Monday, December 2, 2013
In one of the JUNGLE TALES OF TARZAN, the ape-man kills one of the native tribesmen who have been his enemies since they killed his adoptive mother. Tarzan then debates with himself as to whether or not he should eat the flesh of a dead man, just as he does with most of the animals he kills. Since there's no rational way that Tarzan could decide against cannibalism, author Burroughs fills him with an instinctive revulsion at the idea of eating man-flesh, and there the matter ends.
In 1946 Al Capp created a feral female with no such convenient inhibitions: the Wolf Gal, who lived in one of the forested areas neighboring Dogpatch with a pack of wolves. She and her human-eating pack perpetually prey on any humans who venture too close to their territory, and though Wolf Gal could speak as well as any Dogpatch hillbilly-- which isn't saying much-- she thinks of herself as another wolf and considers all other humans her enemies.
Up to this point Capp had created many predatory females, but their mode of predation concerned attempting to seduce Li'l Abner Yokum before his true love Daisy Mae could link him to her in marriage. Wolf Gal has some leanings in that direction, but the thing that gets her on Abner's trail was somewhat more involved. When Wolf Gal turns eighteen, she and her pack manage to corner an old crone in her secluded cabin. Bargaining for her life, the crone reveals that she knows Wolf Gal's nature: that at birth she was born with a "wolf's heart" despite the otherwise normal natures of her hillfolk parents. A nearby wolf-pack senses that the child is a kindred spirit, so the pack attacks and devours her parents-- much to the delight of the infant child. In addition to revealing Wolf Gal's origins to the lupine Amazon, the crone also makes a prediction: that Wolf Gal will only know the meaning of "love" under certain circumstances. Wolf Gal, stung by curiosity, begins to study human mating rituals, as well as catching her first sight of Abner. She interprets the prophecy to mean that she must kill Abner to learn what love is.
There follows one of the quickest transformations from "nature" to "culture" ever shown in fiction. Wolf Gal decides that the only way she can get close to Abner in his Dogpatch milieu is to educate herself in the ways of women-- and not hillbilly women, but "sassiety ladies." She journeys to some big city, locates a finishing-school, and by threatening the teacher's life forces the woman to give Wolf Gal the appearance of a well-bred woman.
I won't dwell on the details of her plan, except to note that of course Abner does not get killed, nor does Wolf Gal manage to devour him in any less grisly manner. After the plan fails Wolf Gal returns to her wild life and continued to make occasional appearances in the ABNER strip. Her last, to the best of my recollection, was in the 1960s. By that time Abner had finally married Daisy Mae, which on one level should not have prevented other women from chasing him. Yet for some reason Capp dropped that device with respect to Abner: it was almost as if the suspense was gone once Daisy Mae managed to "pluck his cherry," so to speak. However, to generate a new source of romantic suspense, in 1954 Capp introduced Abner's kid brother "Tiny," who like Abner was a big dumb cluck who ignored all the women who pursued him. This included Wolf Gal, and she didn't take rejection well. She fattened him up with lots of food and tried to ship Tiny to her wolf-brethren for a full-course meal. Like Abner Tiny too survived and Wolf Gal faded from the scene.
In addition to commanding her wolf-brothers, Wolf Gal had an appropriately savage way of fighting: she bit chunks of flesh out of anyone who opposed her. I thought it was pretty strongly implied that she consumed humans as a matter of course, allowing for some comic scenes in which she straddles her victims, who think she wants sex rather than food. Al Capp seemed to have a thing for powerful female figures, underscored by this dialogue exchange between Wolf Gal and her finishing-school teacher:
WOLF GAL: "Are there any other girls who look like 'ladies' on the outside and feel like she-wolves inside?"
TEACHER: "Yes! Oh (sob) yes-- Most of them!"
Sunday, December 1, 2013
The Blonde Phantom is most famous for sporting one of the most non-functional superhero costumes of all time: high heels and an ankle-length red evening gown.
However, if one takes away the costume (so to speak), what's left is a perfectly serviceable action-heroine. Strangely, I've seen one online critique claiming that the character couldn't fight at all and depended upon her sort-of-boyfriend to defend her. In addition to the panel posted above, I've seen at least one story in which the Phantom defends herself quite ably against a gang of hoods, thus undercutting their expectations about easily conquering a female opponent. So clearly her creators-- Stan Lee and Syd Shores, who introduced her in ALL SELECT #11-- meant the Phantom to be a tuff girl. However, of the smattering of Blonde Phantom stories that I've read, a number of them are rather low-key, mundane mysteries in which neither the Phantom nor her boyfriend display much activity. It's likely that those who have dismissed the character have not encountered her more action-oriented stories.
The series' running gag was clearly a riff on Siegel and Shuster's SUPERMAN, in which the hero(ine) appears to be a button-down type in the workaday world, only to break free and become a daredevil in a costume. As Louise Grant the heroine worked as a secretary for P.I. Mark Mason. but she donned her pumps and her red gown to fight crime and lend assistance to her handsome boss. Naturally, Mason nursed a passion for the mysterious crimefighter but tended to take his dowdy secretary for granted-- though I do recall one story in which he showed a certain possessiveness toward both of them. I suppose one could take the standard feminist interpretation, that the Phantom was more helpmate than heroine-- but only a close reading of all the Golden Age stories could confirm or deny that verdict.
Friday, November 29, 2013
1945, the last year of WWII, was not a particularly strong year for femmes formidables: the jnext significant "boom years" would commence in the next year with both comics-heroines and the femmes fatales of cinema's films noirs.
I confess that I've only read a handful of Firehair stories, but my overall impression is that she was nothing but a transparent attempt to create a western version of Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. Just as Sheena is a white woman raised by Black African tribesmen, Firehair is raised by Native American tribesmen. The main difference is that while Sheena was raised from childhood, Firehair is a normal adult woman of the late 1800s when she undergoes her cultural transformation. Thanks to a wagon-train attack by a raiding-party made up of phony Indians, she loses her memory of her old identity as a civilized white woman. A tribe raises her as one of their own and gives her the name Firehair, but she doesn't act at all like the squaws of the tribe, displaying greater fighting-skills-- fighting, riding, weapons-play-- than any of her red brothers. Later in the series Firehair regains her memory but decides to stick with the tribe rather than return to the white man's world. And why not? She wasn't technically the ruler of her tribe, but she was implicitly the "big dog" in their ranks, whereas she'd only be another woman in white society.
