A Stjepan Sejic Masterpiece: Harleen.

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“…The whole thing felt like one of those trashy romance tales where a plain, ordinary girl meets Mr. Tall, Sexy and Dangerous. In those stories, the girl helps the beast regain his humanity. In those stories, the beast loves the girl. I assure you, mine is not one such story. No, my story ended up being something completely different. My story’s the one where the girl dances with the devil, and he takes her with him on a long road to hell…”

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My local library finally reopened (with all the usual reopening stipulations, of course) though my car was the only one in the lot, with two librarians and myself the only people inside. The new releases shelves appeared to still have the very same books I’d seen on my last visit back in mid-March. But I was determined not to leave empty-handed, and walked out with the 2020 hardcover of Croatian artist Stjepan Sejic’s magnificent Harleen, collecting the three issues from last year which reimaged the origin of Paul Dini’s and Bruce Timm’s memorable creation, Dr. Harleen Quinzel, AKA Harley Quinn. Here the brilliant young Dr. Quinzel embarks on a study of empathy (or the lack thereof) among the criminals incarcerated in Gotham’s Arkham asylum. She also has a terrifying run-in with the puddin’-to-be. And, frankly, she has some personal issues. All of these things converge, leading Dr. Harleen Quinzel to (or driving her towards) an inevitable conclusion.

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Sejic isn’t just the artist on this project, but the writer as well, which is masterfully done – a terrific tale, beautifully scripted. Still, good as that is, Sejic’s art is what lingers with me, he being one of the very few artists (IMHO) who strive to capture subtleties of gesture and facial expressions, his deft touch with body language matched by few comic artists working today. There are no tedious panel sequences of talking heads here, even though most of the tale sidesteps big action scenes.

If you’re a Bat-verse person and/or in the mood for an extended story about the mallet-wielding crime queen that’s considerably less comical than you’d expect, Harleen is a dark but incredibly poignant tale I’d heartily recommend.

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Spicy, But Not Original.

Spicy Detective - April

Originals? Yeah, sure. Like I have that kind of dough. No, they’re all Adventure House Spicy Detective trade paperback reprints, handsome books with crisp reproduction, using the original page layouts with the ads included and all. That these particular 1930’s and 1940’s era issues all happened to include Robert Leslie Bellem “Dan Turner – Hollywood Detective” stories should come as no surprise to observant followers here. About time to get my mitts on a few more, I think.

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The Real Queens.

Ellery Queen 1 1952

Quite by accident, I stumbled across cover scans for the original vintage Ellery Queen comics sampled in Source Point Press’ 2020 J. Werner Presents Classic Pulp – Ellery Queen comic that I picked up this past weekend and showed here a couple days ago.

The Spring 1952 issue included “The Corpse That Killed” which was included in my reprint, and the second Summer 1952 issue featured the full Norman Saunders cover Source Point Press utilized. Of course, I much prefer the ten-cent cover price to the 2020 comic’s four dollar cost. Inflation and all that, I guess.

Ellery Queen 2 1952

Classic? Yes. Pulp? Well, No.

classic pulp comic

I finally set foot in a comic book store the day before Independence Day. Masked, distanced, limited occupancy (not usually an issue in this particular shop anyway), things weren’t quite back to normal, but on the way, at least. Aside from the current Diamond Previews, I didn’t end up getting anything band new, mostly hauling recent and back issues to the register. Quite a bunch, as it turned out.

I don’t know if this 2020 Source Point Press J. Werner Presents Classic Pulp comic is a standalone or part of a series, but it reprints three 8 to 10 page 1940’s The Adventures of Ellery Queen comics, the first credited to R.S. Callender (writer, I’m guessing), the rest uncredited. Classic? Definitely. “Pulp”? Well, no…they’re comics. And while contemporary comics typically dole out one act of a larger story arc per issue (that arc often as not something cataclysmic), here the stories are succinct self-contained whodunits. Each tale pauses two-thirds through to quiz the reader: Have they caught the clues so far in order to solve the crime? I thought that was cute, but for the record: No, I did not catch the clues in any one of the tales. Some gumshoe, huh?

That’s a Norman Saunders cover illustration – obviously more pulp than comics – courtesy of David Saunders.

Miss America.

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“Socially aware” Washington D.C. teenager Madeline Joyce tampered with a scientist’s equipment during an electrical storm, giving her superhuman powers and the ability to fly. She stitched together her own costume and adopted the name “Miss America” to fight Axis spies, saboteurs and criminals, first appearing in Marvel Mystery Comics in 1943, then getting her own title in 1944 in stories written by Otto Binder and drawn by Al Gabriele.  A lot of the vintage capes-n-tights crowd’s costumes are pretty impractical, if not downright silly, “Miss America’s” as much as many others (dig the sleeves on her tunic!) but I like it.

