Saturday, January 21, 2012
YEAR 1934: THE DRAGON LADY
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.