Joan Mason – Reporter

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Joan Mason – Reporter from Victor Fox’ Fox Features Syndicate appeared in about 16 Blue Beetle comics as an on-again off-again girlfriend and sometimes foil of the superhero, eventually getting her own feature stories. Yet, for all of her investigative reporting and sleuthing skills, Joan never managed to figure out that Dan Garrett was actually the Blue Beetle.

Mason worked for various newspapers, depending on what the writers (or even the letterers) came up with, oddly enough, even the Daily Planet in some stories, though it’s not intended to be Clark Kent and Lois Lane’s paper (or to tempt fate with DC Comics’ lawyers). Most often depicted in a stylish red suit and hat with long blonde hair, Joan Mason suddenly had a mid-1940’s makeover in a new (and much better) artist’s hands, briefly sporting a black bob, though still sticking with the bright red suit.

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The Joan Mason Reporter Treasury shown at the top is another Gwandanaland Comics POD book (they seem to be pumping them out nearby in Monee, Illinois), 126 pages with 18 stories, most from 1944 – 1950 Blue Beetle comics. Writers? Artists? You got me — nothing’s credited, and the book’s intro is only a brief paragraph. But, some online sources list Charles Nicholas as Joan’s creator. Actually, most of the writing and art aren’t exactly the best, and only one story in this book, “Joan Mason Reporter In The Wandering Atomic Bomb” is done by someone who can really wield a pencil and sable brush, with a style somewhere between a Bill Ward and a Matt Baker’s look.

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Mason’s usually assigned to look into (or just stumbles upon) a corny mystery, gets caught by the crooks, rescued by the cops and solves the crime in the last panel or two. Many are only six-pagers. Still, for someone determined to poke around mid-twentieth century pulps, PBO’s and comics to uncover the era’s ‘stiletto gumshoes’ (few as there may have been), these Joan Mason stories are interesting artifacts.

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Let’s Call Her ‘CatGirl’.

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Lauren Myracle’s Under The Moon – A Catwoman Tale from last Spring was positioned as a YA graphic novel, and certainly speaks to that audience, but just as surely can be enjoyed by us grown-ups. As much as I revere the man in the cape and cowl, the Bat-Universe’s most intriguing characters clearly have been revealed to be the women of Gotham City, whether in the comics themselves, on film or the small screen.

Beautifully illustrated in a fluidly drawn black/grey/blue duotone style by Isaac Goodhart (Postal, etc.) Under The Moon’s book-length tale tells an alternate origin story for Selina Kyle, here a high school student living with an inattentive single mother’s horrible succession of increasingly abusive boyfriends, the current one a violent, sadistic drunk. A loner by nature, Selina finds little solace at school where a bestie-wannabe is a little too clingy and childhood playmate Bruce Wayne seems lost in his own world. Selina flees, living by her wits on the streets till she hooks up with a trio of misfit runaways and becomes embroiled in a high-stakes heist…at Wayne Manor no less.

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Myracle’s story is a poignant and plausible alternate vision for Selina Kyle/Catwoman’s origin (make that ‘CatGirl here) and the building blocks of a pre-Batman and pre-Catwoman relationship are smartly put in place. When released, this title came with retailer warnings about rough language and edgy content, and that’s in there, all right, but it never felt forced and only the most close-minded could object. A (I suppose) necessary subplot about a grisly Gotham City serial killer seemed intrusive, but with everything else done so well, I even went along with that.  I mean, how can you not fall in love with a hoodie with cat ears as the beginnings of an iconic costume?

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I grabbed this one at the library when I popped in to pick up a reserved book, and blew through it over a Saturday afternoon coffee break (a break that went a little longer than planned. Okay…a break that went way longer than planned). If Myracle and Goodhart have a sequel up their sleeve, I’m in. More CatGirl for me, please!

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A Saturday Surprise.

Mystery Scene

‘Real life’ stuff demanded to be reckoned with this past weekend, resulting in a couple of grim days. So, nothing could’ve pleased me more than popping my mailbox open Saturday evening, where I found both the March 2020 Writer’s Digest and Spring 2020 Mystery Scene inside. I don’t think I’ve had a same-day delivery of those two magazines before, and was eager for something to take my mind off of things, if only for a while. Quick skims of both over a very late dinner (and digging in to one article, at least) sure did the trick.

