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.