[10 October 2013]
In my college English classes the words “rarely anthologized” were often tossed around in reference to well known authors whose works were not particularly artistic, high quality or, for lack of a better term… “very good”. This was, of course, in reference to the classics of English Literature with scholarly surveying having taken place for hundreds of years, so that the best of the best have long been discovered, while the not-so-great are rarely anthologized.
However, scholarly criticism of graphic world literature (aka: “comic books”) is a new phenomenon, especially because comic books themselves have only been around for just under 80 years at the time of this writing. (Note: Although comic strips and even collected reprints in magazine form previously existed the first magazine containing all original comics was February 1935’s New Fun.)
Thus the term “rarely anthologized” (or even “rarely reprinted”) is not necessarily a commentary on the quality of a comic book’s story or its creators. Sure, Superman and Green Lantern have stood the test of time and remained popular (in various forms) for decades, but rarities like All Negro Comics and (largely) forgotten backing characters like “The Crimson Avenger” were no slouches, either.
Divas, Dames & Daredevils: Lost Heroines of Golden Age Comics is one anthology with the purpose of giving a number of forgotten classics a new day in the sun. Collected and annotated by comic book historian Mike Madrid, this new book does more than simply reprint a few classic comics that nobody remembers or cares about. Madrid proves to be a serious and astute writer whose introductory essays for each chapter delve deeply into various genres and sub-types of comics that these classic stories fall into.
Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle
Madrid also answers a great many questions about the changing face of comics and the impact of the evolving zeitgeist on the characters his book focuses on. Obviously from the title, this is no broad anthology of unearthed gridded pages, but a specific focus on the female characters of the genre who were once as rough-and-tumble as their male counterparts. Their are no waifish frail damsels in distress to be found in the 28 individual comic book stories collected in Divas, Dames & Daredevils. These women are the ones who are doing the saving of both the women and the men. We’re talking about hardboiled detectives, lawyers, World War II flying aces, goddesses and science fiction warriors, all in the Golden Age of comics, when Batman was still finding his own footing.
So why were the women of the Silver Age so much more demure and accommodating to men? Why was DC’s Lois Lane’s own comic book more about her attempts to trap Superman into marriage while Marvel’s Invisible Girl was more concerned about her hairstyle and the latest fashions than saving the world? Madrid traces this evolution and both explains and laments the dramatic change.
Dramatic is, in most of these cases, the key word here. Madrid separates this book into five units, celebrating “Women at War”, covering the female fighters of World War II; “Mystery Women”, about often masked detectives; “Daring Dames” who fight crime from the vantage point of their professions (scientist, reporter, lawyer); “20th Century Goddesses”, featuring actual members of pantheons, like Diana and the stepdaughter of Neptune and “Warriors & Queens”, focusing on the sci-fi and fantasy adventures of the toughest women in comics.
The stories themselves are overall excellent. These adventures are neither sexist, nor are they overly steeped in “message”, as if trying to prove the point that “these gals is tough”. While certainly progressive, the story and action is much more a focus in these comics than the gender of the main character. Although there are many revealing costumes and a certain sex appeal to many of these women, just as many are found in military uniforms and business suits. Even the one character who works as an exotic dancer (Madame Strange) is treated as a formidable martial artist who is as smart as she is physical.
Many of these stories are among the most exciting of the era with lots of gunfights, intrigue, derring do. Jane Martin, of the first presented story, is a brilliant military tactician whose gridded page exploits could serve as the storyboard for an incredible action film. The Spider Queen debuted decades before the better-known Spider-Man, but had remarkably similar abilities and tools, including the famous web-shooters.
Gale Allen and the GIrl Squadron
Jill Trent, Science Sleuth similarly predated MacGyver with her ability to make just about anything out of ordinary items. Trent’s stories may also have been progressive in other ways as she is revealed to share a bed with her assistant, Daisy. Amazona, the Mighty Woman is a super-powered survivor of a lost race who falls in love with an American man and fights crime in his home country… and she debuted a full year before the similarly-themed Wonder Woman. Gale Allen and the Girl Squadron are featured in a story that combines some of the best aspects of Edgar Rice Burrough’s Mars stories with elements reminiscent of Star Wars and creepy monster movies. Gale Allen is essentially Flash Gordon with Dale Arden moved into the central role.
The art ranges from the simplistic and laughable to the intricate and awe-inspiring. The pages of “The Sorceress of Zoom” are largely plain with a few suggestive lines on the page, while those of “Diana the Huntress” are richly adorned with beautiful artwork and deep detail. While not all artists or writers were credited in comics of the age, Madrid did the appropriate research to find and credit each artist’s work. However, Madrid fails to credit every writer, which leaves a big question mark when the pages themselves don’t credit an author.
In addition, all of the reprints in this anthology are in black-and-white, not their original color. This was surely done for budgetary reasons and the art, when good, is still beautiful, but something is missing from the formula. Still, these Golden Age heroines have been “lost” for so long that their inclusion here is a great win for comics fans with or without colored pages. Further, Madrid’s research, choices and annotations hold the entire book together, elaborating on history and establishing the zeitgeist perfectly for each unit.
Divas, Dames & Daredevils is highly recommended for comics fans and historians alike, and these “rarely anthologized” stories are excellent for giving girls of any age positive comic book role models to look up to. Sure, these tales aren’t Shakespeare, however, English Lit majors may also happily point out that until around the mid-1800s, Shakespeare himself was also “rarely anthologized”.
Mysta of the Moon