Thursday, May 31, 2012

YEAR 1969: VAMPIRELLA



As the sixties drew to a close the publishers of "mainstream" color comics were still hemmed in by their self-policing Comics Code.  However, for roughly five years Warren Publishing had been bypassing the restrictions of the Code with his black-and-white horror-comics magazines, CREEPY and EERIE, and no new anti-comics jeremiads were mounted against him.  In Sept 1969 Warren published the first issue of another b&w magazine, entitled VAMPIRELLA, created by horror-magazine icon Forrest J. Ackerman and artist Trina Robbins.

In early issues Vampirella-- an alien vampire from the planet Drakulon-- functioned much as did the horror-hosts of CREEPY and EERIE, serving as a "mistress of ceremonies" for an assortment of horror tales.  However, within a few months Vampirella became the star of her own horror-adventure stories, as she journeyed about the planet Earth, seeking to overthrow evil devil-cults and find romance at the same time.

Patently Vampirella's costume-- probably the most revealing to debut in the 1960s-- had a "Playboy Club" aesthetic behind it. That said, Vampirella was not reduced to an object by her skimpy attire.  She had a wealth of vampiric powers, including super-strength, hypnotism and the ability to grow batwings and fly.

An excellent essay on Vampirella's costume and one of her foremost artists, Jose Gonzales, can found at
The Groovy Age of Horror.

YEAR 1968: TARA KING




By 1968 the British teleseries THE AVENGERS had lost the services of Diana Rigg to portray the popular character of Emma Peel.  For the serial's next (and, as it turned out, final) season, the producers cast Linda Thorson as John Steed's new partner.  Whereas all of Steed's other partners for the entirety of the series had been "talented amateurs," King was introduced as a spy who had gone through the same training as Steed, and worked for the same barely defined secret organization.

In the circles of television fandom, many viewers disdained Thorson's character not for its own failings but simply for not being Emma Peel.  It's questionable whether or not the series would have done any better, aesthetically or financially, had the producers attempted to follow the model set by Peel and the previous Cathy Gale figures. 

Whereas the tone of the Gale and Peel seasons captured a fine balance of drama and tongue-in-cheek humor, the final season with Tara King (1968-69) fumbled, occasionally straying into the realm of farce (particularly in those episodes that dealt with Steed and King's supervisor, a fat man known as "Mother.")  Being a more petite woman Thorson was not quite as impressive in fight-scenes as Blackman and Rigg had proven, but of the 33 episodes completed there are probably a good half-dozen battles in which King acquits herself just as well as her predecessors.

Tara King made her first prose appearance in 1968's THE DROWNED QUEEN by Keith Laumer, one of four paperback originals.  Amusingly, sometimes Emma Peel was featured on the cover of a Tara King adventure.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

YEAR 1967: BATGIRL



Although in some reminiscences Julie Scwhartz claimed that he didn't even remember the Bat-Girl of the Jack Schiff period, I find it interesting that the above cover-copy emphasizes a "new Batgirl," suggesting that someone in the organization did remember the previous version (who'll get a separate writeup at some future date).

Despite all other versions to take the Batgirl name, the Barbara Gordon version remains the best-known one to the general public thanks to her appearances on the live-action television series.  Indeed, the Gordon version seems to have evolved in response to a demand from the TV producers, according to a reminiscence from Carmine Infantino:

" Batgirl came up in the mid-’60s. The “Batman” TV producer called Julie and said Catwoman was a hit, could we come up with more female characters? Julie called me and asked me to do that. I came up with Batgirl, Poison Ivy and one I called the Grey Fox, which Julie didn’t like as much."  The show's producers liked the Batgirl concept and introduced the character in the third and final season of BATMAN.  The character in the teleseries was understandably somewhat jokier in tone, but was still admirable in terms of her ability to defend herself from assorted vile villains.

So well known is the character that I won't go into her specific history and abilities here.  I will note that though the Gordon Bargirl was a dynamic and charismatic figure in comparison to the BATMAN series' previous distaff knock-offs, that charisma became dissipated when she gained a semi-regular berth of a backup series in DETECTIVE COMICS.  Some of these stories were decent enough formula, but over time they became less and less memorable, and so did the character.  A period when Barbara Gordon became a senator, however laudable as an idea, failed to ignite fannish enthusiasm for the character.

