21 September 2015

Review: Divas, Dames & Daredevils: Lost Heroines of Golden Age Comics by Mike Madrid

Comic trade paperback, 236 pages
Published 2013 (contents: 1940-48)
Acquired December 2013
Read June 2015
Divas, Dames & Daredevils: Lost Heroines of Golden Age Comics
compiled and annotated by Mike Madrid

I would never had guessed that the Golden Age of comics possessed such a wide range of female hero characters-- most of what's remained in the popular consciousness are fairly straightforward superheroes, like Wonder Woman, the Phantom Lady, or, uh, Firebrand*?

There are definitely superheroes here, but they are probably some of the less interesting heroines on offer. If you've ever read collections of any of the lesser Golden Age superheroes, like Sandman, you'll know what to expect: quick criminal plots wrapped up by personality-less characters. There are still some standouts, though, such as Mother Hubbard, an ugly witch who uses her powers to aid America in the war effort in a story by Bill Madden. Though her magic makes her so powerful there doesn't seem to be much that can stop her! I found most of the war comics similarly generic, though it was neat seeing all the different roles the women held, from super-spies to super-nurses.

There are also a number of tales here of fantasy and science fiction heroines: epic adventurers across time and space. For many of these, the individual tales here aren't so interesting as Mike Madrid's synopses of their publication history-- I want to know about the storied histories of Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle, who is at various points a goddess, a jungle queen, and an Egyptian ruler; Queen Camilla of the Lost Empire, who goes from being a warrior queen to a lost jungle girl; Gale Allen and the Girl Squadron, who fly through space battle pirates; and the Magician from Mars, exiled from her home planet by the evil Hood. They sound fascinating!

No, the real good stuff here comes in the tales of "everyday" women fighting the good fight against evil. Barbara Hall's "Introducing the Blonde Bomber" does exactly what the title implies, introducing Honey Blake, a newsreel camerawoman who is also a chemist, and uses her reporting and scientific powers to fight crime. Apparently she appeared regularly in a number of comics for about five years; I'd like to seek more of them out. There's also Jill Trent, Science Sleuth who battle crime with her friend/possible lesbian lover, here in the tale "The Freezer Ray!" by Ken Battefield and Frank Frazetta. I like these stories of women are captivating not (only) through their beauty, but through their intellectual superiority to every man around them!

Probably the best story in the book is by Bill Draut, who went on to have a successful career for DC in the Silver Age, especially in horror comics. The Calamity Jane tale "The Man Who Met Himself" has (like, apparently most Calamity Jane tales) an entertaining frame where Jane seeks out Draut to get her to illustrate her most recent adventure. Jane is very much a typical hardboiled detective... only she's a woman, and her condescending attitude to everyone she meets is terrific fun. This is another character I'd definitely seek out more adventures of... if I ever clear out my current backlog of digital comics to read! Since these stories are in the public domain now, most can be read for free online, and I suspect I would enjoy getting to explore this forgotten corner of comics history.

* Not an actual Golden Age heroine, apparently, much like the "original" Fury.

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