Tuesday, March 27, 2012


Sand Saref (whose name is a joke on the typeface "sans serif") first appeared in the January 8, 1950 edition of Will Eisner's SPIRIT comic-book section.  However, as recounted in the Eclipse reprint JOHN LAW from 1983, Sand was originally conceived as the foil to a new hero Eisner had planned to self-publish: an eyepatch-wearing, pipe-smoking detective-hero named John Law.  When plans for the new comic fell through, Eisner simply retooled the John Law art into a SPIRIT adventure-- far from difficult since the mask-wearing hero and the eyepatch-wearing hero weren't physically dissimilar.

Given that the SPIRIT comic would be cancelled in October 1952, Sand (clearly drawn to resemble film-femme fatale Lauren Bacall) didn't have a lot of time to register an impression, though Eisner did manage to work her into a few later Spirit-tales.  However, it's the original story that made Eisnerphiles elevate Sand to the first rank of the hero's best female villains.

In a narrative that strongly resembles a Warner Brothers morality-play film from the 1930s or 1940s, the Spirit learns that Sand has come to his city in order to execute a deal to sell a Nazi-created virus to the highest criminal bidder.  But the criminal side of Sand proves less important than the Spirit's memories of having loved her when the two of them were tenement youngsters.  Due to a complicated tragedy that killed both Sand's father and the Spirit's as well, the Spirit devoted his life to crimefighting while Sand followed the path of crime.  Nevertheless, when the Spirit appears to foil Sand's scheme, she saves his life and he lets her escape the authorities.

Frank Miller not only adapted large chunks of the first Sand story for his 2008 SPIRIT movie, in 1981 he also swiped its essential outlines for the origin of Elektra in DAREDEVIL #168.

Monday, March 26, 2012


In the medium of cinema, tough cowgirls of one stripe or another dated back to the silent era.  In comic books, however, most of them didn't make it as headliners.  Western heroines made minor though constant appearances in an assortment of comic books, but always, like TWO-GUN LIL, as backup characters. Thanks to having a reprint or two of her adventures by Americomics, Two-Gun Lil is one of the few of these sagebrush-backups who can be seen without purchasing original Golden Age comics.

I've only read a handful of these stories of fast-drawing Lil Peters, who seemed content to stick around one particular podunk town and guard its inhabitants from outlaws for a healthy enough run of about 20 issues in Quality Comics' CRACK WESTERN #63-84.  Not having read her first tale, I've no idea how she got to be tough as nails and fast with a gun.  The stories I've seen, rendered by artists like Gill Fox and Pete Morisi, are usually very competent but simple done-in-one tales.  The drawing above shows an anachronistic quality given the shortness of Lil's skirt during the western era, but compared to a later western heroine like "Lady Rawhide," Lil's positively demure here.

Thursday, March 22, 2012


Because I've decided to start this blog by making one post apiece for each year and then starting over, I've often been forced to back-burner many significant characters, not least many of the "femmes fatales" of noir fiction and cinema.

Fortunately, 1948 gave us one of the best in Elsa Bannister, played by Orson Welles' then-wife Rita Hayworth in the Welles-directed LADY FROM SHANGHAI.  Welles cast his wife against the "vixen" type that had proven so successful in 1946's GILDA, giving her both an ice-blonde appearance and attitude. 

As LADY has been celebrated on many film-sites, there's no need to outline the virtues of the film here.  Suffice to say that though evil Elsa's initial idea in the film is to get patsy Michael O'Hara (Welles) to kill her aged husband for her, she ends up attempting to do the job herself, in a climactic "hall of mirrors" scene that remains one of Welles' tour-de-force visualizations.  Originally Welles wanted O'Hara to persuade Elsa to kill herself in remorse, but the studio allegedly disapproved of the use of suicide.  Whatever their motives, the studio seems to have forced Welles into crafting a climax that was at least more visually stunning.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


Back in 1947 no one, even Black Canary's creators, could have anticipated how significant she would become to DC Comics.

As her first appearance above indicates, the Canary originally appeared as a foil to the JSA's daffiest member, genie-wielding Johnny Thunder.  She was a female Robin Hood who sought to steal from wealthy crooks but appeared to possess no self-defense skills, though she's seen once holding a common pistol.  Johnny was gaga over her but might not have been so besotted had he known her series would replace him in FLASH COMICS.

