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.

miss america 1

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.

Block & Pochoda In Mystery Scene.

mystery scene 164

You’ll find Ivy Pochoda (These Girls, 2020) and Lawrence Block (Dead Girl Blues, 2020) in the current Mystery Scene magazine, issue 164. Pochoda nabs this issue’s cover, and is treated to an excellent four-page profile by Oline H. Cogdill. Lawrence Block appears with “A Burglar’s Future”, a Bernie Rhodenarr story from the new The Burglar In Short Order 2020 release. Honestly, there’s not a page to be skimmed over in this particular issue, even including a review (the lead review, that is) for the novel I just finished, Pip Drysdale’s new The Sunday Girl (see an upcoming post for that one).

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

Rio 1

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.

Femme Noir 6

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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Bye, Kate.

Batwoman 2

The CW’s Batwoman: You liked it, you hated it (or based on the ratings) you were completely indifferent. Me, I really did like the show, one of very few series I faithfully watched (back-to-back Batwoman and Supergirl episodes made for a nice 7:00 – 9:00 PM CST pre-workweek slot on Sunday evenings). Yes, the show speedily started to build a needlessly complex series of subplots like most CW Arrowverse shows have done, but I still enjoyed the show’s performances, link to DC Comics Bat-Verse and overall look, not minding one bit that many exterior scenes used altered Chicago skylines (notably oft-filmed LaSalle Street and the ubiquitous Board Of Trade Building for Wayne Tower). Quirky Rachel Maddow voice-overs were just icing on my personal Bat-cake.

But then drama unfolded, lead actor Ruby Rose is gone and fan sites buzzed with speculation about the how’s, why’s and what-now’s.

Batwoman 1Myself, I’d have simply recast the role with someone who thought a steady and visible acting gig with a pre-built fan base wasn’t a bad deal in a profession where most actors barely eke out a living by working demeaning day jobs while toiling in anonymity in storefront theaters, corporate training films and local market commercials. Batwoman wouldn’t be the first television series that had to recast a role, though recasting the lead would be pretty unprecedented.

Now the news pops up that the CW powers-that-be have decided instead to abandon the DC Comics-based Kate Kane character altogether and introduce an all-new person to don the Bat-mantle in season two. I smell CW execs concluding that they won’t get screwed by a series lead ever again, so they’ll be poised to rapidly introduce a new Batwoman as needed. Maybe it’s a subtle message to the leads of their other shows: “You too can be replaced”. Who knows?

Elseworlds, Part 2

I’m disappointed, but sure, I’ll check out the new season, which might suck or might be terrific. The fact is, it almost feels silly to even be thinking about a television show at all when a global pandemic can become yesterday’s news in the face of other overwhelming issues. But a part of me hopes that come this Fall or even in early 2021 when new CW superhero series’ seasons debut, the national political scene will have simmered down (one way or another), we’ll be on a path (however meandering) to resolving once and for all the institutionalized inequities in our society, and even the dreaded and deadly virus will be better contained and managed. At least, enough so I can shut my brain off for an hour or two once a week to enjoy a silly costumed superhero TV show. Which I really need to do, ‘cuz it feels like my head’s ready to explode these days.

 

Close Up.

close up amanda quick

When I first spotted Close Up (2020) on more than one of the too-many mystery/crime fiction and book sites I follow, I was expecting “Casey, Crime Photographer” in heels, and scheduled it for a bookstore curbside pickup. I’ve been making it a point lately to try big name authors whose books I’ve bypassed, partly to see what I’ve been missing and partly to find out what I can learn for my own writing.

Amanda Quick is well-known Seattle, Washington author Jayne Krentz. With over fifty NYT bestsellers to her credit, Krentz writes ‘romantic suspense’, with her ‘Amanda Quick’ pen name reserved for historical romantic suspense (which apparently just recently transitioned to more recent history, like Close Up, which is set in the 1930’s), and works as ‘Jayne Castle’ (oddly enough, the author’s real name) for paranormal romantic suspense. From this I’ll glean that the latter isn’t horror as such, the Quick books aren’t quite ‘noir’ or crime fiction, and the Krentz novels not quite thrillers. These are romance novels however you want to label them, not that this is a bad thing.