Whereas Fiction House's Sheena stories are fairly witty for their genre, Firehair's tend to be rather routine, though as is usual for Fiction House, the art is at least lively.
Tuesday, November 19, 2013
In the original Marston-Peter WONDER WOMAN series, Giganta was something of a penny-ante player. She begins life in WONDER WOMAN #9 as a female gorilla, whom wacky inventor Professor Zool transforms into a muscular red-headed human being, automatically gifted with human speech though tending to talk in a rough patois suggesting her animal nature. Zool accomplishes this miracle in a far more merciful manner than his symbolic ancestor Doctor Moreau: using an energy-radiating "evolution machine." However, the machine gets out of control and reverts the rest of the world to caveman days. Wonder Woman's endeavors to set things right are complicated by the "gorilla girl" and her attempt to create a new regime governed by pure force. Giganta's only other Golden Age appearance was her alliance with the criminal group "Villainy Inc," for which a separate essay is necessary.
Within the corpus of the Marston mythology, Giganta's main significance was as another example of Marston playing with expectations about body-form, since Giganta's drawn to be far taller and more muscular than the average woman. This was not one of Marston's more pronounced tropes, though he did also execute a couple of stories about super-tall Amazons.
Giganta might have been largely forgotten had she not been selected to be a charter member of the "Legion of Doom" in the 1970s SUPER FRIENDS cartoon. This brought about a change in her powers and status that DC Comics has continued to exploit in current comics, and will receive separate treatment later as well.
Friday, October 25, 2013
The original Valkyrie only made a handful of appearances in Hillman Comics' AIRBOY feature, debuting as an enemy to the titular pilot-hero in AIR FIGHTERS v.#2, no.#2.
In that debut she leads an all-female squadron of fighter-pilots on behalf of the Nazi cause during WWII, and proves instrumental in capturing Airboy and delivering him to a Nazi commander. However, some of Valkyrie's fellow pilots try to liberate Airboy, so the commander orders them whipped for their disloyalty. Displaying the sort of ideological flip-flop characteristic of Golden Age comics, the German lady pilot instantly decides to betray her country and to help Airboy escape, if he helps liberate her friends. It's such an extreme about-face that I can't help but wonder if there was something else going on between Valkyrie and her all-girl squad-- something with an affinity to those famous lesbian pilots of pop-fiction, "Pussy Galore and her Abro-Cats."
Pussycats aside, Valkyrie quickly transfers her affections to young Airboy within that same story, sealing their bargain with a big smooch-- and in her subsequent appearances during the WWII years, she remained in a loose romantic relationship with the hero. Her last two Golden Age apperances following the war recast her as a Communist agent who had no continuity-ties with the original version.
The character was revived in the 1980s by Eclipse as support-cast for their new AIRBOY comic, and even received her own mini-series. Given that her outfit and demeanor were pretty bitchin', this was definitely one of the best revivals of a forgotten forties character thus far seen in the comics medium.
Friday, October 18, 2013
Since Quality Comics' "Miss America" character died on the vine, their competitor Timely felt comfortable utilizing the name for a new character, who would enjoy a more noteworthy career. Starting in MARVEL MYSTERY #49, Madeline Joyce received super-powers as the result of a lightning strike, and immediately took up crimefighting as "Miss America." Aside from the one constant ability of flight, Miss America's powers varied wildly, ranging from super-strength to X-ray vision. Some versions had her running around wearing glasses in her superhero identity, a clear reverse-riff on Clark Kent's schtick of doffing glasses to become Superman.
This online reprint of a "Miss America" story suggests that in her 1940s incarnation she was just a middling-to-fair superheroine. Without getting into her later incarnations at Marvel, the original character's greatest distinction may have been her charter membership in Timely's short-lived superhero team, the "All-Winners Squad."
Tuesday, October 8, 2013
The only female star of Hillman Comics' AIR FIGHTERS COMICS was the redoubtable "Black Angel," a British socialite who assumed a secret identity in order to carry on her private war against the Axis. By some reckonings she was the only character in AIR FIGHTERS that might be deemed a "superhero," given that she wore a skintight costume. Like many other superheroes from Superman on down, she had the mysterious ability to run around with her bare face hanging out, and no one (to the best of my knowledge) ever recognized her. So many comic-book heroes-- in contrast to their pulp forbears-- ran around without masks that one must wonder if many artists simply didn't like drawing them. To be sure masks do cut down on the expressions one can conjure with. In the illustration above the Angel certainly looks a lot more pissed with no mask than she would with one.
Speaking of pulps, most of the features in AIR FIGHTERS shared with the pulps an affection for fast-paced, rip-roaring, lurid adventures with only a marginal plotline. The Black Angel's adventures against foes like the Baroness Blood, Madame Claw and the Hag from Hades all contributed to a strong Gothic atmosphere. The Angel, like all the heroes of AIR FIGHTERS, was a superb fighter-pilot and showed a high level of martial athleticism on the ground as well.
Like most Hillman heroes she disappeared after the war, but her character appeared in Eclipse's 1980s AIRBOY titles. She had aged normally and passed on her secret ID to a younger woman, who was a more literally "black" Angel.
Wednesday, October 2, 2013
Introduced in CAPTAIN MARVEL ADVENTURES #18, Mary Marvel was the second major spin-off from the Fawcett Captain Marvel, as she was preceded by "Captain Marvel Jr" in 1941. Unlike Junior, the superheroine was literally related to her perceptor's true identity, as Mary was introduced as the long lost sister of orphan Billy Batson. The most interesting aspect of her origin-story revolves around Billy figuring out how she could possibly summon the powers of the all-male coterie of transhuman beings who made up his magical anagram "Shazam." As shown above, it was decided that a girl hero should get her power from female transhumans, even if the writer had to make up a female goddess named "Zephyrus."
