Classic? Yes. Pulp? Well, No.

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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.

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…

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.

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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Vixens, Vamps & Vipers

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I adore 1930’s – 50’s crime comics and even some costumed superheroes from that period…well, one at least: Batman. But it was a boys’ club, after all, and it takes some digging to uncover the era’s ‘stiletto gumshoes’, with not a lot to show for the search. Mike Madrid has done a lot of the digging for us, in his first book The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy And The History Of Comic Book Heroines, then Divas, Dames & Daredevils: Lost Heroines Of Golden Age Comics.

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A year later, Madrid decided to give the villainesses their due, and rightly so, since it may be that crime and villainy were just about the only way mid-twentieth century women in comics could assert themselves, after all. Vixens, Vamps & Vipers: Villainesses Of Golden Age Comics is a handsome 250+ page book from Exterminating Angel Press and should be a must-read for fans of vintage comics, and in particular, anyone interested in women’s roles in mid-20th century pop culture. The book reproduces 22 different 1940’s-50’s comic stories along with well researched but very readable background information on the characters themselves, their superhero/crime fighter opponents, and the writers and artists who brought them to life. Notable female villains like Madame Doom, Veda The Cobra Woman And Skull Lady are here, but more prosaic crooks and femmes fatales were the most fun for me. For example, National Comics’ 1943 Idaho, who reminds me of a wisecracking Barbara Stanwyck in a 1930’s screwball comedy or crime caper. As the book states, these characters “both transcend and become ensnared in a web of cultural stereotypes”. Female superheroes and women crime fighters from the capes & tights variety (and demure little skirts, in most cases) to the plucky girl reporters, private eyes and DA’s were few enough. Perhaps the only way for female characters to be allowed to fully assert themselves alongside or against the era’s goody two shoes heroes was as villainesses, and there are some memorable ones in this book that’ll surely send you poking around online and digging in vintage comics bins for more.

madame doom

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