Wednesday, August 29, 2012

YEAR 1984: SUPERGIRL



The debut of Kara Zor-El for the first time in an audiovisual medium may (according to fannish scuttlebutt) have led to the death of the character a year later when DC's CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS came looking for disposable longjohn-types.

The genesis of the film was less than propitious.  Without the strong influence of a director like Richard Donner, who molded the superior SUPERMAN films for the Salkind production group, SUPERGIRL feels like nothing more than a telefilm introducing a new series-character.  Though director Jeannot Szwarc and scripter David Odell had some decent enough ideas, the execution proved pedestrian and the film itself did not perform well-- thus leading to some fans' suspicions that DC Comics "terminated" the character as part of their 1985 house-cleaning.

On the plus side, Helen Slater delivers a fine performance, combining qualities of innocence and courage in just the needed propotions.  Some of the romantic overtones show promise, with Supergirl battling not just to save Earth but also to win her prospective boyfriend from the clutches of an evil Older Woman.

On the minus side, Szwarc begins with a lame premise-- Supergirl goes to Earth hunting for a magical doohickey to keep Argo City alive-- and then lets the action plod around for most of the running-time until finally pulling out some stops for a moderately exciting climax. But by the time one gets there-- after suffering through scenes like one in which the Maid of Might takes ten minutes to dispose of a couple of grabby truckers-- one isn't likely to care much.

Friday, August 24, 2012

YEAR 1983: AMETHYST, PRINCESS OF GEMWORLD



In some ways DC Comics exceeded Marvel in its depiction of femmes formidables in the Golden and Silver Ages, though Marvel's breakout books tended to outshine many of DC's solid but less showy endeavors.  In the 1980s, which I for one deem to be the late Bronze Age, DC arguably showed more enthusiasm for featuring heroines in their own features, a trend that seems to continue to this era.


AMETHYST, beginning as a 12-issue "maxi-series" written by Dan Mishkin and Gary Cohn and drawn by Ernie Colon, was a strong attempt to create a fantasy-heroine with enough of a regular "costume" to sustain popularity with the superhero crowd.

In keeping with prose-fantasies like the "Narnia" books of C.S. Lewis, the gateway to a fantastic world is also tied to the central character's desire to mature quickly.  On her thirteenth birthday earthbound Amy Winston is kidnapped to an alternate dimension known as Gemworld, where she ages to a young woman of roughly twenty.  There she finds out that by birth she is a native princess of Gemworld, that her earthly parents were only adoptive in nature, and that she possesses incredible magic powers with which she can battle the forces of evil menacing her cosmos.  At the same time, whenever Amethyst returned to the earth-plane, she immediately regressed to her 13-year-old "secret identity."

Ernie Colon, known for many years as an artist on RICHIE RICH, occasionally allows a few "cartoony" characters in the visuals but on the whole strives to keep an enchanting tone to his depiction of the jewel-obsessed universe.  That said, Colon is not an outstanding designer of costumes and creatures, so his execution of Gemworld is pleasing but not outstanding.  Cohn and Mishkin are solid craftsmen, but rarely manage to put across anything more than your basic intrigues and skullduggeries.

That said, AMETHYST has been revived on occasion-- which is more than one can say for most of DC Comics' forays into magical fantasy-- and is due for yet another revival in September 2012.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

YEAR 1982: V.I. WARSHAWSKI



Though there had been tough lady detectives in earlier eras, ranging from Bertha Cool in the 1930s to Honey West in the 1950s, many sources credit Sara Paretsky's V.I. (for "Victoria Iphigeia") Warshawski as the first truly feminist detective.

I confess I've only read a smattering of the Paretsky books.  I liked the debut adventure, INDEMNITY ONLY, which selectively rewrote the myth of Persephone in feminist terms. Later entries like BURN MARKS and TUNNEL VISION proved less interesting.

Nevertheless, Warshawski-- adept with karate and with a sem-automatic pistol-- certainly qualifies as a "femme formidable."  Her style of feminine toughness implicitly stands as a literary response to all the tough-as-nails male private eyes that defined the genre from Sam Spade to Mike Hammer and onward.

