Monday, January 30, 2012


While 1934 is a rich year and 1935 is just okay, 1936 really drops the ball, as I found no significant femmes formidables for this year except Countess Marya Zaleska, better known by the title of her one film-appearance: DRACULA'S DAUGHTER.

The film never mentions how Zaleska came to be the daughter of the same vampire dispatched in the classic 1931 DRACULA, but the narrative insists repeatedly that she is literally his daughter rather than just one of many victims enthralled to the Count.  She possesses most of the normal traits of the vampire: she's active only at night and sleeps in an earth-filled coffin at night, drinks blood to survive, and can hypnotize anyone with her will and the Dracula ring.

Ironically, the original treatment for this film, as chronicled in David Skal's THE MONSTER SHOW, suggested a dominatrix-type of vampiress rather along the lines of the version of Fah Lo Suee seen in the film MASK OF FU MANCHU.  However, the film censorship board had so many problems with the script that Universal trashed it.  What resulted was a far more sympathetic villainess, who may be the cinema's first *consistent* depiction of a vampire who is tormented by her unnatural urges and who fights for a cure.  However, despite the death of her evil father in the previous film, and her attempt to fight those urges with the help of modern psychology, the vampire persona wins the battle.  Zaleska compounds her surrender to evil by attempting to blackmail a young man (her psychologist, in fact) to join her in the life of the undead.  She's only foiled because she betrays a faithful acolyte, who kills her with a wooden arrow through the heart (probably the first time an arrow took the place of the traditional stake, also).

Actress Gloria Holden, in her most famous role, gives Zaleska a brooding, tormented quality rare for vampires of the early 20th century.  Because Zaleska victimizes two female characters in the film, she has some status in academic gender-studies as an early icon of lesbianism. 

Monday, January 23, 2012


1935 isn't nearly as rich in femmes formidables as 1934, and my choice for this entry-- "the Flame"-- feels derivative of 1934's Dragon Lady.  Artist Will Gould initiates his strip RED BARRY with the introduction of a mysterious female crime-boss in Chinatown-- which not only duplicates the initial antagonist seen in Milton Caniff's TERRY AND THE PIRATES, but also the setup of a white hero struggling against Asian opponents.  However, in terms of attitude the main hero, a roughneck U.S. undercover agent, is less reminiscent of any Caniff hero than of the Dick Tracy of Chester (no relation to Will) Gould.

I suspect Will Gould wasn't all that invested in the character of the Flame, who may also borrow an element from Sax Rohmer's Fah Lo Suee.  Unlike the Dragon Lady, the Flame is tagged as "Eurasian," and is presumably half-Russian (as is Fu Manchu's daughter) since the lady crime-boss also goes by the name "Tanya."  Of the four stories reprinted in the illo above, only two concern the Flame.  She doesn't do all that much in the first narrative, but does assume a more dominant role in the second tale, though as expected she's still womanly enough to fall for the straight-shooting hero.  I don't know how often Gould used her in the remainder of the strip's run, but evidently she didn't impress the producers of the 1938 RED BARRY serial, as she was not adapted to film.  The Flame lacks the intelligence and resourcefulness of the Dragon Lady, and seems most interesting as a pale reflection of a superior character.  

Saturday, January 21, 2012


My notes for years previous to this only show about three or four significant femmes formidables a year up to this point.  However, for some reason 1934 brings a bumper crop of four important characters in comic strips and five in prose (though admittedly three of the latter were authored by Robert E. Howard).

The chief among these figures is the Dragon Lady, the premiere opponent of the heroes of the TERRY AND THE PIRATES comic strip.  Allegedly Milton Caniff's boss Joseph Patterson not only steered Caniff toward the subject matter-- young men having adventures in the China Seas-- but also suggested that the heroes should initially encounter a sexy female pirate.  Caniff apparently based his fictional creation on certain real lady pirates of the period, and in a later continuity he even attributed the name of a real pirate, Lai Choi San, to his creation.

According to Wikipedia Caniff seems to have originated the term "dragon lady" for a tough-minded Asian woman, though the term can sometimes cross ethnic boundaries and be applied to a woman of any ethnicity.  But though Caniff's character was not by any means the first major Asian femme formidable, it's arguable that she's the best-known one.