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There were other “Miss America” superheroes around the same time, most notably “Joan Dale, Girl Reporter” who fell asleep at the foot of The Statue of Liberty, which magically came to life and endowed her with superpowers to aid America in its time of desperate need.

The “Deluxe” Lady Killer.

Lady Killer Deluxe

I may not be able to get inside any comics shops ‘round here yet, but I haven’t gone comics-free during the past few months. Though I already have Joelle Jones Lady Killer in trade pb editions, I couldn’t resist the new Dark Horse May 2020 Library “Deluxe Edition”, an absolutely gorgeous oversize hardcover that covers the entire series, including Book One: Seattle 1962 written by Jamie S. Rich (Joelle Jones’ collaborator on the wonderful You Have Killed Me), and Book Two: Florida 1963, with both the art and story by the Goddess of Comic Art, Joelle Jones herself. This nearly 300-page edition includes an introduction by Chelsea Cain and over 30 pages of extras.

And yes, I had to read it all over again before I slid it into a place of honor on my bookshelves. Big surprise there.

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Lily Renee: Comics Pioneer.

Lily Renee

Following up on the preceding posts about Fiction House comics’ WWII undercover agent, Senorita Rio, and in particular, young Austrian refugee Lily Renee, the artist most closely associated with that character:

Graphic Universe’s 2011 graphic novel Lily Renee, Escape Artist by Trina Robbins, Anne Timmons and Mo Oh tells the moving and inspirational story of this comic book pioneer the best way you can: in comic art form. This 96-page book is more or less a YA graphic novel and would be a terrific addition to a junior high or high school history or women’s studies class, not only telling Lily’s story, but also packed with backmatter on WWII, the Holocaust, war time comics, women in comics and more.

Lily Renee Cover

Lily Renee: Fighting The Axis With A Sable Brush.

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Fiction House’s Senorita Rio waged a war of vengeance against the Nazis in Fight Comics during WWII, eager for revenge against all fascists after the death of her Navy Ensign fiancé at Pearl Harbor. Though Rio was launched by Morgan ‘Jo’ Hawkins and Nick Cardy, it’s artist “L. Renee” who is most closely associated with the character, and who had her own very personal reasons for bringing the Allies’ most lethal lady agent’s adventures to life.

Fourteen year old Vienna teenager Lily Renee Wilhelm was horrified when the Anschluss united Austria with Nazi Germany. The daughter of a well-to-do Jewish family, her father lost his job as the director of a prestigious cruise line, she was expelled from school, their home and possessions were soon confiscated and they were forced to move into a cramped shared apartment in the new Jewish ghetto. Knowing things would only get worse, Lily’s parents got her out of the country in the Kindertransport program that allowed Jewish children to emigrate overseas. Knowing very little English, Lily was taken in by a British family just before war broke out in 1939, unaware that the host family was actually more interested in a free house servant than aiding Europe’s endangered Jews. Ill-used and nearly starved, Lily fled, but with Britain and Germany at war now, she was picked up by the authorities and incarcerated as an enemy alien. A distant relative intervened and Lily got a job as a nurse’s aid in a military hospital. Unaware if her parents were still alive, working 12 hour shifts, shunned by her British coworkers, still unfamiliar with the language, it was a brutally lonely life for the young teen, her only solace found during her rare off hours when she indulged her amateur interest in art, drawing on any scrap of paper she could find.

L Renee 3While England endured the Blitz, Lily was shocked (but thrilled) to discover that her parents had, in fact, managed to escape Austria and arranged for her to join them in America. A perilous cross Atlantic freighter voyage dodging storms and German U-Boats finally reunited the family in New York. They found an apartment in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Lily’s father got a job as an elevator operator, while she pitched in by hand painting Tyrolean scenes on knick-knacks while going to night school, even as the U.S. joined the war. Splitting her time between modeling jobs for fashion designers and classes at The Art Students League and The School Of The Visual Arts, Lily landed an apprentice position at an agency doing illustrations for Woolworth’s catalogs, but her mother was convinced she could do better, eventually prodding the young girl to answer a want ad for comic book artists. Lily balked, certain a woman wouldn’t be considered, particularly one so young, and still convinced while she waited with her portfolio on her lap in the Fiction House reception area surrounded only by men.

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But she was hired and soon found herself working side by side with pioneering women comic artists like Nina Albright and Fran Hopper, doing prep work and backgrounds, clean-ups and inking for the princely sum of $18 a week. Eventually she was assigned to draw some Jane Martin, Pilot issues, then given The Werewolf Hunter horror title, a series she often scripted without credit.

