Betty Bates, Lady Lawyer

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Betty Bates, Lady Lawyer (AKA Betty Bates – Attorney at Law, Betty Bates – Lady at Law and just plain ol’ Betty Bates) is one vintage female crimefighter comic series that needs no apologies or caveats. Created by Stanley Charbot, pen name for Bob Powell, and sometimes drawn by artists Al Bryant, Nick Cardy and Alice Kirkpatrick, Betty Bates, Lady Lawyer appeared in Hot Comics for ten years from 1940 through 1950. The early issues’ art is, frankly, pretty crude, though no worse than many other comics were at the time (peek at the earliest Batman issues for comparison). But with Cardy and Bryant wielding the pencils, inking pens and sable brushes later on, there are spots in the series that could rival even some of Matt Baker’s fluid panels.

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Consider: Betty Bates wasn’t just one more in a long line of assistants, secretaries or girlfriends. Bates was the D.A. In fact, Betty Bates, Lady Lawyer was the longest running series led by a lawyer – man or woman – till Marvel’s Daredevil passed the ten-year mark, and it was one of the longest running non-super powered/non-costumed comic heroes of the golden age.

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But Bates doesn’t spend too much time in the court room, far too busy fighting crooks, looking for trouble or getting caught up in it. Using her wits and falling back on some handy martial arts skills when needed, she normally prevails on her own and without the aid of some hunky cop or boyfriend, though some stories include ‘Larry’, a reporter who’s obviously smitten with the lady lawyer.

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Two things leap out at you: The drawings foregoe the then customary ‘good girl art’ look, with its intrusive peekaboo bathing suit and undressing scenes. Similarly, though Betty falls into some bad guys’ clutches, it’s no more frequent than in any other crime comics or costumed superhero series, and no one could label Betty Bates, Lady Lawyer as a ‘damsel in distress’ or ‘women in peril’ comic. In fact, the stories are really quite good, several stand up well even today, and with ten years of material, there’s a lot to read.

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The Gwandanaland Betty Bates – Lady At Law Readers Collection is a hefty volume, with over 400 pages of Betty Bates stories. Strangely, they’re all black and white, though the comics were full color, of course (I’ve included some online finds here, the book too fat to open in my scanner). A couple came from awful originals, were scanned off of second-generation copies or perhaps just poorly scanned and not corrected, and I was pretty disappointed that the publisher would include such barely readable pieces. But with so many in the book, quantity made up for quality…I guess.

I don’t know why, but they also decided to tack on a few unrelated ‘bonus’ pieces: several Jungle Lil and Miss America stories, also with some mighty uneven scanning and in black and white. I’m not much for adventure pulps/comics, whether Jungle Jane’s, Jill’s or Lil’s, and 1940’s era costumed superheroes aren’t really my thing. But I’ll be bringing up the Miss America stories in another post nonetheless (you’ll see why). No idea why Gwandanaland added this material…the Betty Bates, Lady Lawyer stories really made for a nice fat book all on their own.

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Petty Girl, Packing A Pistol

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Slickly airbrushed “Petty Girls” may have been artist George Petty’s (1894 – 1975) specialty for Esquire magazine’s mid-twentieth century centerfolds, but he was quite capable of letting a subject keep her dress on and turn into an elegant (and armed) femme fatale.

Benicio’s Girls With Guns

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It’s a peculiar American conceit: We think we dominate everything. No question, sometimes we do. In the vintage art and illustration arenas for comics, pulp magazines and book covers, titans like McGinnis, Maguire, Steranko, Kirby, Adams and so many others created a remarkable legacy of mid-twentieth century pop-cultural visuals. A person could spend a lifetime studying these artists and their work. But, I also like to snoop around Euro-Sleaze magazines, Giallo digests, and pop illustration in other markets from the UK to Australia and Mexico to South America. There’s a lot to be appreciated.

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For example, commercial art studios in Spain reached out across Europe — and across the Atlantic as well – to become a powerful force in 1960’s – 70’s comic art art and illustration, most evident in the American market among the many magazine-sized monthlies from Warren Publishing like Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella, along with competing titles from Marvel and Skywald. Meanwhile, the work of talented young artists from Brazil and Venezuela made it into the regular U.S. comic book scene and the paperback cover market, though the latter was contracting so fast at the time, many U.S. artists had already migrated into more lucrative advertising and movie studio work.

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Consider Brazilian artist Jose Luis Benicio, apparently regarded as the ‘King Of The Pinups’ in his own country, though his work actually dealt more with Brazilian film studio posters and regular advertising assignments. Perhaps he really ought to be known as the painter of ‘Girls With Guns’, for his extensive work on period-sexy action/espionage paperback series.

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Born in 1936 near Rio Prado, Benicio originally planned on a career in music, but abandoned the piano for a paint brush, initially starting out as an apprentice in Porto Alegre at only 16, then hitting the big time in Rio de Janeiro in the mid-1950’s. There he worked for various studios and small agencies, eventually forging a lucrative long-term relationship with the Brazilian office of McCann-Erickson advertising by 1961, which led to work for Coca Cola, Esso and others. Tireless in his prime, Benicio also produced, by his own reckoning, over 300 movie posters for the government-backed Embrafilme Studios.