Though like many villainesses the Dragon Lady is physically bewitching, she's unique among many villainesses in that she usually shows a tough-minded intelligence.  It's a given that she could knock off the strip's heroes Terry Lee and Pat Ryan without half trying; her perennial mistake is giving in to her female emotions and her desire for Ryan.

She may also be the first Asian female character shown to possess some martial arts skill, as a 1934 sequence shows her defend herself successfully from two male attackers with a combination of judo and weapons-skill (both with pistol and knife).

The Dragon Lady remained a presence in the TERRY strip long after Caniff departed it for STEVE CANYON.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Edgar Rice Burroughs didn’t show a lot of interest in creating femmes formidables, but QUEEN NEMONE, Tarzan’s main opponent in the novel TARZAN AND THE CITY OF GOLD, surpasses the more long-lived LA OF OPAR.  Tarzan finds his way to the City of Gold, where the inhabitants breed tame lions and Nemone rules the citizens with an iron hand.  In a revision of the “Snow White” motif, Nemone ceaselessly persecutes any woman who might be thought more beautiful than she, but she has a vital weakness: she’s spiritually bonded to her pet lion Belthar and feels that she will die when the lion does. If this were an overt fantasy Nemone might be an earthly incarnation of Cybele, who tended to run around with lions, but here her bondedness is mere superstition (though the queen’s name bears an interesting similarity to the “Nemean Lion” of classical myth).  She fancies Tarzan, who plays it cool while secretly working to overthrow her tyranny.  At the climax Belthar attacks Tarzan but the lion is killed by Tarzan's own lion-ally, Jad-Bal-Ja.  In response Nemone stabs herself to death.  Though Tarzan never succumbed to her feminine wiles, the novel ends with him paying his respects at her graveside. 


This year DICK TRACY did its bit for equal-opportunity villainy with the appearance of his first major female foe, LARCENY LU (seen above in a Big Little Book illustration), mastermind of a car-theft ring.  Compared to later femmes formidables like Breathless Mahoney and Mrs. Pruneface, Lu was small potatoes.  However, in 1934 she did raise her level of nefariousness a bit more, as she allied herself with early TRACY enemy “Steve the Tramp” and tried to run a blackmail scam on Junior Tracy’s mother.

Saturday, January 7, 2012


I've assigned the character of Fah Lo Suee to her first named appearance in 1931's DAUGHTER OF FU MANCHU, but it's something of a judgment call, since the character-- albeit unnamed-- had appeared in 1917, in a series of stories novelized as THE HAND OF FU MANCHU.

One justification for doing so, though, is the question: "If Sax Rohmer had not written any more than the first three Fu Manchu books, would anyone even remember that he had a daughter?" My verdict is no.  The most noteworthy female in HAND is a woman named Zarmi.  Zarmi dominates the first half of the book and is one of the very few Rohmer females who takes literal violent action rather than manipulating subordinates (she stabs a cop to escape capture).  Early in the book, however, Nayland Smith had told his confidante Petrie a strange story about a mythical Asian woman who is expected to lead the East against the West; a woman who is eternally young due to many reincarnations (sounding not a little like Haggard's SHE).  Several chapters later Petrie stumbles across a gorgeous veiled woman and eventually learns that she is Fu's daughter.  Fu plans to use his captivating child to rally various Eastern factions to his banner, but Nayland Smith's interference foils the plot and Fu never seems inclined to revive the scheme in subsequent outings. The woman who would later be named Fah Lo Suee is little more than a pawn, whom Rohmer never troubles to characterize.

HAND actually ends suggesting that both Fu and his unnamed daughter die at the end, and for a little over 20 years, they remained dead, at least on paper, while Rohmer worked on other books, some of which pursued "femme formidable" themes like 1920's GREEN EYES OF BAST and 1929's EMPEROR OF AMERICA.  It's been suggested that none of the intervening books sold that well, which may have motivated Rohmer's return to his best-known character.  In addition, Hollywood had revived Fu as well: two silent Fu-films appeared in 1923 and 1924, and Paramount then produced an early talkie in 1929, with Warner Oland as Fu.  It may well be that when Rohmer wrote DAUGHTER, he hoped that Hollywood would immediately novelize it. Following a second Oland Fu Manchu film in 1930, Paramount apparently availed itself of the basic idea of Rohmer's new novel-- that the Chinese mastermind had a daughter-- but kept nothing else.