In general the Fawcett "Mary Marvel" tales-- appearing in WOW COMICS the year after she debuted-- shared with the rest of the Marvel Family strong if simple plots and winsome humor. The Mary stories are a tad more violent than one expects for stories of a preteen girl. Given that Mary was one of the few heroines to be a "heavy hitter," she showed a remarkable tendency to beat the hell of her villains, though to be sure the other Fawcett heroes are about the same. Given that the company avoided overt sexualization-- Mary remains a flat-chested juvenile for most of her original run-- maybe the violence was a compensating factor.
Mary would continue to appear in DC's adaptation of the Marvel Family, as well as making her television debut in the 1981 SHAZAM! cartoon.
Monday, September 2, 2013
One of two Goklen Age heroines named "Miss America," the first one appeared only the first seven issues of Quality's MILITARY COMICS, and then disappeared until she was revived by DC Comics.
The most interesting aspect of the first Miss America was the means by which she gained her powers. During the chaos of World War II, ordinary woman Joan Dale was visited by the Statue of Liberty itself-- or more likely, some "spirit of liberty" dwelling within the statue. The Statue gave Joan extraordinary transformation powers, and for her short career she used those powers against criminals and WWII saboteurs. She began her adventures wearing ordinary clothes but later donned a costume whose details were far from consistent.
A number of other heroes of the period gained fabulous powers from spirits of liberty or ancestors dating back to the American Revolution.
The Black Queen might have been the Spirit's first female foe, but arguably Silk Satin was the best, with the possible exception of P'Gell.
Silk begins as a crook, but thanks to falling in love with the Spirit, she eventually reforms and begins working as an insurance investigator. Despite her reformation, she frequently finds ways to outwit the brawny hero. This was perhaps compensation, as it was strongly implied that being a "shady lady" she had no real chance in being the Spirit's one-and-only; that Silk would always come off second-best to the bland "girl-next-door" Ellen Dolan.
Silk Satin was not martially skilled, but as the above scene shows, she was an above average roughhouser.
The early 1940s saw a very short-lived smattering of female-centric adventure-serials, and the only one that enjoyed a second iteration-- itself a rare event in the serial world-- was the "Nyoka" franchise, ostensibly derived from an Edgar Rice Burroughs entitled "Jungle Girl." In truth neither of the two Nyoka serials shared any elements of the Burroughs story.
The 1941 JUNGLE GIRL was a good basic serial, starring Frances Gifford as Nyoka Meredith, daughter of a jungle-dwelling doctor who gets mixed up with evil treasure-hunters. Evidently the serial made enough money to spawn a second in the series the very next year, though the writers rechristened her "Nyoka Gordon" and made her the daughter of an archaeologist working in North Africa.
PERILS OF NYOKA, as noted here, remains one of the best serials of the period. I observed that "director William Witney-- admittedly working with the highest budget Republic ever gave to a serial-- consistently keeps the action pumping at a high pace. Characters never walk when they can run, never run when they can leap, and so on." Nyoka herself is not a deep character, but she's one of the few kickass heroines of the 1940s, both in fights with male adversaries and her delectable foe Vultura. This version would seem to be the template from which Fawcett adapted their moderately successful comic-book feature.
The Black Queen, the first femme fatale in Will Eisner's celebrated SPIRIT comic, changes her modus operandi in her three appearances as much as did the Lee-Kirby HULK in its earliest incarnation.
She begins in 1940 as a "mouthpiece" to a noted criminal, getting him off for his latest murder through sheer legal legerdemain. She commits no actual crime, but the Spirit confounds her and sends her client up the river.
In her second appearance she graduates to criminal boss, and tries to hold the city of New York for ransom.
Finally, the Queen goes off the deep end. As shown above she dresses in something very like a superheroine costume-- probably the only time a SPIRIT villain did so-- and begins preying on victims by kissing them with her poisonous lipstick. This was her most interesting incarnation, but one may fairly hypothesize that Eisner was tired of her. At the episode's end she commits suicide to avoid the electric chair.
Not counting the character's appearances in a 1937-43 film serial, where her voice was contributed by Agnes "Bewitched" Moorehead, the first live appearance of Milton Caniff's "Dragon Lady" was in a 1940 film serial, "Terry and the Pirates."
Unfortunately, though actress Shiela Darcy had the looks to pull off the glamorous role, the script and direction for the serial were thoroughly routine. The Dragon Lady was not a wily Chinese bandit, but a stereotypical high priestess in a remote Oriental kingdom called "Mara." The titular Terry and his friend Pat are seeking Terry's lost father when they get mixed up with a bandit gang seeking to plunder Mara.
The Dragon Lady barely has a reason to exist in the serial. Her one action consists of giving the order to have one of the good guys executed, under the false impression he's there as a bandit. Actress Joyce Bryant, playing the main heroine of the serial-- one given the name of another Caniff character, "Normandie Drake"-- has no more in common with her namesake than Shiela Darcy's version of the Dragon Lady. But the Drake character gets into the thick of the action a bit more, for what that's worth.
Wednesday, August 14, 2013
I could write about a number of reasonably well known characters for 1940, but for once I'll focus on a character almost no one knows: Indira the Cobra Queen, the villainess of Tarpe Mills' Golden Age series MANN OF INDIA.
Mills is best known for her successful 1941 comic strip heroine MISS FURY, but she served a comic-book apprenticeship in the extremely varied offerings of the anthology title HEROIC COMICS, which began in 1940, published by Eastern Color Printing. Some of the entries look like rejected comic strips, but HEROIC also played host to a few moderately well known GA superheroes, like "Music Master" and "Hydroman." Mills did two 4-page strips, both of which began in issue #1 and terminated in issue #12. One, "the Purple Zombie," has no relevance here, but "Mann of India" is a different story.
As one might guess, the two figures in the illo above are the titular "Mann"-- an adventure-story writer named "Chickering Mann"-- and his foe Indira, who in this particular story are forced to make common cause against a third enemy. In the first episode, Mann, during a jaunt in India, gets on Indira's bad side by writing an egregiously unresearched story about the "Queen of the Dacoits," asserting that she was hideously ugly. Indira gets mad and has Mann abducted by her dacoits. However, a local potentate named "Kalla Khan" comes after Indira with all guns blazing, attempting to kill her and take control of her dacoit allies.
