Way back in October of 2013 I reviewed Mike Madrid’s collection of Divas, Dames and Daredevils: Lost Heroines of Golden Age Comics and commented on the lamentable fact that so many of these strong women, who never succumbed to the medium’s common roles of “damsel in distress” or “sex objects”, are rarely anthologized. One thing that these tough ladies also are is, unfortunately, “largely unknown”.
The reasons for this are many. Simple market dominance of superheroes was a large contributing factor to this obscurity. Western comics, horror comics, crime comics and romance comics also took a similar hit. Another contributing factor was censorship. In the somewhat more puritanical days when comics were largely relegated to the realm of “kid’s stuff”, sexy images, inferred homosexual themes, murder mysteries, horror tropes and shootouts all took a hit and even the dark Batman was made saccharine and comical.
So surely the flip side of the Heroines Madrid wrote about would face similar difficulties. Perhaps the “bad girls” had an even harder time riding the wave of comic censorship and backlash. Regardless, the result is the same. While everyone and their Amazonian mother knows who Wonder Woman is, the same cannot be said for characters like Madame Doom, Skull Lady, The Figure, Madame Butterfly and Belle Guness.
Luckily we have Mike Madrid and his research to compile a tome like Vixens, Vamps & Vipers: Lost Villainesses of Golden Age Comics to bring these dangerous Femme Fatales back into the limelight from which they have largely been obscured since their debuts in the ’30s and ’40s. Whether edgy comics haters like Frederic Wertham liked it or not, these women were the darker side of female-centric comic books and brought us not heroic strategists, but villainous planners and cold calculators who might have been particularly threatening to perceived masculinity back in the Golden Age.
And, in fact, the opposite may be true today. As so many of these strong women are, unlike their “Heroine” counterparts, completely villainous and frequently taken down by the All American Male heroes of the gridded page, feminists will surely take exception. Further, unlike many of the heroic women, these adversaries were not always all that “pretty”. To echo The Wizard of Oz, writers and artists of the day clearly believed that “Only bad witches are ugly.”
Admittedly this wasn’t much of a concern back in 1943, but the plight of transsexuals is given a cartoonish commentary in the pages of Boy Comics #9 (specifically represented by Charles Biro’s Crimebuster) where the hero meets a villain named “He She”. He She is exactly what the character might sound like. A Hermaphroditus-based character with both male and female parts that, as Madrid describes him/ her, looks “like a cross between Humphrey Bogart and Hedy Lamarr.” The splash page of the featured comic about this character boldly states “The deadliest of the species is the female!! The strongest of the species is the Male!! Combine these with the killer instinct… and you have the most cunning, the most vicious, the most fiendish killer of all time!” Sensitive, no?
He She kicks cats and uses romance to get money… and those are her good points. The violent killings are hard to take and the dark ending to the character may be deserved (and certainly would have seemed so at the time), but looking at such stories from the first part of the 21st century, there is a layer of intolerance was clearly missed.
The same is true for the 1944 strip from Super-Mystery Comics Vol. 4 #2, featuring Mr. Risk (as represented here by a Lou Ferstadt-drawn comic). The author is unknown, as many contributors of the age were, but Madrid researches and properly credits as he can. This issue features something of a female version of Batman’s villain Two-Face in the hapless Dadya Burnett. Burnett is a fashion model who attempts a life of crime by stealing a priceless diamond. Unfortunately a crashing spotlight (you read that right) robs her of her booty as well as her beauty and she becomes even more evil than before. While Burnett was already materialistic, greedy and superficial, she is now deformed (half-ugly like Two-Face) and her superficiality leads to delusions that all other women are laughing at her. Of course… the reactions she gets to her newly grim visage seem to reinforce these fears and she becomes a full-on villain. Burnett doesn’t fare much better than He She both in her fate and its aftermath with the hero coldly stating that “She is better off”.
While surely the unsung Heroines of the day might have filled male readers with fears of misandry (the women of those comics were rarely in need, but instead, smart, independent and heroic), the featured villainesses here are treated by the writers and artists as something of an inversion of that, and not in the simplest ways. There is a certain misogyny visible, as if the (largely male) creators are suggesting that these women will get back in their place or they will be “better off” dead.
Luckily this is not always the case, and Madrid is thorough in his representations here. These are not mere stories of “uppity” women being taken down by brave men. Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, is represented in a 1942 story from Jumbo Comics #43 (with art by Robert Webb). However, Sheena’s adversary is Queen Tuana, a villainous Amazon who is far from “disfigured” like some of the villainesses presented here. She is larger than life and a definite threat to Sheena, but not only for her violent ways. Sheena herself is blonde, blue-eyed and represents the height of what was considered lovely at the time. Tuana, on the other hand, is a big, menacing black woman. In that Sheena’s stories are set in Africa, the villagers that she menaces are also black. Lucky for them, the strong, white “queen” who sees these people as “under Sheena’s rule” is there to protect them and defeat the usurper. Yes, race sensitivity was even less evolved than gender equality at that time.