In the novel by Rohmer, Fu Manchu and Fah Lo Suee have escaped death, but Fu is vaguely incapacitated.  Fah Lo Suee seizes her chance to move up in the ranks of the Si-Fan, commanding its thugs to commit various murderous errands for her.  She also takes an erotic interest in young narrator-character Shan Greville.  Like her father she seems to have a limited telepathic ability, and knows how to apply an array of drugs able to sap men of their will to resist.  Both in DAUGHTER and in the subsequent novel MASK OF FU MANCHU, Fah uses drugs to make Greville think that he loves her; it's loosely implied that he may have sex with her as well, though other drugs cause him to forget the experience.  At novel's end Fu Manchu re-asserts control, but for the rest of the series Fah Lo Suee continues to find ways to stymie or inconvenience her mastermind father.

In DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON, Fu Manchu dies early in the story, and his daughter-- named Ling Moy in this incarnation-- sets out to kill the men she holds responsible for her dad's death.  However, the film emphasizes romance over action, as she falls in love with one of the supposedly guilty Caucasians and can't bear to kill him at first, though she has no problem setting other deaths into motion.  Anna May Wong put across a decent performance with the cheapjack material, and there's one interesting moment in which Ling Moy comes up with a new twist on the "Chinese water torture," using acid in place of water.  But overall the first filmic apperance of "Fah Lo Suee" is unmemorable.

In contrast to Wong's fainting performance, in 1932 MGM gave filmgoers a very different interpretation of Fu Manchu's daughter, even if her name was slightly altered to "Fah Lo See."  Without touching on the other delights of this over-the-top adventure (with the immortal Boris Karloff as Fu), MASK's script takes Rohmer's idea of a woman enslaving a man through drugs and ratchets up the intensity, having her put the Caucasian hunk she desires through torture devised to help break his will.  In one scene it's strongly implied that she could have had her way with her studly victim after the torture.  I'd speculate that this might be the first time a cinematic female came close to commiting the rape of a man.  Even the Marquis de Sade never "went there," to the best of my recollection.  This version of Fah Lo Suee is more out-of-control than Rohmer's character, but remains the best cinematic interpretation thus far.  

Thursday, January 5, 2012


In the Philip Nowlan novel on which the "Buck Rogers" comic strip was based, there are no characters comparable to either Killer Kane or his sometime girlfriend Ardala Valmar. Assuming (as some records seem to indicate) that Nowlan wrote the strip for its first few years, he may deserve the credit for creating Kane and Ardala as negative versions of the noble (if occasionally sappy) Buck and Wilma.

As opposed to the versions of Kane and Ardala that appeared in the 1979 teleseries, both characters are denizens of Earth in the 25th century, who start out serving in Earth's armed forces but soon decide to pursue a variety of criminal enterprises.  Ardala starts out as somewhat deferential to Kane, but in future episodes shows little compunction about betraying him, and on occasion pursues some enterprises on her own.  Her first non-comics media appearance consisted of appearing on episodes of the "Buck Rogers" radio show, though at present her greatest media-fame came about as a result of a near-total makeover on the aforementioned teleseries, which will be covered in a separate post.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012


YEAR 1929— The late 1920s-early 1930s began a new phase of popular culture, as three significant events took place. Theatrical films converted from “silent” to “sound,” marking a major shift in the presentation of cinematic narrative. Comic strips, long dominated by humorous fare, entered the so-called “age of adventure,” as various heroes—Tarzan, Scorchy Smith and Buck Rogers-- embarked on far-flung adventures.  Usually male characters were the stars of the shows, but the nature of the adventure-mythos often made it possible for damsels to get more things to do than simply standing around being in distress. A few years later, pulp magazines began focusing more than ever before on featured heroes like the Shadow and Doc Savage— making possible an intensification of the action-adventure genres in American publishing.

Thanks to a savvy bit of marketing, Nowlan’s ARMAGEDDON 2419 A.D. novel is spun off into a comic strip, while its hero “Tony Rogers” is rechristened BUCK ROGERS OF THE 25TH CENTURY. As in the Nowlan novel WILMA DEERING is pretty much the first thing Buck sees upon awakening from his big sleep. Whereas Wilma only plays a minor role in the novel, in the comic strip she continues to be a regular ray-gun wielding partner to Buck for the next seventeen years, only being phased out of the strip in 1947.