Though Indira is nominally a villainess, she's pretty gutsy during her counter-campaign against Kalla Khan. In a late episode, when Mann is about to be devoured by a tiger sicced on him by the evil ruler, Indira beheads the tiger by hurling a sword at it! Unfortunately, though she falls for Mann in approved TERRY AND THE PIRATES fashion, Mann also picks up a helpless blonde white girl during their travels-- and you know how that goes.
I think Mills rather liked her creation, for although Mann leaves India with his blonde fiancee in tow, Indira is left free to continue her career of crime, which includes trying to kick the English out of India. The last panel shows her managing to tearfully shut the unappreciative writer out of her heart and re-dedicating herself to murder and conquest.
At a total of 48 pages, this rock-'em, sock-'em Oriental adventure would make a pretty readable "graphic novel" if collected, though there's not much chance of that.
Sunday, August 4, 2013
Though the MGM version of Hollywood's most famous evil witch would have been impossible without the L. Frank Baum model, Baum doesn't seem particularly fascinated with his witch's personality in THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ. Baum provides most of the important tropes-- the idea of the witch as a negative mother-figure (she makes Dorothy serve her for a period, in contrast to the movie), and the idea that Dorothy can vanquish her by a careless act of aggression, simply splashing her with a bucket of water. But the witch of Baum's book, though she is an important femme formidable (and covered in this essay), just doesn't have the magnificently nasty personality of the MGM film.
There's some irony to this, since one of the film's early scripts considered making the Witch of the West a glamorous figure, to be played by Gale Sondergaard. Fortunately a different vision prevailed, and the Witch became the incarnation of the wickedness of the archetypal Crone. This image is further reinforced by giving the Witch an identity in the real world outside the dream of Oz: a nasty old bitch who uses money the way the Witch uses her poppies and flying monkeys.
In contrast to Baum's rambling novel, the Witch is the only antagonist of the 1939 movie, so that Margaret Hamilton's delicious evil perfectly parallels the tremble-lipped innocence of Dorothy. The pervasiveness of the Witch's influence on pop culture is demonstrated by a statement made by Margaret Hamilton made when she made public appearances and was asked to duplicate her character's distinctive cackle. In essence she said, "They like to hear it-- and yet they also don't like to hear it." Such ambivalence captures the fundamental appeal behind every great villain, male or female.
Tuesday, July 30, 2013
I must admit that it's been a while since I rescreened the serial in which Queen Azura made her first live-action appearance. Thus I don't remember many specifics about her backstory in the film, except that she makes common cause with Ming in his plot to conquer the Earth with a vital new element.
Although the still above shows the two villains looking quite Satanic, FLASH GORDON'S TRIP TO MARS generally has a much brighter look to it than the original 1936 FLASH GORDON serial, which is also the case with the third and final serial, FLASH GORDON CONQUERS THE UNIVERSE. The first serial followed the comic strip closely in terms of emphasizing violence and sexuality, but the next two avoided those visceral elements for the most part. The 1936 film shows sultry Princess Aura constantly trying to lure noble Flash to her bed, even as Ming and other rulers put the squeeze on Dale Arden. In the strip Azura ensorcels Flash and perhaps manages to bed him as well, but the Azura of TRIP TO MARS is usually far too breezy to put across much sex appeal. I've sometimes thought that if the George Lucas of 1976 had secured the rights to remake "Flash Gordon." it would've looked more like the second two serials than like the first, much less the comic strip.
As in the strip this version of Azura is called a "witch queen," but it was unclear to me as to whether her magic was explicable through science, as in the Alex Raymond continuity. In the one scene that sticks in my memory, Flash and his friends corner Azura, and she simply disappears in a puff of smoke.
Thursday, July 25, 2013
This is easily one of the most recognizable Walt Disney villains, the nameless queen-- currently called "the Evil Queen" in company publicity, according to a Disney wiki.
In keeping with the fairy tale source story, one never knows much about the Queen's background, and little is said about the circumstances by which she becomes Snow White's stepmother. Once Snow's natural mother and father are both dead, the princess is relegated to the status of scullery maid. As with most "princess stories," Snow's burgeoning beauty is the thing that saves her from drudgery, though it also puts her in danger of being killed by the envious queen. One might say that the Queen suffers from a "Cassiopeia complex," in that her envy for a younger woman's beauty leads her to put the younger woman in peril.
Given that the Queen ends up sacrificing her own beauty to strike at Snow White-- since there's no mention of her being able to transform herself back from "Hag" to "Queen"-- this would appear to be the very definition of cutting off one's nose to spite the face.
Tuesday, July 16, 2013
I don't have a collection of the early FLASH GORDON strips handy, but I have the general impression that Queen Azura, aka "the Witch Queen," was the first of many insidious but lustful queens who attempted to seduce Flash away from Dale Arden. Admittedly, in the first sequence Aura, daughter of Flash's principal foe Ming the Merciless, also seeks to warm the form of the hero, but Aura didn't command her own kingdom.
I did notice from one reference that just before Flash, Dale and their retinue encounter Azura, the queen of the "Blue Magic Men," Dale is fussing at Flash about their impending nuptials, which he's conveniently put off, due to the greater importance of the rebellion against Ming. Perhaps not coincidentally, after Azura's forces take the Gordon group prisoner, Azura uses a drug to make Flash forget his past, including Dale. Dale, forced to become a serving-wench, tearfully looks on as Flash allows Azura to make love to him. Since it was a family newspaper, readers could only use their imaginations to speculate as to how far the lovemaking went. Though eventually Flash got clear of Azura, somehow that wedding never did go through. But Flash kept meeting dozens of horny lady rulers, and all Dale ever got was nasty old Ming.
In the initial episode as I recall it, all of Azura's "sorcery" is of scientific origins, though I can't say the same for all of her later incarnations.
Tuesday, July 9, 2013
I confess that I've only read the 1969 Avon paperback publication of THE BLACK FLAME, which is actually two Stanley G. Weinbaum stories-- "Dawn of Flame" and "The Black Flame"-- which featured the same character: "Black Margot," a sultry immortal female who is sometimes called by the name "Black Flame." The Avon publication drew upon a heavily edited version of the stories, omitting some 18,000 words from the original manuscript.