Once Black Canary had her own series, she dropped the Robin Hood schtick and picked up some fancy judo-fighting skills.  All of her FLASH COMICS appearances, credited to Robert Kanigher and Carmine Infantino, are fast-paced action-thrillers. Many tough judo-girls had appeared in comic books prior to Canary, but she enjoyed a healthier run than the majority of martial-arts superheroines.  Nevertheless, her brief appearances with the Justice Society team during that period probably contributed the most to her longevity.  When Julius Schwartz revived many of the Society's stars during the Silver Age, the Canary was the only Golden Age heroine so revived.  She was teamed with the hero Starman for a couple of adventures in the BRAVE AND THE BOLD comic, almost certainly as a "trial balloon" to determine if either had drawing-power with contemporary fans.  At the time of her revival she was one of a very small number of heroines who depended entirely on physical skill rather than super-powers.

This changed when the Canary was inducted into DC's popular "Justice League" title.  Despite the fact that the JLA included Batman, whose main feature was his merely mortal martial skill, writer Denny O'Neil decided to bestow a super-power on the character: a sonic "canary cry" which could blast enemies hither and yon.  Though the addition may have been a little dubious at the time, it did help the character fit in with the hyper-powered DC universe a bit better.  Most felicitously, the possession of a super-power in no way restricted the Canary's penchant for virtuoso violence.

Due to the many years during which Black Canary served in the Justice League, she became, after the fact, a founding member.  When DC's 1980s CRISIS reboot eliminated Wonder Woman from the history of the JLA, the Canary was retroactively declared to have done all the things Wonder Woman had done in the original stories.  Talk about filling large shoes!

The Canary doesn't seem to have been at her best in a solo feature since the 1940s, but as any DC reader ought to know, she gained an even more auspicious place in the company's history when a 1995 one-shot, BLACK CANARY/ORACLE: BIRDS OF PREY, became the template for a forthcoming series about DC's first all-female (at least most of the time) superhero group, the BIRDS OF PREY.  Various female characters have come and gone from the feature in all of its incarnations (one of which is still currently on stands), but Black Canary and Oracle still comprise the characterizational core of the super-team.

Friday, March 16, 2012


The Spirit's most lovably larcenous adversary, Mamselle P'Gell (named after Pigalle, a disreputable area in Paris), comes close not to qualifying to the ranks of the femmes formidables, in that she's a temptress first and a criminal second. 

The most succinct characterization of P'Gell is that she's a black widow who's never actually seen to bring about the deaths of her many husbands (unless they're really evil). Creator Will Eisner seems to have conceived her as something of a tongue-in-cheek version of the standard "femme fatale" of 1940s crime fiction, and as such many of P'Gell's encounters with the heroic Spirit have the tone of burlesque.

Nevertheless, though P'Gell bears a slight resemblance to DC's Catwoman, in that she usually wasn't out to cause serious harm to most of her victims, she was capable of violence, usually through pawns of some sort.  For instance, she had an assassin kill off one husband, who was a nasty Nazi.  Then she married the assassin-- but for some reason, he didn't last too long either.

It's ironic that the above cover-- designed for a 1973 Kitchen Sink reprint of several 1940s SPIRIT stories, and aimed at giving the collection a salacious vibe for the underground-comics market-- shows P'Gell on good terms with a more minor villainess, Pantha Stalk, as the two of them fondle the semi-conscious hero.  In the only story in which the two females meet, P'Gell shoots Pantha dead to save the Spirit's life.  Like Catwoman, P'Gell constantly attempted to persuade her masculine foe to join her in a life of crime.  She never succeeded, though to the best of my recollection I don't believe he ever succeeded in jailing her.  At best all the Spirit achieved was a draw-- and in all likelihood, the character, like his readers, may have preferred it that way. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


Thanks to the 1990 Warren Beatty film, Breathless Mahoney is probably the best known of DICK TRACY's femmes formidables.  Unfortunately, in the original comic strip she's something of a small-timer, like the strip's first noteworthy villainess Larceny Lu.