After Nick Cardy moved on to other titles, random artists temporarily filled in on Fight Comics popular Senorita Rio series till it was handed to young Lily Renee. She usually signed her work only as “L. Renee”, and her fan mail (much of it from servicemen) confirmed that most readers assumed she was a man. Lily Renee continued to do the Senorita Rio series for most of its run, finally leaving for other titles after the war, and eventually leaving the comics industry for textile design and other artistic endeavors.

L Renee 2But who could be better suited to drawing this iconic WWII era character, a woman so distraught over her fiancée’s death at Pearl Harbor that she abandons her glamorous, successful Hollywood career, fakes her own death and goes undercover as a government agent combatting fascist spies and saboteurs in her native South America. Lily Renee knew a thing or two about the dangers of Nazi tyranny, and drew Senorita Rio with relish as she rooted out evil German agents and collaborators, dispatching the bad guys (and a lot of nasty femmes fatales) with a compact automatic hidden in her garter holster, and always doing it in style, often as not in Senorita Rio’s trademark red dress and matching heels.  Not quite as skilled a draftsman as Nick Cardy was, young Lily Renee still celebrated Rio’s athleticism and daring, while embracing the one-time Hollywood starlet’s very apparent sensuality. In Renee’s hand, Rita Farrar/Senorita Rio surely got more than a few WWII era reader’s pulses racing in slinky peekaboo scenes that graced most stories. And like all good Golden Age comics heroines, Rio was frequently captured by the bad guys, but she was never a helpless damsel in distress waiting to be rescued. Notable among that era’s female characters, it was Senorita Rio herself who did the rescuing, and always triumphed over the enemy.

In 2007, Lily Renee was nominated to the Comic-Con International Hall Of Fame, and as of this writing, is still with us at age 99.

Senorita Rio

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Hollywood’s stunned when Tinsel Town’s latest sensation, Rita Farrar, dies mysteriously on the eve of the South American premier of her latest movie, “Lady, Dance No More”, apparently falling overboard and lost at sea on an Argentina-bound cruise. But what no one knows is that Rita’s faked her own death in order to go undercover as a U.S. agent, bent on revenge against the forces of fascism following the death of her Navy Ensign fiancée at Pearl Harbor. Discarding her stage name and even her real name, Consuela de las Vegas, Rita becomes “Senorita Rio – Queen Of The Spies”, one of America’s most lethal operatives, rooting out Axis spies and Nazi saboteurs throughout South America.

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Created and scripted by Morgan ‘Jo’ Hawkins, Senorita Rio first appeared as one of numerous rotating characters in Fight Comics #19, eventually taking over the covers for about a year, and ran in almost every issue throughout the WWII years, continuing her adventures with a slightly reworked origin story in the early postwar period. The Gwandanaland Comics The Complete Senorita Rio is an enormous oversize 470-page trade paperback, the third of these Golden Age comics collection books I’ve gotten (following Crimes By Women and Betty Bates). While the publisher could invest a little time/money with even an entry-level graphic artist for some rudimentary Photoshop clean-up of their page scans (heck, they could even be color balanced and sharpened in Preview, when it comes down to it), and there are no extras – introduction, background, writer/artist bio’s, etc. – these Gwandanaland books are still a tremendous bargain. If, like me, you’re always on the hunt for the women detectives, girl reporters, female costumed superheroes and ‘stiletto gumshoes’ from the mid-twentieth century comics, pulps and paperbacks, you’d have to spend a fortune to collect the entire Senorita Rio series.

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The initial series was beautifully drawn with real verve by Nick Cardy, who must’ve moved on to other projects while Senorita Rio was handled by a rotating team for a few issues, then handed over to comics pioneer Lily Renee, who had her own special reasons for doing a daring and deadly Axis-fighting heroine. More about that in the next post…

Femme Noir.

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In a preceding post I mentioned a list of comics missed or overdue for a revisit that has accumulated while the shops have been shuttered the past few months. They still are closed, around here at least, but are expected to re-open soon. All the same, while I’m blessed with several nice stores very close by, they’re woefully light on indies, being strictly focused on the capes-n-tights crowd from the majors. But one off the beaten track shop will come through, I know, and that’s where I’ll mine the bins for Christopher Mills and Joe Staton’s Femme Noir.

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I have several back issues, but grabbed them at random and not in sequence, and really want to hunker down with the whole series. Bursting out of Port Nocturne’s deep dark shadows in always-energetic artwork, Mills and Staton’s Femme Noir seems like a genuinely pulpy comic treat based on the disjointed storyline I’ve gleaned from what I have. The Dark City Diaries, Blonde Justice and Dead Man’s Hand…now there’s a bunch I need to acquire, whether in individual issues or trade reprints. Counting the days (or a couple weeks, depending on what I hear).

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