Monday, July 23, 2012
To date the late 1970s incarnations of comics-originals Wilma Deering and Ardala Valmar are probably the best known today.
Both characters premiered in the 1979 telefilm pilot, BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY, which managed to secure theatrical release on the basis of the STAR WARS craze.
The lighthearted teleseries never attained any of the deeper resonance of the Lucas conception, but perhaps because Princess Leia was a strong female character, this version of Wilma (portrayed by Erin Gray) was substantially as formidable as the book and comic-strip version. (The Wilma who appeared in the 1939 serial was minimally used, and I haven't seen the one in the 1950 teleseries.) In the telefilm Wilma was first relatively humorless but loosened up in the series proper, to the extent of wearing tight jumpsuits more often than military garb. She didn't get into physical fights as often as the comic-strip version but was in every way treated as a combat-equal.
As noted here the original Ardala was more or less Killer Kane's futuristic gun-moll, though on occasion she attempted to be a world-beater on her own. The teleseries reverses the power between Ardala and Kane, with Ardala upgraded to the princess of a star-spanning conqueror-race-- one loosely based on Buck Rogers' first major foes in the comic strip, a "Yellow Peril"-ish invasion forces called the "Hans" (just a SF-version of "Huns," of course). Kane is merely Ardala's stooge in the teleseries and makes only minor contributions to the storyline. The emphasis is entirely upon Ardala as the would-be mastermind of various plots to both overcome Earth's forces and to seduce Buck Rogers, not necessarily in that order. Ardala commanded far more power than her comic-strip namesake, but in many scripts she loses what claim she has to formidability due to her pettiness and the ease with which Rogers can deceive her. In her last appearance she's pretty much reduced to a basket case by the withering condemnation of an older and more seasoned villainess named Zarina-- who just happened to be played by an older and more seasoned actress known for playing a certain Bat-villainess, Julie Newmar.
Wednesday, July 18, 2012
Though most of the femmes formidables here belong to the mythoi of adventure or drama, Rumiko Takahashi's Lum holds pride of place as one of the formidable females of the comedy mythos.
As I've always recapitulated Lum's origin story here, I won't repeat myself on that subject. It's interesting to observe that she was not initially the star of the series. The first story with Ataru and Lum was followed by a second tale featuring only Ataru and his human girlfriend Shinobu, who encountered another, less science-fictional demon. Then Lum returned in the third URUSEI tale and stayed for the remainder of the series. At a Comic-con in the early 2000s I asked Rumiko Takahashi whether Lum's re-introduction had been intended all along or not, and my recollection is that she said "not": that the original intent was a title focused on Ataru.
Equally oddly, one of her most recognizeable features-- the ability to generate electrical shocks-- doesn't appear in the first Lum story. In the earliest stories her shocking of Ataru is an unintended side-effect of her attempts to show affection, but it quickly progresses to become a science-fictional version of the rolling-pin, the traditional comic means used by wives to chastise their straying husbands.
The early Lum's character is somewhat nastier and more aggressive than later versions. Arguably Takahashi may have diverted some of Lum's aggressions into other characters, such as Benten and Ran. I don't plan to do any entries for the secondary female characters of URUSEI, but suffice to say that Takahashi devotes no small effort to making sure that her breakout series featured plenty of powerful females.
The manga series was successfully adapted to an anime teleseries in 1981, followed by a handful of bigscreen movie adaptations. Since both of these follow the model of the manga-series quite closely, I won't provide entries for any anime-adaptations here.
Monday, July 9, 2012
There had been tough space-opera females long before STAR WARS, of course, and a few, like THE GOLDEN AMAZON, had their own features. Naturally the mega-success of George Lucas's baby propelled every character in the story into the public's collective unconscious. One might still argue that, both in the film-sequels and in continuations in other media, Luke and Han still tended to get the lion's share of the action. Nevertheless, it's arguable that Leia is far more vital to the mythology than, say, side-characters like Chewbacca and the droids.
Carrie Fisher's sardonic performance does a lot to step up the formidability of Leia in the first film, and it doesn't hurt that (as others before me have commented) that in the battles aboard the Death Star she seems to be the only hero who can hit the targets she's shooting at. She doesn't fare quite as well in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, but proves herself to possess more than average fighting-skills in RETURN OF THE JEDI, when she avenges the vile objectification forced upon her by Jabba the Hutt by strangling him to death with her own slave-chain.
As for her appearances in other media, I confess I'm only familiar with her appearances in the long-running Marvel STAR WARS comic. She's generally treated as an equal member of the team with the guys and even gets her own adventures on occasion. (I'd call them "solo" adventures but I'm afraid that might prove confusing.)
Friday, July 6, 2012
In my entry for MARVEL GIRL, I asserted that as originally conceived in 1963, she probably deserved most of the canards hurled at the Invisible Girl and other Silver Age heroines.
In 1976, having written the new X-MEN feature for under a year, writer Chris Claremont and penciller Dave Cockrum formulated a new direction for the character of Jean Grey, to take shape in X-MEN #101. Though in an earlier issue the creators had written Jean's character out of the narrative, they brought her back posthaste in time for the return of the supergroup's old foes the Sentinels. The robotic villains were defeated by the end of issue #100, but the team had to make a speedy exit from a space-station and attempt a landing back on Earth. Jean-- who had not been noteworthy for a lot of gutsy moments in her earlier appearances-- took the job of piloting the craft back to Earth without any shielding from the cosmic rays surrounding the planet, while the rest of her companions were shielded in another compartment. When Cyclops objected to Jean's self-sacrifice, he got the sort of treatment usually given to the hysterial film-female by the tough lead male: she knocked him out, albeit with a mental blast. As seen in the illo above, the superheroes survived the crash, but Jean Grey both died and came back to life as "Phoenix."
Going by the example of the Fantastic Four, one might have expected her to simply become a bigger, badder superhero. Instead, she became a cosmic force, unable to control her desires to do whatever she pleased, despite the peril to sentient races everywhere in the universe. Her tragic fate became the series' primary running plotline for the next couple of years, culminating in X-MEN #137, the end of the so-called "Dark Phoenix Saga."
Death being less than permanent in the Marvel Universe, Jean Grey returned to life later on, and even took on the Phoenix identity in later stories from Grant Morrison, diverging somewhat from official continuity. That said, in effect the original Phoenix as conceived by Claremont and Cockrum never precisely returned, though by a complicated series of incidents she managed to spawn a daughter in an alternate timeline, also called Phoenix, whose most frequent appearances were in the title EXCALIBUR.
Some critics took it amiss that, after Marvel Girl had been a non-starter for many years, she should have ascended to a godlike level of power, only to be summarily destroyed rather than controlling her power and becoming a regular member of the superhero team. However, it should be kept in mind that Marvel Comics had been playing with the concept of "divinization" ever since Lee and Kirby had created Galactus, who was a science-fiction version of omnipotence. Most Marvel characters who didn't begin as gods, but became invested with godlike power at some point, tended to self-destruct in short order, irrespective of their gender. Phoenix should be probably be seen in this tradition.