That said, I'm skeptical that this chronicle of Black Margot's history would have been substantially improved by the additional wordage. In both stories the plotlines owe much to Rider Haggard's SHE. Both stories take place in post-apocalyptic America, though they're separated by a substantial span of time.
In "Dawn of Flame," the POV character is a hunky hick named Hull Tarvish, who leaves the hills to make his fortune in the big city. He meets a cute young thing with whom he falls in love, but becomes fascinated by Black Margot, one of a small coterie of immortals who are trying to rebuild the shattered nation. Some characters think that the immortals' efforts are basically constructive, but Hull ends up joining a rebel group that deems them tyrants. As a result of trying to fight the immortals, Hull is temporarily enslaved by Black Margot, who is, interestingly enough, of Spanish descent and is described as having "olive" skin. In addition to appreciating her beauty, Hull finds her courageous-- she risks her life to draw the fire of rebel conspirators-- and in most ways his intellectual superior. However, he's put off by her history of having had many "husbands" during her immortal life. Though some sparks flare between Hull and Margot, he ends up going back to the "nice girl" and Margot goes back to being an unhappy immortal, which partly mirrors the conclusion of Rider Haggard's "She" storyline.
"The Black Flame," however, endeavors to give Margot's story a happy ending. This time Thomas Connor, a 20th-century man, is given the Rip Van Winkle treatment (the Van Winkle story is even directly referenced, albeit briefly). Upon awakening and becoming acclimated to the post-apocalyptic future-- evidently several years after Hull Tarvish's time-- Connor meets Margot and her warlord brother. Though again Margot has competition from a mortal rival, this time the rival gets less attention and author Weinbaum makes Margot more appealing, though a bit less dynamic. Perhaps the unedited manuscript would show more vigor in her characterization, but I can't resist the hypothesis that in trying to "reform" Margot, Weinbaum divested her of some of her goddess-like aspects. By story's end she's found a way to reverse her immortality so that she and Connor can marry and breed naturally, an ending which may please the sentiments but doesn't do much for Black Margot's reputation as a "femme formidable."
Published in the November 1935 issue of ASTOUNDING MAGAZINE, "The Adaptive Ultimate" had the honor of being more frequently adapted than the majority of pulp SF short stories: once on radio, twice on television, and once in a 1957 film entitled SHE-DEVIL. However, it may be theorized that the main reason for the relative popularity of this Stanley Weinbaum tale is that it's a fairly talky variation on the Frankenstein theme, and didn't require much in the way of expensive sets or FX.
The idea of scientists experimenting on female subjects had been touched on elsewhere, as in Hans Heinz Ewers' 1911 novel ALRAUNE. In this story, researcher Daniel Scott attempts to transfer the adaptive capacities of fruit flies to human beings, on the theory that they'll be able to heal diseases or fatal wounds through the power of "adaptation." I don't think that even in 1935 any biologists would've bought into Scott's heavily hormonal theory of adaptation, but as is often the case, bad science can make a good story.
A colleague gives Scott the go-ahead to experiment on a drab, impoverished woman named Kyra Zelas, because she's in the final stage of tuberculosis. For what it's worth, Scott does at least ask Kyra's permission before injecting her with his wonder drug. The serum works too well: not only does Kyra recover from her disease, she loses all moral compass as a side-effect. Almost immediately after recovering, she commits the crime of bludgeoning an old man to death for his money. When called to trial, she simply changes her appearance to that of a dazzling beauty so that the witnesses to the crime cannot swear that she was the perpetrator.
Scott and his colleague plot to kill their pet monster, but when their first attempt fails, Kyra escapes. Rather improbably, she comes back, apparently because she's become fascinated with her "creator." Eventually the scientists come up with a way to kill their adaptative adversary, but in a minor ironic touch, Scott has fallen in love with her. Even though in death she reverts to her original body, he still sees her as a gorgeous siren. One may see Kyra Zelas as the modern-day descendant of myth-figures like the Loathly Lady of the famous Gawain story.
Thursday, June 27, 2013
I mentioned in my first 1934 post that Robert E. Howard had authored at least three significant femmes formidables in the same year, but one of them, "Red Sonya of Rogatino," gained more fame in a derived form, that of Marvel Comics' "Red Sonja." Since Red Sonja only borrowed a few motifs from Howard's character, as well as appearing in a thoroughly different milieu, it seems sensible to give the earlier Sonya separate consideration. The French reprint book above, which retitles the Howard story "Shadow of the Vulture" into "Sonya la Rouge," looks as if it's illustrating the Marvel version more than Howard's.
One surprising facet of "Shadow" is that Red Sonya is at best a secondary element of the tale. The bulk of the story is Howard's rewriting of the history of the 1529 Siege of Vienna, the last attempt made by the Ottoman Empire-- then under the command of Suleiman the Magnificent-- to extend its power into Europe. Robert E. Howard, being an ardent Celticist, had his own fictional version of "how the Irish saved Europe," often sending Celtic, English, or roughly related racial types into the mysterious East. This time Howard sends a German hero, Gottfried von Kalmbach, to personally twist the tail of the ruler Suleiman. Suleiman responds by sending a hitman, the "Vulture" of the title, to bring him Gottfried's head.
Sonya becomes embroiled in this conflict only because she comes to have some regard for Gottfried as a fellow warrior, and possibly (though it is not stressed) as a man. Sonya saves Gottfried twice from his enemies, and displays fearless prowess on the battlefield, but her own character-arc is dubious. She claims to be the sister of Roxelana, a historical Russian woman who became the real Suleiman's primary wife. Howard devotes nearly no space to describing how this state of affairs came to be, though there's a brief suggestion that Roxelana may have been abducted in a Muslim slave-raid-- which, to modern ears, sounds pretty exculpatory for any imagined sins. Yet Sonya refers to her sister as a "slut," apparently for not having chosen death over bedding a Muslim potentate. It's possible Howard had some notion of pursuing this plot-thread in a separate story, but "Shadow of the Vulture" remains the only story about the woman from Rogatino.