The new Mystery Scene issue includes all the usual reviews and columns, along with an amusing article from Michael Mallory: “Ready For A Close-Up – Crime Authors Caught On Camera” about Earle Stanley Gardner, P.D. James and numerous other mystery/crime fiction writers who’ve done cameos in films and TV shows. I suppose the whole world already knew that Raymond Chandler (who co-wrote the screenplay of James Cain’s novel) can be seen in Billy Wilder’s 1944 Double Indemnity, but I didn’t! Duh.

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But my favorite article and the one I dove into over the weekend (the rest of the mag and the Writer’s Digest saved for more careful reading through the week) was “Dex Parios – Will She Or Won’t She? Only Her Stumptown Producers Know For Sure” by Kevin Burton Smith.

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Television has been awash in private eyes since its beginnings. Richard Diamond and Peter Gunn to Cannon, Mannix, Baretta and many, many more, some you might recall or have seen on oddball rerun channels and just as many that you may have never heard of. But let’s be clear: It’s been a P.I. boys club, just like the pulps and retro PBO marketplace of each corresponding era. As for the ‘stiletto gumshoes’? Not so many. Hardly any at all, in fact. Honey West, Charlie’s Angels, Remington Steele, Moonlighting…I’m already running out. The BBC and Australian markets have been more productive by comparison. But in recent years, you might argue that the best private eye, cop and mystery/crime shows have been led by women characters. And, quite a few of them at that. Based on its excellent source material, ABC’s Stumptown promised something special.

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Confession time: As a fan of Greg Rucka’s comics, I couldn’t wait for Stumptown’s debut.Worried? Naturally. After all, could Hollywood (a broadcast network, no less) be trusted to do justice to Rucka’s creation? But when the first episode aired, I was thrilled, and thought that series star Cobie Smulders as Dexedrine ‘Dex’ Callisto Parios and all involved did a terrific job. Some differences from the source material? Well, that’s to be expected.

But, you’ve heard nothing from me here about the show since. The fact is, I grew disenchanted with the series, and by the holidays had stopped watching altogether.

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So, I was kind of relieved to read Kevin Burton Smith’s article, discovering that I wasn’t alone. Oh, Smith’s a fan, too. But he rightly questions some creative decisions, including an increasing number of side trips into Dex’s complex personal life that ate up a lot of storytelling time. Interesting? Sure, but a bit intrusive nonetheless.  Like he points out while wondering why the studio tinkerers had to tinker at all, “The thing is, the source material is so great, it’s a shame that the showrunners seem to be paying it lip service.” If someone like the founder and editor of the Thrilling Detective site (www.thrillingdetective.com) started to feel a little hinky about some aspects of the show, then I knew I was in safe company. But like Smith points out in his Mystery Scene article, the show seemed to be getting back on track in the New Year, and that’s good news. I’ve returned as a viewer and will stick with it now, while catching up on missed episodes. Further, and to Kevin Burton Smith’s credit, nearly half of his Mystery Scene article is devoted to Greg Rucka himself. Hollywood (and too many viewers) may think it’s all about the stars, or maybe the directors. But let’s keep in mind that every character, every scene, every @#%$&! word spoken originates with the writer. And in Stumptown’s case, the whole idea began with Greg Rucka’s excellent series.

It’s not that I need a genre authority’s endorsement to make me stick with a show (or film, book, whatever). But sometimes it’s nice to know you’re not alone. And now, as time allows, I’ll get back to reading the rest of my new Mystery Scene magazine

 

More Of The Blonde Phantom

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Some more of The Blonde Phantom, actually Hoboken, New Jersey Louise Grant, secretary to private eye Mark Mason, and star of her own post-WWII era title. See the preceding post for more info and images.

