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.






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.