I essentially agree with Camille Paglia that the rise of popular culture, particularly though not exclusively in Europe and North America, allowed for the rebirth of a wide number of cultural archetypes that could not be expressed by the reigning religious credos. The femme formidable is one of these archetypes, though to be sure it did appear in scattered forms throughout “high literature”—Spenser’s Britomart, Sade’s Juliette, Shelley’s Witch of Atlas, LeFanu’s Carmilla.

While “popular culture,” as separate from “folk culture,” rose steadily following the invention of the printing press, the period of the late 1800s is arguably the period when pop culture most assumes a distinct character, as various authors—Verne, Stevenson, Wells, Doyle, Stoker, and Haggard—coalesce the mythic scenarios and characters that comprise fiction slanted toward mass appeal. I credit the last-named one, H. Rider Haggard, with the feat of creating the first major Femme Formidable of popular fiction.

A year or so after Haggard published his most enduring male archetype, Allan Quatermain, in Year 1886 he published an even more influential female character: SHE-WHO-MUST-BE-OBEYED, in the novel simply entitled SHE. (The full novel was published in 1887, but in 1886 it began serialization in a magazine entitled THE GRAPHIC.) This immortal queen of a lost city—possessed of quasi-magical powers that never seem to appear in any cinematic adaptations—combines two older archetypes: the woman as regnant queen, able to order men to carry out her will, and the woman as sorceress, able to perform acts of literal magic.

Over the next forty years, the majority of femmes formidables tended to be either witchy magic-makers or queen-commander figures. The following mini-history no doubt omits many figures, but for my money the most noteworthy are:

YEAR 1886—The same year SHE appears, Sherlock Holmes’ father Arthur Conan Doyle also tries his hand at a woman with sorcerous powers, albeit in the contemporary setting of Victorian England, as an evil woman named KATE NORTHCOTT enslaves men with hypnotism in the short story “John Barrington Cowles.”

YEAR 1893—In George Griffith’s “scientific romance” OLGA ROMANOFF, OR THE SYREN OF THE SKIES, the titular villainess commands a fleet of air ships as part of a mission to subjugate the decadent West for the glory of Mother Russia.

YEAR 1900—One of pop fiction’s most persuasive witch-figures, THE WICKED WITCH OF THE WEST, appears in L. Frank Baum’s novel THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ. A couple of film adaptations appear during the silent era but though both have witch-villains, neither explicitly uses the Witch of the West.

YEAR 1903—Bram Stoker creates one of his foremost witch-villains, QUEEN TERA, in his horror-mystery THE JEWEL OF SEVEN STARS.

YEAR 1904— YUKI-ONNE, the “snow-fairy” of Japanese folklore, is translated into literature in a short story, “Yuki-onne,” published in Lafcadio Hearn’s collection KWAIDAN.

YEAR 1905 – A vampiric ghost, known only as CHRISTINA, appears in F. Marion Crawford’s “For the Blood is the Life,” first published in Collier’s Magazine.

YEAR 1911—Bram Stoker scores another formidable femme in the novel THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM: a woman named LADY ARABELLA MARCH, able to change herself from woman to serpent.

During this year there also appears the first filmic adaptation of SHE, starring Marguerite Snow. A 1899 Melies short was labeled “Haggard’s She,” but two contemporary reviews assert that it has nothing in common with the Haggard novel. Better-known film versions of the story appear in 1925, 1935 and 1965.

YEAR 1913—In RETURN OF TARZAN, Edgar Rice Burroughs creates the priestess LA OF OPAR, whose very name marks her as something of a SHE-knockoff.

YEAR 1915-- Sometimes-costumed criminal IRMA VEP appears in Feuillade's serial LES VAMPIRES.

YEAR 1919—The “female Bluebeard” QUEEN ANTINEA debuts in Pierre Benoit’s novel L’ATLANTIDE.

The same YEAR 1919 also featured another silent femme formidable, LIO SHA, mastermind of a treasure-seeking criminal group whose name is also the title of Fritz Lang's film THE SPIDERS.

YEAR 1920—Sax Rohmer creates a peculiar half-cat, half-woman NAHEMAH in THE GREEN EYES OF BAST.