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Louise Grant: The Blonde Phantom

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Women private detectives, plucky ‘girl reporters’, enterprising Gal Fridays and even costumed female crimefighters had largely disappeared from the already dwindling pulp magazine marketplace by the end of WWII (not that there were all that many to begin with), but a few made appearances in comics in that immediate postwar period. Case in point: The Blonde Phantom, who debuted in the Fall of 1946. Usually credited to Stan Lee and artist Syd Shores, some sources say Al Sulman created the character during his Timely Comics stint. Syd Shores is probably best known by Golden Age comics fans for his work on Captain America, but more notoriously among pulp magazine fans for his genuinely squirm-worthy Nazi bondage and torture cover paintings for the 1960’s “men’s sweats” magazines. While also appearing in numerous other comics, The Blonde Phantom quickly took over her own title which lasted for two years, devolving into a romance anthology in 1949. Modified versions of the character were even revived in the late 1980’s, so it’s not uncommon to still spot pics of a Blonde Phantom or two in the cosplay scene today.

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Secretary to (and smitten with) private detective Mark Mason, Hoboken New Jersey’s Louise Grant isn’t content to answer phones and type letters, donning a swirly red slit dress emblazoned with bright stars as yellow as her own long blonde hair. Hidden behind a black domino mask and somehow racing around in red heels, Louise draws upon her natural athletic abilities (backed up by her .45 automatic) to become the costumed crimefighter The Blonde Phantom. By 1949, Louise retired from crimefighting when she married Mason, later giving birth to a daughter and a son. After Mark Mason dies, Louise (now Mason) goes to work for D.A. Blake Tower in the 1989 revival, appearing alongside numerous members of the Marvel superhero stable. Later, her daughter Wanda briefly continued Louise’s crimefighting legacy as an all-new Blonde Phantom sporting a more traditional superhero-style uniform.

The Blonde Phantom Montage

Drawn in a typical Good Girl Art style by Syd Shores and other artists, The Blonde Phantom is a mix of straightforward mysteries punctuated by exciting action, but all of it sprinkled with bits of romance and requisite damsel-in-distress scenes, though Louise often gets herself out of trouble without the help of detective Mark Mason or some other fellow.

Myself, I’ve only had the pleasure of reading one complete The Blonde Phantom tale, but it was pretty darn good. The rest of what I’ve seen are only random pages, panels and covers, but all intriguing enough to make me want to find more. Unwilling to plunk down mega-dollars for collectible Golden Age comics, I guess I’ll just have to wait for some enterprising reprint publisher to put something together.

As Close As I’ll Get To The Decameron…For Now.

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Suckered in some time ago by a handsome faux-leather hot stamped and embossed hardcover edition of Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, complete with Gustave Dore illustrations (that 19thcentury French engraver who’s still inspiring countless SF/Fantasy artists today), I took the plunge into a daunting reading experience for someone more accustomed to Mickey Spillane and mystery pulp reprints. Prudently, I had an annotated eBook edition handy at all times in order to make some sense of every second or third line.

But it was still pretty intimidating.

The Decameron

So, try another?

Maybe it’s time to dial back a couple hundred years to attempt fellow Florentine Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, perhaps in one of those nifty editions with the Rockwell Kent illustrations (and hopefully with another annotated eBook handy)?

But you know, with snow falling here since Wednesday afternoon and lake-effect snow squalls forecasted straight through Sunday, it’s much more fun to think about Eleanora Stone buzzing around the Tuscan countryside on a Vespa, with the Summer of 1963 rolling into a warm Italian Autumn. Which is precisely what Ellie Stone got to do (however briefly) in James W. Ziskin’s Turn To Stone (2020), the seventh novel in his Ellie Stone mystery series. Now, it’s not really a retelling of or necessarily a homage to The Decameron, in which seven women and three men hid from the Black Plague in a Tuscan villa, wiling away the hours by sharing 100 tales from the educational to the more ribald. Instead, Ziskin’s early 1960’s ‘girl reporter’ finds herself quarantined in a remote but opulent Florentine palazzo, with some of the reluctant guests (and Ellie herself) sharing stories after dinners — not coincidentally from The Decameron — stories the reader will study carefully to hunt through for clues to the novel’s mystery. (Not that it helped me one bit, but I’m truly awful at picking up on clues.)