Ironically, Alan Moore's use of Gordon as a throwaway victim in the graphic novel THE KILLING JOKE proved the best thing that could have happened to Barbara Gordon in terms of making her popular with a new fan-base-- though of course the credit for rethinking her as "Oracle" goes to Kim Yale and John Ostrander. Oracle will receive a separate writeup.

At present, DC's "new 52" features the Gordon Batgirl in a new series which does seem to fulfill much of the potential that was wasted in the 1970s.

A quick aside about dates: comic books are the only media whose publication dates are unreliable, in that they're generally dated three months ahead of their actual appearance.  Thus the "1967" date on DETECTIVE COMICS #359 is inaccurate, in that the magazine actually appeared on newstands in Nov 1966.  However, because I can't be entirely sure that everything is dependably dated exactly three months ahead-- so that a comic with a March date might be either December of one year or January of another-- I've decided to continue dating characters' comic-book apperances by their somewhat unreliable publication dates.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

YEAR 1966: THE CATWOMAN



Prior to the 1966-68 teleseries, Catwoman, like the rest of Batman's classic villains, had never been translated to audiovisual media. For its first season, the BATMAN producers seemed incapable of making a bad casting-choice-- though they'd make up for it by going in the opposite direction in the following two seasons.

Like the other villains introduced in the first season, this version of Catwoman is a ruthless career criminal, capable of double-crossing a hireling at a moment's notice.  Unlike the comics-Catwoman, the villainess appears more than willing to kill the Dynamic Duo on several occasions.  She becomes a little more merciful in the second season, when the writers incorporate her frustrated desire for Batman, and on occasion she merely tries to reduce the Crusaders to helpless slaves rather than killing them.  Nevertheless, even the more merciful death-traps have a strong sadistic vibe.

Strangely, though Julie Newmar only played the role once in the Spring 1966 season, the version of Catwoman that appears in the big-screen BATMAN movie-- quickly filmed in the summer to take advantage of the teleseries' mammoth popularity-- seems a much less formidable character-- perhaps making it fitting that she's played by another actress, Lee Meriwether.  In all likelihood this bush-league Catwoman came about because the scripter chose to focus on the evildoing of her three male partners-- Joker, Riddler, and Penguin.  Still, she seems to possess so little supervillain-moxie that one wonders why she's even in the group.  Her only skill appears to be her ability to pull off a masquerade as a Russian journalist, which seems to have no great relevance to the villains' overall scheme.  That scheme rested on the improbability that the Batman in this filmic universe had never seen the Princess of Plunder unmasked, but I doubt that the scripter was even thinking of continuity here.


In the second season Newmar returned to the character and she takes on a much stronger persona once more, in spite of being played for more romance and more humor.  Like the TV-Batman she makes a lot more use of super-scientific gadgets than the comic-book character had up to that point, but resembles the comic-book version in that neither possessed any martial abilities.

Newmar was perhaps wise not to play the character in the third and last season.  The character was played with some aplomb by Eartha Kitt, though the plots had become silly and threadbare.

During this period Catwoman made her first prose appearances, in an original novel-- BATMAN VS. THE THREE VILLAINS OF DOOM-- and in a novelization of the film, retitled BATMAN VS. THE FEARSOME FOURSOME, both credited to one "Winston Lyon."  Interestingly, THREE VILLAINS describes Catwoman's costume along the lines of her classic green-and-purple togs.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

YEAR 1965: EMMA PEEL




Though Cathy Gale hit the airwaves first, Emma Peel became the femme formidable most associated with the AVENGERS franchise. 

In the Cathy Gale entry, I wondered whether or not Honor Blackman's take on the tough-girl character might have been just as popular as Diana Rigg's.  On consideration I would say no, in that Blackman had conceived her character largely as a no-nonsense sort of character, for all that she was an amateur.  Rigg, playing the same kind of amateur spy caught in John Steed's weird world of espionage, projects the "aint' foolin' around" air whenever necessary, but in calmer moments puts across a charming insouciance, such as one sees in the shot above, taken from the iconic AVENGERS theme/opening.

More than a few female fans have cited Emma Peel as one of their earliest images of a "strong heroine," not least because of the character's penchant for doling out karate chops and judo throws.  She did on occasion lose a fight, but no more than her partner Steed did.  As series-fans know, Rigg and Patrick Macnee managed to keep viewer interest high by injecting a frequent "are they or aren't they" chemistry, one that fortunately never becomes sappy as in similar American attempts.