Breathless starts out as being derivative of another TRACY villain, as she's the stepdaughter of a extortionist named Shaky.  After Shaky dies Breathless finds his body and eventually discovers his hidden cache of money.  In a testimony to the perils of being brought up wrong, Breathless and her mother contend over their right to the money; Breathless wins but her mother shoots and wounds her daughter.  During her flight from the law she kills one unfortunate individual and knocks out Dick Tracy with drugged coffee. Her most notable accomplishment, however, is not any particular crime but the fact that through her the reader first encounters the most long-lived comedy relief character in the TRACY strip: the pestiferous-looking hillbilly B.O. Plenty. 

Strangely, at this time Chester Gould did not have any intention of positioning B.O. as an ongoing character.  When Breathless and B.O. fall out over the coveted money, B.O. strangles her, and though she doesn't die it's not for his lack of trying.  Shortly later B.O. himself is hijacked by crooks who torture him until he gives up the dough, and then send him on a one-way trip to the city-sewers.  He and Breathless survive, however, and  B.O. later becomes ensconced as a regular character.  Breathless, dying in a hospital,  briefly tries to implicate B.O. in her crimes just at the time he's scheduled to marry his love Gravel Gertie, but the hard-luck dame gives in at the last minute, exonerates the hillbilly and kicks the bucket.

Friday, March 2, 2012


Though thousands of Sherlockians have worshipped at the fane of Irene Adler, the detective's one major female nemesis, I can't deem her a "femme formidable."  She's an extremely clever opponent, but she's disqualified in that her formidability is purely intellectual, and as I said here those types aren't related to the archetype I'm describing.

Adrea Spedding, the "Spider Woman" of the Universal film THE SPIDER WOMAN, may be the first femme formidable to encounter any version of Holmes.  The film-script builds upon Spedding's aura of both ingenuity and cruelty by calling her a "female Moriarty," and she does indeed come close to spelling the doom of the detective.  Her overall plot has to do with faking the suicides of wealthy men in order to gain their wealth, using the venom of a "wolf spider" to accomplish the rich men's deaths.  Distinguished actress Gale Sondergaard plays Spedding with intelligence and nastiness in equal measure, particularly in a death-trap she devises for Holmes: hanging him up behind a shooting-gallery.  The writers of the 1960s BATMAN teleseries liked the trap so much that they ripped it off wholesale.

Two years later Universal attempted to reuse the name of "the Spider Woman" for a separate villainess who had no connection to the Holmes villainess except for being played by Sondergaard.  This attempt to launch a villain-centric serial for Sondergaard presumably did not play well with 1946 audiences, as it was not continued.  Curiously another Holmes film from 1944, THE PEARL OF DEATH, also featured another villain who received one, and only one, Universal movie spin-off.  This was the brutish "Creeper," potrayed by acromegaly-victim Rondo Hatton, who appeared first in PEARL, then as an assistant to Sondergaard in THE SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK, and then had one more outing as "the Creeper" in HOUSE OF HORRORS.  (Hatton made one more appearance as a Creeper-like creature before he died that same year but the film was not released by Universal.)

Thursday, March 1, 2012


Continuing somewhat in the feline themes seen in years 1940 and 1942, I give 1943 over to the Cheetah, often framed as Wonder Woman's most recognizeable antagonist, almost the "Joker" to WW's "Batman." 

Some fans have wondered if Cheetah received so much attention in later retcons of the Amazon's feature because Cheetah was prominent in the 1970s SUPER FRIENDS cartoon.  However, Giganta was in that cartoon as well, and hasn't seemed to make as much of an impression.  It's at least interesting that within the sphere of the Golden Age Marston-Peter WONDER WOMAN comics, Cheetah is the only major foe who wears a "supervillain costume" as such.  As best I remember, most Wonder Woman foes are either attired in mundane clothes (Paula Von Gunther) or in garments appropriate to some exotic locale (Clea, Zara).

In addition Cheetah's backstory possesses an elemental simplicity that's a bit more appealing than, say, a gorilla being turned into a spiteful human.  Given the emblematic name "Priscilla Rich" as a way of showing her as a "poor little rich girl," Marston's script portrays the villainess as a woman tormented by an inferiority complex, resulting in a split personality and the separate persona of the Cheetah.  Though she was never anywhere near the equal of the heroine in terms of sheer power, her bestial savagery made her a tough opponent in a battle, and to some extent the polar opposite of the sophisticated Diana's core value of self-restraint.  The Golden Age battles of the two antagonists were necessarily restrained by the market of the times, though many later versions of the Cheetah have been more ferociously impressive.