Sunday, June 23, 2013
Patricia "Pat" Savage, cousin to Doc Savage, was introduced in the 1934 adventure "Brand of the Werewolf." Though she never possesses martial skills equal to those of her near relation, her very first adventure shows that she can take care of herself. Attacked by a Native American thug with the curious name of "Boat Face," she knocks him for a loop with one good punchout.
Later adaptations of Pat for comic books tended to make a devotee of the martial arts, but at the very least she's consistently able to handle firearms and has just as much love for adventure as Doc and his boys' club.
Dale Arden, who appears in the opening installments of the FLASH GORDON comic strip alongside the titular hero, is something of a judgment call. Certainly in her earliest appearances she's largely a "damsel in distress." However, though I don't have a broad familiarity with the strip throughout all its phases, I do see a few indications that over time she becomes a little more adept with weapons while following Flash around on his crusades. By the time of the last original GORDON comic books, she becomes adept in judo as well, and shows some fighting-moxie in the 1980 FLASH GORDON film.
Dale is still less complicated than Edgar Rice Burroughs' Dejah Thoris, who has no martial abilities at all in the books, and doesn't become a "femme formidable" except in other media, such as film and comic books.
Saturday, June 15, 2013
The short-story "Shambleau" was the first professional sale of C.L. (Catherine Lucille) Moore, appearing in the November 1933 issue of WEIRD TALES. It introduced Moore's gun-wielding hero Northwest Smith, and begins on a futuristic version of Mars, colonized by Earthmen like Smith but still inhabited by more primitive native Martians. Smith saves a mysterious alien girl from a mob who call her by the name "Shambleau." Smith does not initially know why the mob hates her, but he claims her to save her from death. The mob leaves in a mood of disgust, and Smith takes the woman to his own dwelling. There, as the book cover above shows, the Earthman learns the folly of taking in unknown alien, as "Shambleau" is the alien source of the myth of Medusa. Smith only survives Shambleau's soul-sucking attentions thanks to the intervention of a friend.
All the references to Greek mythology aside, purple passages like this one make clear what Shambleau really represents:
In nightmares until he died he remembered that moment when the living tresses of Shambleau first folded him in their embrace. A nauseous, smothering odor as the wetness shut around him—thick, pulsing worms clasping every inch of his body, sliding, writhing, their wetness and warmth striking through his garments as if he stood naked to their embrace.
Wednesday, June 12, 2013
While in most instances I endeavor to survey "femmes formidables" from their very beginnings, I'm not likely to ever to write an entry for "Ursula Georgi" in her first appearance in a trashy-sounding 1930 bestseller-novel by one "Tiffany Thayer" (the only male "Tiffany" I've ever heard of).
From what I've read about the novel online, it sounds like a big waste of my time. I did flip through the pages of the online edition just long enough to ascertain that the character's name is the same in the novel as in the 1932 film, and even that seems like too much damn trouble.
I do have a mild affection for the 1932 film, for as I note in this fuller review, because Myrna Loy-- who had played a lot of exotics by that time-- does a better than average job of depicting this sultry sorceress-- or, to be more exact, "hypnotist." Still, Ursula has a decided ability to conquer the souls of both women and men with her mental magic. She uses the art of suggestion to cause twelve other women to meet awful fates, and so dominates the character of the "Swami" (seen above) that she forces him to walk into an oncoming train. How she gained these powers is not revealed in the film, though it seems possible that the Swami taught her the skills of the mind in exchange for her body-- only to find himself mastered by the pupil, rather like Nimue imprisoning Merlin in Arthurian legend. Ursula is also seen to control a younger fellow, a chaffeur, into doing her will, despite his fear of the law.
Two months later in 1932, Loy's last and arguably greatest "exotic villain" would appear when she played Fah Lo Suee in THE MASK OF FU MANCHU.
Saturday, June 8, 2013
This is the first entry I've included purely for historical reasons, as I don't think the character rates very high as a "femme formidable."
The reader learns very little about this early "femme fatale" in Dashiell Hammett's 1930 novel THE MALTESE FALCON. It's suggested that "Brigid" is no more her real name than the first alias she gives detective Sam Spade when she seeks to involve him in her scheme to sell the priceless Maltese Falcon to the venal Caspar Gutman.
As described on the page by Hammett, Brigid doesn't seem like the brightest bulb in the socket. Spade constantly rags on her for being incompetent at her scams and for foolishly plying her "defenseless female" wiles on him. Implicitly her beauty does seduce Spade to some extent, though he fights it all the way, and the story ends with his refusal to cover for her one deadly crime: that of shooting Spade's detective-agency partner. But Hammett makes even her act of murder sound like that of an incompetent.
It's purely thanks to Brigid's subsequent cinematic incarnations in 1931, 1936 and 1941 that she earns a place of distinction here. And at that, it's really the 1941 film that cemented Brigid's reputation as a quintessential "femme fatale." To be sure, Brigid doesn't do anything more than she does in the novel, or in the 1931 version. (The 1936 version did not use Brigid's name and rewrote her character substantially.) But Mary Astor's performance does give Brigid a subtler dimension than she has in the book; she seems a little more than just a blunderer trying to get by on her looks.
Prior to FALCON, Hammett portrayed a much more energetic female character, Dinah Brand, in his novel RED HARVEST, first serialized in a 1927 issue of BLACK MASK. However, though she was mentally tougher than many of the novel's male characters, Brand does not meet my criteria for a "femme formidable."
It feels appropriate that 1929-- the year in which I found one of the first major *heroic* femmes formidables-- also sports a great villainess; the Sea Hag, introduced the same year as her nemesis Popeye for Elzie Segar's comic strip THIMBLE THEATER.
I've only read a handful of the Sea Hag's adventures in her original medium, so I'm not able to comment extensively about the nature of her witchly powers. In the stories I have seen, she's frequently served by various hulks like the Goon above, as well as ordinary mortal bruisers. In keeping with Segar's comic tone, the Hag's evil doesn't seem to be too extreme. In one of the sequences I have read, Wimpy draws her into a card game and she ends up gambling away her corset!
Friday, May 24, 2013
There's not much question that Queen Ravenna of SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN was the standout cinematic villainess for the year of 2012. As I remarked in my review, Ravenna's character arc is a good deal stronger than anything given to the two heroes of the title. As portrayed by Charlize Theron, Ravenna is essentially a "diva" role, one designed to spotlight the actress' beauty alongside the threat of its decline in the face of age-- a threat which exists both diegetically and non-diegetically. The photographic pose above for me captures the brittle, sadly vulnerable quality of that beauty.