Two years later, Emma Peel appeared in one of five paperbacks.  This Emma tended to be somewhat more sardonic and ruthless than the light-hearted TV version..

Three years later-- by which time Diana Rigg had left the AVENGERS teleseries-- Emma Peel made her first comic book appearance from the company Gold Key.  Because of a certain heavyweight competitor, the one issue published was not titled THE AVENGERS but rather JOHN STEED AND EMMA PEEL.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

YEAR 1964: THE BLACK WIDOW

It's at least an interesting turnabout that a character originally intended as a stock stereotypical threat-- in this case, that of a nasty Commie spy-- should eventually become one of Marvel Comics' most respected heroines.

When the Black Widow first appears in TALES OF SUSPENSE #52, her only superpower was her mysterioso hotness.


Garbed in this Natasha Fatale getup she unsurprisingly pulls the wool over Tony Stark not once but twice, but both times she's ultimately thwarted by Iron Man.

Since Lee and/or one of his collaborators had given her a super-person sort of name, though-- one that even suggested a "Black Widow" who'd been published by Marvel's ancestor Timely in the 1940s-- it probably posed no great leap of logic for Stan and Co. to rethink her as a costumed supervillain with artificially-created spider-powers.  Strangely, though it wouldn't be unusual to think of a former spy as possessing martial arts abilities, during the 1960s the new Black Widow was never seen dishing out kicks or karate chops, depending almost entirely on her weapons-system, her "widow's bite" wrist-zapper. 



In AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #86 (dated July 1970), her costume was remodeled into its best-known version-- a slick one-piece black leotard-- and she became a practitioner of extraordinary martial arts.  The SPIDER-MAN guest-appearance was co-ordinated as a lead-in to her series in AMAZING ADVENTURES, but though that series proved short-lived, the Widow continued to get regular exposure in Marvel Comics through her co-starring appearances in DAREDEVIL and her eventual (though much-delayed) membership in THE AVENGERS.


Sunday, May 13, 2012

YEAR 1963: MARVEL GIRL



Critics like Trina Robbins and Alan Moore have been unjust to the Invisible Girl, implying that all there was to her were her stereotypical "girly-girl" traits, ignoring her genuine gutsy moments.  This is particularly egregious in that just two years later Marvel created a female who was guilty of most if not all of the canards directed at Sue Storm.

The most one could say of the early Jean "Marvel Girl" Grey was that she was courageous in a somewhat stereotypical manner.  But where Sue Storm often came off as having a certain amount of grit beneath her femininity, Jean Grey was largely a blank slate as created by Lee and Kirby in X-MEN #1 (Sept 1963).  Her telekinetic power was rarely of much use in early stories, though admittedly by the late 1960s she became more adept with other psychic talents, such as mind reading and psychic attacks.

Her humble powers, however, were less injurious to her persona than the fact that her Silver Age raconteurs-- including those who followed Lee and Kirby-- used her as nothing but "the girl whom the team-leader loves."  X-Men storylines brooded over the difficulties of the group-leader Cyclops as he morosely forbade himself to date Jean, thus almost throwing her into the arms of competitors like Warren "the Angel" Worthington and Cal "the Mimic" Rankin.  But there was scarcely anything in the stories about Jean's personality.  Modern fangrils may not like the personalities of the Invisible Girl or the Wasp, but at least the characters had definite (for pop culture) personas.  The character of Jean Grey went to college, but as I recall the stories never even alluded to what she majored in, or when she dropped classes. To be sure, the FANTASTIC FOUR's Human Torch had a similar abortive college career, but at least he had some valid experiences of his own at college, rather than being someone else's love-object.

Curiously, Jean Grey and the rest of the X-Men made one appearance in the medium of television in 1966, when an episode of THE SUB-MARINER tossed together various scenes from a couple of FANTASTIC FOUR stories into a strange amalgam, with the X-Men being re-christened "the Peace Alliance."

Some years after the cancellation of the first X-MEN series, some creators meditated on the possibility of refurbishing Marvel Girl as a new kickass superheroine called "Ms. Marvel," but in the final version support-character Carol Danvers received the superheroic makeover instead.  However, when the X-MEN received its second and most famous relaunch in 1976, within a few years Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum chose to give Marvel Girl an even more radical remodeling as "Phoenix," who will receive her own separate entry.

