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.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

YEAR 1962: STAR SAPPHIRE



Technically the character who became best-known for transforming into the DC character Star Sapphire appeared in 1959, not 1962.  However, it's only in the latter identity that Carol Ferris, girlfriend of Green Lantern, concerns this blog.

I've already provided a detailed myth-analysis of the character's origins in this essay, so I won't tread the same ground again here. I neglected to mention that the name "Star Sapphire" originated in a Golden Age FLASH villainess, and that another character using the name briefly appeared in the 1970s title SECRET SOCIETY OF SUPER-VILLAINS. However, as far as impact goes, both of these figures are nugatory: Carol Ferris is the only Star Sapphire with any mythic resonance.

Unfortunately, much like many of the temporary super-forms Lois Lane assumed in the Superman titles, Carol's never quite became much more than a recurring problem for featured hero Green Lantern. The three stories that appeared in the 1960s-- authored by John Broome, Gardner Fox and Gil Kane-- represent the apex of the character's history.

In later DC comics, Star Sapphire went through a bewildering number of mutations. Sometimes she was a Jekyll not responsible for Hyde's crimes. Sometimes she was the very embodiment of the tyrannical female. She's certainly not the only character to have received such ambivalent treatment; arguably most characters who last a long time in corporate-owned comics-- including featured heroes-- suffer the same fate. But to date few of the attempts to re-define Star Sapphire have "taken."  Even Steve Englehart, whose 1990s GREEN LANTERN series posited that the Zamarons were the female half of the all-male Guardians race-- was unable to give Star Sapphire a new lease on life. The character still appears, but her raison d'etre was in a sense left behind in the Silver Age.

As a minor side-note, though by the 1960s most fans had forgotten the Golden Age Star Sapphire, Robert Kanigher had not forgotten that he created her. In a late 1960s WONDER WOMAN scene, in which editor Kanigher was listing his accomplishments for the fans, he specified that he was the creator of "Star Sapphire"-- no doubt puzzling many of the readers who only knew of the Carol Ferris version.

Monday, June 23, 2014

YEAR 1961: HAWKGIRL




To the best of my knowledge the 1960s version of Hawkman and Hawkgirl-- a Silver Age of two Golden Age characters-- were the first married superhero couple in the comic-book medium. In this medium marriage of any kind was usually verboten for costumed characters-- and most adventure-characters of any genre-- so beginning a series with a married pair of crimefighters was somewhat radical. I've always thought that the marriage of the Hawks denoted the settled lives of the authors and editors who created them, all of whom were over 40 in 1961.

When comic-book historians complain about the lack of vivid heroines in the 1960s, they usually dismiss Hawkgirl as a mere shadow of her male partner-- not least because the franchise, debuting in THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD #34, was named "HAWKMAN."  This could be fairly said of many "-girl" sidekicks, not least the Hawkgirl of the Golden Age-- but not Shayera Hol, wife of Katar.  The premise established a strong sense of equality between the team-mates: both were accredited police officers of the alien world Thanagar, equally adept with advanced technology and good at battling evildoers.  As to why Thanagarian cops tended to fly around with artificial wings and anti-gravity devices, Gardner Fox supplied the usual SF-rationales, which were of less importance than the kinetic pleasures of flying superheroes.
 
Unfortunately the HAWKMAN feature wasn't notably successful, and though the Hawks had a couple more short-lived series, as well as appearing in features like JUSTICE LEAGUE, this version of the franchise petered out with the introduction of DC's "Crisis" continuity, after which the characters were substantially revised. Thus the 1960s remains the height of Shayera Hol's fortunes, during which she rarely served as "hero's kidnapped sidekick." In fact, HAWKMAN #14 is devoted to the proposition that Hawkgirl gets to save her hubby from a man-stealing alien amazon named "Queen Alvit." Actions speak louder than words:


Wednesday, April 30, 2014

YEAR 1959: MALEFICENT



1959's SLEEPING BEAUTY may have been the first fantasy-film I saw on the big screen, since I have an intense memory of the end scenes-- Prince Philip's flight from Maleficent's castle with the help of the three fairies, and the climactic duel between the princess and the villainess in her dragon-form.

A number of elements in the Brothers Grimm story "Little Briar Rose" and its congeners had to be changed to please the ethos of the audience Walt Disney sought to please.  Even as a kid, I noticed that one substantial change: that the "sleeping beauty" of the title doesn't really sleep very long, any more than the rest of the court within the enchanted castle.  This change certainly came about because Disney's adapters wanted Princess Aurora to "meet cute" with Prince Philip. Were they worried about the inappropriateness of a princess marrying up with the first fellow who came along and kissed her into wakefulness?  In addition, the thorn forest that grows up around the castle isn't put there by a good fairy, seeking to protect the castle for centuries until the destined prince comes along: the thorns are just a last-minute defense by Maleficent, sent to delay Philip.  They certainly add to the colorful background of the climax but don't serve any narrative purpose.

In the Grimms' version, one of the thirteen fairies is simply excluded from Briar Rose's christening because the king and queen don't have enough plates for all of them.  OK, little hard to believe, given that they're ROYALTY, but then, how often do folktales focus on detailed motivation?  The excluded thirteenth fairy curses Briar Rose and has her curse mitigated by the twelfth fairy. After that, the thirteenth fairy is never seen again, though in some tellings Briar Rose has a later encounter with another villainess, an Ogre Queen to whom her prince is related.

Obviously a feature film needed a more prominent villain, one who could be punished at the conclusion for having visited such an evil fate on a helpless victim.  In the film Maleficent is excluded because she's just plain evil, and she justifies her reputation with her curse and her subsequent attempts to bedevil Aurora. The character's design is plainly intended to give her a resemblance to the Christian Satan, a visual reference followed up literally in the climax, when Maleficent confronts Philip, claiming to unleash on him "all the powers of hell."  It's a neat mythic touch that she chooses to change into a dragon to fight the prince, since Revelation in the New Testament equates Satan with "the great dragon."

Maleficent was killed dead at the end of SLEEPING BEAUTY, and I prefer to remember her that way, taking no notice of any later "revivals."

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.