she straddles her victims, who think she wants sex rather than food. Al Capp seemed to have a thing for powerful female figures, underscored by this dialogue exchange between Wolf Gal and her finishing-school teacher:
WOLF GAL: "Are there any other girls who look like 'ladies' on the outside and feel like she-wolves inside?"
TEACHER: "Yes! Oh (sob) yes-- Most of them!"
Sunday, December 1, 2013
The Blonde Phantom is most famous for sporting one of the most non-functional superhero costumes of all time: high heels and an ankle-length red evening gown.
However, if one takes away the costume (so to speak), what's left is a perfectly serviceable action-heroine. Strangely, I've seen one online critique claiming that the character couldn't fight at all and depended upon her sort-of-boyfriend to defend her. In addition to the panel posted above, I've seen at least one story in which the Phantom defends herself quite ably against a gang of hoods, thus undercutting their expectations about easily conquering a female opponent. So clearly her creators-- Stan Lee and Syd Shores, who introduced her in ALL SELECT #11-- meant the Phantom to be a tuff girl. However, of the smattering of Blonde Phantom stories that I've read, a number of them are rather low-key, mundane mysteries in which neither the Phantom nor her boyfriend display much activity. It's likely that those who have dismissed the character have not encountered her more action-oriented stories.
The series' running gag was clearly a riff on Siegel and Shuster's SUPERMAN, in which the hero(ine) appears to be a button-down type in the workaday world, only to break free and become a daredevil in a costume. As Louise Grant the heroine worked as a secretary for P.I. Mark Mason. but she donned her pumps and her red gown to fight crime and lend assistance to her handsome boss. Naturally, Mason nursed a passion for the mysterious crimefighter but tended to take his dowdy secretary for granted-- though I do recall one story in which he showed a certain possessiveness toward both of them. I suppose one could take the standard feminist interpretation, that the Phantom was more helpmate than heroine-- but only a close reading of all the Golden Age stories could confirm or deny that verdict.
Friday, November 29, 2013
1945, the last year of WWII, was not a particularly strong year for femmes formidables: the jnext significant "boom years" would commence in the next year with both comics-heroines and the femmes fatales of cinema's films noirs.
I confess that I've only read a handful of Firehair stories, but my overall impression is that she was nothing but a transparent attempt to create a western version of Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. Just as Sheena is a white woman raised by Black African tribesmen, Firehair is raised by Native American tribesmen. The main difference is that while Sheena was raised from childhood, Firehair is a normal adult woman of the late 1800s when she undergoes her cultural transformation. Thanks to a wagon-train attack by a raiding-party made up of phony Indians, she loses her memory of her old identity as a civilized white woman. A tribe raises her as one of their own and gives her the name Firehair, but she doesn't act at all like the squaws of the tribe, displaying greater fighting-skills-- fighting, riding, weapons-play-- than any of her red brothers. Later in the series Firehair regains her memory but decides to stick with the tribe rather than return to the white man's world. And why not? She wasn't technically the ruler of her tribe, but she was implicitly the "big dog" in their ranks, whereas she'd only be another woman in white society.
Whereas Fiction House's Sheena stories are fairly witty for their genre, Firehair's tend to be rather routine, though as is usual for Fiction House, the art is at least lively.
Tuesday, November 19, 2013
In the original Marston-Peter WONDER WOMAN series, Giganta was something of a penny-ante player. She begins life in WONDER WOMAN #9 as a female gorilla, whom wacky inventor Professor Zool transforms into a muscular red-headed human being, automatically gifted with human speech though tending to talk in a rough patois suggesting her animal nature. Zool accomplishes this miracle in a far more merciful manner than his symbolic ancestor Doctor Moreau: using an energy-radiating "evolution machine." However, the machine gets out of control and reverts the rest of the world to caveman days. Wonder Woman's endeavors to set things right are complicated by the "gorilla girl" and her attempt to create a new regime governed by pure force. Giganta's only other Golden Age appearance was her alliance with the criminal group "Villainy Inc," for which a separate essay is necessary.