For some reason, the name "Marvel Girl" wasn't even used for the 1990s X-MEN teleseries, which billed the character as simply "Jean Grey."



Friday, May 11, 2012

YEAR 1962: CATHY GALE




Cathy Gale (played by Honor Blackman for two seasons of Great Britain's THE AVENGERS from1961 to 1969) was far from the first heroine in pop-fiction who'd been seen to use judo on her opponents, but the producers of the teleseries emphasized her facility with that martial art on a regular basis as soon as Gale's character joined the show in its second year.

Wikipedia sums up her appeal nicely:

"Cathy Gale was considered a trail-blazing female character for British television, displaying a level of self-assurance and physical prowess rarely seen in women on television before that time."

As most fans know, Blackman left the series in 1964 and was replaced by Diana Rigg, playing the character of Emma Peel (who will covered in a future entry).  It's interesting to speculate whether or not Blackman's Gale would have become a pop-phenomenon equal to that of Emma Peel once the teleseries adapted to color photography and was broadcast in the United States.

The character appeared in one paperback spinoff novel, titled simply THE AVENGERS.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

YEAR 1961: THE INVISIBLE GIRL


I suppose I might be fairly accused of unoriginality in using here the same illustration I used in an earlier post, but the scene captures a different set of associations here.

Of all Silver Age heroines, the Invisible Girl-- who in the 1980s would "become a woman," as in changing her name to "Invisible Woman"-- gets the least respect.  The Lee-Kirby FANTASTIC FOUR did include scenarios that got a lot of mileage out of feminine stereotypes, whether it was making fun of her for feminine activities like shopping or expecting her to be the "den mother" of the supergroup.  (Side-note: given how many fans think Kirby plotted everything in FF, it's surprising that he's rarely blamed for these politically incorrect lapses, though it's clear to me that Kirby's art sets up a number of comic bits, like Sue getting pissy with Reed because he doesn't notice her new hairdo).

Nevertheless, most of Sue's detractors pay no attention to scenes like the one above, where the gutsy heroine-- at a time before she acquired her force-field powers-- takes on Doctor Doom by herself, just to prove that she can do it.  She does end up needing rescue from her male partners,  but that's no stain on her escutcheon: it is Doctor Doom, after all. 

Though she wasn't the first heroine created for the Silver Age of Comics, arguably she's better known that 1959's Supergirl, who seems to wax and wane with the times-- while the Invisible Girl/Woman remains, well-- highly visible.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

YEAR 1960: PRINCESS ASA


I've commented elsewhere that not until the 1950s did American cinema begin to spawn a fair number of  femmes formidables, and the same is true for foreign cinema.  One of the few non-American films I've referenced thus far was the British CAT GIRL from 1957.

It was the Brits' most noteworthy competitors in horror, the Italians, who ended up spawning not just a particular group of female monsters, but the first actress to become predominantly associated with the marketing of horror, after the fashion of male actors like Karloff, Lugosi, and Price. Ironically, the Italians accomplished this by using a actress born in Great Britain.

A smattering of Italian horror films had preceded 1960's BLACK SUNDAY, but SUNDAY impressed the new decade's audiences with the unique, exotic looks of Barbara Steele.  In the film Steele portrays the dual role of Princess Asa, a centuries-dead witch who rises from the grave to avenge herself on the descendants of her murderers, and one of Asa's own descendants, the innocent Katia.

The opening sequence of BLACK SUNDAY-- quite violent for the period-- did a lot toward propelling the film to its fame, but Steele's performance was equally important, conveying the witch's cruelty and sadism with as much skill as she played the guileless innocent.

SUNDAY's only disappointment is that director Mario Bava concentrates so much on well-photographed atmosphere that in the final analysis Princess Asa, despite being a vampire as well as a witch, doesn't really *do* much beyond being evil.  But on the strength of that performance Steele made several more noteworthy horror-films-- PIT AND THE PENDULUM, CASTLE OF BLOOD, and NIGHTMARE CASTLE-- a few of which I may cover in future posts

Monday, May 7, 2012

YEAR 1959: SUPERGIRL


Though Lois Lane was the premiere feminine influence on the Superman mythology, a case could be made that his super-cousin was number two in importance.