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At the same time, Benicio worked for various publishers on popular Modesty Blaise-style knock-off series like Giselle and Bridgette In Action, nearly all featuring the series’ provocatively posed heroines brandishing a gun. Tame by both U.S. and European standards, these ubiquitous ‘Girl-With-A-Gun’ covers actually brought him some unwelcome attention from the conservative military government. Eventually political changes in Brazil brought an end to the government backed film studio system, and portions of Benicio’s lucrative movie marketing work dried up. He began working with some American publishers, but by this time, digital graphics were already sounding the death knell for traditional illustration.

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Benicio normally worked in gouache, today considered by many to be a dying art. Gouache, which is more or less ‘fine-arts’ tempera paint, combines the brilliance of the purest oils but with unparalleled opacity. Due to its quick drying time, it’s the perfect medium for commercial illustrators. I worked with it a little back in school days, and was impressed with its bright, intense colors and buttery viscosity, but found it pretty tricky to handle. (Which is probably among the many reasons why I’m not a successful commercial illustrator!) More of the well-known vintage U.S. paperback and pulp magazine covers than you’d think were actually done in gouache, not oils.

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To be clear, ‘girls with guns’ aren’t the only thing Benicio painted. But they are among the familiar pop culture images the artist is widely known for, particularly in the South American market. Do dig around a bit on your own if you’d like to see more of the Brazilian illustrator’s work. There are two books on Jose Luis Benicio, though neither is likely to be on a shelf at your local bookstore: Sex & Crime: The Book Cover Art Of Benicio by Reference Press, 2011 and Benicio Created The Woman by Goncalo Junior, originally published in 2006 and re-released in 2012.

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Euro-Pulp: Michel Gordon

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French illustrator Michel Gourdon was every bit as prolific as many of the more familiar names from 1930’s through 1970’s American pulp magazine and paperback cover art masters like Robert Maguire, Robert McGinnis, Mort Kunstler, Earl Norem and so many others. But biographical or any other info about the artist seems pretty scarce. What I can dig up is in French, and even four years of high school French (mostly forgotten) only equips me for some useless word-here-and-there hunting and pecking. Google translating docs yields gibberish for the most part.

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What I can glean is that Gourdon was born in 1925, spent most of the WWII years studying at the Bordeaux School of Fine Arts, then headed to Paris in 1946, working for the next fifty years or more as one of France’s most popular pulp magazine, men’s magazine, Giallo digest and paperback cover illustrators, while also pursuing more lucrative advertising and film poster assignments. Michel’s brother Alain was also a popular French illustrator, going by the name ‘Aslan’, known mostly for quite explicit pinup art, along with some book and magazine cover work, most of that also pretty racy stuff. Michel Gourdon passed away in 2011.

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Myself, I’m an ardent fan of retro illustration. Mind you, I’m not foolish enough to elevate what were hastily executed commercial assignments to fine art status, nor blind to how salacious so much of it was, nor naïve about just how utterly perverse the 1930’s pulp magazine covers and 1960’s men’s “sweats’ magazines in particular really were. I mean seriously, I understand the value of the hunky hero and damsel-in-distress (or undress) thing to sell crime magazines on a crowded Depression era newsstand, but for all the weirdly fetishistic perversity, American pulps and postwar paperbacks have absolutely nothing on the postwar ‘Euro-Sleaze’ marketplace. If you disagree, just browse some work by Italian illustrators like Alessandro Biffignandi and Emanuele Taglietti for sheer twistedness. Perhaps the French exhibited a little more class. Uhm…a little.

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Books on Michel Gourdon are hard to come by, at least in the U.S., though vintage digests, paperbacks and magazines with Gourdon covers are available for the deep-pocketed collector crowd (which I don’t belong to). There’s much to be found online, not that I’ll post it all here. Some of the work steps over the line between ‘tawdry-retro-kitsch’ and dangerously warped…heck, a couple of these images might be tip-toeing around that line. But pulp-art is what it is, and for good or bad, Michel Gourdon was one of Europe’s postwar pulp masters who surely deserves more recognition among U.S. fans.

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The Last Comics.

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Dan Turner – Hollywood Detective: The Last Comics: This is a Fiction House Press trade pb collecting fifteen Dan Turner tales from the late 1950 through March 1953 Crime Smashers comics, all written by Robert Leslie Bellem, illustrated by Adolphe Barreaux (of Sally The Sleuth fame), Robert McCarty, Max Plaisted or Tony Tallarico. Bellem was the creator of the Dan Turner character, originally appearing in a 1934 issue of the pulp magazine Spicy Detective and later having his own title that ran from 1942 to 1950. But these aren’t prose pulp tales — they’re short 8-page comics stories and, no surprise, the mysteries are pretty contrived and sometimes more than a little repetitious. The fun, though, is in the period dialog. To a starlet being framed for a murder, whose only alibi is a secret tryst: “You’re in a jackpot, kitten. To nix a murder rap, you’ll have to confess you were indulging in neckery with a boyfriend”. When Dan discovers the gun used in a murder: “And here’s the croakery weapon, begosh!” Interrogating a female suspect: “I’ll have another chin-fest with the Laverne quail”. And so on.

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Actually, many of the individual panels from these very stories have been circulating all over comics and other sites and blogs for ages, particularly the girl-fight scenes, of which there are quite a few, the stories all set among Hollywood studios, and it is Dan Turner – Hollywood Detective after all. The five-panel piece above, for example, depicts Fifi Valcour (I swear, I’m going to steal that name for something!) and Brenda Lee staging a Paris café brawl for a movie scene they’re shooting, which results in the murder of Monarch Pictures director Baldy Boyd. Fun stuff.

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