In his 2009 book, The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines, author Mike Madrid examined the history of female superheroes and how their roles changed over the years in comparison (and contrast) to women’s roles in our society. Among other things, Madrid pulled back the veil on characters both well-known and obscure, describing various scenes from comics to underline his observations. Unfortunately, that was all that he could include– descriptions. Since many of the tales he included were incredibly old and long out of print, the reader had to visualize these actions in their head. Now, in his new book, ‘Divas, Dames & Daredevils: Lost Heroines of Golden Age Comics’, Madrid gets to fill in some blanks, by reprinting over two dozen long forgotten adventures starring now-unknown mystery women from comics’ earliest days, some of whom predate comics’ most famous female icon, Wonder Woman, who didn’t burst onto the scene until 1942. But don’t look for the Amazing Amazon here. Or Mary Marvel, Sheena or even Phantom Lady and Miss Fury, for that matter. This book’s focus is squarely on the lost gems of the Golden Age.
Comics of the time evolved out of both cheap pulp magazines and newspaper strips. With Superman’s arrival in 1938, the age of the superhero revolutionized the medium and periodical racks were flooded with the colorful exploits of brightly clad “mystery men”. And with World War II raging overseas and creeping closer and closer to the US’s doorstep, these vibrant adventurers found the perfect opponents in the real-life ultimate evil of Hitler and the Nazis.
In addition to a prologue and epilogue, this book is divided into five sections; Women at War, Mystery Women, Daring Dames, 20th Century Goddesses and Warriors & Queens. Women at War most reflected the patriotic fervor of the times, depicting women, both in costume or sporting civilian attire, battling the Nazi forces in various exotic locales. Mystery Women grew out of the pulp novels that preceded comics, following Batman’s shadowy footsteps, in tales seeped in the noir tradition. Daring Dames, like the Women at War, weren’t limited to superheroes, but included other women in risky but somewhat glamorous careers, like “Penny Wright, Feature Writer” and “Betty Bates, Lady At Law.” These ballsy gals reflected the tough types depicted by Barbara Stanwyck and Rosalind Russell on the silver screen and to a degree were cut from the same cloth as Lois Lane… but she didn’t have her own strip. On the opposite end of the spectrum, were the 20th Century Goddesses, more akin to Superman, these women possessed incredible powers and in some cases god-like personae to match. Finally there are the Warriors & Queens, mystical maids from mysterious places, gifted with amazing powers, in most cases used to help others… but not always.
Madrid does a fine job setting up each chapter, summarizing these unique characters and their places in the larger comic book tapestry and pointing out how they reflected pop culture and the world at large. He also gives a nice biography of each profiled character, including their longevity (in many cases that wasn’t very long, with some only lasting through one adventure). These biographies help embellish the featured strips. He correctly points out that these liberated ladies occupy a unique place in comic book history in that they are (mostly) driven, assertive, thoughtlessly fearless and tough. Just as many American women were joining the workforce during the war, these costumed heroes leaped into the action hero role, with seemingly minimal consideration given to their gender. In many cases, the same dialogue and actions could be assigned to a male character with barely a hiccup. Then came the fifties and everything changed, with the same women who’d been working in factories, settling down and raising kids. Women became almost anti-liberated and their depictions in comics reflected this, with most of these daring dames vanishing altogether and the illustrious superstars like Wonder Woman, Lois Lane and Catwoman taking on softer, more “feminine” roles.A colored image of Black Venus by L.B. Cole. This story appears in black & white in the book.
As for the strips themselves, the scripts are much simpler than modern comic tales. But on the flip side, these creators cram a lot more action and story into a few meager pages than a lot of modern writers can manage to instill into six issues. The writing and art fluctuate all over the place in terms of quality. Some is quite skilled. Some is crude. This is especially evident in the artwork, some of which has a beautiful etching-like quality. Other artists capture the vibrant “pin up girl” look so identified with this era. Other stories look like they might have been drawn by a child. The lettering is similarly inconsistent. In some cases, the letter artist (I suspect back then, it as the same as the penciler) obviously crammed in some letters to make them fit, making some lines almost illegible.
The crudest strip in the book is the one belonging to the nightmarish anthropomorphic cat woman, “Pussy Katnip.” “Funny animal” comics were a comic staple but the idea of making this googly-eyed, deformed feline a Betty Boop-esque sex symbol gave me the creeps like no horror comic ever has!
What’s kind of fun is that since these tales were crafted in comics’ earliest days, there weren’t many rules in place yet. You didn’t always get the same tropes and by-the-numbers storytelling. There is some experimentation in terms of devices. In “The Woman In Red’s” adventure, she swings from a rooftop, as the narration states “through the yawning jaws of death” and indeed, her figure is drawn swooping through an imaginary skull’s gaping mouth. The opening of the story starring “The Magician From Mars” features the line, “War! Unknown to Earth, chaos reigns on Mars. That horrible, ravaging disease of mankind- War!! Bringing…” followed by three card-like images “Chaos” showing a rampaging robot, “Death” an animated skeleton and “Horror” a woman clutching an infant, watching as a building behind her is rocked by an explosion. Sure many artists followed an uninspired pattern of nondescript box panels, others showed remarkable innovation for the time. The first tale in the book, showcasing war nurse “Jane Martin” utilizes almost no rectangular panels, instead employing visually stimulating angular frames. The “Pat Patriot” adventure uses mostly rectangular panels, but throws in a few circular ones to mix things up.A color image of spy smasher Madame Strange. A black and white version of this story appears in the book.
In terms of forward thinking plots, more than twenty years before Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created multimedia superstar Spider-Man, the Spider Queen wore special bracelets that fired “spider web fluid… as you release it into the air, it becomes a thin, adhesive filament… My word! It sticks like glue– and it’s actually strong enough to swing on!”
Innovative in another way altogether, Madrid points out the questionable relationship between “Julie Trent, Science Sleuth” and her partner Daisy who are inseparable and even share a bed. While this is subtle– and probably completely innocent– Madrid does point out that these stories are nearly devoid of any romantic elements, something that most people nowadays overly identify with any female driven entertainment. Any sparks that do fly are almost afterthoughts. As Madrid points out in his afterward, it wasn’t until the 50s that comics became more segregated, with boys reading super hero, cowboy and crime comics and girls reading romance and comedy titles. (And as stated, most female action heroes that survived long enough, found themselves considerably diminished.)
This is an invaluable tool to comic historians, reprinting tales that have probably never been reprinted before, starring characters that, for the most part, are largely forgotten, including some that have slipped into public domain. (‘The Woman in Red’ was revived recently in Alex Ross’ series ‘Masquerade’.) Some of the artwork is rough, while some is gorgeous and even if it falls short of that, most of it is at least charming. The same is true of the stories. There’s nothing overly complex, but most of it is more than capable and entertaining and some is delightfully off the wall. (Check out the beguiling ‘Sorceress of Zoom’.) It’s also a fascinating, in-depth exploration of a small but important chapter in the history of female characters (and creators) in comics. It was a time when “girls” were high-flying, bold daredevils, who raced headfirst into danger with nary a care for their own welfare, leading entire armies against the forces of destruction. During a period when female-led books are under increased pressure and scrutiny– and when an all female X-Men book was the top seller the month it debuted– it’s the perfect time to look back at some of the daring dames from the dawn of the artform. And to wonder how did it take us so long to get back to female superheroes who are tough as nails and as bold and brave as any male counterpart.