It must be admitted that Supergirl had a spotty career in the years of her introduction.  Perhaps in keeping with the mythos' love of secrets, for the first year or so during her appearance in a back-up series in ACTION COMICS, Superman kept the "Maid of Might" secret from the world, with the justification that he might need to use her as a "secret weapon."

A skeptic might assume that Superman may've had some issues about not being the only Kryptonian hero on the planet any more.  To be fair, the writers did employ Supergirl in a few stories that hinged on the populace's non-knowledge of her existence.  In addition, the editor may have been waiting to see whether or not she sparked any popularity with the young audience.  One assumes that there was some positive response by the time of ACTION #260 (1960), when Supergirl pleads with her cousin to be allowed more than "mild, secret adventures."   However, it took another 25 issues before Supergirl officially debuted to the contemporary world of Silver-Age DC, in ACTION #285.

Once this took place, the character arguably became more assertive, with one of her best 1960s battles occuring in ACTION #339 (seen above), when she meets Brainiac for the first time and kicks his android ass.

Unfortunately, the 1970s and 1980s weren't that kind to Supergirl, as she wasn't able to sustain a successful series, be it in SUPERGIRL, ADVENTURE COMICS, or THE DARING NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERGIRL-- though to be sure, she never enjoyed the best art or writing in any of these venues.

The big comedown, according to fannish lore, was the failure of the 1984 SUPERGIRL film.  The film suffered from its own creative problems, but allegedly DC was more willing thereafter to view the cousin from Krypton as an expendable commodity, leading to her famous fade-out in CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS.

Though that Supergirl died, arguably she continues to influence some if not all of her later incarnations. 

Thursday, May 3, 2012

YEAR 1958: THE FIFTY-FOOT WOMAN



In terms of the title (though not so much the story), ATTACK OF THE 50-FOOT WOMAN is one of the best-known of  the female-oriented "creature features" of the 1950s.  The film has been remade (with several changes to the Mark Hanna script) and parodied in assorted venues.  It would seem to be the only "femme formidable" film for director Nathan Juran/Hertz, though scripter Hanna also produced the "lady sheriff" western GUNSLINGER, which will be covered in a future post.

Like CAT GIRL, ATTACK deals with a rich woman beset with the problems of having a rat for a husband. Wealthy Nancy Archer, neglected by her cheating husband Harry, has the additional misfortune of a "close encounter" with a gigantic male alien.  She becomes sick from the encounter and her husband and his girlfriend plot to kill her secretly.  However, she becomes a giantess-- albeit one who manages to remain adequately clothed at all times-- and goes out looking to avenge herself on the plotters.

The tone of the film's final sequence is perhaps a little too jokey, what with Nancy stomping around the local dives calling her husband's name, "HARRRRY!"  I can't exactly say that ATTACK exploits the themes of the soon-to-be-burgeoning feminism as such. But I imagine it gave some women in 1950s audiences a charge out of seeing themselves as "the bigger sex."

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

YEAR 1957: LEONORA BRANDT


For 1957 here's a rewriting of CAT PEOPLE: CAT GIRL, written by the same scripter who wrote THE SHE CREATURE the previous year.

Leonora, played by a young Barbara Shelley, is a woman dominated and marginalized by the men in her life-- her husband, her former boyfriend (and later, psychiatrist), and her uncle.  The uncle informs that Leonora that their family is heir to a curse.  Victims of said curse share a mutual identity with a killer beast, in this case a wild leopard.  When the uncle dies, Leonora gains a mysterious communion with the leopard, and finds that she can wield control over the beast, and make it kill-- for instance, her cheating husband.

On the NATURALISTIC UNCANNY MARVELOUS blog I've written a fuller review of CAT GIRL. In part I noted one way in which I preferred it to CAT PEOPLE:


CAT GIRL isn’t as stylishly directed as CAT PEOPLE; Alfred Shaughnessy is never more than simply competent. However, though most critics prefer CAT PEOPLE’s script for its ambivalence as to the existence of the supernatural, I find that sort of ambivalence tedious. I like the way CAT GIRL shows up the conceit and pretension of patriarchal society, as represented by Richard and Brian, by showing the profundity of the world of feelings to which women are sensitive—and, by extension, the reality of Leonora’s shared identity with a prehuman creature.