One curious question I didn't address in the review is the provenance of the queen's name, which most people know only as a city (and province) in Italy, and which would seem to have no ties with fairy tales in general or Snow White in particular. It's possible the name was simply chosen on the basis of some personal association-- maybe one of the writers once lived in "Ravenna, Michigan." But Wikipedia offers one interesting parallel, noting that Ravenna is the setting for a play entitled "The Witch," by Jacobean author Thomas Middleton. Given the quasi-incestuous content of HUNTSMAN, Wiki's commentary points out one correspondence:
Middleton's Hecate has a son (and incestuous lover) called Firestone, who serves as the play's clown.
And just to cite an even less likely (and more comics-nerdy) assocation, a villainess named "Ravenne" appears in two Supergirl stories in ACTION COMICS #322-323 (1965). As it happens, Ravenne, like Queen Ravenna, is something of a negative feminist icon, since Ravenna's scheme involves resuscitating such evil (and diva-like) women of history as Lady Macbeth, Mata Hari, and Lucretia Borgia.
More interesting for its potential than its execution was the 2011 film HANNA, reviewed here.
The character of Hanna Heller, an original film-creation by writer Seth Lochhead, is a young woman who from birth was genetically altered by the CIA to become superhuman. Her surrogate father steals her from the organization and raises her in isolation, preparing Hanna for the day when she chooses to venture forth and take her chances in the modern world. Hanna's perceptor warns her in particular about Marissa Wiegler, the head of the genetics operation that produced Hanna (and thus in a symbolic sense Hanna's "bad mother.") Still, he does allow her to make the choice as to whether to leave her isolation, and though HANNA is often a dark film it does allow the heroine more freedom of action than one sees, for example, in Lady Snowblood, where the female protagonist is conceived to be the instrument of her mother's revenge.
The above scene shows Hanna demonstrating her atypical strength on a boy who might be described as her "first date."
By some reckonings the most outstanding aspect of IRON MAN 2 is not so much the confused plot pitting the titular hero against Mickey Rourke's "Whiplash," but rather the first live-action translation of Marvel's fan-favorite femme formidable.
That said, though Scarlet Johansen does a nice job with the visual presentation of Natasha Romanov, there's nothing particularly noteworthy about the character as presented here. She's a supporting character whose role in IRON MAN 2 seems of less moment than the way her appearance sets up her particpation in the far superior film, the 2012 AVENGERS.
Not only does the script for THE AVENGERS pay much more attention to the Widow's capacity for badass action-- even in the company of "heavy-hitters" like Thor and the Hulk-- her abilities as a spy receive better exposure in that film as well.
As yet no solo project for the character has come to pass. Johanssen's participation in the AVENGERS sequel has not yet been affirmed.
Thursday, May 23, 2013
I've done a fuller review of the 2009 direct-to-video WONDER WOMAN movie.
For the purposes of this blog, the main significance of this video is that it's the first effort by an audiovisual medium to emulate the "sexual politics" aspect of the original William Moulton Marston creation-- albeit in a very different, sometimes more superficial manner.
It is, however, a pretty gory affair for a DC Comics franchise, which may have kept it from enjoying the apparent success of the Superman DTV franchise.
Wednesday, April 24, 2013
It took over ten years, but television finally took advantage of the soap-operatic epic of Terry Goodkind's SWORD OF TRUTH novels, which provided one of modern fantasy's most powerful femmes formidables, Kahlan Amnell, examined here.
The series, produced in part by Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert of XENA fame, provided a loose adaptation of the book's continuity. Naturally, since television shows need stories that give some sense of conclusion at the end of each forty-something minutes, storylines tended to focus on the "D&D" aspects of the books' premise-- how a Mage appoints heroes to the office of the Seeker, what range of powers are commanded by the faith of "Confessors" to which Kahlan belongs, and so on.
That said, Bridget Regan-- an American actress, and one of the few regulars on the series who did not hail from the vicinity of the show's Ne Zealand shooting-locale-- does an excellent job overall, both in her combat-scenes and in stories about the emotional turmoil of her romantic situation ith the titular Seeker.
Friday, April 12, 2013
Though Chuck Bartowski was the central character of the NBC comedy-adventure series CHUCK, arguably two of Chuck's support-cast-- his "handlers" Major John Casey and Sarah Walker-- became as integral to the show's dynamics as the nebbishy star of the show.
To sum up the particulars of the show quickly, computer-nerd Chuck finds himself propelled into the world of spy games and international terrorism when his college roommate, himself a spy, downloads the merged databases of the CIA and the NSA into Chuck's brain, thus making Chuck a vital asset to both agencies. Chuck becomes even more valuable when he learns how to tap into the skill-sets encoded by the database, allowing the former nerd to become an expert at defusing bombs, fighting in any martial-arts style, and so on.
Both NSA agent John Casey (Adam Baldwin) and CIA agent Sarah Walker (Yvonne Stahovski) become Chuck's handlers, initially protecting Chuck from other agencies. Eventually the three of them, as well as the show's other supporting characters, form an independent troubleshooting agency.
Within the sphere of the Femme Formidable, Sarah was much in the vein of characters like Emma Peel, albeit with a much harder edge, which may seem ironic given the strong comedy element of the series. Even John Casey, also touted as a badass, was played for more humor than Sarah. Of course the principal reason for this was that Sarah was constituted to be the romantic element in Chuck's life. However, throughout the series her skills with fighting and shooting were always portrayed as being on the same level as any other professional's, and only rarely was she in the position of the "damsel in distress." The photo above shows one of Sarah's many kickass fights, which were in themselves one of the show's main attractions. In the last season Sarah even became merged with Chuck's database temporarily, so that during that time she became a literal "super-spy" in the same vein as the star of the show.
The film DOA: DEAD OR ALIVE may not be among the best American-made martial-arts flicks, but its title is certainly the most repetitive in any genre.
