Wednesday, June 27, 2012

YEAR 1975: STORM




Though the Valkyrie may be viewed as Marvel Comics' first true powerhouse, Storm is the first one to take on mythic properties in terms of her popularity.

Created by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum for GIANT-SIZED X-MEN #1, Storm was one of several new characters designed for the new "international X-Men," one of Marvel's attempts to diverge from the dominantly WASP-y look of most superhero books.  Storm possessed formidable powers, able to conjure up great winds, snowstorms, and lightning. Yet her dominant characterization-- that of being regal, yet without pretension-- may have been the quality that most endeared fans to the character.  Her original costume by co-creator Dave Cockrum most coalesces both her queenly bearing and her "child of nature" attitude.

It's interesting to speculate whether or not Storm, or other X-Men, would have become as persuasive had Chris Claremont not taken over the series' writing from Wein.  Today it's fashionable to sneer at Claremont's stylistic affections, but his passion for the characters-- particularly in terms of giving X-MEN's female characters their unique charisma-- can't be underrated in assessing the success of the series and its protagonists.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

YEAR 1974: WONDER WOMAN

By late 1972 DC Comics had abandoned their experiment with the WONDER WOMAN title, in which the Amazing Amazon lost her super-powers and had to fight evil with the use of mundane martial arts.  Thus the super-powered heroine had been back on comics-racks for over a year when ABC-TV debuted the first live-action version of the character.

There had been one earlier attempt to film Wonder Woman as a live-action TV-show pilot in 1967, co-written by Stanley Ralph Ross of the BATMAN teleseries fame.  The short pilot, which played the heroine for lowbrow comedy, was never broadcast but has been since been exhumed on sites like You Tube.  The 1974 TV-movie WONDER WOMAN, also intended as a pilot for a never-realized teleseries, treated the character seriously but took the same approach as the DC experiment.  Thus this incarnation of the heroine (played by former tennis pro Cathy Lee Crosby) was also a former inhabitant of Paradise Island who had left her otherworldly culture behind in order to fight evil in man's world with essentially down-to-earth weapons and abilities.  One may speculate that the telemovie's production team (including STAR TREK alumnus John D.F. Black) chose this approach less because of DC's short-lived Wonder Woman experiment but because the mundane approach was cheaper.  Crosby did adequately in the role and the telemovie was allegedly a ratings success, but its only effect was to encourage the development of a new series, more in tune with the super-powered heroine as seen in the current comics and the SUPER FRIENDS TV show.



Stanley Ralph Ross was brought in once more, this time for a considerably "straighter" version of Wonder Woman (albeit with more than a few of the farcical touches found in BATMAN); in addition, a new production team, including Douglas "DYNASTY" Cramer, took over the filming of the telemovie pilot THE NEW ORIGINAL WONDER WOMAN.  Viewer response for the series was again favorable, so that in 1976 ABC released 11 more episodes of a WONDER WOMAN series (set in the WWII era of the original Marston series).  The series' expense discouraged ABC from continuing the project, but CBS picked it up for two more seasons, cutting costs by setting the immortal Amazon's adventures in the present day.



The TV-show's scripts were rarely better than average, and in that respect were far inferior to the original Marston comics.  The show's use of FX and fight-choreography was better, but only just.  What keeps the show alive for fans today is the perfect casting of statuesque Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman, who embodied the bright-eyed, not-qutie-naive innocence of the juvenile heroine-ideal.  As if this writing, no further live-action adaptations of the Amazon have been officially broadcast, though segments of a 2011 David E. Kelley pilot, starring Adrienne Palicki, have surfaced on the Internet. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

YEAR 1973: COFFY



As I noted in the BUTTERFLY essay, COFFY was Pam Grier's breakout film.  Grier's "Coffy" is a nurse who becomes pissed at the drug trade after her brother dies of a drug overdose, so she goes after the gangsters with guns blazing.

Wikipedia relates this behind-the-scenes history:

"According to writer/director Hill, the project began when American International Pictures' head of production, Larry Gordon, lost the rights to the film Cleopatra Jones after making a handshake deal with the producers. Gordon subsequently approached Hill to quickly make a movie about an African American woman's revenge and beat Cleopatra Jones to market. Hill wanted to work with Pam Grier with whom he had worked on The Big Doll House (1971). The film ended up earning more money than Cleopatra Jones and established Grier as an icon of the genre.
Coffy is notable in its depiction of a strong female lead (a capable nurse), something rare in the genre at the time, and also in its then-unfashionable anti-drug message. It was remade in 1981, with an all-white cast, as Lovely But Deadly."

It's certainly interesting, if true, that AIP's COFFY was designed as a response to CLEOPATRA JONES, which was a more expensive-looking production by Warner Brothers, in that Coffy takes the opposite track: emphasizing the squalor and sleaze with which the heroine must contend.  By comparison, federal agent Cleopatra Jones, as essayed by model Tamara Dobson, conveys a sense of being "above" all the drug-trafficking she battles.  Coffy seems a more "everywoman" hero, particularly in the racial conflict conveyed by the film's end scene.  For this reason she may have been acquired a broader appeal with a variety of audiences, though to be sure her period of action-film stardom ended when the "blaxploitation" craze petered out.  Nevertheless, Grier remained an icon and, unlike Dobson, continues to work in films and television to the present day.