YEAR 1921—The first cinematic adaptation of ANTINEA appears in the film L’ATLANTIDE.

In addition, yet another prose-born "queen of a lost race," LA OF OPAR, makes her first appearance in the serial THE ADVENTURES OF TARZAN.

YEAR 1924 – In A. Merritt’s THE METAL MONSTER, explorers stumble across a city of living metal, which is entirely under the mental control of NORHALA, a human foundling raised by the city.

YEAR 1926— In the silent film DON JUAN, Estelle Taylor portrays a fiendish fictionalized version of LUCRETIA BORGIA.  There were indubitably filmizations of the real-life Lucretia before DON JUAN, but this is the first I've found in which Lucretia is seen as a figure of power rather than a romantic figure.

YEAR 1928— A “soldier-girl” named WILMA DEERING appears in Philip Francis Nowlan’s sci-fi novel ARMAGEDDON 2419 A.D. Wilma doesn’t appear in the novel as much as the hero, one “Tony Rogers,” but she’s clearly a female able to fight on her own behalf.

Wilma’s prose advent marks a turning point in the development of the pop-cultural archetype of the femme formidable: the “fighting femme formidable.” I don’t suppose that Wilma was the first of her kind, but she seems to be the first to have garnered some measure of lasting fame, though not in the prose format. Her fame came about thanks to the medium of comic strips, though she would also gain fame through other media-adaptations. Given the importance of this breakthrough, I begin my solo character-posts with the comic strip incarnation of this character.


Prior to the new name atop this blog, its name was AMAZONS ASCENDANT. The purpose of that blog was relatively limited. For years I’d been hearing various fans carp about the supposed marginalization of female heroes in comic books specifically and popular fiction generally. Supposedly this lack signified the bias of male chauvinism, though to my mind real male chauvinism would not allow for any female heroes whatsoever. A remark by Heidi McDonald moved me to devise this blog in order to demonstrate the significant prevalence of an amazon-like archetype throughout the medium of comic books. I finally decided that the best demonstration of this prevalence was a list of 50 noteworthy female vs. male battles in the comics medium, most of which conclude with either the female’s victory or a respectable draw (see this post). After that, I let the blog lie fallow.

I’ve been interested in the “amazon archetype” for some time. In the last month I finally got around to writing some essays on THE ARCHETYPAL ARCHIVE, which interpreted the archetype theoretically, as a symbol of the Schopenhaurean/Nietzschean will. But years ago I contemplated writing a history of the archetype as it appeared not just in comic books, but in all popular media. To that end I made my own year-by-year list of the most notable occurrences of the archetype.

I’ve seen a few related lists on Wikipedia, and years ago there was a website that tried to provide mini-histories for all the major characters, mostly in comic books and animated cartoons. Like a lot of sites, it eventually disappeared, probably due to the expense of the enterprise.

Blogs, at present, cost nothing but time, and have the advantage that they’re more open-ended in structure. Thus I’ve decided to parse out my old list in the form of a few entries every week (frequency to be determined as I go). At that rate it’ll take some time to build up a respectable number of posts, but I feel sure that I can depend upon the blogosphere to ignore this enterprise until it gets built up somewhat (and maybe even afterward!)

Now, as to the name of the blog…

I didn’t want to use the term “amazon,” whose connotations are too narrow. The well-known term “femme fatale” strikes a little closer to the mark, but in common use it suggests mainly female characters that exist to lure the hero, Delilah-like, with their “fatale” attraction. I’m not interested in the temptress-archetype except where it shades into the archetype of the concept of the female as a possessor of power. Thus my adaptation of a common enough French phrase, “femme formidable,” for an archetype of culture.  As far as I can tell from a basic Google search, no one else has so employed the term in this specialized sense.

Patently this category can include many villains as well as heroines. In addition to omitting the manipulative temptresses, whose specialty is persuasion rather than force, it also omits many heroines whose influence is more sentimental or intellectual (Dorothy Gale, Nancy Drew) than physical. The category will also include pop-fiction incarnations of mythic or legendary figures as well as fictionalized versions of real people. Aside from the next essay—which covers the earliest pop-fiction occurrences of the archetype—each post will chart each figure’s first appearance in a given medium with a short interpretation of her symbolic importance. I’m not going to get into encyclopedic histories of any characters: that’s more Wikipedia’s line.