Ellie Stone Series

I fell in love with Ziskin’s Ellie Stone mystery series and Eleanora Stone herself from the opening pages of the first novel, Styx And Stone (2013). Smart, savvy, assertive yet very authentically a person of her time (that book set in 1960), Ellie Stone fled Manhattan academia with strained family relationships and tragedies all part of her personal baggage, finding her way to a reporter’s job at a small-town newspaper in New Holland, New York. There she’ll solve shocking local crimes, much to the chagrin of suitably 1960’s boorish male coworkers and the law. We first encounter her doing double-duty trying to solve her own father’s assault and murder among the Columbia professorial crowd back in NYC.

Subsequent entries in the evolving series have found Ellie solving other local crimes. But author Ziskin presumably confronted the problem vexing other writers penning successful mystery/crime fiction series set in small towns: Just how many brutal murders can occur in one little burg? I mean, once the body count hits a certain number, won’t the state police or the Attorney General take notice and send in the troops? (Mind you, that would’ve been William P. Rogers in 1960 or Bobbie Kennedy by 1963, not the current office holder, who’d surely be too busy plumbing new depths of sycophancy to alert the US Marshals.) So, Ellie has also managed to stumble into trouble while on vacation in the Adirondacks, on assignment in Los Angeles, at upstate New York horse tracks and now in Turn To Stone, in Florence, Italy for a symposium honoring her late Columbia professor father.

And she’s barely unpacked before the trouble erupts: The symposium’s host has been found dead, his body floating in the Arno river. Accident? Suicide? Murder? While it casts an obvious pall over the event, a pre-arranged post-conference weekend outside Florence is still a must-attend affair, though it goes bad quick enough when the threat of a Rubella outbreak quarantines the group of students, professors and various hangers-on…one of that group quite likely a murderer. And there’s no shortage of culprits hiding secrets and personal grudges going back to the Spanish Civil War, the dark days of Mussolini’s fascist regime, entrenched anti-Semitism and the horror of the Nazi occupation, casting the shadow of guilt on fellow academics, students and relatives alike.

Gun play? Car chases? Thrills and chills? Well, aside from a close call with a wild boar (you read that right), this novel steers clear of conventional crime fiction tricks and many common mystery tropes, though prior books in the series have had their share of excitement. No, I get the feeling this particular novel was a result of the author’s passionate love affair with the region’s culture, language, cuisine and troubled history, Ziskin degreed in Romance languages and literature, a prior director of New York University’s Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimo, collaborating with Italian writers and academics on cultural events. (Write what you know, writers are often told.) But for all the references to Renaissance art, literature and troubled 20thcentury tragedies – and there are many – you somehow also come away with some breezier visions of 1950’s-60’s thrillers and Continental rom-com films, easy to picture Suzanne Pleshette astride a motor-scooter or Tony Franciosa climbing out of a red Italian sports car. That is, with a horrible sense of dread hanging over everything the entire time.

I was busy as all hell with my day job when I got my hands-on Turn To Stone, leisurely reading time at a premium, and this chunky trade pb a whisker shy of 350 pages. But I blew through it in three evenings (with all too brief pre-dawn pre-work coffee-to-go in my car time added in). It doesn’t take gangsters with snub-noses, thugs with badges or scheming femmes fatales to make a mystery a page-turner, and Turn To Stone’s elegant writing and wonderfully complex story hooked me from the first page when Ellie boards the Pan Am 707 for Rome, and kept me hooked till she was on her way back to New Holland, where she might just have been the catalyst that ignited Beatlemania in upstate New York (you’ll have to read it to get that).

Yes, I was already a fan, but I betcha James W. Ziskin gets to you too. But as for The Decameron? I still have to think about that…

Like Christmas In January.

Turn To Stone

I may have to vanish for a week, or at least play hooky from the day job, it being like Christmas in late January for me.

Just got my mitts on James W. Ziskin’s new Ellie Stone mystery, Turn To Stone, (a bit beefier than the preceding six books at nearly 350 pages) with the NYC-via-upstate New York small town newspaper reporter jetting off to Italy in 1963. Ziskin’s savvy and engaging Eleanora Stone played a part in nudging me to get to work on my own projects, validating the notion of a female mystery/crime fiction protagonist in a setting other than the much more common Roaring Twenties, Depression era 1930’s, WWII and postwar late 40’s/early 1950’s…or today, for that matter.