The Sheena story is far from an isolated example of the era’s problems. Rulah the Jungle Goddess is a very similar character, represented here in a Matt Baker-drawn strip from 1941’s Zoot Comics #12. In it, the rich white American who sacrifices her modern conveniences to live among the simple and childlike African people must face Mava, ”the one with Bloodstained Fangs.” Naturally, it’s up to Rulah to defend her subjects against Mava and her dangerous (and incredibly unlikely) goals. The uncredited writer seems to have missed his (or her) very own point by having Mava team up with a former Nazi bent on taking over Africa. Rulah defeats her dark-skinned adversary to prove that Africa only needs one white overlord to follow.
As with Madrid’s other works, Vixens, Vamps & Vipers is not merely an anthology of classic reprints, but is packed with well-researched introductions and intelligent commentaries and character introductions. Yes, it was a different time, but Madrid well understands this and still espouses a realistic and still well-rounded commentary on the stories. He not only gets the irony of such storytelling, but digs to deeper levels to expose racism and sexism. Yes, there is a reverence for the comics of the age, but Madrid is no stranger to exposing and even explaining, though never actually defending, the clichés of the time.
Speaking of clichés, while there’s no dearth of “bad witch” ugly villainesses in these pages, the standard bad girl femme fatale is also well-represented. The 1950 story “Fingers of Death” from the rather obviously entitled Crimes by Women #11 (with both artist and writer uncredited) introduces us to “Winsome Wanda Bailey”, a pretty woman who hides “behind her innocent mask of beauty, the ugliest kind of murder known to man.” Wanda is a murderous poisoner who leaves a trail of dead across her heavily film noir influenced world. Tellingly, although this story has nothing inherently racist about it, the talented artist’s splash image gives us a representation of who Miss Bailey is behind her mask… he draws her as a dark-skinned woman only in that whimsical single image.
A more curious character is Mable Reine who is also (like Sheena) referred to as “The Queen of the Jungle”, however, this “jungle” is one of concrete and steel. Mable grows up during the Depression and rises to become a leader of a team of hobos. As seen in 1950’s Crimes by Women #13, Mable is also led on by another hobo named “Ma”, who convinces her to lead her small army to terrorize the city folk and relentlessly “clean it out”. The question the story seems to pose (perhaps unintentionally, although Madrid certainly gets it) is whether Mable is actually a bad person at all. She has lived a downtrodden life and suffered greatly, only to rise to a position where she can speak out. Her reward for standing up for herself and her people is 30 years in prison.
Of course, times have changed considerably and many of the viewpoints espoused in these largely forgotten strips have become outdated. Luckily we are seeing this reversal even in the comics world. The Asian villain Madame Butterfly battles against the all-male Blackhawk team in a Reed Crandall and Chuck Cuidera story from Modern Comics #78 (1949). But in the ’90s and beyond, the Blackhawks have been well-represented by female members in the pages of DC Comics. The hammer of Thor in Marvel Comics has been wielded by only a select few since his debut in the ’60s, but the new Marvel Thor is a female in the current comic books.
On the flip side, Marvel is also dominating the big screen with its Cinematic Universe and each of the popular Avengers has been introduced in his own film, including Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, Thor and even the lesser known Ant-Man. However, although there is much less of a fan call for a Hawkeye film, there seems to be even less interest in a solo film featuring the Black Widow, the team’s most prominent (and ass-kicking) female member. Further, when a big screen, testosterone-filled movie like Mad Max: Fury Road features a strong female lead who dares to break free of a patriarchal society and rescue a harem of sex slaves, certain men’s groups ridiculously cry foul and ask for a boycott of the groundbreaking action film.
Even if some things still need some fixing, the comics featured in Vixens, Vamps & Vipers do not deserve to be completely forgotten. Many of them feature strong female leads, and while the cultural sensitivities could use a great deal of evolution, many of the stories are well-told and well-drawn. That said, collections like this prove to be an ideal showcase for these strips. Warner Bros. has released many of its more insensitive and oft-unconscionable animated cartoons with disclaimers and warnings, so many of these less enlightened stories are well-served by Madrid’s own commentary and intelligent framing.
Much as Divas, Dames & Daredevils brought the strong, heroic and independent women of the Golden Age to light with praise, Vixens, Vamps & Vipers succeeds in bringing the colder, darker side of that storytelling to a new audience. Madrid presents these comics in their proper context.