Within the corpus of the Marston mythology, Giganta's main significance was as another example of Marston playing with expectations about body-form, since Giganta's drawn to be far taller and more muscular than the average woman. This was not one of Marston's more pronounced tropes, though he did also execute a couple of stories about super-tall Amazons.
Giganta might have been largely forgotten had she not been selected to be a charter member of the "Legion of Doom" in the 1970s SUPER FRIENDS cartoon. This brought about a change in her powers and status that DC Comics has continued to exploit in current comics, and will receive separate treatment later as well.
Friday, October 25, 2013
The original Valkyrie only made a handful of appearances in Hillman Comics' AIRBOY feature, debuting as an enemy to the titular pilot-hero in AIR FIGHTERS v.#2, no.#2.
In that debut she leads an all-female squadron of fighter-pilots on behalf of the Nazi cause during WWII, and proves instrumental in capturing Airboy and delivering him to a Nazi commander. However, some of Valkyrie's fellow pilots try to liberate Airboy, so the commander orders them whipped for their disloyalty. Displaying the sort of ideological flip-flop characteristic of Golden Age comics, the German lady pilot instantly decides to betray her country and to help Airboy escape, if he helps liberate her friends. It's such an extreme about-face that I can't help but wonder if there was something else going on between Valkyrie and her all-girl squad-- something with an affinity to those famous lesbian pilots of pop-fiction, "Pussy Galore and her Abro-Cats."
Pussycats aside, Valkyrie quickly transfers her affections to young Airboy within that same story, sealing their bargain with a big smooch-- and in her subsequent appearances during the WWII years, she remained in a loose romantic relationship with the hero. Her last two Golden Age apperances following the war recast her as a Communist agent who had no continuity-ties with the original version.
The character was revived in the 1980s by Eclipse as support-cast for their new AIRBOY comic, and even received her own mini-series. Given that her outfit and demeanor were pretty bitchin', this was definitely one of the best revivals of a forgotten forties character thus far seen in the comics medium.
Friday, October 18, 2013
Since Quality Comics' "Miss America" character died on the vine, their competitor Timely felt comfortable utilizing the name for a new character, who would enjoy a more noteworthy career. Starting in MARVEL MYSTERY #49, Madeline Joyce received super-powers as the result of a lightning strike, and immediately took up crimefighting as "Miss America." Aside from the one constant ability of flight, Miss America's powers varied wildly, ranging from super-strength to X-ray vision. Some versions had her running around wearing glasses in her superhero identity, a clear reverse-riff on Clark Kent's schtick of doffing glasses to become Superman.
This online reprint of a "Miss America" story suggests that in her 1940s incarnation she was just a middling-to-fair superheroine. Without getting into her later incarnations at Marvel, the original character's greatest distinction may have been her charter membership in Timely's short-lived superhero team, the "All-Winners Squad."
Tuesday, October 8, 2013
The only female star of Hillman Comics' AIR FIGHTERS COMICS was the redoubtable "Black Angel," a British socialite who assumed a secret identity in order to carry on her private war against the Axis. By some reckonings she was the only character in AIR FIGHTERS that might be deemed a "superhero," given that she wore a skintight costume. Like many other superheroes from Superman on down, she had the mysterious ability to run around with her bare face hanging out, and no one (to the best of my knowledge) ever recognized her. So many comic-book heroes-- in contrast to their pulp forbears-- ran around without masks that one must wonder if many artists simply didn't like drawing them. To be sure masks do cut down on the expressions one can conjure with. In the illustration above the Angel certainly looks a lot more pissed with no mask than she would with one.
Speaking of pulps, most of the features in AIR FIGHTERS shared with the pulps an affection for fast-paced, rip-roaring, lurid adventures with only a marginal plotline. The Black Angel's adventures against foes like the Baroness Blood, Madame Claw and the Hag from Hades all contributed to a strong Gothic atmosphere. The Angel, like all the heroes of AIR FIGHTERS, was a superb fighter-pilot and showed a high level of martial athleticism on the ground as well.
Like most Hillman heroes she disappeared after the war, but her character appeared in Eclipse's 1980s AIRBOY titles. She had aged normally and passed on her secret ID to a younger woman, who was a more literally "black" Angel.