I have nothing to say about any permutation of the DEAD OR ALIVE videogame, since as I've noted earlier I don't follow that form of entertainment. But I did find that the 2006 film adaptation of the game was goofy if derivative fun, and obviates one of the biggest criticisms of the game by featuring female fighters whose breasts are (comparatively) real.
Since I don't have a lot to say about the place this lightweight flick holds in the history of Femmes Formidables, I'll content myself with reprinting my observations from my film-review of same.
"Corey Yeun, veteran of several Jet Li/Hong Kong actioners, directed this vid-game adaptation, partly filmed on a famous Hong Kong movie set in Heng Dian, China. However, while the three actresses are all adept at the fighting-stunts given them, it's quite evident that none of them are capable of the extreme athletics of the best HK cinema battles. Frankly, even the big warehouse battle of CHARLIE'S ANGELS: FULL THROTTLE is superior to any of the fights in DOA. This may be one reason the film approaches the girls' battles with a comic tone, though not to the extent of ridiculing the central heroines. Devon Aoki probably gets the best single battle, fighting a huge muscular opponent who attacks her in her hotel, while Pressley gets the most amusing battle: battling it out with her own dad (a Hulk Hogan-like wrestler) in order to prove her abilities. Finally it all winds up with a big multi-character battle in which villain Eric Roberts, souped up by his miracle device, nearly beats all of the heroines. He's rather comically beaten when his device is simply removed (too cheap to spring for an implant, guy?) and Aoki kills him by blowing up his entire island."
Sunday, March 17, 2013
Where possible I generally try to list a femme formidable's first appearance in any medium before moving on to secondary appearances. However, the subject I've chosen for 2005 first appeared in a Japanese "light novel," which to my knowledge has not been translated and probably won't be in the near future. Since there will be other cases where I'll have no knowledge of the first medium-- as with video games-- this will be one place where I feel justified in leapfrogging over the original media-appearance, and going to the only version currently available: an anime adaptation.
While typing nationalities is generally a no-no, I don't think it unfair to state that certain nationalities excel in particular departments. For whatever reason, Japanese popular entertainers of the 20th and 21st centuries excel at creating scenarios of extreme sadism, sometimes for the purpose of slapstick comedy. BLUDGEONING ANGEL DOKURO-CHAN is one example of this trend.
The basic plot is simple albeit thoroughly bizarre. Male high school student Sakura Kusakabe finds himself forced to live with an "angel" named Dokuro Mitsukai. She tells him that in the future he's destined to invent a serum that will retard aging in females, so that the feminine gender will become dominated by "Lolitas." Dokuro is initially sent to kill Sakura, but she decides simply to live with and monitor him instead. However, she frequently teases him sexually, and then punishes him for his reactions by clubbing him into bloody rags with her magical spiked bat "Excalibolg." Following each execution, she brings him back to life none the worse for wear, though Sakura apparently retains his memories of every destructive experience.
There's absolutely no depth to all of this psycho-slapstick, in contrast to some of the more psychologically insightful moments of URUSEI YATSURA or the more recent LOVE HINA. Its main virtue lies in the artists' ability to come up with new scenarios of absurd torture, so it may prove rather repetitive even for lovers of this sort of weirdness.
Wednesday, February 6, 2013
I probably wouldn't do a post on the 2004 CATWOMAN film if 2004 hadn't been such a dub year for femmes formidables-- especially since I haven't yet found time to do a post on the first live-action film Catwoman. But it's at least of minor significance that this was the first cinematic work to feature Catwoman as the main character.
I chose the above photo of Halle Berry's Catwoman in her "proto-cat" costume because it would have improved the film by 20-30% had the filmmakers gone with these not-very-catlike outfit, rather than the raging horror they did use. I'm sure any and all readers are sick of seeing it, but just with a view toward equal time, here it is again:
The film's many defects have been rehearsed so often that I hardly need add to the chorus, though I was particularly averse to the idiocy of having Sharon Stone play a villain who was semi-invulnerable but couldn't fight her way out of a catbox. There was one half-decent scene in which the Catwoman in her proto-outfit beats some thugs with caporeira moves, but at one point the maleness of the stunt double is evident, so that rather spoiled the effect.
The only other thing I can semi-praise is that the basic idea of a line of Catwomen passed down from the cult of Bast or whatever-it-was was a clever way to get around the fact that this and any future Catwoman scripts couldn't count on bringing back either actress Michelle Pfeiffer or the character she played in BATMAN RETURNS. I still wouldn't mind seeing the basic idea used for another Catwoman film, as long as absolutely no one else associated with the film came on board again.
Tuesday, January 29, 2013
Without a doubt Beatrix Kiddo, central character of KILL BILL Parts 1 and 2, was the most notable femme formidable to debut in 2003.
In large part the character derives from the cinematic version of the manga character Lady Snowblood, discussed in this post. In contrast to the manga series, which emphasizes Snowblood's career as a professional assassin prior to setting her on the road to revenge, KILL BILL barely touches on Beatrice's assassin-career. Like the 1973 film the narrative action concentrates entirely on the revenge theme.
There are still significant differences, however. The Snowblood character becomes an assassin because of her parents' ill-use by exploitive criminals, individuals who care nothing about her or her family. We don't know how Beatrix becomes an assassin, though there's a minor suggestion that she may have been brought into the trade because of her romance with Bill, master of a gang of mostly female assassins. One scene from KILL BILL PT 2 shows Bill and Beatrix comporting themselves as lovers just before Beatrix seeks training from Bill's old kung-fu mentor Pai Mei. However, when she becomes pregnant with Bill's child, Beatrix decides that she wants out of the assassination game, and fakes her death to escape Bill's influence. But he tracks her down, and after letting his other female assassins beat the crap out of Beatrix, Bill attempts to blow her brains out. She survives to pursue revenge-trail on the persons who had been nearest and dearest to her (with the likely exception of Elle Driver, a female assassin who clearly envied Beatrix's relationship with Bill).
Since the spectacular martial-arts scenes of the first film have been lauded by thousands before me, I won't bother repeating that mantra. The second film places less emphasis on action, devoting more time to a character study of the dysfunctional relationship of Bill and Beatrix, not to mention incorporating writer-director Quentin Tarantino's meditations on the nature of heroism.