The character had one movie adaptation that will discussed separately.  Personally, I'd think she'd do better in television, but that's just me.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

YEAR 1981: ELEKTRA



Technically, Elektra's another character who first appeared in a comic in late 1980, as she first appears in DAREDEVIL #168, dated January 1981.  A miss being as good as a mile, though...

Her creator Frank Miller has freely admitted that he patterned Elektra on Will Eisner's lady thief Sand Saref, right down to having his male hero pursue the way of law and justice while his former girlfriend pursued illegal thrills. However, given that the late 1970s began the slow transformation of many juvenile-aimed superhero comics into what I've termed Adult Pulp, Elektra was designed to be a much darker figure than Eisner's jaunty lady thief.

Like Daredevil himself, Elektra's origins are informed by "father issues," in that the death of her father depresses and disillusions her to the extent that her practice of the martial arts is also corrupted.  She falls in with one of the baddest of the bad crowds, a sect of murderous ninjas called the Hand.  Though in time she breaks away from their order, from them she learns the discipline of being an assassin-- in which identity she falls afoul of Daredevil, a.k.a. her former lover Matt Murdock.

The continuing altercations of Elektra and Daredevil-- as well as other continuing villains Bullseye and Kingpin-- transformed the DAREDEVIL title into a dark tapestry of brutality and sadism, with a few touches of Freudian-themed sex in the mix as well.  Finally, in the DAREDEVIL title at least, Elektra transcended the pollution in her soul.  However, Miller did not leave the character alone, last reviving for the 1990 graphic novel ELEKTRA LIVES AGAIN.

For some time, Marvel kept the Elektra character sequestered from most of the Marvel universe, apparently in the anticipation that Miller might choose to come back and sell more Elektra books.  Eventually, when Miller did not return, Marvel began farming out the character to other raconteurs, much to Miller's dismay. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

YEAR 1980: STARFIRE AND RAVEN










Both Starfire and Raven make their first appearances in a hype-preview in DC COMICS PRESENTS #26 (Oct 80), leading up to the debut of THE NEW TEEN TITANS title.  As most longtime comics-fans will know, NEW TEEN TITANS was one of the most successful titles for DC Comics during a period in which it's often alleged that DC began to make inroads on Marvel's 1970s dominance.  Whether this is true or not, it's undeniable that NTT was successful, and much of its success stemmed from its creators Marv Wolfman and George Perez following narrative models supplied both by Marvel Comics generally and THE X-MEN specifically.

Though the revamped X-MEN title of the 1970s would eventually become known for spotlighting a plethora of strong female characters, it must be said that in the original conception the X-group only had one female member, just like the majority of co-ed hero-groups throughout comics history.  FWIW, the New Teen Titans started with three female charter members.  One was Wonder Girl, a holdover from the last two launches of the title, who will be considered in a separate entry.

Starfire and Raven, in addition to male team-member Cyborg, were all conceived for the TITANS relaunch.  And though the two heroines had origins independent of one another, there's a sense in which they reflect opposing female archetypes.

Sigmund Freud is well known for having originated the opposition of the "madonna and the whore," the woman who is set apart from impure sexual matters and the woman who is entirely defined by such matters.  Starfire and Raven aren't quite that polarized as sexual archetypes.  But I might typify them rather as "the Lusty Wench and the Nun."

Starfire is repeatedly defined, not simply by her sexuality, but by her volatile emotionality.  Whether she's fighting an enemy or pursuing a potential lover, the character is defined as going all-out.

Raven is defined by a nun-like sense of restriction, of constantly being hemmed in by her demonic past.  Beyond that, Wolfman and Perez chose to give her a power that would constantly challenge her personal boundaries: they made her an empath, always being tortured by her encounters with the extreme emotions of others.

Interestingly, though I don't think Wolfman and Perez ever played Starfire and Raven off one another to any great extent, a 2003 episode of the TEEN TITANS cartoon, entitled "Switched," went to great trouble to stress the contrast between Starfire, who has to pour forth her emotions in order to use certain powers, and Raven, who constantly has to rein in her emotional nature.  (The cartoon will receive its own entry as well at some later date.)