The Words I Never Wrote

But the Christmas In January stocking holds more than just Ellie Stone. I now also have Jane Thynne’s new The Words I Never Wrote. How bittersweet to flip to her author bio on the dustjacket’s back flap to read “…the widow of the author Philip Kerr”. I’m still grieving Kerr’s loss and the thought of never reading another new Bernie Gunther novel again. I devoured each of Thynne’s excellent Clara Vine series books, and am eager to see what this non-series novel will be.

More to say about these once done, though I know I’ll be completely humbled both masters’ work.

Not Maguire, McGinnis, Schaare or Lesser, Maybe. But Still…

This Girl For Hire

Honey West? You name it, I have it: Multiple editions of the original Gloria and Forrest Fickling novels from 1957 through 1972. The complete 1965-66 TV series DVD set. Moonstone comics from the early not-too-bad ones through the sillier stuff and used to have a totally beat-up copy of the 1965 Gold Key comic. Okay, I don’t have the Honey West Ideal board game or the Gilbert ‘Private Eye-Ful TV Figure doll or accessories. The novels seem pretty easy to locate and usually affordable, whether the nifty paperback originals, later reissues or various and more recent trade pb editions (all of which may or may not be fully authorized, I don’t know).

A Gun For Honey

Ordering some items from the online behemoth in Seattle this week, I saw several Kindle eBook editions of the Honey West novels from Deerstalker Editions, which seems to be a division of California-based Renaissance E Books Inc. (though I wasn’t able to dig up much on them, only some blogs that have been inactive for quite some time). Eight Honey West titles are listed in the eBooks’ cross-sell copy, though I only see these four mid-2019 releases available at this time. What’s it all about? Who knows, and honestly, I’m not really an eBook person, aside from the occasional how-to title. Still the covers for these – love ‘em or hate ‘em – seem to use original art, though I’ll remain partial to the iconic images of Anne Francis (1930 – 2011) or the original paperback series’ Harry Schaare, Robert McGinnis, Robert Maguire and Ron Lesser renditions.

Girl On The Loose

I have a lot to say about Honey West – the character’s importance in postwar era paperback detective novels, the groundbreaking but still flawed short-lived TV series, the more contemporary comics, both good and bad, etc. The Fickling’s creation was flawed but fun and unquestionably influenced still more important things to come some years later. Whatever the Honey West character’s and novels’ shortcomings may be (and there are some), we’re talking about the most familiar ‘stiletto gumshoe’ from that era. But,  it’s all more than I have time to cobble together right now, so we’ll have to table Honey West talk for now…

Honey In The Flesh

Dangerous Dames

Pulpster copy

The Pulpster No. 26, a 2017 PulpFest publication: Not that I attended PulpFest, only being greedily acquisitive, not really a collector and generally steering clear of cons and swap meets.

But I wanted this particular “Dangerous Dames” issue with Ron Goulart’s survey of early crime and mystery pulps’ female detectives, including Hulbert Footner’s Madame Storey, Cleve F. Adams’ Violet McCade, D.B. McCandless’ Sarah Watson, and of course, Theodore Tinsley’s Carrie Cashin, the most successful of the bunch with nearly 40 stories appearing in Crime Busters and Street & Smith’s Mystery Magazine between 1937 and 1942. Prolific author and pop culture historian Ron Goulart was the perfect choice for this piece with his mile-long fiction resume and a dozen or more non-fiction books including The Hard-Boiled Dicks: An Anthology And Study Of Pulp Detective Fiction (1967) and The Dime Detectives (I have a 1980’s edition of that book). You may know him from a roster of pen names including Howard Lee, Jillian Kearny and several others. Goulart’s piece was followed by Bill Pronzini’s “Women In The Detective Pulps”, a look at women crime fiction writers working in the pulp magazines’ boyz club, including Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, Carolyn Wells, Dorothy Dunn and others.

Black Mask July 1949

The Pulpster wasn’t a newsstand magazine, to my knowledge, and at only 40 pages, a bit pricey, but well worth it for those two articles. Well, those, and the nifty Norman Saunders cover illustration, which was from the July 1949 issue of Black Mask, and still available as a poster at the artist’s website (normansaunders.com). BTW, that bloody hand print really is the artist’s own hand covered with red paint, according to Saunders’ son.

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