Saturday, April 28, 2012
Though the "Kathy Kane" version of Batwoman doesn't get many props these days, she did accomplish one thing that even Catwoman couldn't: injecting a continuing feminine presence into the Batman adventures in both DETECTIVE COMICS and the regular BATMAN book.
Prior to Batwoman, the crimefighting world of Batman and Robin was one in which women didn't have much of a role. That may sound like I'm subscribing to the old canard that Batman's gay again, but that's not quite my point. The Batman stories tended to follow the rule that women didn't have much of a place in the rough-and-tumble world of crime, and most of the mundane crimefighter-comics of the time followed roughly the same paradigm, aside from Will Eisner's SPIRIT and Jack Cole's PLASTIC MAN.
Catwoman was the one exception to this-- but she was the exception that proved the rule. For over fifteen years, Catwoman was the only notable female villain in the stories. I scanned the Fleischer BATMAN ENCYLOPEDIA and found no others beyond a minor gun-moll or two. The only other memorable villainess, a lady crime-boss named "the Sparrow," appeared in a 1948 story in the syndicated comic strip. As it happens, 1948 was the same year Batman got his own version of Lois Lane, Vicky Vale, in the comic books.
As the cover to DETECTIVE COMICS #233 shows, the Batwoman is initially presented as a threat to the Dynamic Duo's mantle as Gotham City's top crimefighters. The story's creators and editors may have been somewhat uncertain about such a character's reception, since at story's end Batman ferrets out Batwoman's secret identity and persuades her to retire from the dangerous business of crimefighting. Nevertheless, she was back in action within less than a year, and continued to appear irregularly in the two Bat-books and in the WORLD'S FINEST Superman-Batman title. She and Batman formed a loose "will-they/won't they" romantic relationship despite his continued attempts to get her to quit being a superhero. In 1961, possibly due to positive reader response, the creators brought Kathy's niece into the action as Bat-Girl, so that Batwoman and Bat-Girl provided an effective mirror-image of the starring heroes, as well providing regular romantic interest for both males.
One rather odd characteristic of Batwoman was that she called attention to her femininity by modeling her crimefighting weapons on feminine accoutrements-- trapping thugs in giant "hair-nets," using "charm-bracelets" as handcuffs, and so on. There's not much question in my mind that the creators did this in a rather jokey spirit. Nevertheless, Batwoman wasn't dependent on her oddball weapons as were some "feminine-version" heroines of the period, and was often presented as being above-average in terms of hand-to-hand combat.
Batwoman and Bat-Girl both faded from official DC continuity in 1964, when Julius Schwarz sought to impose a new editorial approach on the Bat-books, which would lead to a new "Batgirl" some years later (see 1967, when I get to it). In DETECTIVE COMICS #485 (1979), Denny O'Neil uses her as "cannon fodder" (his word), killing her off to make Batman get extra-mad at her murderers. Bat-Girl made a comeback of sorts in the Bob Rozakis TEEN TITANS, but the most remarkable thing about her seems to be that despite the many minor characters knocked off during DC's "Crisis on Infinite Earths," she somehow survived in the backwaters of continuity and continues in a new version today, just as Kathy Kane's legacy begat a new Batwoman in 2006.
Monday, April 23, 2012
Though Fiction House, the comics company that published Sheena, closed in 1953, the company's most famous character survived the demise of the company that midwifed her, when SHEENA, QUEEN OF THE JUNGLE, debuted as a syndicated television show in 1955. The jungle queen was played for 26 episodes by buxom Irish McCalla.
Like the similar RAMAR OF THE JUNGLE (1952-54), SHEENA was an attempt to translate the thrills of jungle-themed B-movies to the small screen. Unfortunately, such shows were shot quickly and on a miniscule budget, which tended to cut down on the thrill level. I have not yet seen all the existing SHEENA episodes, but most of them are pretty talky and give McCalla's Sheena few chances to show off her feminine formidability.
Nevertheless, McCalla's image was arguably the most striking image of female heroism produced for 1950s television. And even today, that image achieved some dubious comics-related immortality, when a clip from the TV show appeared in the documentary CRUMB, illustrating one of young R. Crumb's earliest fantasy-crushes.
Saturday, April 21, 2012
1954 is one of the weaker years for femmes formidables, but "Jann of the Jungle" still indicates that there remained life in the jungle-girl concept launched by SHEENA in 1938.
Jann first appeared in Atlas Comics' JUNGLE TALES #1 (Sept 1954), which changed its title to JANN OF THE JUNGLE with #8, and lasted about three years total. She was created by artist Jay Scott Pike and by writer Don Rico, who also worked on Jann's predecessor "Lorna the Jungle Girl" (from 1953) and another heroine called "the Leopard Girl."