In Close Up, Vivien Brazier flees a pampered but claustrophobic heiress’ life in San Francisco to pursue a career as a fine arts photographer in Los Angeles. She pays the bills by moonlighting as a crime scene photographer, following police radio calls at night and elbowing the boys club aside at fires, auto accidents and murder scenes, spending her days working on a provocative series of male nudes with a steady stream of Muscle Beach buff-boys lined up outside her beachfront home studio. Smarter and more observant than the rest of the camera jockeys, Vivien helps the police I.D. a high-profile serial killer only a few chapters into the novel. But this spins off into a more puzzling murder mystery, and pairs her with dapper but troubled private (and apparently psychic) investigator Nick Sundridge and his loyal dog Rex. An elaborate if ill-conceived scheme to ensnare this new and even more diabolical killer takes them to the upscale oceanfront resort town of Burning Cove, where romance blossoms even as they to elude – then uncover – the murderer.

A snippy critic might complain that the plot takes some mighty implausible turns, the characters continually do incredibly improbable things and the entire business is rife with an endless list of writerly no-no’s that would guarantee an agent’s or editor’s swift and dismissive rejection for any unknown. But with a looong list of successful books to her credit, I don’t think Quick/Krentz/Castle needs to worry about any of that, and just aims to tell a good story in her own way.

Still, I’ll confess that I kind of wished the author trusted the nifty setup she initially created and left intriguing, no-nonsense Vivien Brazier right where she was when the book began: prowling the means streets of 1930’s Los Angeles on the hunt for grisly crime scenes with her big Speed Graphic camera in tow, bantering with the cops and the lensmen, and living the Boho life by day as a fine arts photographer, even though she has to endure the gallery elite’s sneers at her figure study photos. But Quick/Krentz/Castle knows what she’s doing, even when she chose to hightail it out of that intriguing milieu for a remote movie star hideaway resort and something more like a Golden Age drawing room mystery (albeit one laced with some sex). Bottom line: What the hell do I know? When I have fifty NYT bestsellers under my belt, I’ll make suggestions.

Whether you only enjoy its beginnings or stay on board for the rest of the ride, I bet you’ll agree that Quick’s Close Up is a fun read. I just hope some other writer picks up where Amanda Quick began and brings us an engaging, no-nonsense ‘girl crime photographer’ in a retro urban setting…Close Up was really onto something there. Hey, don’t look at me. I’m already wrestling with my own no-nonsense ‘stiletto gumshoe’ in a retro urban setting. You give it a try.

Vengeance is Hers.

vengeance is hers

Dangle a shiny bauble in front of me, and I’m completely in your power. Well, if the bauble’s a book, that is, and one with an eye-catching cover.

There’s a long list of books I’ve bought based on their covers alone, only to be disappointed by the books themselves. There are so many cozies, anemic thrillers and bland whodunits masquerading as edgy hard-boiled or saucy neo-noir tales. Used bookstores make out pretty well with my discards, their alluring covers ready to ensnare the next victim.

So, it’s a thrill when I get an unassuming little book that turns out to be a gem. I need more ‘baubles’ like Vengeance Is Hers, a 1997 anthology from Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins, one more of the anthologies I spotted over a month ago at The New Thrilling Detective website. The cover art? Meh. And it’s just a rack-sized pocketbook at that. But this collection of 17 mystery/crime fiction stories by women writers – plus one gate-crasher from co-editor Mickey Spillane himself to open the book – was a cover-to-cover treat. Sure, some stories felt a little anachronistic, the book over twenty years old, after all. But the talented roster of writers including Joan Hess, J.A. Jance, Wendi Lee, Sharyn McCrumb, S.J. Rozan and others, delivered surprisingly different spins on the notion of vengeance. From uniformed cops to (then) modern private eyes and traditional femmes fatales, the stories cover the bases, with some genuine head-scratching mysteries, liberal doses of edgy violence and thoughtful storytelling throughout. The real jewel in the book may be mystery maestra Dorothy B. Hughes’ last completed work, “Where Is She? Where Did She Go?”. Hughes paints a vivid picture of the mid-twentieth century L.A. Boho jazz scene, and leaves the reader unsure at the end if a crime actually occurred or not. For his part, Mickey Spillane delivers a story that oozes trademark Spillane hard-boiled-isms throughout, but foregoes any gunplay, fistfights or violence, and is a surprisingly thoughtful piece.

A ho-hum cover on an easily overlooked pocketbook? This sure was, and if it hadn’t been shown in The New Thrilling Detective website, it would’ve remained off my radar. Glad I spotted it there and took a chance, even without anyone waving a shiny bauble before my usually gullible eyes.

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