The Wikipedia excerpt has three problems.  As I noted earlier, Grier isn't an especially significant character in 1971's BIG DOLL HOUSE, but she was one of the stars of 1972's BIG BIRD CAGE (also by Jack Hill).  I suspect that film, not DOLL HOUSE, was a likely influence on the producers' deciding to give Grier an even more central role for COFFY.

In addition, while COFFY would seem to be the first femme-formidable within the blaxploitation genre, she wasn't the first of her kind, even in American cinema.  Two films that may have influenced COFFY's rise to fame were 1971's GINGER, in which blonde Cheri Caffaro works with the government to expose a drug/prostitution ring, and 1972's HANNIE CAULDER, in which Raquel Welch takes up arms to avenge her rape by three outlaws.

Lastly, I've seen LOVELY BUT DEADLY, and I don't think it's a remake of COFFY.  At most DEADLY might've swiped the basic plot of the "anti-drug crusader," but nothing else resembles the 1973 classic.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

YEAR 1972: LADY SNOWBLOOD




One of the more noteworthy femmes formidables of 1970s manga was the righteous assassin Lady Snowblood, who sometimes went after her (evil) targets with complicated schemes but who could also devastate any number of men with her superlative sword-skills.

Created by writer Kazuo Koike and artist Kazuo Kamimura for the manga magazine WEEKLY PLAYBOY, Snowblood's adventures have much of the same emotional rigor one finds in Koike's samurai epic, LONE WOLF AND CUB.  I devoted a myth-analysis of one Lady Snowblood story.

One year later a film starring Meiko Kaji portrayed Snowblood's origin, with a sequel following the next year.  Quentin Tarantino's KILL BILL pays homage to several scenes in the first SNOWBLOOD, as extensively analyzed in this REMARKABLE blogpost.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

YEAR 1971: THE BUTTERFLY



Although Marvel's Storm remains the best-known black superheroine, the first one appeared in a backup strip in HELL RIDER #1, one of a handful of black-and-white comic-magazines from Skywald Publications, which took its name from publishers Sol Brodsky and Israel Waldman. Brodsky, formerly the production manager for Marvel Comics, would seem to have been most responsible for the feel of the HELL RIDER magazine, which was that of regular Marvel superheroes infused with the mildly transgressive sex and violence possible for the non-Code b&w magazines.

The Butterfly appeared in two backup strips in the two issues of HELL RIDER, as well as participating in a crossover between her, the titular Hell Rider, and the magazine's third feature, "The Wild Bunch."  The Butterfly was never given a formal origin, but was simply presented as singer Marian Michaels, who fights crime in a costume that includes a jet pack to give her flight and wings that radiate light to blind evildoers. 

The Butterfly almost certainly takes her cue from the growth of "blaxploitation" cinema in the late 1960s and early 1970s, though Skywald was slightly ahead of the curve purely in respect to creating a memorable black femme formidable.  Not until 1973 would cinema come out with two vehicles for black action-heroines, Pam Grier's COFFY and Tamara Dobson's CLEOPATRA JONES.  To be sure, Pam Grier made two appearances as a formidable femme in two 1971 WIP films-- WOMEN IN CAGES and THE BIG DOLL HOUSE-- but she isn't the star of either production, and it seems unlikely that the Skywald creators had her on their minds when they created the first black costumed heroine.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

YEAR 1970: THE VALKYRIE


Though I don't agree with critics who dismiss Marvel's 1960s superheroines as wimps, I've admitted in some of my ARCHETYPAL ARCHIVE essays (such as this one) that the Valkyrie was one of the few heroines whose power was close to the level of Marvel's "big guns" like Hulk, Sub-Mariner etc.  But as I noted in the above cited essay, the Valkyrie begins life as a put-up-job: as an alter ego for the evil Enchantress (another one for whom I've not yet done an entry).  Much later, an incredibly convoluted J.M.de Matteis story would establish that the image conjured up by the villainess was that of a real Asgardian warrior-maiden, so in a retcon sense, AVENGERS #83 in 1970 is indeed the first apperance of the Valkyrie's image, if not her essence.



The essence would appear about a year later, in INCREDIBLE HULK #142.  I critiqued this story in this essay, which was originally intended to be part of a full-fledged examination of the character's myth-history.  I lost interest at some point, but the HULK story remains the first time the Valkyrie takes on a decisive persona, even if it would take the aforesaid retcon to establish that she was more than just the Enchantress' spell overlaying a mortal persona.




As most Marvel readers know, the most-used version of the Valkyrie would appear about two years later, with the Valkyrie persona overlaying yet another mortal bit-player in DEFENDERS #4.



Arguably this character proved to be the "glue" that held the dysfunctional Defenders together, much as Captain America had been used in the early AVENGERS stories, and for the same reason: neither of them had much of a life outside of their respective groups.  It may also be argued that Valkyrie's potential was never realized, precisely because she remained associated only with that super-group.  Still, she remains a heavy-hitter in all of her incarnations, and marks a shift in Marvel Comics' apparent attitude toward overly powerful heroines.