Frankly, I thought Lorna was a lot more fun than Jann, but unfortunately she'll have to wait for another time. Both heroines have had a few spotty reprints from Marvel Comics, the successor to Martin Goodman's Atlas, but neither lasted into the 1960s decade, making them the last of the original jungle-girl comics-characters until Marvel returned to that well for one last time with the 1970s' SHANNA THE SHE-DEVIL.
Wednesday, April 11, 2012
PRINCESS KNIGHT, the English-language rendition of Osamu Tezuka's RIBON NO KISHI ("Knight of the Ribbon"), originally appeared in the manga magazine SHOJO BEAT but went through various differing iterations by Tezuka. The essential idea seems to remain the same in most of them: in a psuedo-medieval kingdom, a girl is born to a king and queen, but the angels in heaven screw things up by giving her both a girls' heart and a boy's heart. This gives Princess Sapphire co-equal traits of maleness and femaleness. To confuse her gender identity even more, the king and queen have Sapphire masquerade as a boy so that she will be eligible to inherit the throne and preserve the kingdom against assorted vile villains.
Some critics assert that PRINCESS KNIGHT essentially launched the shojo (girls') manga category. I can't speak to that but from my imperfect knowledge she does seem to be one of the first female manga-characters who's regularly seen running around beating up opponents and fighting with a sword-- though at the same time proving capable of showing her softer side as well. She is therefore at the very least one of the most important ancestors of the many Japanese femmes formidables-- Takahashi's Lum, Takachiho's Dirty Pair-- who perhaps come closest to rivalling the accomplishments of the United States in this respect.
1952 is not one of the fifties' best years for femme formidable works, but Fritz Lang's RANCHO NOTORIOUS proves one of the more noteworthy items.
This RKO film, adapted from a short story written by Silvia Richards, was Lang's last western. Like many Lang films it emphasizes the quest for revenge. After robbers rape and kill the wife of peaceful farmer Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy), Haskell goes looking for the outlaws. His only clue involves a mysterious outlaw hideout called "Chuck-a-luck." Only by posing as an outlaw does Haskell manage to inflitrate a ranch of that name, owned by the mysterious female Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich). Despite being in mourning for his murdered wife Haskell can't completely resist the charms of Altar, but eventually his quest for revenge wins out and Altar perishes in the inevitable shootout.
Dietrich, in her fifties at the time, projects a good world-weary attitude into Altar's motivations for opening her ranch as a haven for criminals. At the same time, she's not the strongest example of a femme formidable possible, since one of the outlaws decides to take over her operation and she doesn't do a helluva lot about it. But I include her as one of the more memorable female outlaws in western films of the period.
Wednesday, April 4, 2012
This film is as good a starting-place as any for addressing the relative upsurge in Femmes Formidables films in the decade of the 1950s.
As I've noted in earlier posts, film in the 1930s and 1940s was impoverished in some respects. In the genre of horror-movies, the only feminine monsters I've chronicled thus far are those from DRACULA'S DAUGHTER and CAT PEOPLE. I do plan a post later on Universal's "Ape Woman" films, but these aren't especially noteworthy. There are also some good female-centered adventure-films I've been obliged to pass over, but these were no more numerous in their day than the female-horror films.
What I believe happened is that after 1948's antitrust rulings from the Supreme Court made it impossible for the big Hollywood studios to "block book" their offerings to US theaters, subject matter in 1950s films began to become more daring, to take more chances than had been the case earlier. Thus, though ANNE OF THE INDIES was a studio film, produced by 20th-Century Fox, it participates in some of this quest to find bold new subject matter. This would be illustrated to an even greater extent by the comparative proliferation of "female monsters" in the burgeoning SF-horror genres that became so prevalent in the decade of the 1950s.
The pirate genre had been around in films since the silent era, but ANNE OF THE INDIES-- interestingly enough, directed by the man who had helmed 1942's CAT PEOPLE-- seems the first US sound-film to focus on a female pirate. The nucleus of the character seems to have been the historical lady-pirate Anne Bonney, but the story has nothing to do with the historical figure. Rather, "Anne Providence" is one of a long line of heroines who have been "raised like a boy" by a male perceptor. In this case, Anne has been raised by the redoubtable Blackbeard himself, and so has taken after his criminal ways.
As played by Jean Peters, Anne is a tragic figure despite her criminality. A former pirate named Larochelle (Louis Jourdan) has agreed to spy on the movements of other pirates to get back his ship and to return to his wife (Debra Paget). While he's spying on Anne's ship, Anne gradually falls in love with Larochelle, who can't very well reveal his married status. Anne does find out, and in a standout scene she taunts the hero by putting his wife up for sale at a slave auction.
Only a few times in the film is Anne seen fighting with a sword, but though she's clearly skilled, the film doesn't dwell on her martial ability very heavily. Still, despite the predictable "downer" ending, ANNE offers an excellent view of a type of film that probably would never have got off the ground in the previous decade.